Every so often, I like to go against the grain, fight against the tide and, metaphorically, hit my head repeatedly against a brick wall. I like to look at a current issue and look at it from the opposite point of view and develop a reasoned argument. I could easily follow the crowd and surf the waves of popularity and, possibly, common sense, but I like to think about all aspects of an issue before I pick up my pitchfork and flaming torch and storm the castle.
The recent grammar test for Year 6s has caused lots of publicity. We have had teachers boasting they couldn’t answer the paper. We have had famous writers saying that they couldn’t possibly complete the paper. We have had headteachers writing letters to students openly critiquing the tests. We have had teachers making students write letters to the Prime Minister to abolish the tests because of the stress it has caused them. I think it is fair to say that there is no love for the test. I have, however, sat and read all the articles and listened to all the discussions and they have been all one-sided. Everybody is in agreement it is rubbish, but I am not so sure.
Point 1: It is stressful.
One argument that has been paraded around by novelists and writers is that it causes stress. The test apparently causes stress for the children at a time they should be enjoying life. This week I have seen Year 11s sit their GCSE exams for English and Maths. The exams could be described as a very stressful time as their future is dependent on the result of their performance. The path they take will be influenced by that one paper. There are high stakes involved. As teachers, we help them manage with that stress. As a head of department, I speak to students before and after the exams. I cajole and reassure before and after an exam. This week I had to support a student who felt they had underperformed in one particular exam. I metaphorically picked them up and helped them place a bit of perspective on things. A student feeds off a teacher for emotions.
Exams and tests are stressful in nature, but it is the teacher’s reaction to the test and the consequences of the testing that are important. What is making a grammar test so stressful? Why is it more stressful than a writing test? Or a reading test? Are we, as teachers, transferring our stresses onto the students? For teachers, we know there are high stakes for schools. SATs are an accurate or inaccurate measuring stick of teaching quality in a school. But, what does the test mean to the student? All students want to do well. I can see how a student might be worried about this fact. They want to do well. They want to please their parents. They want to please the teacher. They want to show off. But, what makes this test more stressful than other tests? What do the students think will happen if they do badly with this one grammar test?
I’d like to know why a headteacher wrote a letter to students, because the question I’d be asking is: what is the real cause of the stress? What will happen if the student does badly in the test? Nothing much. Secondary schools will use the data in some way or not. But it is not clear and concrete as to what the outcome of the tests are likely to be. Stress is like a disease. It spreads and mutates. A stressed headteacher means stressed heads of department which means stressed teachers which results in stressed students. Students don’t get stressed in isolation. They must have something around them signalling that this is a stressful situation.
Point 2: It is difficult and it spoils a love of reading.
One of the common arguments thrusted in the debate is that the test will put off students from reading. Interestingly, the people putting this argument forward are novelists and writers. The fear is that the test and the focus on the test will have a detrimental effect on a love of reading. Where is the evidence that a focus on SPaG reduces an enjoyment of literature? Rarely, have I heard students moan about the teaching of grammar in lessons. They moan about writing, but not the grammar necessarily. In fairness, the amount of time dedicated to reading might be affected. This is a valid point in the argument, but again that is dependent on how the school wishes to treat SPaG.
I fear that the grammar test focus is only one little crack in the dam. The problem is getting students reading and keeping them reading. Some students have no books at home. Some students have no role models around them reading. Some students have no opportunities to read or borrow books. Some students have nobody to guide them towards reading. Culturally, students aren’t reading enough independently. Mr Gove’s comment about students reading fifty books is right. They should be reading more. That will make them better. Getting more books in young people’s lives is important. Books are good enough on their own to get students to love reading. We should be working on making more opportunities for students to connect with books and that doesn’t mean in the classroom.
Stop the closing of libraries. Stop the closure of libraries in schools. Make sure teachers have loads of books for students. Make sure students have access to books everywhere. A small exam booklet will not fix or break the world.
Point 3: It isn’t necessary.
The grammar paper has done one thing. It has raised the profile of grammar and grammar terminology. We are all talking about fronted adverbials now. The language in the classroom has improved and become more grammar focused. However, I don’t wash with the argument that some have given: I can write really well, but I didn’t know about the rules. When students don’t read enough to learn the rules, we need to be more explicit with the rules. It is interesting to note that all the people spouting off about how they weren’t taught grammar at school, yet they can write brilliantly, are big readers. Could it be that they taught themselves to use grammar through their reading experiences? Our students are not reading enough and so they need explicit grammar teaching. They are not subconsciously learning the rules of language through exposure to good texts that follow or play around with the rules. We need something in place. Either we have enforced reading in schools for one or two hours, or, we combine reading with explicit teaching of grammar concepts.
Furthermore, would you teach science without explanation? No. What would science lessons be like if you never explained why things happened? Today’s lesson is about the sun. Ohh, isn’t bright? Isn’t it hot? End of lesson. You would explore what makes it hot and why being hot is important. Teaching reading and writing needs some explanation. Grammar is the explanation. It is not necessary for appreciation, but it is necessary for copying and recreating. The term fronted adverbial explains what the bit is at the start is for. Your life might not be radically changed, but you will understand the construction of the sentence better and you might use it again.
The problem with grammar is that people get bogged down with terminology. There is a fear of grammar, and, terminology is just another block to stumble over with when facing this fear. Yes, I didn’t know what a fronted adverbial is before, but now I do, and I can teach it. Knowledge should be passed on and shared. It might not be necessary, but it could and will support or help someone. People may have used them in their writing before knowing the term, but they will be more likely to use them more often now they know of it. Before, it was random chance. Now, it is an option.
I think the problem with the grammar test is that we weren’t consulted about what grammar terms should be tested. That is where the problem lies. It was decided for us. However, the learning of grammar terms appeals to some students. The ‘wishey-washiness’ of English has been a problem. Things are occasionally too abstract at times. The concrete rules of language (when we decide what the rule is) appeals to some students. I can spout hundreds of technical terms associated with the early special effects of Doctor Who, such as C.S.O. I liked the technical aspects as a child. I can bore you to death with the special effects of 1970s television. As a school, we have been setting all KS3 students a grammar test and it is interesting to see how the students respond to it. The boys, in my anecdotal experience, are quite positive towards it because it is clear, concrete and either right or wrong. Grammar could be the aspect that motivates some boys. There is a type of student out there who loves the cataloguing and naming of aspects - it was me as a teenager.
I also think it is necessary because it is another way to teach writing and reading. There are a number of ways to teach reading and writing and there is no one consistent method. This way, at least, there is some sense of consistency. Until we have a clear, sure-fire way of teaching students to read and write, then another strategy is better than none.
I love primary teachers. I really do: I married one. She’ll probably punch me after I have typed this. Anybody who teaches students several different subjects in a day with a wide range of abilities in one class has my utmost respect. This blog isn’t about undermining the hard work primary teachers do daily. It is about providing a bit of balance to one-sided argument so far.
Thanks for reading,
P.S. No students were harmed in the writing of this blog and no student has been made to write a letter to the Prime Minister requesting for more tests. Like all things, I don’t think we should include students in our political arguments. It only adds to their stress.