Thursday, 25 May 2023

My thoughts on this year's Key Stage 2 Grammar, punctuation and spelling test (which used to be the SPaG test)

I am looking at the 2023, 'Key stage 2, English grammar, punctuation and spelling test.

Paper 1: questions'

My first thought, as ever, is to wonder about how many hours of work are required to put Year 6 students through this? And for what benefit? I ask this because I know that one of my offspring did this test, did very well at it, and when I ran though some of the terms with him a few years later, he had forgotten them all. 

Ok - brief thoughts on some of the questions:

Question 1 asks 'Which sentence is a command?'

I've talked about this before as an example of how what this kind of grammar calls 'grammar' is very slippery. The word 'command' is not a grammar word. It's a word to describe how we say things to each other. We can command each other to do things in several ways: eg 'You must do this now!'. 'No running in the playground'. 

So what's going on here? 

What they mean, but don't say, is that for the sake of this exam, a 'command' is a sentence that uses the 'imperative' form of the verb. We all know such words and usages eg 'Go out!' or even 'Please don't do that' which of course doesn't sound like a 'command' at all! 

So what you have is a typically fuzzy definition based on a non-grammatical word, when really they mean something else. 

What ends up being tested here is actually not 'grammar' but a fuzzy mix of semantics (meaning) and 'grammar'. 

Question 2 continues with the GPS obsession with 'sentence types'. I can't figure out why they should be obsessed with this. Why is it important to give sentences a name, especially as some of the labels are 'fuzzy' anyway (as with 'command'). Question 2 asks 'Tick one box in each row to show whether the sentence is an exclamation or a question.'

What follows are four sentences (with no punctuation mark at the end of them!) all beginning with 'How'. 

One of these is 'How disappointing it was that it rained on sports day'.

You have to laugh. Who writes this stuff? This is straight out of 1950s middle class talk. Is there anyone left who ever says or writes such things? 

This is supposed to be an 'exclamation'. Again, this is not a 'grammar word'. We can 'exclaim' in many different ways using different grammatical structures eg 'Oh no, I've lost my wallet!' Anyone having to subject themselves to this test knows that the word 'exclamation' here is being squeezed into being a 'grammar word' by linking it to a sentence structure. 

Big irony here: in order to be able to ask this question, the sentences are not completed with a punctuation mark. Think about that. This test and the syllabus belabour children and teachers with the need (desperate need) to finish sentences with the 'correct' punctuation mark - question mark, full stop etc., and here is the test that is supposed to test such things, putting four sentences in front of children without the end mark. 

Of course, we know why they haven't. It's because they would have had to have put an exclamation mark after the exclamation! People will remember the hapless Nick Gibb coming on the radio trying to explain to millions of listeners how and why they were testing children on exclamation marks and clearly failing to do so. 

Again, you have to laugh: the harder they try to be 'correct' the more likely it is that they'll end up putting something incorrect in front of children.  

Question 3 asks the children to 'Draw a line to match each word to a suffix to make four different words. Use each suffix only once.' The four words are 'social', 'relation', 'child' and 'season'. The four suffixes are 'ish', 'al, 'ise', 'ship'. 

I sat up at this one because my 'school grammar' and 'university grammar' comes from the 1950s and 60s. Any of us taught these terms as if they were set in stone are always surprised to see that the terms can change. Anyone who cares about such things as suffixes, will notice that the four suffixes are not the same in kind. Three of them are additions turning them either into another noun (eg 'relationship') or into adjectives (eg 'childish'). One of them is an adjective that you have to turn into a verb (ie 'socialise'). 

I was taught to think of verbs and verb endings as being 'conjugations' rather than being a stem+suffix. But, hey, there you go. If they're suffixes now, let'em be suffixes. It's all part of the arbitrary terminology diarrhoea that afflicts this subject. Someone reading this will blow a gasket longing to 'correct' me to tell me that they 'ARE' really suffixes, as if labels are more important than language. 

Question 4 involves an Oxford comma twitch. People who write this stuff are obsessed with whether the 'Oxford comma' is right or wrong. (Imagine being such a person!). Some people nearly die if they see a comma before the word 'and'. If I was teaching Year 6s I would tell them that if they care about the health of others, they must remember that if any question asks you to insert a comma into a sentence, never, never, never put it in the front of the word 'and', or far off, someone may pass away. 

Question 6 asks 'Which pair of words are antonyms?

Antonyms are not grammar. They are semantics. They have no place on a grammar paper. Grammarians know this. The fact that they are in a grammar test is testament to the fact that grammarians were cowed by Michael Gove when it came to devising this absurd syllabus. In fact, 'antonyms' are a weird concept drawn from tests and syllabuses from the 19th century. Linguistics has taught us over the last 50 years or more that there is no such thing as a synonym or an antonym. That's not how language works. Words are so full of lovely variation and 'connotation' that we can't tie them to such concepts as 'antonym' and 'synonym' - except of the sake of tests and TV quizzes. 

The answer to this question is 'proper' and 'improper'. 

I'll state the obvious: 'proper' can be used in many different ways: eg 'he's a proper little devil', 'the proper way to learn a part is to cover the page', 'she was very polite and very proper'. The word 'improper' may or may not match the many ways we use the word 'proper'. Logically speaking then, they are only antonyms for the sake of this question! 

I quite often talk about how far from 'language-use', these grammar test go. This is a prime example. Language-use tells us that 'proper' is a word we can use flexibly, variously with nice, subtle differences. The word 'improper', less so. In order to answer this question, we invite children to dispense with the flexibility of language-in-use, and come up with a bit of absurd, non-grammatical labelling.

Question 9 - another non-grammar question. It asks 'Which sentence is the most formal?' 

Others may help me here. I've struggled to find in course materials a reasonable and rational explanation of the word 'formal', as used in these tests. It's quite clearly not only a matter of grammar because these questions often slip in a slightly slangy noun or verb which is being used in a 'standard English' way (ie 'correctly') but is presumably not 'formal'. So here we have the sentence 'Please pack up all your stuff before you leave.' I guess that the examiners think 'stuff' is informal. This is not a matter of grammar. It's a matter of 'register'. They've decided that 'stuff' is not 'formal'. (Go figure!) 

The formal sentence is, presumably: 'It is essential that you take all  your belongings with you.' For this to be 'formal' it's through its 'lexis' (ie choice of vocabulary) and not through grammar. 

This is how 'grammar' gets afflicted with mission creep. 'Grammar' creeps into 'style' and telling children how they 'should' write. 

Question 10 is a 'synonyms' question. More non-grammar in a 'grammar' test. 'Overjoyed' and 'delighted' are supposedly synonyms here. They are similar. Or they are in the same 'lexical field'. They each have different connotations. 

Question 13 throws me completely:

'Insert a colon in the correct place in the sentence below.

Dipti is keen to practise the drums she wants to play in the school band.'

Wot? I can't think of any circumstance where I'd put a colon in that sentence!  Call me uncouth, but I wouldn't put any punctuation in that sentence, let alone a colon. I use colons in one restricted way only. I use them following a general word and before a list of things that are part of that general word, or as a mark to indicate 'like this'. So I might write, 'There are a few supermarkets round here: Sainsbury's, Asda, Lidl, Waitrose etc.' Or I might write, 'The rule states clearly that you can not run in school: 'Do not run in the corridors or classrooms'.' 

Well, I didn't get my mark for that question. 

Question 14 is 'Which question is the most formal

What is this need to be 'formal'? Again the reason why one of the sentences is more formal than another is semantic not grammatical. 'I asked him to phone me when he got here' is presumably meant to be less formal than 'I requested that he telephone me on arrival.' 

Somewhere deep in the minds of the examiners is the notion that 'request' is more 'formal' than 'ask' and - here's the exciting bit [irony alert], the construction 'that he telephone me' contains what they say is....a 'subjunctive'. 

Note: not all grammarians are convinced that this IS a subjunctive. Some think that it's some strange bit of English usage that can be ring-fenced and labelled but best not to dignify it with the term 'subjunctive' because it doesn't 'conjugate'. This means that it can't really be compared with, say, the subjunctive in French, which is really an extraordinary, subtle, complex form that can be used to indicate a mix of doubt, caution, suggestion, tentative thought and so on. 

However, Michael Gove said that he wanted the subjunctive in the test. The grammarians said they weren't too sure about that. Michael Gove was sure. That's why the children learn it. That's why this sentence is included in the test. 

Question 18 asks the children to spot the use of the 'present progressive'. I include this one because once again it gives me a laugh. Back in the 1950s and 60s, we were taught that there is a tense called 'the present continuous'. That's what it IS, we were told. That verb form IS the present continuous. The present continuous IS that particular verb form - usually expressed by '-ing' endings on the end of the stem of the verb. 

One reason why it was interesting, they told us, is that French doesn't have that verb form. It's expressed with a phrase that looks like 'in train of..' ('Je suis en train de manger un croissant' 'I'm eating a croissant') 

Then at some point, some grammarians decided that it ISN'T the 'present continuous'. It IS the 'present progressive'. 

Why? Why did it change? Who decided? Why did that then become THE term? What bit of new knowledge about this verb form has necessitated this new term? I dunno. 

Question 29, sees a visitation of the dreaded 'fronted adverbial'. However, it's in its most diluted form. (I sense a retreat from this monster.) All that the students are asked to do here is punctuate it with a comma in the right place. As it happens, there is a trick in the question. Many of the children will have learnt it in a mechanical way - there's only time to learn it mechanically. One of the sentences is 'Luckily for us the ball rolled slowly past the goal.' 

The trick here is that many children would bung a comma in after 'luckily' because that's how they were taught the dreaded 'fronted adverbial. Trouble is, on this occasion, the f.a. is 'Luckily for us...' Boooo! Trick question. 

Question 31 is another bite at the exclamation cherry. Why so interested in exclamations and exclamation marks? Do they matter that much? When you think of all the amazing, exciting things to say about language, or all the exciting language activities you could be doing with children, and you end up with talking about exclamation marks! Doh!

Question 33 asks 'What are the underlined words in the sentence below?'

You have a choice of answer: a relative clause, a subordinate clause, a main clause, a noun phrase.

This is a perfect example of the dull cul-de-sac that grammar takes you into. You have a phrase 'The girl with curly red hair' and all that grammar is interested in is what you can label it with. The question asks 'What are the underlined words..' as if the label IS that use of language and that use of language IS that label. 

Again, there are all sorts of things we could say about that use of language, the least significant and least useful for 10, and 11 years olds is what label you can stick on it in order to test teachers whether they can teach 10 and 11 year old children that this label is important. Older school students perhaps, but 10 and 11 year olds? Really?

Question 39 asks the children to 'Complete the sentence below with an appropriate subordinating conjunction.' 

In an ideal world, how vital is it for 10 and 11 year olds to know the difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions? Let's say that the great god grammar decides that they should all know that there are such things as 'conjunctions' (I think we called them 'joining words' when I was at primary school in the 1950s). How vital is it that they need to know that there are two kinds of conjunction and that there'll be a test which will try to see if you can get it right? 

As an aside, and nothing to do with this question,  I have never bought the idea that 'but' is a coordinating conjunction - 'and' and 'or', fair enough, but why 'but'? A clause following 'but' is often dependent in meaning on the clause that comes before it. Maybe it should be called a thing of its own - 'a depending conjunction'. See! You can play the grammar game too!

Question 40 is a nasty, trick question. The examiners know that hard-pressed teachers say that adverbs are often '-ly' words. So of course here's a question where the adverb is not a '-ly' word. 

'The boy had seven brothers, each one quite different from the others.' 

This reminds us that the term 'adverb' is stupendously useless. 'Adverb' sounds like it does something to verbs. Sometimes it does. Hooray. But it also 'does' something to adjectives, as with the word 'quite' here. And it can also do something to whole sentences, as with 'However, he couldn't find his keys.' That used to be called a 'sentence adverb' but now we have to call it a 'fronted adverbial' and we're all so much more intelligent and able to deal with the problems of the world, as a result.

Question 41 is a beast. 

 'Complete each sentence with a word from the same word family as proud.'

The graphic shows two sentences with a blank and the word 'proud' under the blank. You have to change the word 'proud' so that it can fit in the blank. The two sentences are:

'We [BLANK] represented our school in the competition'


'We took [BLANK] in representing our school in the competition.

The first is, presumably 'proudly' and the second, presumably, is 'pride'.

Why do I say it's a beast? 

I don't know this term 'word family'. People will have to tell me if that's taught these days as a concept. It's a new one on me. I must keep up. I've staggered through at least 11 years of grammar education without knowing this term, so I'd better add on a bit more work in order to keep up. 

It makes sense to grammarians to think of a word like 'proud' in such a way that they can turn it into 'proudly' and 'pride'. If you look at language-in-use, we can ask ourselves, how often do we 'turn' a word like 'proud' into 'pride'. That isn't how we construct sentences. 

We create language-in-use according to who's speaking and writing, who's listening and reading (ie the participants); according to the subject-matter of what we are saying and writing (sometimes called the 'field'); and according to the type of talk and the type of writing that we are performing (often called 'genre'). We hardly ever do what this test question asks us to do, which is shunt between grammatical forms to slot them into blanks.