Thursday 6 March 2014

'Here I go again' a SPaG test for 7 year olds. O gawd.

In the words of the old Hollies record, 'Here I go again...'

I have heard that the government intend to bring in some kind of Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar test to be given to children at the end of Year 2 when most of the children are 7 years old.

I am assured that this is the government's intention and was, as far as my source knew, now in the public domain. I must have missed it.

This is really rather extraordinary. As I've repeatedly said, there is no evidence that the kind of test, and the kind of worksheets that are imposed to fit the test, and the kind of education required to do the worksheets produces 'good writing'. What I'm referring to here, is the SPaG test that is being sat now by Year 6 pupils when most of them are aged 11.

There are good reasons why there is no evidence: the tests, the worksheets and the work involved in rehearsing children for the tests require teachers to treat language as if it comes in bits and it requires children and teachers to think that the best way to write (when you are at primary school)  is to think about these small bits and to think about what they're called.

Quite the opposite: if we talk about language then it's best to talk about it in the context of real writing and real speaking. If we're talking about writing, then of the many approaches available, one good one (amongst others) is to look at writing that the children enjoy and are touched by and see if there is any way in which they can have a go at doing something like it.

What's more, when we look closely at the tests and worksheets, we can see that all sorts of strange idiocies are inflicted on teachers and children (see my previous blogs), concerning so called 'rules', 'dos and don'ts' etc for which there is no real basis when you come to look at the varieties of written English - that's to say across fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, advertising, signs, instructions, website pages or even, as I've shown, the covers of books that are made up of grammar worksheets.

So what can be the purpose of all this? Some people have suggested that I have been paranoid when I claim that the ultimate purpose of this testing is nothing to do with 'raising standards' or 'rigour'. They are nothing to do with those inflated claims, for the simple reason that the majority of children are pre-set to fail the tests. That's to say they are 'norm-referenced'. The failure rate is fixed before the exams and tests are even set. Clearly, wherever you have no test, you are not immediately in the business of sorting sheep from goats, passing and failing the nation's children. When you bring in 'high stakes', national testing, that is precisely what you do.

The claim is made that this is in order to provide 'accountability' of teachers, as if the only way to find out if schools and teachers are doing OK is to fail a majority of children. As countries not addicted to this way of thinking and working have found out, there are indeed other ways of securing good learning.

So, what is happening is that there was no evidence to bring in the Year 6 test. There is no evidence to bring in the Year 2 test. If there is no evidence for it, then we should look for other reasons for it being brought in. The most obvious reason staring us in the face is that this dishes out passes to a minority and fails to a majority. The consequence of this will be to demand further tailoring of the curriculum to the test for which there is no evidence that it has the outcome of improving writing.

One irony here: the children who find the matter of talking about language easiest are those who read widely and often. That's because they have the resource in their heads of a multiplicity of text types. They are aware that there are different ways of writing. They are aware that writing itself involves choices and that writers are people who make decisions about the ways in which they write. This is, if you like, a form of abstract thinking. The process of writing itself becomes less 'natural' or 'invisible'. Such children are more aware that writing is a matter of moving language around, changing it, and experimenting with it. This is, if you like, a very solid basis for them to think about language in the abstract form we call 'grammar'.

For children who only read the few texts that school has time to give them, language is bit more 'mystified'. That's to say it appears 'transparent',  as if it is 'natural', as if it tells the 'truth'. I see this every time I perform my poems, many of which hover on the edge of reality, fantasy, exaggeration and fib. I know from the children's questions and reactions to each other, that their responses divide between those who assume that when I say 'I', it must be the truth and those who can see that this is a kind of game and that  the word 'I' is, in the jargon, 'unstable'. Is it really 'I', the real Michael Rosen, or is it sometimes the 'I' that is an entity that the real Michael Rosen can make up and change however he wants to....So when I say that when I was at school, we weren't allowed to breathe in class, this, for some is a game, for others seems like an improbable but possible truth. 'But wouldn't you have died?' say some. 'It's not real,' say the others.

As I say, all that these SPaG tests do is confirm who are the children who read widely and often. And yet, the more SPaG rehearsing and testing that goes on, the less time there will be for children widely and often.