I like the grammar test and I’m not (too) afraid to say it

I am going to say something controversial now: I like the Year 6 grammar tests. Before you think I’ve lost my mind, let me explain myself. I think having a close look at the nuts and bolts of the English language is no bad thing, as long as it is done in a meaningful way, and that really is the essence of everything I am about to say: that it has to be meaningful.

But how can it be meaningful, to learn about fronted adverbials, the passive voice and the suchlike? What meaning does this have to the typical everyday life? That is an important question to ask, because to question it is to home in on what is being taught to the youth of today and how it is going to benefit them, because surely this is what education is all about: to improve us and enable us. Therefore, it is undoubtedly a good thing that every time you log on to Facebook or pick up an educational supplement, you will quickly become embroiled in a debate over the ridiculousness of the new grammar tests, of what children are expected to know at such at tender age. The wonderful Michael Rosen himself is very vocal about the absurdity of such expectations, and it is no surprise that so many are in agreement.

I myself am not opposed to these comments; I respect their validity and am firmly against undue amounts of pressure being ladled onto children at the age of ten or eleven. I have a son who has been through Year 6, and the last thing I wanted was him worrying about SATs tests – I wanted him to enjoy his last year of primary school before things got serious at secondary school, and I didn’t mind whether he achieved the much-coveted Level 4s or not, as long as he was well and happy.

I have been in Year 6 year groups where the stress hanging in the air is palpable; where children’s eyes widen in fear when practise papers are produced; where children break down because they feel they are underachieving. Nobody in their right mind can think that this is right – children in Year 6 labour under the misconception that their SATs results will somehow inform what happens in secondary school, and this is simply not true. Yes, secondary schools may look at the results, but they have their own testing systems and will assess the children on entry point in their unique way, streaming accordingly. Yet Year 6 teachers suggest (in direct or roundabout ways) that the SATs results are all-important; that a great deal rests on them, when in actuality it is really only the school’s results for which these matter. However, you can’t really criticise schools for caring about their results, as these are how schools are measured in terms of success, and if staff don’t care about how successful their school is, then that really is something to worry about! So the key is to be successful, to help the children to do well, without having the learning in Year 6 too daunting a prospect.

Before I sing the virtues of grammar learning, let me speak of an experience I had before the grammar tests came in. I was teaching a Year 6 class about five years ago, and in the autumn term I was seriously worried about my cohort’s writing. I work in a borough in East London which has an extremely high proportion of EAL learners, and their writing reflected two facts: that their acquisition of the English language was ongoing and that they had picked up some poor writing habits, which had been cemented in their daily practice. The majority of the class were writing run-on sentences (where sentence boundaries are not observed), their writing was uninspiring and lacked structure.

I feared for the end of year results, for in those days there was the SATs writing paper, which had three bands for assessment, all of which my then-class seemed to be falling down on. Looking closely at my class’s writing, it was apparent that they lacked an understanding of what actually constituted a sentence, and without this secure foundation for their writing they had little to build on. So I went to speak to the deputy head that I had at the time and I asked if I might start teaching my class set grammar concepts, in the hope that it would improve their writing. Luckily my deputy was very supportive, and said I could certainly try this, and if it proved successful the approach could perhaps be rolled out across the school.

To cut a long story short, my then-class responded really well to the grammar learning. They were a class who loved maths, and the teaching of Literacy in a factual way appealed to them – they liked having specifics that they could hook onto, as it made sense to their way of working. We went right back to basics, as they previously had no clue what a noun or verb was, let alone the other component parts of a sentence. As the year continued their confidence grew, and as they learned about the building blocks of language they learned how to manipulate it. Where previously most of them had been writing entire paragraphs as a single sentence, they now recognised that every sentence has a verb and could demarcate accordingly. However, a lot of the work was spent on unpicking errors; for example, for some children it was a case of knowing that a pronoun often indicated that a run-on sentence has occurred, finding the pronoun and placing a full stop before it, for their work to be demarcated accurately – it would have been far simpler if this error had never been allowed to develop, than trying to correct it at a later-stage. So while I was proud of the results that my Year 6 class achieved in their end of year tests, I know that, had this learning journey started earlier, their results really would have been exceptional. And when, soon after, the writing paper disappeared and the SPAG paper came in its place, I welcomed this with open arms.

This brings me on to my view on why I am of the belief that grammar tests are important for children’s learning. The English language is such a wonderful thing and fascinating in its elements. However much you learn in terms of grammar, it seems there is still more that can be learned, and interesting debates to be had in terms of what is what. Why not engage children in what is an essential part of their being? Yes, some people might argue that they don’t really need to know what the subjunctive mood or a subordinating conjunction is, but you could equally argue that we don’t actually need to know the names of the other planets or the Tudor Kings of history – in some ways you could claim that the former points are much more useful, seeing as these are things we can essentially use on a daily basis. True you don’t need to be able to name something to use it, but in my experience, knowing what something is called empowers you and gives you ownership over your own abilities.

So why then not just teach grammar without the tests? The sad, but obvious answer is that without the tests, grammar would not be focused on in the way that it is. Look what happened with science – when there was a Science SATs test, the Year 6 timetable was full of science slots but as soon as the test was abolished, science was immediately put on the back-burner. Therefore, I think the grammar tests are important, though I do agree that it is unfair to suddenly raise the bar so sharply. My best friend, originally from South Africa, is currently a Year 6 teacher, and I asked her what her views were on the matter. She said this: “To me, as this year’s year sixes are the first to do a test based on the new NC and whose writing will be levelled with much higher expectations where the grammar is concerned, they truly feel the pressure. Next year will be better and the year after that even more so. From an EAL perspective, knowing and continuously developing my grammar knowledge is essential and I have since become more fluent and can write fiction and non-fiction texts with a lot more confidence than when I first started teaching (keeping in mind that I still have a lot to learn). I even use the subjunctive form, without realising, when I teach. I’m only made aware of this when the children clap or cheer.”

And this loops back to the point I opened with: the learning of grammar simply has to be meaningful. There is a lot of evidence to show that decontextualized grammar has little to no benefit for children, though really we could have worked this out without the supporting studies. It’s like anything in life: use it or lose it. If you read a new word today and then use it in a sentence of your own before the day is out, you have a much increased chance of it being embedded in your memory bank; if you don’t, the chances are you won’t remember it tomorrow. If we teach grammar in a discrete way, with stand-alone lessons, the children are likely to quickly forget what has been taught; worse still, it will be meaningless for them. Whatever you teach in terms of grammar needs to be woven into the writing process on a daily basis. For example, if you are teaching about coordinating conjunctions, show how these can be used to join and extend sentences in everyday writing. We are modelling writing all the time; we must too be referring to these terms continuously as part of our common practise.

I currently have a Year 3 class, and they are becoming au fait with using these previously unheard-of grammar terms; if you pop in for a Literacy lesson, you may hear them say statements such as ‘I might start with a fronted adverbial to tell the reader more about the time’ or ‘I wonder if I should put the subordinate clause at the start of the sentence instead?’ These are children who, at the beginning of the year, didn’t even know what a common noun was. If they continue in this way, their Year 6 results will be absolutely superb, even if the expectations do keep rising, because they’ll have the basis to keep rising with it. Their confidence isn’t because I’ve been teaching them exceptionally well, it’s because since the beginning of the year, the terminology has been drip-fed into them. We’re always bandying the terms around, and constantly referring to elements of grammar whenever we’re writing, be it in a Literacy lesson, a Guided Reading session or a Topic lesson. And it has to start this early – earlier still – for children to acquire the understanding in the way they need to. It is doing our children a massive disservice to leave the bulk of this learning until Year 6, when it will need to be crammed in in a meaningless way, which will totally put them off learning about the English language. No-one can delight in something which is laced with a sense of panic and urgency.

And the truth of the matter is this: having a secure understanding of grammar can help the children with their writing in the future. Some might argue that the current grammar syllabus dictates grammar being taught in too formulaic a way, that is it removes the opportunity for children to be imaginative writers. I disagree with this, for I think once you have a full understanding of how to structure your writing, you too have the confidence to learn how to manipulate your writing in the way you best see fit, and to make ambitious choices for your structure and language. I am sure that this piece I am now writing contains what would be considered as grammatical flaws, yet would hope that none of these render it incomprehensible – a writer’s confidence comes through practising writing coherent pieces, and it is vital that children leave school with this level of confidence in place.

I recently had the opportunity to visit a local secondary school, to watch English lessons and to speak with their Head of English. I learned that grammar is not focused on in the same way at KS3, so potentially all that knowledge that we shovel into the over-worked minds of our Year 6s, will be lost rather than built upon. Therefore, it is essential that the learning of grammar has been a gradual process across the learning journey of primary school, that children leave school with a secure understanding of their own writing, what makes it strong and how to potentially improve it. Then they will undoubtedly be in a position to develop these skills further as they go onto higher education.

To summarise, I believe that the key to success with grammar is this: drip-feed and weave. Start early, refer to the grammar terms regularly, model and explain them as part of your daily practise. Do not teach stand-alone grammar lessons and do not leave frequent grammar learning until upper KS2. This sounds easy, but the biggest barrier to this happening successfully is teacher knowledge. If you do not fully understand the difference between a phrase and a clause, how on earth are you expected to refer to these as part of your normal practise? If you are unsure what a fronted adverbial is, how will you know to mention it when you are doing a modelled write? Teachers are expected to confidently teach concepts which they themselves have probably never been taught. This is where schools need to come in and make sure that professional development is up to scratch; where dedicated Literacy Coordinators need to ensure that support is in place where it is needed.

However, teachers themselves have a part to play, and they need to recognise their own abilities (or lack of) in terms of teaching grammar. I have a passion for grammar, though I acknowledge that I still have much to learn. However, a subject area where I feel much less confident is Geography. The new curriculum for this subject filled me with a sense of trepidation, as I know my subject knowledge is weak, embarrassingly so, to the extent that I might even refuse to do a pub quiz in the fear that the Geography round may expose me as being a bit of a secret dimwit. Therefore, when I recently needed to teach my Year 3 class about the continents, oceans of the world etc., I needed to do a lot of prior research, and called upon my knowledgeable Year 3 colleague for advice about actually delivering the lesson. Doing this was of course optional, I could have perhaps just taught off the cuff and read the information on the Woodlands Junior website along with the children during the lesson itself (literally learning with them!) – but how can we possibly enhance the children’s knowledge and understanding if we don’t know more than them to begin with?

We mustn’t be afraid to reveal that we are lacking confidence about some of the grammar terms, that we aren’t entirely sure what they mean. There is no shame in this – grammar is terribly complicated – but there is shame in wasting the time of young children, teaching them meaningless concepts which confuse them and have no learning value. We know we have a duty as educators to know what we’re talking about, to seek the knowledge that we are lacking, and to pass that knowledge on in a way which will equip the students to be better writers. There are plenty of excellent books available now to help us improve our own grammar knowledge, books which are written in an understandable, enjoyable way – ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ and ‘My Grammar and I – or should that be me?’ are both excellent examples. I suggest that these books aren’t read in one sitting; I prefer to dip into them from time to time, rereading parts which I haven’t fully grasped. The more we increase our understanding of grammar, the more we will feel confident using the terms. And if the grammar learning journey is one we all feel confident with, one which starts early and is meaningful, I wonder if we would still be having the same debates about the validity of the Year 6 grammar tests – whether there would still be the same negativity directed towards the system – or whether we would just be celebrating the fact that our children are knowledgeable and confident writers – surely the common goal that we are all aiming for.