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.

Trump’s impeachment may hang on a point of grammar

Comey_Screen_Shot_2017_06_08_at_11.05.09_AM.0
James Comey speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee on 8 June 2017

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Donald Trump spoke these words to James Comey, former Director of the FBI, at a private meeting in the Oval Office.  As Alex Ward of vox.com states, these are the most important words of Comey’s testimony today to the House Intelligence Committee.  Comey felt that these were a direction to him by the President of the United States.

Primary school children in England taking the new tests in grammar, punctuation and spelling will have been taught that a command always includes a verb in the imperative mood.  In everyday social life, however, the context of an utterance helps to determine its meaning. Any bedraggled six-year-old knows that a parent or teacher exclaiming “Look at the state of you!” is not merely giving a command.   And yet this exclamation (as it seems to me) is defined as a command in the current tests.

Questioning James Comey today, Senator James Risch sought to deflect Comey’s view that Trump had given him a direction:

Sen. James Risch

He did not direct you to let it go?

James Comey

Not in his words, no.

Sen. James Risch

He did not order you to let it go?

James Comey

Again, those words are not an order.

From a limited view of language separate from context, Trump’s words do not include an imperative and are not an order.  However, Comey felt that they had an imperative meaning if not an imperative form.  Pressed by Risch as to whether, as the former director of the FBI, he knew of any case where a person had been charged with a criminal offence for hoping for an outcome, Comey replied:

This is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.

Comey is drawing attention to the context of Trump’s words, and in particular to the power relationship between himself and his interlocutor.  He is implicitly making a grammatical analysis of language as a social semiotic – as deriving much of its meaning from the context of use.

It remains to be seen whether the Senate Intelligence Committee will accept this more adequate socio-linguistic analysis of the President’s words.

 

Storytelling in primary and secondary classrooms

Storyteller1

Gary Snapper writes:

If we want to improve our students’ literacy, we should not narrow their curriculum by providing ever more test-oriented literacy lessons. We can instead enrich their curriculum with more creative and physical activity, raising motivation and energy levels, and providing the stimulus for more effective learning. In English, in particular, effective understanding and effective writing can flow from the stimulus of discussion, drama, and performance, as from the traditional routines of grammar, comprehension and essay writing.

With this in mind, and in the light of the decreased emphasis on speaking and listening in the current curriculum, the central theme of the summer edition of Teaching English will be Storytelling in primary and secondary English. An idea that recurs throughout the magazine is the power of storytelling to motivate students (and teachers), its potential in stimulating and activating students’ (and teachers’) creativity, and its consequent potential to improve students’ literacy.

We look at storytelling from a range of perspectives. Tony Wilson suggests ways of teaching oral storytelling to children. Georghia Ellinas explores storytelling in the context of Shakespeare’s stories at the Globe. Carolyn Drever recounts what happens when storytelling and outdoor education come together. Debbie Chalmers and Mick Connell focus on the range of creative work that can emerge when the teacher becomes storyteller. In a similar vein, Chris Parton and Joan Foley report on teacher-as-storyteller in the ‘Classic Tales in English’ project. Meanwhile, Pete Bearder discusses the power of oral performance in his account of his work as a Spoken Word Educator in London.

Also in this edition

We feature two articles by James Durran intended to help English departments think through some fundamental issues to do with assessment and learning objectives. Peter Thomas’s detailed exploration of how to improve students’ writing – by focusing on sentence structure and sequence – is essential reading, and its concerns are echoed by Harry Ritchie’s call for a move away from traditionalist notions of grammar and towards grammar-in-use. Andrew McCallum, meanwhile, suggests strategies for dealing with unseens at GCSE, whilst Amy Forrester urges NATE members to consider organising English ‘teachmeets’ to share good practice.

Columns and Reviews

As usual, our news and review pages feature a survey of recent curriculum news and reviews of recent publications, whilst regular columns by Tom Rank and Keith Davidson explore topical issues in English. We also remember the life of Peter Medway, who died this year – a longstanding friend of NATE and a key figure in the history of modern English teaching.

If you are a member of NATE, you’ll receive Teaching English in the mail at the beginning of June. To join, click on the main website (link on right) or click here.