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Battle on the adverbials front: grammar advisers

raise worries about Sats tests and teaching


The panel of four who advised Michael Gove on the primary spelling and grammar test
now have reservations

Warwick Mansell
Tuesday 9 May 2017 07.30 BSTLast modified on Tuesday 9 May 201709.20 BST

This morning, more than half a million primary children will take a test that may ask them to
identify the grammatical label for the two-word phrase at the start of this paragraph. Could you do
it? If you are unable to recognise this as a fronted adverbial then you will have fallen short on
knowledge expected of 10- and 11-year-olds in the controversial spelling, punctuation and grammar
(Spag) tests.

The term, which even professional writers such as the novelist AL Kennedy have said they are not
familiar with, has been at the centre of a fierce debate over the grammar requirements in Sats tests
and the curriculum they assess.

Now Richard Hudson, the academic who says he bears most responsibility for introducing the
fronted adverbial, has said the process through which the national curriculum was changed under
Michael Gove, the former education secretary, was chaotic. He admits it was not based on good
research evidence and says he feels many teachers are not equipped to teach it.

Hudsons comments mean that all four of an expert panel that advised the government on placing
greater emphasis on traditional grammar in its primary curriculum now have serious reservations
about either the tests, or the curriculum development process.

The fronted adverbial is defined in the national curriculum as (deep breath) a word or phrase that
is used, like an adverb, to modify a verb or clause and has been moved in front of the verb or
clause. It has become emblematic of a fierce dispute over grammar teaching and the role of
politicians, teachers and academics in shaping it.

The governments key curriculum adviser, Tim Oates, has already warned that the Spag tests,
introduced last May, need a rethink as there was a genuine problem about undue complexity of
demand in terms of the language about language that children were expected to know.

In fact, although pupils take national tests including the term fronted adverbial at the end of
primary school, since 2014 Englands national curriculum has expected children to be able to
understand it from year 4, when they are eight or nine. Meanwhile, subordinate clauses should be
known and labelled correctly from the age of seven, determiners from age eight, and modal
verbs and relative clauses from age nine.

David Crystal, one of Britains foremost English language academics, has argued that the Spag test,
and the view of language lying behind it, turns the clock back half a century. There is too much
emphasis on linguistic labelling as an end in itself, he says, rather than on using this as the starting
point in discussions of effective writing.

Michael Rosen, the childrens author and Education Guardian columnist, has said we are suffering
from terminology-itis: a mistaken belief that talking about grammatical structures will improve
pupils writing. Its a waste of childrens time, he says.

How did the teaching and testing of grammar in its current form come about? Ministers have never
published a list of who advised them, but we have identified and spoken to key players.

Four people three of them university academics advised on the place of grammar in the
national curriculum for primary schools, we discovered: Debra Myhill, director of the centre for
research in writing at the University of Exeter; Dick Hudson, emeritus professor of linguistics at
University College, London; Ronald Carter, research professor of modern English language at
Nottingham University; and Geoff Barton, a former English teacher who heads the Association of
School and College Leaders.

Hudson, who also advises ministers on the detail of the Spag tests, wrote a glossary of grammatical
terms that is included in the curriculum. He says he probably came up with the suggestion that
fronted adverbial be included as a teaching requirement. He still defends the tests, saying: The
proof of the pudding is in the eating, and most children do fine in the Spag tests. Thats just fact.
Some 73% passed last year, and Hudson says the curriculums stipulation that pupils know 40
grammatical terms is not onerous.

But he does admit there was chaos in the process of developing what is a controversial
curriculum. To give you an idea of how chaotic things were, when [the curriculum panel] was
originally put together, we had about four meetings and were supposed to be devising a grammar
curriculum to cover the whole of compulsory education: primary and secondary.

We started off with the primary curriculum, which we were a bit unconfident about as none of us
had much experience of primary education [Myhill had in fact done some research into grammar in
primary schools], and were looking forward to getting stuck into the real thing: secondary.

Then the DfE pulled the plug by saying: We are not going to do any secondary curriculum. So
what was published [the primary curriculum] was meant to be about building the foundations for
the real thing. But thats all there is.

He is deeply troubled by this. Thats terribly worrying, because it means that all the work children
do in primary is wasted, as they probably wont take it on in secondary. The Department for
Education did publish a secondary English curriculum, but it is much slimmer, and the panel was
not involved.

The emphasis on grammatical terminology has also been criticised by academics as not based on
good research that it helps childrens writing. Asked whether there was any evidence at the time
that a greater emphasis on traditional grammar was developmentally appropriate for children,
Hudson says: No, there was no evidence, and we were guessing. But I think we were right.

Hudson says his main concern is not the tests content, but that the DfE was expecting an increased
emphasis on traditional grammar without seeking to improve teachers own grammatical
understanding, which he says is often substandard. The DfE says training is the responsibility of
the schools. This is really washing their hands of it, saying its not our problem.

Meanwhile, Education Guardian has learned that Myhill wants the Spag tests to be scrapped.

In a submission to the Commons committee published last week, she wrote that the tests should be
discontinued because they serve no valid educational purpose, that the test design was seriously
flawed, and that children are developing grammatical misconceptions caused by an over-
emphasis on naming and identifying [terms] for test purposes.

Myhill has published research that finds grammar teaching can help pupils writing, but only if
taught in a way that links meaningfully to how they write. She fears the tests are pushing children
in the wrong direction. There is no evidence that simply being able to name and identify linguistic
terminology has any effect on your use of language, she says.

Meanwhile, Barton has described the Spag tests as woeful. And Carter, the fourth panel member,
said last year that the tests led to an overemphasis on written grammar in the curriculum.

Dominic Wyse, an expert on literacy from Institute of Education at University College London says:
There is no evidence whatsoever that teaching kids things like subordinate clauses benefits their
writing.

Bas Aarts, another UCL academic grammarian who is consulted on the detail of the Spag tests and
has supported the governments approach, says he is not here to defend the tests.

For me, the important thing is that grammar is on the curriculum. English language is part of
everyones experience, and to know the structure of it is really important. The tests have been by no
means perfect. But you do need to have a test because, as we know, if you do not test something, it
will not be taught.

He also believes that the exercise may be undermined by the lack of government-backed training
for teachers.

Last week, the Conservative-led Commons education select committee added its voice to concerns,
saying that the tests focused too much on technical aspects of writing and too little on creativity,
and calling on ministers to scrap them as statutory assessments.

With reservations about the tests seemingly widespread, is there any prospect that they could
change in the near future? Asked if the DfE had responded to his criticisms last year, Oates says: I
have had a whole series of meetings [with officials] and I am reassured that they have taken the
concerns very seriously, implying perhaps that tweaks to the tests may follow.
A spokesman for the DfE says only: Spelling, punctuation and grammar are the cornerstones of
effective written communication. We want all pupils to gain these skills to a good standard.