Saturday 6 April 2013

Lies about spelling,punctuation,grammar test

If you ever get into discussion about the Spelling, punctuation and grammar test, this is how and why it came in, and below are the lies it's based on:

When Michael Gove came into office, he set up an 'Independent Review' in order to look at 'assessment and accountability' under the chairship of Lord Bew. In April 2011 they produced "Review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability' 'Progress Report'.

In this Progress Report there is no mention of a spelling, punctuation and grammar test. Not a dicky bird. Nothing at all.

In June 2011, they produced the 'Final Report' and there appears this paragraph:

We recognise that there are some elements of writing – spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary – where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing. A spelling test currently forms 14% of the writing test. Internationally a number of jurisdictions conduct externally-marked tests of spelling, punctuation and grammar (sometimes termed ‘English language arts’). These are essential skills and we recommend that externally-marked tests of spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary should be developed."


end of quote

The line of thinking appears to go something like this:
1. We need external marking at KS2
2. The best things to mark externally are questions that have right and wrong answers.
3. Spelling, punctuation and grammar have right and wrong answers.
4. Some other countries do spelling, punctuation and grammar tests.
4. We recommend that there should be a spelling, punctuation and grammar test.

The intellectual bankruptcy of this is mind-boggling. Or put another way: there is no reasoning, no evidence, no reference, no thinking produced by this 'independent review' to justify the recommendation that teachers and children will start doing new kinds of work.

On the point of references and evidence, it is reasonable, I think, to expect of a government paper that it should fulfil the same requirements that a standard MA course requires: all important statements in your essay or dissertation should be backed up by peer-reviewed references and evidence. I repeat, Bew gives none to a) that spelling, punctuation and grammar have 'right and wrong answers' and to  b) that setting a test in such things will produce a longterm useful or 'good' effect or outcome.

Note again, Michael Gove backs everything he says with the word 'rigour'. I believe in rigour. I believe that if you make important statements, recommendations, policies, yes, you should be able to back them up with some research or observations that you've done yourself and/or references and evidence from those who have. These should fulfil requirements such as: they only compare like with like; variables in the test environment should be held as constant as possible; the possible effects of the observer, the tester, the test situation should be taken into account; the test or observation should be 'reproducible' ie other people in other places, setting up the test, observation or experiment would be able to get the same results - and do.

This paragraph from the Bew Final Report fails on all counts. It is just a set of assertions.

I think we should examine some of these.

1. Spelling, punctuation and grammar questions produce right and wrong answers.

Yes, usually, there is only one  spelling of a good deal of simple words. However, literate children come across US spellings: color (and all other words ending in 'our' convert to 'or' in US writing), traveled (and all other verbs ending in 'l' in US writing do not double up as British writing does). The -ise, -ize endings are accepted alternatives. Unless the spelling test 'allows' for US spellings, teachers and children will be having to explain/teach/learn this on top of all the other details. A minor detail? Well, the more 'minor details' and exceptions we load on to children, the harder and more confusing it becomes.

2. It is quite wrong to say that punctuation can only be done one way. This is either a statement of ignorance or a lie. Publishing houses and newspapers vary over the fine points of punctuation. To take one example of many, there are no absolute rules for whether you use a comma or a semi-colon in the middle of a sentence that has what are called two parallel or main clauses - or indeed whether you can do it with a dash or a full stop!

"He grabbed his collar, he knew it was a crazy thing to do but he did it all same."
"He grabbed his collar; he knew it was a crazy thing to do but he did it all the same."
"He grabbed his collar - he knew it was a crazy thing to do but he did it all the same."
"He grabbed his collar. He knew it was a crazy thing to do but he did it all the same."

Let's be quite clear: these are all acceptable. They are all OK ways to punctuate. There is no absolute single right or wrong way out of these four possibilities.

Exclamation marks are in many circumstances an optional extra. How 'exclaimy' do you want to make your statement or command? It's up to you. There is no absolute right and wrong circumstance.

The possessive apostrophe is fast becoming an 'unstable' punctuation mark. Place names, shop names, product names are all losing their apostrophes. "St Johns" or "Jacksons Store"  and the like. Owners are taking the matter into their own hands and deciding for themselves. It is a lie to pretend to children that the possessive apostrophe is a fixed punctuation point.

We should also tell children quite clearly that punctuation was invented by printers, not professors or governments. It just developed over hundreds of years and is still developing and changing all the time. The 'rules' that I was taught, no longer apply eg putting a comma after a number in an address: "43, Street Avenue" - gone, vanished. No one 'ruled' on this. It just got done away with. Not by professors. Not by governments. Not by Secretaries of State for Education.

We should show children how different writers and different publishing houses punctuate and encourage children to discuss it and investigate it. (see my previous blog). Teaching punctuation for a test that has been designed by people who think there are 'right and wrong' answers is a gross distortion of what goes on in the real world.

3. Grammar.

Questions on grammar have right and wrong answers? This is the most ridiculous of all the statements. Linguists - people who really study language, (as opposed to the jokers who talk about how it should be and must be) , do not always agree about terminology or function in grammar. Far from it, they will say that they belong to this or that school of thought. It is - quite rightly - a 'provisional' school of study. There are no definitive and fixed points on the landscape. Every 'rule' has an exception.

Here's an example. In English we like putting nouns together in strings of two or three words. We sometimes mingle these with adjectives, prepositions, verbs and present participles. So with nouns we say things like 'football stadium' or 'telephone box'. We also say things like 'cork screw' or 'ring pull' and we say things like "the on button" and "the conning tower", "blue sky thinking".

In one sense, these all sound very similar. (That's probably the reason why we go on making them up and finding them so useful. This is one of the basic habits of language creation - 'by analogy'. )One way to look at those phrases though is to spot differences between them: they appear to be made up of elements whose origins and usual use and function are different. They are a mixture of what turn up in other sentences usually as nouns, prepositions, main verbs, participles and adjectives. (Please note: no word in English is ever a 'noun' or 'adjective' when considered out of context. Any question that asks children to say that eg 'big' is an adjective and that word 'big' is sitting on its own and not in a phrase or sentence is a false question. No word in English IS definitely always one kind of word. 'But me no buts,' Shakespeare wrote. )

So back with my telephone boxes, on buttons  and conning towers. These very common, useful phrases are examples of how we are creative with language, we create new combinations that do not follow rules. So when linguists sit down to classify such combinations, quite reasonably, they pose problems. What is 'on' in the phrase 'on button' or is it, 'on-button' and one day, will it be 'onbutton'? This is not some awkward aberration that is the exception to a general rule that nouns are this or that. It is a core part of how we talk and write and - no shame in this - we can say honestly and openly that such combinations are hard to classify and name. And whaddyaknow  - linguists disagree and/or choose different ways of describing such things. That's OK!

What is dishonest is to pretend to children that there are simple, easy and universal ways of talking about this. What is wrong is to get teachers to teach that it is simple and universal. It is an outrage that this ultimately feeds through to a way of classifying children, teachers and schools - league tables and the rest. The sensible study of language is distorted into a measuring tool for school standards. It's a bloody farce.

To strain your attention one more time: when I was at school (in Year 7 and 8 - not Year 6!) we were taught that sentences often had 'conjunctions' and the words 'but',  'and', 'when', 'because' (and many more) could be used for this. 'I went out and I had a cup of tea', 'When I was a boy, I liked apples', 'He didn't eat bananas, because they made him sick.'

Another category of word was called (at the time) a 'sentence adverb'. These are the words that often kick off sentences and don't appear to be attached to any other single word: 'however', 'therefore', 'moreover' as well as a few 'ly' words 'luckily', 'unfortunately' and so on. (Interestingly, (oh, there's another one) they didn't tell us that you can do that sort of thing with a phrase like 'Not unexpectedly, he was late.' )

So, we had conjunctions and sentence adverbs. A few years ago, an analysis was made of children's writing and the word 'connectives' was born. This is a word which incorporates or amalgamates 'parts of speech' that were previously considered different or separate. I'm not that interested in the rights and wrongs of this, but much more in the fact that this proves yet again that there are no right and wrong answers when it comes to grammar. There are repeated attempts to describe and classify language, there are constant revisions and re-workings. Honest linguists explain and justify these. Dishonest education systems do not. They just slap these things down in courses of study and in exam questions as if they are written in stone. They are not.

So, we have the 'Spag' test based on a complete misunderstanding (or completely misleading description) of spelling, punctuation and grammar. It was produced between April and June 2011 without any intellectual justification. It has been imposed by a Secretary of State. It will fundamentally alter what will take place in Year 6 classrooms. And there is no evidence that it will help the majority (or even any) children to write better  - by whatever criterion you use for 'better' - which of course we can argue about!

So what is it for? What is the Spag test for?

I believe that it has been introduced as yet another way to classify and segregate children, teachers and schools. I do not believe that there is a serious intellectual endeavour going on here. I do not believe that there is a serious, thoughtful attempt to help children write better. I think that this is a serious attempt to ensure that a large number of children are failures. They will not be able to do this stuff. It will be too hard, too confusing for them. For many children who can do it, it may well mean virtually nothing. It will impose rules that are not rules. They will be unable to take the concepts that lie behind the classifications and apply them flexibly and usefully elsewhere. This will be either because the descriptions of language being imposed are so inaccurate as to be useless, or because of the point at which they are in their intellectual and cognitive development.  This is not their fault. It is because ,at the age of 10 and 11, they are at the beginning of being able to juggle abstract ideas. Of course, a small minority will be able to do this. But you don't devise a major change in education practice for the sake of a small minority. What you do is give teachers the flexibility and conditions of work which will enable them to cater for small minorities of learners of every kind. You do not impose a one-size-fits-all test and programme of study, which will end up penalizing everyone.