Grammar, which knows how to control even kings

It is so hard to have examples of a new test but  no mark scheme or even any idea of the weighting of the paper.  Our work with the new grammar test meant that we needed to examine it in a little more detail, and taking as read that we would rather not test grammar in this way, we do have some points that we would like to make.  Sandra has written to Mr Gove with her thoughts.  Below is a copy of her letter.  We haven’t had a response yet but I am sure we will before the 10 days response time are up.

Dear Sir,

I understand that further information about the English grammar, punctuation and spelling test will not be released until December 2012 and that further sample questions will be available at that time.  Before these are released, I would like to draw your attention to some areas of concern in the illustrative examples published in June 2012. 

From the FAQs on the Department for Education’s website I notice that the ‘STA is carrying out a range of activities to ensure that the test is fair for all children’ as part of its duty in meeting the regulatory criteria of minimising bias.  I feel strongly that the test should be fair and enable children to demonstrate what they know; it should not cause doubt and confusion.  However, I believe there is some doubt over the fairness of the following sample questions.

Sample question 8

Underline the subordinate clause in each sentence below.

I have no concern about the example given, or the first or third questions, but the second question is of concern.  We teach children about subordinate clauses in many different ways: adding further information, noting the conjunction used to add information, noticing that each clause has a verb or verb phrase, considering how the clauses can be manipulated for effect. 


In this example, there are three clauses, two of which are subordinate structures.


The twins asked Dad to turn up the heating as it was cold.

nominal clause, filling the direct object slot in the sentence, containing an adverbial clause: as it was cold

While many children will find the conjunction ‘as’ and use this to identify the adverbial clause, others may look for verbs to help them identify the clauses.  I cannot speak for other areas, but in Devon many teachers are using the non-finite forms (infinitive, present and past participles) to help children vary sentence construction – even if the term ‘non-finite’ is not used with pupils.  Therefore, children will have learnt that the infinitive can introduce a subordinate clause in a complex sentence.  Using an example with three clauses will put doubt in their minds about which clause they should underline and may cause anxiety.  I am sure that nobody wants that to happen.

Sample question 14

Add a suffix to this word to make an adjective.


There are many suffixes which can be added to words to make adjectives and our language is richer for this ability to transform words from one word class to another.  Many children will know that they can change a noun to an adjective through adding, for example, -al, -ish, -ful, but they will also have been taught that they can add –ed and –ing, which, although often used in verbs, can be used in the adjective position to premodify a noun (the frightened child, the giggling toddler).  The decision in this question seems to rely on the child not only knowing which suffixes can be used with ‘dread’ to make a real word, but also understanding the word class use and being able to imagine the word in a sentence, in an adjective position, to test it out. 

As forms of the word ‘dread’ can be used as a noun (dread), verb (dread, dreads, dreaded, dreading)  or adjective (dreadful, dreaded), or indeed adverb (dreadfully), without a context a child may feel that they could add any adjective suffix if it made a real word, e.g. –ing since the word dreading’ would sound right to them.  I think it would be fairer for an eleven year old to have some sort of context to support them in their decision and would suggest ‘a dread_____ monster’.  This may help them test out that ‘dreadful’ and ‘dreaded’ would make sense, but ‘dreading’ would not.

I am genuinely concerned that children experience as little confusion as possible in this test and hope my comments will be useful for those compiling further sample and actual test questions.

Yours faithfully

Sandra Murchison

Primary Literacy Adviser

I intend to ask these questions in the next few staff meetings that I am running in schools just to see how adults will answer them.  How did you fair with the grammar test?

Title based on a quote from Moliere