SPAG bol***** — Why grammar tests are a poor use of classroom time

Grammar exercises and tests do little but fill in the government’s beloved tick-boxes and are not the best way to use precious classroom time, says Gerald Haigh

When I was a child I had a Meccano set. It was the daddy of them all, ultra deluxe, in a wooden chest gold-stencilled “Meccano” in that distinctive font. It had many compartments, and the full complement of parts. You could build anything with it, up to, and including, a working model of the Runcorn to Widnes transporter bridge.

It strikes me that the teaching of formal grammar follows the Meccano principle. Gather a set of generally shared conventions and stylistic alternatives, get people who did Latin at school to declare them “rules”, and you can screw them together to produce simulations of real English prose.

Or, as the Bullock report, A Language for Life, had it in 1975: “The traditional view of language teaching was, and indeed in many schools still is, prescriptive. It identified a set of correct forms and prescribed that these should be taught, As they were mastered, the pupil would become a more competent writer and aspire to a standard of ‘correctness’ that would serve him for all occasions.”

The tone here clearly assumes that what was being described was on the way out. By then, studies across several decades had concluded that teaching children formal grammar out of context did not improve the quality of their writing.

It’s not that the Bullock authors, nor those of like mind today, are opposed to teaching children the conventions of appropriate, stylish and fluent English. What’s at issue is whether doing exercises and grammar tests is a productive way to spend precious classroom time. Probably not, is the reasonable conclusion, and many today would echo Bullock’s belief that formal grammar instruction “. . . has nurtured in many the expectation of failure and drilled others in what they already knew.”

So, why does it still go on, now with additional “rules”?

Let me suggest these related reasons.

One is that in a political environment that gives priority to accountability measured by grades, the use of tick-box grammar exercises and tests seems tidy and clear cut. All that’s necessary is to add up the ticks.

Rules on language can stifle initiative and creativity

Then, there is an assumption that language, like every area of life, has rules that, learned and diligently followed, will ensure success, whereas what it actually does is generate caution and stifle initiative and creativity.

Another contributor to the zombie reboot is a deeply embedded top-down belief that difficult tasks have intrinsic moral value in addition to their actual purpose. There are always those who believe that SATs and exams toughen up children for “the real world” of heartbreak, failure, bad hair and redundancy.

In education this approach is betrayed by the frequent use of the word rigour. I notice, by the way, that, over time, the use of rigour in school has subtly changed. In the Gove era it meant making curriculum subjects harder to learn. Now, it seems to mean more difficult tests. Last November, the education secretary said: “New, more rigorous standard assessment tests (SATs) are already being introduced at the end of primary school,” and going on to claim that the government, in the past five years, has carried out a “rigour revolution”.

All I can suggest here is that perhaps the rigour is wrongly applied. Given that the profession believes the spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG) regime, and other top-down interventions, to be counter-productive, what’s really needed is a rigorous assessment of their fitness for purpose.

I never did, incidentally, build the Runcorn to Widnes transporter bridge. I faffed about with my Meccano, but, essentially, I couldn’t see the point. At that time my dad was a chauffeur for the coalmine directors, and I learned from him how to drive, by sitting on his lap and steering. It was not a risk-free process, but we both loved it and I went on to lap up the shared techniques, vocabulary and rules as the need arose. Which, when you think about it, is how we’ve all learned most of the stuff we really know.

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  1. The introduction of the grammar test is an example of pseudo-rigour. It pretends to be rigorous because it tests 11 year-olds on esoteric grammatical terms which haven’t been taught for decades if, indeed, they ever were.
    I’m old enough to have been taught formal grammar but even we weren’t expected to identify modal verbs, fronted adverbials and subjunctives.
    Knowing the names of the parts does not automatically result in being able to write clearly, effectively and engagingly. It can, however, result in the opposite. Pupils subjected to this nit-picking analysis are more likely to loathe English than be inspired.

  2. Rae Snape

    Yesterday I was struggling to remember the term “collective noun” – a Flamboyance of Flamingos is a beautiful collective noun. I am sure I was taught it once. Google gave me the answer in a matter of minutes. I consider myself to be a happy and successful person – who flipping LOVES life and all its glorious opportunities: Compassion, Creativity, Community, Connection, Communication. This is some of what life is about. It’s not about grammar tests!

  3. Foreigners learning English are taught English grammar in detail. They are taught the detailed classification of English tenses, for example. I wish people who criticise SpaG would realise this is not just about English – it’s also about giving children a foundation for learning foreign languages and getting them to realise that English is not something unique and set apart from other Indo European languages (language awareness). If British children are ever to get beyond transactional language in MFL, they need a greater knowledge of English grammar and a realisation that “past” “present” and “future” is a massive oversimplification of the complex English tense system.

  4. Mark Bennet

    You get taught grammar when learning a foreign language because the foreign language does not behave quite the same as your native language(s) and it makes sense to have words to describe the differences between languages and the forms they use. Native language is acquired quite differently. When I learned French no-one told me about modal verbs – that came when I learned German, because it was relevant in that context (year 10, by the way). One real danger of teaching grammatical terms too early (and one missed in most comments on the subject) is that many pupils will get the impression that there is one right way for language to be, and when they find foreign languages behaving differently they will think that those languages are “wrong” – which will inhibit their learning of other languages, rather than helping it.

  5. Ben Ball

    The problem with “English Grammar” is that it is fictitious. As we know English is an eclectic language that has magpied many forms from different languages. Having had to study Mary Queen of Scots documents for A level History (far too many years ago) one could see that a common language was needed for effective communication, but academics have contrived a system rather than a natural system growing out of the language itself, and some conventions are borne out of snobbery or accident. A simple example. In Chaucer’s dialect a double negative adopted a mathematical rule and became a positive. However in my native dialect a double negative emphasised the negative. Now instead of accepting usage in context someone down the line has decided we must enforce Chaucerian dialect because it is correct. I have been amazed at the complexity of my granddaughters SATS this year and wonder whether it is at all desirable. To say that these complexities are needed because they may wish to study languages in the future suggests that Y 6 should study differentiation because they may want to specialise in mathematics. The problem is you can only learn a concept when you are ready for it, some pupils have genuine difficulty with “past, present and future” and their development would not be helped by all this pseudo rigour. Education is supposed to be about learning, not failing.

    • English grammar is fictitious? How on earth do these poor foreigners learn it then?! One of the reasons so many English children find foreign languages difficult is that they don’t bring enough knowledge of English grammar to their MFL lessons. By the way, all children are expected to study an MFL in secondary school, so your comments on learning readiness and saying that they “may” study languages in the future would appear to indicate your low expectations of what children can achieve. French primary children are required to have a detailed knowledge of the classification of tenses in French.

  6. Please explain how pupils who go on to start studying foreign languages are expected to do so when they arrive without knowing what a noun, a verb, or an adjective is, let alone the subjunctive mood or a noun case (yes, they do exist in English).