The Grammar Test? Too tricky for this Professor

Personally speaking; Deborah Cameron
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This week 14-year-olds in selected schools are taking pilot tests in English grammar, spelling and punctuation. I hope they do better than I did when I recently attempted the sample test produced by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to help schools prepare their pupils.

As a linguist, I'm confident I know a thing or two about grammar; but my performance on this key stage 3 test was frankly undistinguished. One of the questions I fared badly on asks you to pick out three adjectives from the text of a recipe for Whole Oat Slices and then say what they contribute to the meaning and effect.

The first part was straightforward: I gave myself three marks for picking out "easy", "delicious" and "ordinary". The "meaning and effect" part was puzzling, however: what kind of answer was it looking for? When I turned to the marking guidelines at the back, I found this: "One mark for an answer which says that in general adjectives describe nouns." What does that have to do with "meaning and effect"?

The guidelines continue: "Award another mark if the pupil says that adjectives make the recipe more appealing or more specific." This answer is more obviously related to the wording of the question, but doesn't it make a difference which adjectives you chose?

Only one of my own choices, "delicious", satisfies the "more appealing or more specific" criterion (which is not a criterion for identifying adjectives in general). So I lost two marks, essentially for not being able to read the test compiler's mind.

Both while taking the test and when looking at it afterwards, I found great difficulty in understanding what was being tested and why. It's not surprising, if the SCAA's aims are unclear.

The whole question of grammar in the national curriculum has been dogged by controversy; ministers and ideologues have stepped in at regular intervals to tinker with the details, and the result, educationally speaking, is total incoherence.

In theory, grammar is part of the "knowledge about language" element of the English curriculum; it is meant to develop pupils' understanding of how language works. In practice, however, SCAA has come under increasing pressure from the authoritarian "Back to Basics" tendency, which regards grammar more as a remedial exercise for teaching children "proper English".

Some of the sample test items are literally remedial: they ask you to insert punctuation into texts from which it has been removed, or spot and correct errors in spelling and syntax. This is a test of correct usage, not "knowledge about language". No one disputes that the ability to use language well is important (more important, indeed, than grammatical knowledge per se), but there are much better ways to develop and assess it.

Other items do test "knowledge about language", but they conceptualise it in a peculiarly narrow and mechanical way. Assuming you can work out what the question is getting at, all you are asked to do is produce the "right answer" - often a technical term ("adjective") or a definition ("adjectives in general describe nouns").

This is like setting a maths test consisting entirely of questions like "Write down Pythagoras's theorem" and "Define the word `hypotenuse' ". We wouldn't say someone "knew geometry" because they could recite Pythagoras's theorem from memory: we would want them to show they understood it and could apply it to solve problems. "Knowing grammar", similarly, involves more than being able to reproduce a (bad) definition of "adjective".

What I understand as "knowing grammar" is being able to engage in a process of explicit, systematic reflection on what it is that we are doing when we use language. The key questions are not "what" questions but "how" questions.

Instead of just asking children to define an adjective, why not ask them how they know that "delicious" is an adjective? This is a matter, not of what words mean but of their form and where they can go in a sentence. (That's how we can tell that "slithy", in "Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe", is an adjective. We use the form to guess the meaning, not vice versa.)

I am not opposed in principle to the teaching of grammar (if I were, I would be out of a job). But to teach it effectively, you have to understand that it is not about eliminating displaced apostrophes or correcting double negatives. Grammar is about thinking: the skills it develops are reasoning, argument, problem-solving and critical reflection. Reducing grammar to the "three Rs" of Rote memorisation and Regurgitation of Right answers negates any educational value it might possess.

That is exactly what SCAA's tests will do. The tasks require little in the way of thought, and appear to value remembering and labelling above reasoning and arguing (which suggests to me that more thoughtful pupils, those who notice ambiguities and are able to imagine more than one possible "right answer", may well do badly). If that's what SCAA's test designers think grammar should be about, I'm afraid they're a few Whole Oats short of a full slicen

The writer is Professor of English Language at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow