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.