Friday 7 December 2018

SPaG 2018 - analysed question by question. What's wrong with it?

Here (below) are some more detailed comments on the 2018 SPaG paper. They are follow-up to the previous blog which makes more general points. The reason why I've done this is because I think that we should take on the arguments that lie behind this test. One way is to talk about the politics that brought it in (the New Report on Assessment and Accountability being hijacked by Michael Gove so that he could a) pursue his pet agenda of 'grammar' and b) to create a means of measuring teachers' 'performance' (their 'input') by testing children's 'performance' (their 'output'. This is a mechanical and mechanistic idea of what is a performance  or 'activity' in a classroom. It is reducing the activity to the teaching of right/wrong answers. 

Anyway, here are the questions:

Question 1

‘Insert a comma in the correct place in the sentence below.

“Although he was the youngest Tom was one of the tallest.’

 As a general comment, it’s important to point out that the sentences used for this test are ones made up by the examiners.  They are contrived in order to illustrate the point that they want to demonstrate and they have no context around them. The ‘sentence’ (as defined by the ‘Glossary’ and by the test itself) is a bizarre, context-free spurt of language. 

"A sentence is a group of words which are grammatically connected to each other but not to any words outside the sentence."

These sentences are examples of pointless, unrealistic utterances. Surely, we want children to acquire a knowledge about language which is linked directly to how it is used in its many different ways. We use language in order to make meanings. These people, (who regard themselves as experts in language) have missed this key point about language. It’s no surprise though, because their model of ‘grammar’ is an attempt to devise rules without reference to meaning, without reference to social purpose, and without reference to why people choose to say or write things in the way that they do. Or, they think that the reason why people say or write something is because of the 'rules' embedded in the 'sentences'. This cuts out the idea that people have invented language and use language and change language in order to create meaning in many different and varied ways. It's not language which determines how and why we use language but it is people (us) who choose to use language in certain ways. 

Question 8

Which sentence is grammatically correct?

Tomorrow we went shopping at the sales.

In three weeks’ time, I will be on holiday.

Next weekend, we had gone to the river to fish.

Last summer, we swim at the beach and collect seashells.

This is an example of where their use of the word ‘grammar’ (or ‘grammatically’ etc) strays into meaning. Another way to put this question is to ask something like, ‘Three of these questions don’t really make sense. One of them does. Which one?’, but because the examiners’ definition of ‘grammar’ is slippery and inconsistent (one moment using it to mean something defined by ‘structure’ as with Question 1, the next - as with this question - using it to include meaning. That is, the only way to get this question right is from the meaning of the words and phrases of the sentences. To spell it out: it’s only by knowing the meaning of the word ‘Tomorrow’ and the phrase ‘we went’ that we know that the sentence is ‘wrong’ (ie doesn’t make sense). 

Question 9

Which verb is the synonym of the verb produce?


Just to be clear: ‘synonyms’ and ‘antonyms’ are nothing to do with ‘grammar’. They are some weird vestige left over from ancient rhetoric and public school education. They have no real linguistic value. In reality, synonyms and antonyms don’t exist. That’s to say, one of the whole points about the language we use is that we know that no one word means exactly the same as another. No one word is some kind of exact opposite of another. It is misleading to tell children that this is how we make language work. In fact, when we speak and write, we do other things with similar or un-similar words,  like eg use words to ‘clarify’ or ‘illustrate’ or ‘match’ or ‘add nuance’ or ‘contrast’ or ‘compare’. Rather than waste time teaching children that such non-existent things exist, we can easily invite them to find similarities and contrasts and ask them to wonder why writers and speakers might want to do such things. Such things are embedded in the most basic of stories that the children know, fairy tales like 'Cinderella'  with their stark similarities and contrasts between people or between the ‘then’ and ‘now’ of the story. 

Question 10

Which sentence is a command?

You should bring a coat.
You will need a coat in case it rains.
I am going to bring a coat.
Bring a coat in case it rains.

This is an example of where the examiners are hoist on their own petard. The categories of sentence that they’ve come up with: ‘Question’, ‘Statement’, ‘Command’ and ‘Exclamation’ were originally devised on the basis of the ‘verb forms’ and/or ‘verb structures’ within them.  So we have ways of being ‘interrogative’ in English eg by writing such things as ‘Are you...?’ Or, ‘Is the car...?’ Again, our ways of making a ‘statement’ can be ‘You are...’ or ‘The car is...’. Commands traditionally were defined by such verb forms as ‘Go!’ or ‘Keep left’ and exclamations were (in theory!) limited to sentences that began with such words as ‘How... and ‘What...’ while at the same time not being used to ask questions. (Difficult to follow? Sorry, I didn’t make this stuff up.)

Anyway, the point is that these sentence-types were devised on the basis of grammar and language structure. This was ‘pure’ grammar, in that sense. They also had supposedly difficult or off-putting words like ‘indicative’ or ‘imperative’. Clearly, these examiners decided that they were too hard for 10 and 11 year olds (probably true) so they came up with what they thought were more user-friendly terms like ‘question’ and ‘command’. Now here’s the problem they’ve given themselves: you can only deduce such things from the meaning.  But this gives them the problem of saying that such-and-such a sentence is a 'command' and another one is not - based on meaning alone. Go back to the question. The sentence: ‘You should bring a coat’ can be - purely on the basis of meaning -  be a ‘command’ in the everyday sense. Imagine a teacher: ‘Children: you should bring your coats!’ In fact, by their own definition of a command, even ‘You must bring your coats’ wouldn’t be a ‘command’! Clearly, we use a word like ‘command’ in real life (as opposed to the Alice in Wonderland world of ‘grammar’) to mean ‘to command’ and we can choose a variety of structures to do this depending on who it is who’s speaking and who that speaker is speaking to. A word like ‘command’ has been plucked from real life and applied in one very specific way.

The end result of all this is that the question is not valid. If one of the choices in a multiple choice question is reasonable and feasible but is ‘wrong’ then the test fails. In this case, it fails because they’ve fudged their own ‘grammar’ (supposedly based on ‘word-class, structure, grammar and function’). 

Question 12

Which option completes the sentence in the past perfect?

As a piece of rubric this is really quite annoying. The word 'option' and the phrase ‘completes the sentence in the past perfect’ is jargon. If you really wanted to find out if children could recognise this way of talking about the past, you could phrase the sentence in a much more helpful way. You could say eg ‘Choose from the four examples, the past perfect and write it into the sentence so that the sentence makes sense.’ 

Incidentally, this term ‘past perfect’ is a lovely example of grammarian diarrhoea. Every few years, they come up with new terms for the same old, same old! For decades this form of the verb was called the ‘pluperfect’. That’s how I learned it when I did English, French and German at school. We had the ‘perfect’ (which is one way we can express something in the past) and then the ‘pluperfect’ which to my ears at least made it sound ‘even more in the past’ as if it was ‘perfect-plus’. Now there is a term ‘past perfect’ which is really very hard for a 10/11 year old to squeeze into something that gives them a clue as to why eg ‘I had set’ should be called ‘past perfect’! What is ‘past perfect’ about ‘I had set’? I dunno. Presumably, if some people earned a living for a week by coming up this new name, they must think it is in some deep way an improvement. It’s not. 

Question 13

Which sentence is written in Standard English?

Two sports teams come to our school yesterday.
My friend was tidying the classroom.
Today the children done their school play.
The teachers was going to send a letter next week.

We can ask of this question, ‘What is Standard English’? In order to be able to answer the question, the children would need to know the Standard English forms of subject-verb formations using the verbs ‘to come’, ‘to be’, ‘to do’ and ‘to go’. This invites a particular kind of teaching - much loved by  these grammarians, though they sometimes deny it - doing ‘conjugations’. As a grammar school pupil (nb NOT at primary school) we chanted conjugations of verbs in French, German and Latin lessons. It was reckoned, even by the most formal of teachers, that we didn’t need to do it in English. Do these examiners think it's a good idea for us to do it in English? Where's the theory or research showing this? 

The easiest and most fun way to explore Standard English and non-Standard verb forms is to use a piece of fiction where the narration is in Standard and the dialogue is in non-Standard. The most obvious of these is passages in Dickens. I would love to think that it is possible for teachers to find time (in an overloaded curriculum) to approach this question in this way: using a passage of real writing for a purpose (like Dickens, or a modern author for children) and exploring their use of Standard and non-Standard. This can then be used to compare and contrast it with the use of English by people they know or see on TV. 

By the way - open question: is there a good and useful text-book that teachers are using which lays out interesting and fun ways in which the differences between Standard and non-Standard can be taught? 

Question 14

Tick the sentence that uses a dash correctly.

Call me pedantic but in actual fact ‘sentences’ don’t ‘use’ anything. Sentences are made up by human beings and it’s us who ‘use’ dashes, not sentences. I regard this as methodological madness. We keep turning language and parts of language into living beings which can ‘do’ things. This takes away from the fact that we use language to do things that we want it to do. We make choices with language. We make meaning with language. We do this for reasons - which are very interesting to figure out and speculate about. If we get into a mindset that it’s the ‘sentence’ that ‘uses’ the dash ‘correctly’, it invites us to think that there is some mysterious power that rules over us, embedded in something like a ‘sentence’ which has the power of telling us how to use a dash. No, we choose how to use dashes and the world of dashes is a very wobbly, irregular world. As it happens the ‘wrong’ answers are so wrong in this question, that how the examiners have used the dash ‘correctly’ is clear. Even so, the idea that there are only a few ‘correct’ ways to use a dash is dubious. A train journey in the London Underground looking at posters and ads, or indeed two minutes looking at the poetry of Emily Dickenson, or the writing of Lewis Carroll and you’ll find dashes being used in all sorts of exciting and odd ways. 

If these examiners want children to have ‘knowledge about language’ and want them to see the wonderful ways in which we can use language, then the way to do it is not through telling them there are ‘correct’ ways to use dashes but rather to investigate some ways in which writers have used dashes and are coming up with new good ways for themselves. 

Which sentence must not end with an exclamation mark?

What a hilarious film that was
I loved the opening scene
Was the ending funny
I have never laughed so much

The sub-text here is quite funny. The Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, tied himself in knots trying to explain the proper way to use exclamation marks. Someone pushed him into the spotlight to ‘explain’ that this new ‘grammar’ stuff was defining what an ‘exclamation’ is and that these needed an exclamation mark. I think SPaG has retreated from this - unworkable even by their own standards - and here they are being all ‘liberal’ by suggesting that it’s OK to use exclamation marks on sentences that are not exclamations. Phew! But yet again, this has given them another problem: actually you can bung exclamation marks wherever you want. The sentence ‘Was the ending funny’ is of course the usual way in which we ask questions so in their world,  you ‘can’t’ have an exclamation mark at the end. But these are sentences taken out of context. In fact, if you have the intonation of someone of eg a Jewish background - like me! - or someone fond of a particular kind of ironic use of language then we use a structure like this to indeed make exclamations and not ask questions. Older readers will remember the late England football manager, Graham Taylor, saying , ‘Do I not like that’  (in reference to the fact that Holland were beating England). It was not a question. It was an exclamation. When put into writing, it would be perfectly OK to put an exclamation mark. In fact, I can hear people like my father or grandfather saying, ‘Was the ending funny!’ by way of saying it wasn’t funny. Giving children sentences taken out of context demonstrates above all else that the supposed ‘real’ meaning or use that the examiners have in mind is not a universal meaning or use. They don’t seem to realise this. 

Another useless question from the examiners, and one which hasn’t taken notice of how people are using language in real life. 

Questions 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 [and many others in this exam]

These all ask of the children to get the names of ‘word-classes’ correct. We should remember here that there have been times when those in control of this stuff have said that they didn’t want to go back to the days of ‘parsing’. This was an ancient exercise of taking sentences and calling out the word-classes and ‘cases’ etc of the words in the sentences. Teachers would walk round a class barking out one of the words in a piece of Latin and you had to bark back that it was, say, the ‘accusative case of “puella”’ or some such.

It was felt, even by the types of people who set these tests, that this was of limited use, and might actually be counter-productive in keeping children’s interest in language alive. In fact, it’s very hard to learn how to do such questions, asked in such decontextualised ways, without having to do some form of parsing. 

To  be fair (why should I be?!) there are ways of doing a limited form of this in fun ways that appeal to children’s interest in ‘spotting’ and ‘collecting’ things. We can indeed spend short periods of time, saying, ‘Let’s spot the adverbs in this set of instructions’ or such like. It is one way to get to know and remember some of the terms. 

By the way, Question 24 asks the children to use pronouns 'correctly'. Interestingly, this use is across three sentences. In the government’s own glossary here is the definition of a ‘sentence’:

“A sentence is a group of words which are grammatically connected to each other but not to any words outside the sentence. “

In fact, this question proves that this statement from the glossary is nonsense. We often use pronouns to refer back from one sentence to another. We say - as here - ‘Jack’ - in one sentence and in the next we say, ‘he’. This grammar even has a word for doing this: ‘cohesion’. (It’s about the only word they’ve borrowed from the great linguist M.A.K.Halliday who spent a lifetime trying to incorporate use, purpose, function, meaning and choice into grammar, something that these people setting these questions seem resolutely to ignore.)

Question 25
Which sentence is the most formal?

Watching too much television should be avoided.
You shouldn’t watch too much TV.
Watching too much TV isn’t a good idea.
You really should try not watch loads of telly.

I put out a question about this on twitter and Facebook: where are the text books which give teachers and pupils some kind of definition and a grid of what is ‘formal’ English. There’s no definition of it on the government’s own glossary, which boasts in its first sentence:
“The following glossary includes all the technical grammatical terms used in the programmes of study for English, as well as others that might be useful. “

The only place it’s used is in this passage:

“Some people use Standard English all the time, in all situations from the most casual to the most formal, so it covers most registers. The aim of the national curriculum is that everyone should be able to use Standard English as needed in writing and in relatively formal speaking.”

No definitions are given here of ‘casual’, and ‘formal’. They aren’t grammatical terms anyway. They are terms to do with etiquette and one person’s ‘formal’ is another person’s ‘casual’. There is also that old familiar slide going on here in which ‘Standard English’ is used here as a term to include ‘spoken English’. 

The old agreement between linguists is that we don’t speak Standard English - we write it. That’s because when we speak, we repeat ourselves, we self-correct, we insert many ums and ers and ‘y’knows’, we often don’t finish what we’re saying so the sentences are ‘incomplete’ and so on. The only time we speak Standard English is when we read a speech or recite something something written. 

Clearly, here the claim is being made that we do speak Standard English and it’s something to do with ‘formal’ situations. But in fact, if Standard English is being nudged into how we speak, then it’s quite easy to use non-Standard forms when we are in formal situations. Alan Sugar does it quite often in ‘The Apprentice’! 

The point is that some people use mostly ‘standard forms’ when they speak. Some people use non-standard forms. Some people hop between both. Some people hardly ever do. Children who hardly ever use the standard forms for, let’s say, the use of the verb ‘to be’ (eg ‘we was’ etc) have to learn the Standard ‘we were’ in order to pass this exam. Some will say that they have to learn it in order to have an equal chance to go for jobs. 

However, that said, it isn’t the Standard English question being asked here. It’s the one about ‘formal’. Perhaps, I thought, the answer to this problem is in the glossary’s definition of ‘register’:

“Classroom lessons, football commentaries and novels use different registers of the same language, recognised by differences of vocabulary and grammar. Registers are ‘varieties’ of a language which are each tied to a range of uses, in contrast with dialects, which are tied to groups of users. “

Is this trying to say (1)  that there is one register in a ‘classroom lesson’ and another in a football commentary?  It’s ambiguous! (What? Grammarians writing ambiguously? Surely not.)  It could mean (2)  that lessons, commentaries and novels use different registers within them. The first meaning (1)  is false. The second one (2) is right. Either way, I don’t think it’s much use if we want to know what a ‘register’ is. That’s because ‘register’ is a fuzzy quasi-literary category often used by critics when they (we!) recognise people in life or in texts switching from one use of language to another, according to where that kind of language is usually used. Famous examples: Margaret Thatcher using the word ‘frit’; Ronald Reagan using the expression, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’. 

I’m afraid that saying this is ‘in contrast’ to use of dialect, is palpably  wrong. One way we switch registers is to go from eg Standard English forms to non-standard ones, otherwise known as switching between ‘dialects’. We do that for many interesting reasons. 

Meanwhile, back with ‘formal’, I have no idea how the children can be expected to get this except through some kind of hunch. I wonder how teachers are teaching ‘formal’ and ‘casual’. I wonder whether the worksheets of the kind that I’ve seen have mixed up ‘formal’ with ‘correct’ and ‘casual’ with some kind of wrongness...I’m genuinely interested in knowing how this is being done. 

Question 29 
We’re back with ‘formal’ again! 

Circle the most formal option in each box below to complete the invitation.

We would like to invite you to a catch-up/celebration/get-together  
to mark this fab/really cool/momentous
It will start up/commence/kick off
at 6pm

The most formal sentence (I think!) that comes out of this is:

“We would like to invite you to a celebration to mark this momentous occasion. It will commence at 6pm.”

I’m not sure what is shown or proven by this. I’m not sure why anyone outside of a tiny group of people would want to write to each other like this. Attaching the word ‘formal’ to it sounds to me like dodging the issue. Writing like this is full of class-based assumptions based on the idea that this way of writing has the same status as say, a piece of formal scientific writing. It doesn’t. Writing like this is done in order to flag up a certain class status or an aspiration to acquire the trappings of a particular class status. Formal scientific writing is an agreed code between practitioners going back hundreds of years and is nothing to do with petty ‘class’ distinctions and everything to do with acquired and learned training. 

Actually, I find this question really unpleasant. 

Question 32
More stuff on ‘formal’! 
Are they obsessed? 
This time it’s a matter of micro-distinctions based on dubious categories. Here it is:

Which sentence is the most formal?

She suggested that her mother be present.
She really hopes to be ready on time.
Don’t forget to lock the door!
If Johnny’s later, we’ll start without him.

I’ve been in this language malarkey for decades. What micro-distinctions are there to be made between sentences one and two that tell us that the first is ‘more formal’ than the second? In what ways should this matter or be important or be something that children should spend time learning (or forgetting)? Yes, there are great things to do with register and code-switching, particularly in fiction and when people make speeches. People who write ads do it too. It’s great fun for children to experiment with it, in order to see how these people in positions of power do it. Narrowing this down to the kind of distinction that tells us that sentence one is supposedly ‘more formal’ than sentence two, seems to me to be absurd, all the more so given that I’m not clear that the examiners or anyone else has a clear definition of what is ‘formal’. Why, for example, would the formation ‘suggest that her mother be’ be more formal than ‘really hopes to be’? The first sounds to my ears as being a bit more old-fashioned, not more ‘formal’. 

I suspect that this is an example of grammarians straying into the world of literature and ending up tied in knots. It happens. 

Question 39
What is the grammatical term for the underlined word in the sentence below?
My prize was a fluffy, green pencil case with a gold zip.

As I went through the paper, I was seriously trying to answer the questions. I got to this one and thought I knew the answer according to the ‘grammar’ that these examiners believe in. I was taught two things: after the verb ‘to be’ you get what they call a ‘complement’. It’s in the glossary (though expressed in a particularly opaque, difficult way.)  But I was also taught that all ‘verb phrases’ are followed by the ‘predicate’. So I sat and looked at this and wondered which of these two ‘grammatical terms’ would be right. 

In fact, it’s neither! Hooray. It’s supposed to be ‘expanded noun phrase’ or ‘noun phrase’. Perhaps I haven’t understood the phrase:  ‘grammatical term’. Who knows! And what possible use is it that I’m wrong when both my answers are in fact right? Agreed that ‘predicate’ is not in the glossary but maybe one or two keen 10/11 year olds figured that this phrase is a 'complement'. Hard luck on them. 

Question 41
 is about ‘direct speech’ and therefore about ‘indirect speech’ too. I looked for a definition for these in the glossary. They’re not there. Why not? 

Question 49

uses the term ‘present progressive’. Again, for decades we called this the ‘present continuous’ which had the advantage of using a word - ‘continuous’ which suggested continuous action. It kind of worked, insofar as any of these terms ‘work’. Then someone got paid to turn this into the ‘progressive’. Why? To what purpose? Why was ‘continuous’ replaced? Is it to make older teachers feel redundant and confused? Why is ‘progressive’ better than ‘continuous’? I suggest a game: invent new terms for the old terms and come up with any old justification for why it should be the new term.

More seriously, of course the great industry of worksheets and textbooks don’t and can’t keep up with this nonsense,  so quite often they are ‘wrong’. You and your children are supposed to find a way through this jungle. When we remember that it is the teachers being tested here (see Bew Report 2011 for why this is a method of assessment of teachers not pupils) this kind of verbal monkeying has serious consequences.