Grammatical Problems

As was inevitable, exam term at Cambridge has meant that I haven’t been able to put my metaphorical pen to this metaphorical and futuristic paper for some time. As I did in the wake of my A-Level exams last year, I want to talk about education. But not about Cambridge education. Though I have become mildly well-known for complaining about the part of the UK’s education system through which I’m wading at the time, there’s nothing to genuinely grumble about in relation to one of the UK’s best universities. Instead, I want to turn back the clock to primary school days, and the dreaded SATs.

SATs are the first ‘actual’ exams that children sit in the UK, at the end of their final year of primary school. As part of the government’s drive to improve the standards of education in the UK, most examinations have been made more difficult. This is reflected in the reforms made to GCSE and A-Level exams in recent years. SATs were not spared this treatment. In my very rare breaks from my degree, I’ve perused the news and found significant disquiet about the new English exams for 11-year olds; the new grammar test in particular has been notably impugned. I’m simultaneously quite glad and rather puzzled about the reforms, for reasons which I shall go on to explain.

Irrespective of the criticism in the media, I’m quite glad that greater emphasis is being put on learning grammar at a young age. Along with rhetoric (as discussed here), good grammar is a dying art. Not only does good grammar have the instrumental value of making an argumentative piece seem more convincing, but I also like to think it has intrinsic value of its own. Learning rigorous grammatical rules such as where to place prepositions, when to use ‘who’ and ‘whom’ and ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ helps to develop disciplined thought and attention to detail. For someone who was taught very little formal English grammar at school and learnt most of what I know through proof-reading and editing, a change in focus is welcome.

The mechanism for change, however, seems rather flawed. From what I have gleaned from the news and a sample paper, there is far too much of an emphasis on learning grammatical terminology. Question 15 on the government’s sample paper deals with modal verbs. Until Google came to my assistance, I had no idea what a modal verb was (one that denotes likelihood, ability, permission or obligation). Knowing that verbs like ‘should’ or ‘could’ fall under this designation unfortunately does nothing in itself to help children write good English. The key is knowing how and where to use these verbs. If the latter and not the former is good enough for a law student at Cambridge, feeding terminology to primary school students seems superfluous. The same might be said of Question 40, which deals with coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. I have never before encountered these terms, but I have no problems in knowing when to use different conjunctions. These are but two examples: other questions on the paper deal with the past progressive and present perfect tenses. The central problem is therefore that the new SATs grammar test does not appear to be testing children’s grammar per se; rather, it appears to be testing their knowledge of grammatical terminology. This is likely to result (and probably has resulted) in greater focus on learning terminology in English grammar lessons and homework than actually learning how to use the rules. If the problem which the government is trying to address is the current standards of written English, this is not an effective measure for solving it.

This excessive focus on terminology is not only misguided, but contributes to the paper being very difficult for children of that age. Question 6 asks for a sentence to be completed in ‘Standard English’; this only begs the question of whether a ‘Non-Standard English’ exists, and if so, how it differs. Exam questions for 11-year olds shouldn’t really lead to more questions. My use of a hyphen in the previous sentence brings me onto my next example: Question 36. After almost twenty years, it hasn’t yet become clear to me where a hyphen is to be used when stating someone’s age in writing. Neither journalistic nor academic writing adopt a consistent rule, which makes either of the first two possible answers to the question acceptable. The application of pedantry to this question in fact makes any of the four answers acceptable, in the absence of further information about the expected composition of ‘Class 2’, although this is more a gripe about the way in which the question is written than about its effectiveness in testing grammar. Elsewhere in the paper, relative and subordinate clauses appear. Though these terms are not entirely unhelpful, personal experience leads me to question whether they should be appearing at so early a stage. I didn’t come across relative clauses until studying Latin in Year 8, and the general term subordinate clauses until at least a year later in the same subject. Regular use of them didn’t kick in until A-Level Latin and Classical Greek.

Then there’s Question 41, on what is possibly my favourite piece of English grammar: the subjunctive. The inappropriate difficulty of this question at this age could perhaps be illustrated by opening the question up to all citizens in the UK; I highly doubt many would get it right, and it is something that even Cambridge students struggle to consistently enforce. Question 42 is equally puzzling: I have never seen what I would call the definite article (‘the’) and indefinite article (‘a’ or ‘an’) referred to as ‘determiners’. As highlighted above, the need to know the word ‘determiners’ is virtually non-existent. The focus of this questions is undoubtedly to ensure that children know the correct use of each article; a far more effective measure would be to ask children to highlight erroneous uses of each.

In fact, this is an approach that really ought to be extended to the whole paper. To improve standards of written English, it is key that children know how and where to use different grammatical constructions. Learning the names of these different constructions is helpful in isolating their operation, but under the new system, it seems to have become the main course rather than the side dish it ought to be. Those questions which currently require knowledge of complex grammatical terminology should be replaced with ones which question whether the correct word or construction has been used in a sentence. This appears eminently feasible; the government need not turn the SATs grammar paper into an exercise in proof-reading in order to do this. The base has been set for a very important area of English education, but the disquiet in recent weeks must prompt a change in strategy.



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