Assessing Primary Literacy


There has been much concern about the new grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) tests for primary school pupils. Parents, teachers, academics and other commentators claim that the tests are inappropriate for primary pupils and that these high stakes assessments have a deleterious effect on teaching and learning.

Part of the problem lies in terminology. Children have to spot examples of grammatical constructions such as “fronted adverbials”. This term has become notorious as it has not previously been used in grammatical descriptions and seems sometimes to apply to phrases that are essentially “adjectival”. The deeper problem is that the label becomes more important than the underlying reality. It is obviously good to teach children the structures of language, particularly if such knowledge helps to express themselves more accurately. But testing a knowledge of labels is very different from testing an understanding of language structures.

Such understanding requires a connection between children’s everyday understanding of language and the grammar they have to grasp. Linguists such as Halliday have developed a functional approach to language that gives meaning to everyday interactions. However, GPS relies on ‘ideal’ forms of language that contradict everyday experience. The Oxford or ‘serial’ comma is outlawed when it is in fact common and correct usage. GPS requires that ‘exclamations’ must begin with ‘How’ or ‘What’ and include a finite verb – which is not the case in real language use. Terms like ‘command’ or ‘exclamation’, which have a social function, refer in GPS only to specific grammatical structures.

This context-free view of grammar implies that children’s language is either right or wrong. Lord Bew’s review (2011) of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability seized (p.60) upon “spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary” as elements of writing “where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing”. GPS performance thus becomes a key indicator of a school’s success or failure – even though the view inscribed in the tests is so limited.


English in Education, Spring 2017: Assessment and Learning

Are all thy conquests, glories, spoils, Shrunk to this little measure?

Julius Caesar, Act III, scene I

Annie Harris, Guest Editor

Associate Dean, School of Education & Professional Development, University of Huddersfield

What is assessment andAnnie_Huddersfield_1 how can we, as educators, ensure assessment of learning, and perhaps more particularly assessment for learning?   During the last thirty years, in many English-speaking countries, change has been endemic in the teaching and assessment of English. Some developments have been based on research related to key issues such as linguistic deprivation (Bernstein 1971), teaching language (Kingman 1988) or early reading (Rose 2006). Others, such as the recent curtailment (in the UK and elsewhere) of coursework, seem motivated more by political partisanship. The effects of such changes in assessment and public examining practice are documented in several papers in this issue, most explicitly in Bethan Marshall’s The Politics of Testing.

Debates around assessment in English have included the nature of assessment and what it measures, as well as debates around validity and reliability, ‘subjective’ or impression marking, and notions of a more ‘objective’ professional judgment. Accountability has also been prominent, especially for stakeholders, since public examining, particularly in the later stages of schooling, represents ‘high stakes’ assessment. Yet where does that leave learning? How can we best judge whether learning has taken place and if credit is due? Do we need base-line assessment to determine whether learning has occurred or value has been added? How is familiarity with testing regimes likely to affect the way in which we teach and what learners learn? This special edition takes on some of these debates and examines them in a contemporary context.

The distinction between assessment of learning (summative) and assessment for learning (formative) has been well rehearsed, but the more recent assessment as learning focuses where we might locate more recent, 21st century development.   This implies the need for pupils to be active in both learning and assessment. Some of these ideas will not be new to English teachers, for whom the pragmatics of a creative and critical classroom have often demanded the involvement of the student in the process of pedagogy. Each of the articles in this special edition challenges ideas of assessment and learning, presenting alternative perspectives on how one might accommodate both,  from primary schooling through to post-sixteen senior secondary studies.

Nerida Spina’s article, Governing by numbers, offers a detailed analysis of the impact of the Australian national testing programme, NAPLAN, undertaken at grades 3, 5, 7 and 9, which assesses literacy in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation, reading and writing. Spina’s institutional ethnographic study indicates how this emphasis on examining with its concomitant pressure on schools has undermined both the curriculum and opportunities for classroom creativity.

Bethan Marshall’s account of The Politics of Testing picks up this argument, initially by looking back fondly to a time in the UK when teachers and educators could comment on the examining system ‘and the exam boards listened’. Her article then goes on to address in turn the phonics screening test, key stage 2 literacy and GCSE English, and the effect of ‘politics, even party politics’ on assessment processes.

Tony Hall and Eilis Flanagan’s article on Digital Ensemble presents an innovative approach to English assessment through the integration of drama pedagogy and mobile computing with senior students. Those of us outside the Republic of Ireland are left to speculate, given its value and significance, what scope, if any, there might be for us to do something equally creative in assessment and learning.

Jonathan Glazzard gives us an account of synthetic phonics and the impact of the phonics screening test in relation to models and theories of reading development in UK primary schools. Glazzard’s account questions the compartmentalisation of reading skills, and he argues for a developmental framework which recognises the phases and stages in sequential reading skills development.

Victoria Elliott’s paper What does a good one look like? takes us behind closed doors to observe two examiner training meetings. The training deemed to take place through these meetings is evaluated through the interaction and notions of compliance with the mark scheme, standardisation, representativeness, and cognition. Examining, the article reveals, is a process fraught with challenges and contradictions as well as with significance.

John Hodgson’s article with Bill Greenwell, The work of the course: validity and reliability in assessing English Literature, describes an ‘alternative’ UK English literature syllabus from the 20th century where informed response to literature was encouraged. Students genuinely did their coursework throughout the course, and teachers, who were familiar with their students’ work, were cradled within the developmental context of a consensual and supportive moderation process.

The book reviews in this special edition focus not so much on assessment as on learning, yet in doing so they offer thoughtful comments on where we place value and significance. Marcello Giovanelli discusses The Discourse of Reading Groups: Integrating Cognitive and Sociocultural Perspectives (2016) by David Peplow, Joan Swann, Paola Trimarco and Sara Whiteley.   Andrew Burn looks at James Gee’s Literacy and Education (2015), a book by an author familiar with the field and one which provides lively examples as well as revisiting his ‘Big D’ notion of discourses. .

Jo Carrington’s poem Remember me reminds us of the implications of and the responsibility that comes with teaching and learning within a curriculum that at times might appear neither to permit flexibility in its assessment nor fully to acknowledge individual needs. Hopefully, the articles in this special edition will remind us that knowledge and understanding of process and of practice as well as creativity and professionalism are fundamental to ensuring that our pupils and students, whoever they are, are given a fair chance to succeed through the learning and assessment they experience.

This special issue is now available online and print subscribers will receive their copy shortly.   If you are a NATE member and cannot access the online publication, please email with your name and membership number to receive a unique code.

A professional consensus against governmentality


In his latest monthly commentary (May 2016), Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, states: “We need to put as sharp a focus on the other subjects (of the primary curriculum) as we do on English and mathematics.” Wilshaw goes on to remind inspectors to look closely at “the wider primary curriculum, including science and modern languages, as set out in the inspection handbook.”

Yet, as former HMI Prof Colin Richards points out, no subjects other than mathematics and English are specifically mentioned in the inspection handbook. Instead, there is a vaguely expressed requirement that, when evaluating the design and implementation of the curriculum, inspectors should ensure that this contains “breadth and balance”. As Richards argues, this requirement becomes meaningful only if there is political and professional consensus over the criteria by which the breadth or otherwise of schools’ curricula can be judged.

Recently, I was having dinner with some friends who included two recently retired primary head teachers. One of these mentioned that, in his experience, the support of a professional consensus is very important when deciding the teaching policies of a school. One might disagree with aspects of this consensus, he said, but it was important that it should be in place, to provide an agreed framework for professional effort.

It struck me that it is the absence of such a consensus that is at the root of the present crisis in education in England. As Estelle Morris writes in yesterday’s Guardian: “Teachers are working with a curriculum, assessment and pedagogy that are increasingly directed by ministers’ own priorities and prejudices”.

Thirty years ago, as Colin Richards reminds us, HMI forged a consensus around “breadth and balance” by arguing that primary and secondary schools should involve all children in nine areas of experience and learning throughout the age-range 5 to 16.  Within this consensus, schools and teachers were free to interpret the ways in which these areas of experience and learning might be implemented in particular classrooms.

How different the situation is today. We no longer have the structures to achieve professional and political consensus. The consultative bodies within which teachers, inspectors and politicians discussed the curriculum – the Schools Council, Secondary Education and Assessment Committee, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – have all been abolished. In their place we have the Department for Education, which effectively implements the diktats of the Secretary of State for Education.

In these circumstances, “breadth and balance” is little more than dimly remembered mantra from a former age. Within the new order, what matters is not experience and learning but “skills”. The primary skills are literacy and numeracy: the former subjects of English and mathematics, but with ministerially prescribed content. Within the new curriculum hierarchy, creativity is confined to the so-called creative subjects (art, music, drama but not English) that stand outside the “core academic subjects” that comprise the EBacc. Assessment by periodic national testing (the SATs) and GCSE (age 16) and A level (age 18) examinations emphasises memorisation and learning for the test. Private providers of instructional and testing materials and procedures, such as Pearson, are heavily involved in the delivery and assessment of this curriculum.

In the UK, teachers of English are increasingly preoccupied by the need to prepare students for the new tests in language and grammar “skills” which now have to be taken periodically from the early years (age 5) through to GCSE (age 16). There is a particular symbolic significance in these tests. For 50 years, the consensus among English teachers has been that the teaching of formal English grammar as a discrete aspect of English has little or no positive effect on students’ ability to write fluently, coherently and effectively. Grammar, or knowledge about language, did not disappear from the classroom: it has always been part of the national curriculum, and A-level English language, introduced in 1985, is still a growth subject. Formerly, however, English teachers had discretion, supported by a professional consensus, in the extent to which they incorporated explicit grammatical instruction within their teaching. Work by the Grammar for Writing team at Exeter University, which demonstrated ways in which applying grammatical knowledge within the drafting process can help children improve their writing, has recently become part of this consensus. Today, however, teachers and students face a quasi-theological grammatical apparatus that has to be memorised in order to answer test questions.

These curriculum and assessment changes derive not from the education profession but from what Jory Brass (following Foucault) calls “governmentality”. This word combines notions of “government” and “mentality” into a single term to identify political strategies to direct the conduct of the governed towards particular ends. Michael Rosen believes that the obscurity of the spelling, punctuation and grammar tests will result in more schools’ appearing to fail and thus requiring to be transformed into academies, thus supporting the government’s intention to privatise the forms and structures of education as far as is possible. It also seems to me that a more immediate result of these tests – which introduce a further element in the assessment of English beyond the traditional domains of speaking and listening, reading and writing – will be to withdraw cultural capital from numbers of young people who formerly achieved satisfactory results in English. This will be justified in the name of “standards”. It is worth remembering that, in 2012, the Office of Qualifications (Ofqual) put pressure on the assessment authorities (examination boards) to raise the threshold for grade C (the “passing” grade) in GCSE English. Despite an enormous protest, including legal action, by parents, local authorities and subject associations, this move was accepted as a legitimate attempt to “raise standards”.

These are not the “standards” that would be supported by a professional consensus that genuinely sought a broad and balanced education for our young people. Government requires the acquiescence of the governed. To resist these developments, we need a professional consensus against governmentality.

Assessment and Learning – Call for Papers



2017 Special Issue on Assessment and Learning

Edited by Ann Harris

Deadline for Submissions: 2 May 2016

Despite the prevailing rhetoric around learning, assessment remains a crucial measure of success in schools and colleges. Students are judged, qualify and progress on the basis of assessment. Institutions and their teachers are commended or condemned on the grounds of results. Thus, while we might like to think education is about personal growth and the fulfilment of potential, all too often it is about a mark on a page or the copy of a transcript. These issues are not just national but international, especially in an increasingly globalised and competitive economy where the transferability and currency of qualifications is of vital importance to stakeholders. So, is assessment about certification and selection; or is it about meritocracy and social justice? How can we find our way through the uncertain and conflicting notions of the social function of educational assessment? Debates have raged about assessment for decades: whether standards are rising or being dumbed down; whether norm or criterion referencing is preferable (and whether the latter is even feasible); whether knowledge or understanding is being assessed; whether memory or competence is being tested.

In English and related arts subjects, the debate has been particularly keen both about the mode of assessment and the matter of judgement. In the UK, English was the first of the “traditional” subjects to introduce significant assessment by coursework and to celebrate the notion that the learning and teaching of language and literature gained from this. In the 1970s and 1980s, “experimental” courses in literature and language demonstrated the creativity and criticality of which secondary school students were capable if they had the opportunity to research, draft and develop a response. Academic judgement was required, however, to grade the work and to establish the validity and reliability of the assessment, and, as a result, standardisation and moderation needed to be meticulously conducted to ensure credibility and an appropriate professional discourse around assessment and grading.

Such courses were introduced in different times: before the World Wide Web and before league tables; and such initiatives have retreated in face of the increasing politicisation of learning and assessment. Yet, whether it involves evaluating coursework or marking an examination, assessment is always a socially constructed activity involving cognitive processes, social judgement and cultural quantification when applying standards, determining levels and deciding whether specific assessment objectives have been met. In England and Wales, what are the professional and social implications around assessment in English now it is moving back primarily to summative examinations? Nationally and internationally, how do we define success and failure, given the global influence of PISA? Is there still a concept of fitness for purpose and of authentic, fair and just assessment?

In this special edition, we welcome papers from the UK and internationally around all aspects of learning and assessment, whether from the perspective of researchers or of students, teachers or examiners; and from whatever sector – primary, secondary, post compulsory or higher education. We are keen to debate theoretical or practice based approaches to the challenges of relating assessment to learning within different contexts. Contributions which seek to interrogate prevailing dogma, introduce comparative or international dimensions or discuss alternative approaches to learning and assessment are also welcome.

Please prepare your submission in line with the guidance in the English in Education section of the NATE website.  Submissions should be made via our ScholarOne site.  Please select the correct ‘Special Issue’ as the Manuscript Type. Deadline for submissions is 2 May 2016.

How was it for you?


Human beings are given to looking back at supposedly better times than the present. In The City and the Country, Raymond Williams examines nostalgic discourses about social change and suggests that that memories of better days usually refer to a period thirty or more years in the past. But I’ve never felt this way about education. The schools and colleges where I’ve taught during the last thirty years offered a better experience to both students and teachers than the institutions of the 1960s and early 70s, where corporal punishment was a normal feature of everyday life and most students left at 15 or 16 with no qualifications.

And yet – thirty years ago, the political-educational culture was very different to what obtains today. Teachers educated in recent years must find it hard to imagine a time when schooling and assessment were not subject to endless political influence and change. When NATE started in 1963, the consensus about educational reform was such that the Minister for Education wrote an article in one of the first issues of English in Education. Responding to the Black Papers on Education of the early seventies, the Bullock Report of 1975, A Language for Life, stated that there was little substance in the view that “large numbers of schools are promoting creativity at the expense of basic skills”. And yet the Report’s acceptance of a binary opposition between “skills” and “creativity”, a conceptual dichotomy still routinely deployed, arguably set the scene for the landscape of today, where SPAG assessment is seen as a fundamental marker of competence in English and creative writing at A level is under threat.

Over more than fifty years, English in Education has offered critical research and opinion on the “basics” of English in Scotland_Road_playschools – the teaching of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Reading through the collected volumes to prepare our reflective paper on the first fifty years of the journal (published in the September 2014 issue, 48:3) Sarah Wilkin and I became aware of what Margaret McCullagh, an MA student at King’s College, London, calls the “turbulent and challenging” history of English teaching over those years. Perhaps the English in Education archive can mobilise our collective memory at a crucial time in English education.

If you are one of those teachers whose experience, like mine, approaches the number of years that NATE and its journal have flourished, we’d like to hear from you.  Margaret McCullagh ( is writing a dissertation on older English teachers’ perceptions of their work.  She wants to interview a number of English teachers aged 55 and over who have spent most of their working lives in the UK educational system.  Those who have retired within the last five years are equally welcome to participate.  She hopes to elicit a picture of what these teachers believe promotes self-efficacy in English teaching – and what hinders it. If you fit this profile, and can help by participating in an audio-taped interview of up to an hour, at a time and place convenient to you, with any travel expenses paid, please get in touch with Margaret at


The threat to A Level Creative Writing

Welcome to NATE’s new blog, which will offer informed comment on issues of concern to teachers of English and related subjects, with links to research.   For more information about NATE, please see our ‘About’ page and our main website link.

The future of A level Creative Writing is under review.  The following is the NATE Post-16 & HE Committee’s letter to Ofqual, the examinations and assessment regulator.


We are extremely concerned to discover that A Level Creative Writing has been placed on a list of endangered A Level courses. The subject fully satisfies all five of Ofqual’s principles for the reform of an A Level subject, and it is crucial in continuing to develop national understanding of and practice in the relationship between literature, English and the arts.

With reference to the Ofqual principles, A Level Creative Writing is making a significant contribution to both English studies and creative writing as disciplines in the UK.  The course defines clearly and precisely the knowledge, skills and understanding required by students of creative writing in higher education; indeed, it is more rigorously designed in terms of content and outcomes than many comparable courses at HE. The clarity and specificity of the course allows universities, schools and employers to understand the level of attainment achieved by students. The course is at least as demanding as other A level English qualifications in the theoretical, literary and cultural understanding required and in the quality of expression and content required of students. Validity in creative writing, as in other arts subjects such as art and music, can be assured by a judicious combination of examination and coursework assessment. Using these methods, student achievement can be readily differentiated. Finally, the course offers a distinct but complementary addition to the current suite of English subjects.

We elaborate these claims in what follows. Most importantly, the course has cultural and educational value that cannot be summarised only in terms of continuity to higher education. It is also making an important contribution to the development of English as a school and university subject. It recognises that, like art and music, literature can be as much an arts subject as a language or humanities subject. In art and music, knowledge and achievement in the discipline are judged as much by the creative practice of the art as by the ability to write critically about it. The same is true for literature. Creative Writing A Level can and should be seen as the creative practice of literature, and thus as a rigorous study of literature just as Art and Music A Level are rigorous studies of art and music.

This is not a minor point. There is a great deal of evidence over many decades that the study of reading and the practice of writing are strongly interconnected, and many teachers and academics believe that literature courses should include more creative writing as this is a route to greater literary understanding for students and teachers (just as creative practice in art and music is universally recognised as a crucial part of the disciplines of art and music.) Creative writing is routinely used as a means of teaching literature as part of primary and secondary English, and is increasingly being used in university English Studies as well as in discrete creative writing courses.

It is also vital to recognise that A Level Creative Writing does not consist only of the practice of creative writing, but crucially and fundamentally requires wide reading and study in a range of literary texts. There is much evidence emerging from A Level Creative Writing classes to show that it produces a rich engagement with literature, as rich as or even richer than that which emerges from A Level English Literature courses. Where creative writing units have featured in A level English courses, they have also been very successful.

A Level Creative Writing is entirely consistent with the primary purpose of A Level both as the rigorous creative and critical practice of an art form (literature) directly analogous with art and music, and as an alternative and equally rigorous approach to the study of English language and literature. A Level Creative Writing is also an entirely distinct subject from all other A Level courses, adopting an arts-based approach to literature rather than a languages- or humanities- based approach.

Valid and differentiated assessment has been shown to be entirely achievable in creative writing both in HE Creative Writing courses and in elements of pre-16 and post-16 English. Again it is crucial to recognise that assessment in A Level Creative Writing is as much based on students’ critical reflection on their writing – the practice of literary criticism – as on their own creative writing and is thus directly analogous with critical practice in both arts subjects and in English.