I love grammar, but I don’t love the SATs

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First up, a confession: I’m a total grammar nerd.

love semi colons; I get super-irritated when I see one misused.

I revel in the difference between the past perfect and the past progressive. I know what a relative clause is, and I know how to punctuate one. So sue me.

Grammar, as they say, is the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.

You’d think a grammar nerd like me would be delighted by the additional emphasis on formal grammar in the new KS1 and KS2 SATs, wouldn’t you?

You’d think I’d be pleased that our nation’s children are being taught to use apostrophes correctly.

Believe me, I want everyone in the country to use apostrophes correctly. I really do.

But this is not the way to achieve that particular utopia.

 

What’s wrong with the new SATs? I hear you cry.

Here’s what’s wrong:

 

1. There’s no point learning a lot of formal grammar in primary school, and anyway, it crowds out other important learning

The spelling, punctuation and grammar tests in both KS1 and KS2 emphasise not only using grammar and punctuation correctly, but also learning and reproducing technical language about grammar.

Children, especially young children, find abstract concepts difficult to grasp.  There’s nothing on the KS2 paper that would be out of place in the GCSE English curriculum, it’s just not appropriate for 1o and 11 year olds.

This isn’t the way their minds work, and frankly they don’t need this sort of detail yet.  I love an adverbial clause as much as the next grammar nerd, but it won’t help my 10 year old’s writing to know what an adverbial clause is. It just won’t.

If fact, it could actually harm his writing, as Sophie Lovett’s experience as a secondary school English teacher illustrates:

Early on in the first term of Year Seven, I often broached the question to my English class “What makes good writing?”. It’s a big question, and not one I ever expected to hear answered in its entirety, but still the responses that I got were pretty telling. The particular set of responses I remember was from Autumn 2012, just before I disappeared on maternity leave. Fresh from SATs preparation, hands shot up as I wrote the question on the board, and the answers spilled out proudly into the classroom: “varied sentence starters”, “correct use of conjunctions”, “fronted adverbial clauses”, “using semi-colons”.

Now none of this is strictly wrong, of course – and I dutifully noted each response on the whiteboard before mooting my own ideas. But it was still incredibly deflating to hear it from a room full of eleven year olds. Where was the talk of imagination? Of storytelling? Of creativity? Where was the space for them to fly?

 

 

2. The new SATs are MUCH TOO DIFFICULT

The new SATs at KS1 and KS2 are much harder than in previous years.

This relentless inflation of what ‘good enough’ looks like is related to the drive that means schools previously scoring ‘Good’ in Ofsted inspections are now failing to achieve ‘Satisfactory’ – it’s not that schools are getting worse, it’s that someone’s raised the bar to new heights of crazy.

What are we teaching children with this idea that nothing will ever be good enough? Or that matter that ‘good enough’ today might just turn into ‘not good enough’ tomorrow. (There’s a whole other rant about children’s mental health I could go into here, but I’ll leave that for another time.)

And depressingly, with the bar set so high, a large proportion of children will ‘fail’ these tests. That is they won’t meet the ‘expected standard’.

And even though the tests don’t actually mean anything at all, being labelled as ‘not meeting the expected standard’ is not great for anyone’s confidence.

Maybe your child is one of the brighter ones who won’t ‘fail’. So, you reason, this doesn’t matter to you.

Well, I’m afraid you’re wrong. Because…

 

3. These tests are not really about your child anyway

These tests are not about gauging your child’s progress. They are certainly not about accelerating your child’s progress.

These tests are part of the Government’s agenda for removing schools from local authority control when they don’t meet the required standards and handing them – and their assets – to private Academy chains.

And while your child may not ultimately be judged on the outcome of this test, but that doesn’t mean the process doesn’t affect them.

Here’s why:

 

4. The unrelenting pressure for ever higher results in standardised tests is deforming our education system

All this pressure is affecting what our children get taught, and how they get taught.

Increasingly, there’s very little space in the school day for art, music, PE, geography, history because the poor teacher is too panicked about the class’s results.

If you don’t believe me, ask one of the many teachers – or for that matter head teachers – who are resigning as a result of this latest onslaught of shit.

I want my kids to go to school to learn a wide spectrum of interesting stuff – academic stuff, yes, but also knowledge about the world, and about the arts and culture. I want them to learn how to think and reason and appreciate and create. I want them to be curious, challenged and stimulated.

I don’t want them to go to school to learn how to sit a test and then proceed to endlessly practice how to sit a test. I don’t want them to be bored rigid throughout school and come out at the end believing they ‘hate learning’ as a result.

 

5. Some of the questions are annoyingly ambiguous, which means you have to learn how to answer them

There was a question on one of the KS2 reading papers I looked at that I didn’t know how to answer. I kept thinking, well, if you look at it this way, the answer is this, but then again…

The child isn’t going to be able to show their thinking on these comprehension questions and they’re not going to get any marks for originality or reasoning. The test requires a black and white answer and the marker will assign a mark – or not – accordingly.

I’m 43, and I’ve got a first class Bachelor’s degree in English Literature (which let’s face it, is basically a degree in reading) plus a Master’s degree in Renaissance Literature (which is basically another, higher, degree in reading). But I couldn’t answer all of these questions on the KS2 reading paper with absolute confidence.

I’m not sure that’s about how difficult the questions are exactly. Rather I hadn’t learned the rules of the test. You have to learn how to take this test – it’s not testing your subject knowledge, it’s testing your ability to take this test.

To me, that’s a badly designed test. It doesn’t feel fair. And, as I said above, if kids have to be taught how to take this test, there’s less time to learn other stuff.

And while we’re on the subject of the random bits of information we’re choosing to stuff our kids’ heads with…

 

6. Some of the content decisions are just plain weird

The KS2 sample grammar, spelling and punctuation paper included a question about the subjunctive.

Now bear with me if you’re not a grammar nerd and you don’t know about the subjunctive, but this seems like as good an illustration as any of just how bonkers this whole thing is.

As far back as 1986, grammar guru Michael Lewis was advising professional teachers of English as a Foreign Language – and these are dudes who know their shit when it comes to grammar – not to bother teaching the subjunctive to students of English because it basically doesn’t exist.

Well, that’s not strictly true, but its use is so rare that foreign students learning English would do better to learn individual instances of usage than acquaint themselves with its arcane rules.

Meanwhile, native English speakers tend to pick up usage unconsciously. They may go through life never, ever using the subjunctive. And if they do need to use it (for example, in writing the phrase, ‘In which case, I suggested he consult a lawyer’) it’s likely that they’d produce it perfectly well, simply through being a native speaker. And if the subjunctive doesn’t occur to them, there are other forms to use instead (‘I said he should talk to his lawyer,’ for example, is fine).

Actually the subjunctive is fascinating to grammar nerds. Perhaps if that’s what rocks your boat (and it certainly rocks mine) you could go do a degree in linguistics, or something. And when you come back, maybe you could explain to me how the hell any of this is the slightest bit useful to an 11 year old?

 

So if you haven’t worked out yet what’s wrong with the new SATs, here’s it is, from the point of view of this particular grammar nerd:

 

There are two kinds of people who love grammar.

There’s the type who loves grammar because they want to express themselves clearly.

They respect and understand grammar the way a carpenter respects and understands his tools.

They want to convince you of a position, or sell you a product, or stir you into action.

They know that the perfect construction can deliver the emotional punch which reduces a reader to tears.

They know that comedy is all about timing, and timing is – in the end – all about punctuation.

 

 

And then there’s this other kind of grammar nerd.

This other kind of grammar nerd doesn’t love stories, and they’re not really that bothered about books or ideas either.

But – dammit – they know how to use the subjunctive and they think that makes them clever.

They might never actually use the subjunctive, but they cling to the fact that they know how to use it.

They think that’s what being ‘well-educated’ means, and they think children should be educated to think like them.

Or at least educated to think what they’re told to think.

These other sorts of grammar nerds probably don’t write poetry, but if they did I’m not convinced it would be a soul-stirring experience to read.

We’re expected to listen to them, however, because they know how to use the subjunctive.

 

 

 

Writing Bubble

 

Writing Bubble

21 thoughts on “I love grammar, but I don’t love the SATs

  1. Luisa

    Love the way you explain this, brilliant!
    I’m NOT a grammar nerd (despite being a teacher with a degree in English Lit) and I am feeling increasingly inferior about my ability but equally rebellious about how much I care about it.

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Victoria. Writing this helped me get my head straight about what’s wrong with this system. I’m glad you found it informative.

      Reply
  2. Carie @ Space for the Butterflies

    Oh how very true – and how very depressing at the same time. Whatever happened to igniting a fire for learning not just stuffing them full of random pub trivia. I love language and with that does come a fair bit of grammar nerdyness but in primary school it should be about story telling and learning grammar through native usage – the technical names can wait!

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      You’re absolutely right about story-telling being at the heart of good writing. I think that’s true for adults as well.

      Reply
  3. Alice @ The Filling Glass

    I hardly learned (t? now I’m getting anxious I don’t know that!) any grammar at school and I barely understand what my 6 years are covering at school. That is not to say grammar isn’t important, it is very much so, but not at that age, and not like you say with the emphasis on the technical language and understanding behind it. I have watched my children who are curious and creative become so turned off by formal learning however well their teachers present it. It is an extremely sad reflection on the education agenda. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Alice. I’ve had that same experience of a very able and curious child being turned off by formal learning and it’s such a depressing experience. Fortunately he’s still bright and curious at home, but it upsets me all the same.

      Reply
  4. Sophie Lovett

    This is such a great post – even if it has made me even more depressed about the state of our nation… I have somehow managed to get this far without ever really learning the ins and outs of grammar – I totally get how it might be interesting, but as for essential learning for our ten and eleven year olds? I think not… xx

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Sophie, and thanks for helping inspire this! The only people of our generation who know about formal grammar are – in my experience at least – TEFL teachers and professional editors. Oh, and now add primary teachers to that list…. It’s completely inappropriate and unnecessary for young children.

      Reply
  5. Maddy@writingbubble

    This is a brilliant post – just brimming with passion and truth and grrr. I’m not remotely a grammar nerd. For some reason I can’t remember most of the rules, and I certainly can’t name the rules I do know! I mentioned a ‘fronted adverbial’ to my 8yo the other day because I’d read about it on Michael Rosen’s blog and he sighed and said ‘oh yes I know what one of those is.’ At the moment he LOVES to write stories and it really worries me that that love will end up being bashed out of him by an over-insistence on technical accuracy rather than imagination and storytelling. Thanks for linking to #WhatImWriting

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Maddy, and thanks for kick-starting so much with your brilliant campaign. I’ve been moved and encouraged by how many people shared and commented on this post on Facebook, and shared their stories. I think there’s a real appetite for change. Teachers and parents united against SATs!

      Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Haha, thanks Cathy. Well spotted – it’s a terrible habit of mine! My editor tells me off for it all the time 🙂

      Reply
  6. suz

    Great post. I totally agree with you. Children have so much of their creativity knocked out of them at school.
    And I hate the second kind of grammar nerd.

    Reply
  7. Moira G

    As a very experienced and well qualified lecturer/tutor in Adult Literacy this is balm to me. Part of my education in the early 60s – and not the so called progressive kind – involved a whole year of English grammar which in the end confused me because it was presented in a black and white fashion, whereas in my teaching I came to realise that parts of speech, for example, do not always fall easily into categories. Yes, I know how to express my self using ‘correct’ grammar and have had some publishing and other successes in poetry and creative writing, and I have a Masters (not in English) but learning about grammar is more than rules.
    By the way in answer to the comment on comma splicing, it has now become more acceptable in creative writing to use these whereas once it was frowned upon, which only goes to show that grammar is subject to changing views and fashions, not set in stone (sorry for cliché!) throughout history.

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Moira, I agree with you, language is a living thing. That’s not to say that ‘anything goes’, rather that usage continues to evolve – and hooray for that! And thanks for your support on the comma splicing issue – I can see this is a controversial one! Sometimes it just ‘feels right’ to me to use a comma this way, but I know some people don’t like it, and I do get corrected… 🙂

      Reply

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