Tuesday, 17 May 2016

SPAG, SATs and other Horrible Things - by Emma Barnes

This post is an expanded version of one that I wrote a few days ago for GirlsHeartBooks.  In particular there is new section on "Where is the evidence?" for the current approach.


If I'm looking a bit pained, not to mention puzzled, it's because I'm staring into my computer trying to do some of the questions that 10 and 11 year olds were doing for their SATS test papers this year. 

If you didn't do SATS yourself, you might want to take a look .  See how you do. 

 I'm a writer, so you'd think I would find these questions about the English language pretty easy.  Not so.  Sad to say I have never heard of a "subordinating conjunction", to take but one example.  And do you know what?  It hasn't exactly held me back so far. 

Ah, but that's because I write creative, airy-fairy stuff, I can hear you say.  Children's fiction.  I can even get away with starting this paragraph with "Ah". 

Think again.  I was once a civil servant.  I wrote briefings, letters, minutes and even politicians' speeches.  (I hope my writing was better than some of the stuff that comes out of government departments.)  I also went to graduate school, and not to study creative writing either, but political science. 

Actually, I'm not even against teaching grammar.  I didn't learn much of it in school (it wasn't fashionable then) and it would have been helpful when learning a foreign language later.  Also, some children enjoy a more formal approach to English. 

But like a lot of writers (and teachers and parents and - I'm guessing, because nobody seems to ask them - children) I think all this testing has gone too far.  The worst thing is, I can't see the link between the kind of tasks that children are being asked to do and actually improving their literacy in any meaningful way.  Meanwhile, a lot of truly valuable things - such as actual reading and writing - are being squeezed out. 

 And what's taking their place? SPAG! Now how bad can that be? Sounds like it's short for spaghetti, right, and everyone loves spaghetti.

Tomato souse pasta

But no, SPAG is actually short for Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar, and in its current form many children probably feel it was dreamt up purely as an instrument of torture!

 On visits to schools, I meet too many stressed teachers and children, who are being forced to concentrate on SPAG and other SATS prep when they could be doing something more interesting - like actual reading and writing - instead.  When I do workshops, children write down their versions of the stories that we have invented.  In the process, they are practising description, narrative, dialogue, setting, sentence construction and many other important things.  They are also having fun.  What saddens me is that they often have little chance to do this kind of writing at school.  Something is going very wrong.

 I'm not the only writer who thinks this.  In fact, children's writers as a whole have said that they think SATS are actually damaging children's writing.  For example:
As I've said, I'd actually like to know more grammar.  Sometimes I'm not certain which version of a sentence is correct.  But do you know what?  It's not that hard - I just look it up.
My Trusty Grammar Guide
What you can't just look up is language itself.  To be a fluent reader and writer, there is no substitute for practice.  You can give children endless rules to learn.  But they won't be able to read and write well unless they read and write regularly.  If they do, then most likely their grammar will be correct most of the time anyway.

 This requires time, and access to books.  So why not concentrate on those things rather than dreaming up ever more bizarre and convoluted tests?

Where's the evidence?

What I increasingly wonder about it where is the evidence for the current approach to teaching English?

If you go to a doctor, and are prescribed treatment, you tend to hope that there is some kind of evidence - based on research - that lies behind the choice of that treatment.  In fact in the UK there is an entire agency, NICE, which exists to look at particular medical treatments, review the evidence supporting them, and advise doctors on the best ways of treating various conditions.

You would think that educational policy - prescribing the way children are taught in school - would also be based on some kind of evidence.  Especially as it is constantly changing - placing additional burdens on the teachers and children who have to adjust.

Is there evidence that the approach taken at the moment is actually effective?  Does it produce more literate children - able to read and write more fluently, to cope better with the demands of their high school eduction?  Are they more likely to possess the literacy skills they need in adult life?

If there is such evidence, I'd love to see it.

By contrast, there is a huge amount of evidence that reading for pleasure is hugely beneficial to children's educational attainment - not only their literacy, but across the board.  This research regularly appears, and is international in scope.  Here's a link to just one such study - there are many more.

But what are the government doing to respond to this evidence?

I'm sure they would respond that they are not trying to deter reading for pleasure.  But they don't exactly seem to be going out of their way to encourage it, either.  Regional School Library Services - whose role it is to support schools - are closing.   The Society of Authors has campaigned for every school to have a library (every prison must have a library by law, but schools don't have to) - but so far without success.  With so many public libraries closing too (a truly national scandal) many primary children do not have access to the range of books they need to turn them into readers.

Furthermore, there is only so much time available.  The increasing focus on tests and SPAG inevitably squeezes out library time, quiet reading, the shared "read aloud" class novel.  Money spent on SATS revision guides cannot be spent on books for the school library.

Yes, I wish I'd learnt more grammar - but not the way it's being taught now.  Not at the expense of so much else.  In the end I did pretty well in that test.  That's because I've always been a reader and a writer. That's what I'd like to see children doing - learning to become lifelong readers.

There is a lot more to writing and reading than knowing a "subordinating conjunction" when you see it. As a first step - go and pick up a good book instead. 

  • Emma Barnes writes funny, contemporary fiction for children - for more information see her web-page.
  • Her latest book, Wild Thing Goes Camping, is the third in her series about the naughtiest little sister ever.


Sue Purkiss said...

Sums it all up nicely! Off to look at the test now... I was actually taught what a subordinating conjunction is, but I'd have to do some rooting about in the scrapyard of my memory to bring it back to the surface!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I've never even HEARD of a subordinating conjunction - and my results in English at school were pretty good; one year my mark was 99/100. I believe that grammar and punctuation and such are important in communication - the other day I showed my Year 8 students the difference a comma in the right place can make, with a magazine headline I'd found online, stating that a certain lady loved cooking her family and her dog. They got it. We got on with the punctuation lesson.

But you can overdo it. And it sounds like your education department has done so. My sympathies!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I just checked out that test. I'm embarrassed to admit that I got most of them right, even though I hadn't a clue what some of it meant - what the heck is a determiner? I used logic to work them out. But I'm not a ten year old.

Nick Green said...

Fantastic post, Emma.

This curriculum makes me livid. It's not the tests per se, it's the stupid, stupid, stupid way the kids are being taught. The parents don't want it; the teachers don't want it; the kids certainly don't want it; employers don't want it; so why in the name of boiling hell are the government insisting on it?

Actually, don't tell me. I know why. When you make the test about 'Spot the determiners' and 'identify the subordinating conjugation', you make it possible to measure it and therefore rank it. They have decided to teach only that which can be easily measured, regardless of usefulness.

Knowing what a subordinating conjugation is does not mean you can use one effectively, yet you will get the mark and your friend (who may be a brilliant writer but doesn't know the term) will fail. How crazy is that?

I earn a living from writing today, because as a child I was allowed to write freely. I hated grammar then and it bores me now - but my use of grammar is pretty flawless, hasty blog comments aside. It comes with practice and use, not learning by rote.

Why do we persist in electing people who do the precise opposite of what is sensible? Eh?

Emma Barnes said...

It's not the tests per se, it's the stupid, stupid, stupid way the kids are being taught.

That's it exactly. People have different views on how much testing and grammar there should be in primary, but whatever your perspective on that it's really hard to understand what the current system is going to achieve (other than confusion and stress).

Nick Green said...

Music would be a good analogy. If you want to teach a class of 10 year olds to sing, you don't start by instructing them in what a diminished seventh is - or even by teaching them what crotchets and quavers are. You sing them a tune and get them to sing it back to you, so they can discover their love of singing.

Later, you can teach them how to write a tune down. Or not. Plenty of brilliant musicians never learned to read music or studied any musical theory.