No points for this futile test of grammar

28th March 1997 at 00:00
The latest government plan to improve pupils' grammar is a nonsense, says Anne Barnes.

The word "grammar" is now a well established feature of political sloganising. No longer a precise term, it is used simply to suggest a vague area of panic - rather like "interest rate" or "hospital bed". Education Secretary Gillian Shephard believes the imposition of grammar tests at key stage 3 will compel teachers to set their pupils more exercises in spelling, punctuation and grammar, and that these will magically improve the way English is spoken and written. Nobody has offered any other rationale.

The sample test materials have been sent out to all schools with year 9 pupils "to assist those teachers who are preparing pupils for the pilot test" in May.

They are examples of the sort of question which will appear in the test and are said to be based on the "broad requirements" in the national curriculum for key stages 3 and 4. But, when you look at them, the requirements of the test, far from broad, are narrowly focused. The questions seem superficial and likely to restrict rather than develop knowledge about language.

Children will have to be drilled first in test formats and second in a few grammatical rules, which some will simply never pick up in this unpalatable form.

As past research has shown, skills gained in this way seldom improve grammatical accuracy in the pupils' writing. Moreover, if the tests are to be based on such a narrow range of ideas they will have to be more or less the same year after year.

We are told the questions will fall into three categories - grammar and punctuation, spelling and, confusingly, grammar, spell-ing and punctuation.It remains unclear, however, exactly what is meant by "grammar" and how it relates to the very stiff rules for punctuation on which this sort of test must rely. The questions also seem unequal in their demands.

We are told the test will be "about" 45 minutes, which does not help the teacher, one of whose chief tasks will be to get pupils to understand the timing game. Some questions will need 15 to 20 minutes and others about two minutes, resulting in a form of hopscotch which can all too easily mislead a thoughtful pupil.

It is true that one or two of the questions would make a good lesson. One that tests an ability to structure sentences and paragraphs sets out a list of (very dull) points about the development of basketball and asks the pupil to write two paragraphs from the information given. Provided the pupils can make sense of a trunctated sentence such as "USA and former Soviet Union: 2 gold medals each. United Team 1 gold in 1992", this could be a useful exercise. But for many people in a test situation such a list of facts would read as gobbledygook. A similar question also uses facts about the early life of athlete Linford Christie, presumably in a backbending effort to appeal to boys. When one has waded through all this there is a grammar question based on a cookery recipe, so that's a nice nod to the girls.

Most of the other questions are the sort that were popular in elementary schools before the war. There are passages with words spelt wrongly that have to be corrected - which is always a misleading exercise since the authority bestowed by print can often make a pupil who spells confidently and accurately suddenly uncertain. Some passages have errors in punctuation and grammar that have to be corrected, sometimes allowing for perfectly acceptable answers that are not recognised in the markscheme.

There are also vocabulary exercises requiring pupils to show they understand about how to turn a noun into an adjective and into an adverb.

Only occasionally does a question involve reflection upon the way a passage is written or a sentence constructed. One rather surprising question is based on a passage by novelist Leonardo Sciascia which has been uncomfortably translated from the original Italian. It is exciting enough - about a man being shot as he gets onto a bus - but is full of phrases such as "wisps of cloud swirled round the belfry of the church" or "the only sound was a voice, wheedling, ironic, of a fritter seller" or "the conductor slammed the door loudly". Pupils are asked to choose adverbs and adverbial phrases from all this and then explain what they add to the passage. If we had chosen "loudly" as our adverb, many of us would be hard-pressed to explain what it usefully added to the verb "slammed".

It is always easy to nitpick, and we would have found flaws in any set of questions of this type. They exemplify the absurdity of this approach to grammar and the dismal, pointless teaching it may lead to. There could be only two justifications for a test of this sort. The first would be that it would improve pupils' writing and speaking and encourage them to take part in the sort of study of language that can be so rich and fascinating. This, on the contrary, is more likely to produce superficiality and confusion, and put paid to any exploration of the way language works.

The other reason for such a test would be the certainty that it could be a reliable assessment tool, rewarding intelligent reflection on language as well as technical correctness. These sample materials show how unlikely that is. The tests penalise and discourage the pupils who really need to work on their grammar and will be a waste of time for those who have no problem with it. Such a form of testing, added to the already inappropriate key stage 3 assessment, will seriously distort the whole system.

Most English teachers want to teach grammar. The fact that the National Association for the Teaching of English's grammar book has sold more than 1,000 copies in its first six months shows the eagerness with which teachers are seeking out useful materials.

SCAA's official sample materials, however, will be greeted with derision and despair, and many schools that agreed to pilot the tests are having second thoughts. The need to prepare pupils for this sort of test is a distraction from the development of effective teaching about grammar. It might be only a pilot, but it has serious implications for the future and we should all think very carefully before joining this journey into some of the dark corners of the past.

Anne Barnes is general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English

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