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Teachers mark down grammar questions

English teachers and government advisers are at odds over new sample grammar tests for 14-year-olds to be piloted in schools next term.

Teachers say the sample tests, which have been seen by The Independent, will harm pupils' grasp of grammar and unleash a debate among experts about what constitutes correct grammar.

The controversial tests have been commissioned by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which advises the Government on exams.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, ordered the introduction of new tests earlier this year. She said that she wanted to address the concerns of universities and employers about the state of school leavers' grammar, spelling and punctuation.

English teachers argue that grammar should be taught and assessed through writing rather than through short, timed grammar tests with brief answers. They say samples suggest that the new tests will be even worse than they feared.

Next term, tests in grammar, spelling and punctuation will be piloted in 2 per cent of schools and all schools will be able to volunteer to take them next May. From 1998 they will be compulsory for all 14-year- olds alongside existing national tests in English, maths and science.

The sample test asks pupils to identify spelling rules by giving a plural of words such as cactus. Another of the questions asks the pupils to list the four main verbs in a sentence.

Teachers argue that it is misleading to suggest that there is a spelling pattern which means the plural of words such as cactus is invariably formed by replacing "us" with "i". Even if one would mark cactuses as wrong, they ask, should one say syllabuses or syllabi, focuses or foci?

They also criticize a question which asks candidates to underline four main verbs in the following sentence: "The monument is very special for me because it is where I spent most of my days as a little child playing with my friend and where I used to go with my parents for strolls." This is problematic, they say, because many people would argue that a sentence can have only one main verb.

Gabrielle Cliff Hodges, acting chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "There are differences of opinion about grammar. Is there is a model of grammar on which these tests will be based?"

Teachers needed a much clearer idea, she said, of what was being proposed and of the terminology being used.

Teachers are also concerned that a number of questions give pupils a passage of incorrect English to write correctly. For instance, they are asked to correct passages such as: "They argue that animals what are kept in unnatural conditions are all miserable. They give an example of one of the worser things being tigers trapped in small bare cages with no space to turn round in."

Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "Anyone who has taught English knows that you try to avoid putting three ways of spelling their on the blackboard. If you do, they never sort out the correct one.

"Here you are presenting children with something in print that is wrong but the authority of print makes it seem right."

The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority had no comment to make.