Testing children and declining English literacy

Batty English examinations – Sunday Times, April 7th  

Expecting ten and eleven year-olds to answer these questions is like expecting a candidate for a driving license to explain the dynamic forces that work on a vehicle in motion. It is worse than “batty”: even were candidates coached sufficiently to provide correct answers to these questions there would be little point in the process. Just as we require people to drive safely and competently, so we need young people to be able to read intelligently and write accurately and effectively.

A better understanding of aspects of English may help to improve performance – I explain the need for clear punctuation by demonstrating that need; strip out punctuation from a passage of writing and then ask pupils to read it aloud. They soon learn. These new, “batty” tests involve cleverness, to impress for its own sake, which ill matches pupils’ real needs. It is one thing to teach grammar, it is another thing to teach about grammar.

The OECD monitors literacy and numeracy standards among young adults in thirty developed countries. Two generations back the UK was top of that table; we are now bottom. Sadly, it would seem that the National Association of Head Teachers will only be calling on the government to make these tests optional when politicians should be told not to interfere so readily in the running of schools. These tests represent a cleverness intended to impress those gullible enough to believe that a government can drive up standards in schools. In November 2017 The Independent reported that the literacy standards of young adults in the UK were bottom of the twenty-three developed nations monitored.

In The Sunday Times article, two well-respected authors, Sir Michael Morpurgo and Anne Fine, acknowledged that they had no idea what a [fronted] adverbial could possibly be. A primary school head warned that children were discouraged by tests of this sort.

Here are the questions, with my commentaries; the answers follow.


1 Underline the [fronted] adverbial in this sentence.

On Wednesday, Felix has a dental appointment.

Two words, a preposition and a noun combine to tell us when Felix has an appointment. Together they function as an adverb and can be described as an adverbial phrase. Adverbs and phrases are tangible; children can learn to point them out and their functions can be demonstrated and explained.

The reference to a single adverbial is misleading when two words are involved and, while [fronted] is a clue to the adverbial’s location in the sentence; the adverbial would still be an adverbial were it located at the end of the sentence.

The question uses adverbial as a noun rather than as an adjective, a confusing neologism for adults, but especially so for children. (In question 6 they are expected to understand the noun “adverb.”)

2 Insert a subordinating conjunction to show that we ate lunch and listened to music at the same time.

We listened to the music _ _ _ we ate our lunch.

Three strokes in the space might suggest that three words are required. Why trouble a child with abstractions such as “subordinating” when all that practical writing skill requires is the choice of a suitable word?

3 Which sentence is the most formal?

1 Watching too much TV should be avoided.
2 You shouldn’t watch too much TV.
3 Watching lots of TV isn’t a good idea.
4 You really should try not to watch loads of telly.

Given the amount of informal writing that children will encounter in magazines and social media, the notion for them of formality has been eroded of late.

The ability of a child to discriminate here would be more appropriately addressed by a question that asked the child which of these sentences is more likely to appear in writing rather than heard in speech. This is something which children can be expected to be aware of.

There are clues that three of these sentences are more likely to be found in speech, clues that a child could pick up: in 2 the personal “you,” in 3 the vagueness of “a good idea” and in 4 the emphatic “really” all suggesting a face to face, spoken encounter.

The child is not required to explain degrees of formality, only to demonstrate awareness of it. Of course the formality of the correct answer would have been made clearer had reference been made to “television” rather than TV. Unfortunately, the abstraction of the word “formal” in the question is both unnecessary and an obstacle put in front of a child; writers are so often and rightly advised to avoid abstractions when concrete terms are available.

4 Rewrite the two sentences below as one sentence using a co-ordinating conjunction.

We have time to play a game. We will have to finish it before dinner.

Would the examiners distinguish between candidates who used “but” or “although” and those who used “and”? Do they simply want to identify candidates who have memorised a list of co-ordinating conjunctions or are they seeking the ability to recognise the way that the second sentence impinges on the first and the need to be more selective in the choice of conjunction?

Again technical terms in the question have to be surmounted by children who could more easily demonstrate an important skill were they simply asked to use a single word that would enable them to join the two sentences.

5 Explain how the modal verb changes the meaning of the second sentence.

1 Yusuf and his sister go swimming with their dad.
2 Yusuf and his sister might go swimming with their dad.

Might the term “auxiliary,” meaning of “help,” be more easily recognised by a ten-year-old than “modal”? The question then could focus more clearly on the candidate’s need to explain how the word “might” introduces the idea of limiting the action, “go swimming,” to a possibility rather than a certainty.

If we are concerned to encourage effective reading and writing, why trouble a child with an explanation. Explaining these matters should be done by the teacher to help the child understand. It should be sufficient to invite the child to show that they appreciate the effect of the auxiliary verb with a question such as, “In which of these two sentences is going swimming only a possibility?”

6 Which word class is the word in bold?

My brother thinks that football is an amazing game.


The writing of eighteen-year-olds for the International Baccalaureate is judged regarding its contents and the accuracy and the effectiveness of the way it is written. With regard to the latter there is a requirement that words are correctly spelt, that punctuation is accurate and that the conventions of grammar are observed. The key thing is the expectation that the writing is clear, comprehensible and appropriate for its purpose. Even at eighteen candidates are expected to demonstrate their appreciation and understanding of good English, and only explain matters when tackling literary analysis.

The traditional lexicon of parts of speech includes adverbs, adjectives and conjunctions. A teacher can point these out to primary age children, along with pronouns, articles, prepositions and interjections. Children can be asked what each of them contributes to a sentence so that they can see grammar at work. An alternative is to remove a words or groups of word from a sentence and then ask what has been lost. Children will then have a basic vocabulary with which to join in the discussion of a piece of writing, a way to encourage them to develop a critical and objective consideration of written material and have regard for a reader’s point of view.

The term “determiner” embraces not only articles, but other words, such as adjectives, which on occasions have a similar function. The concept of a determiner is unnecessarily complex for children and so I remain wary of it in the classroom. Unfortunately, when people outside the classroom devise tests for young people then teachers will feel obliged to drag such terms unwillingly into their teaching. Most children know instinctively whether a teacher appreciates the material that they are presenting and respond accordingly.

7 What is the word class of each word in bold?

Josef has beautiful writing.
Josef writes beautifully.

The word class suggests some sort of classification system that a candidate is expected to know and be able to re-gurgitate. Why not use a familiar word in a familiar setting?

It would better, surely, to ask what kind of words these are

Why not ask candidates to use the term “adjectival phrase” and then ask about a group of words, underlined here, Beautifully written, Josef’s story is a delight for the reader.

Why not ask what the words bring to the sentence rather than classify them like butterflies, chloroformed then pinned lifeless in a collector’s display cabinet. Encourage children to see what they might bring to their own writing, rather than score points in the educational equivalent of a beauty contest.

Are we to see more and more recondite technical terms for children to re-call, parrot-fashion, from some list of important words that they are to learn? How about complement adverbs and modifier adverbs?

8 Insert one hyphen and one comma in the correct places in the sentence below.

My grandmother is a ballroom dancing champion poet and singer.

At last, a question addressing a reasonable skill to be expected of a writer and an opportunity for a candidate to demonstrate it. No need to explain how the words come to be combined, as “foot” and “ball” were linked as “foot-ball” on their way to becoming “football,” or to explain the helpful convention that adjectives in a sequence should be separated by commas.

In case you are wondering, for what they are worth, here are the “answers” to these questions.

1 On Wednesday
2 While, as, when, etc
3 Watching too much television should be avoided
4 We have time to play a game and (or but) we will have to finish it before dinner
5 It indicates uncertainty
6 Determiner
7 Adjective, adverb
8 My grandmother is a ballroom-dancing champion, poet . . .

English can be taught without this nonsense. An introduction to my new English text book where demonstration, explanation and encouragement are the order of the day can be seen at: https://www.peterinson.net/better-english/

After ten years in farming Peter left to train to teach English. As a head teacher he introduced Latin, beekeeping and rugby to his school. He left the maintained sector to teach in an international school in Switzerland. He was commissioned to write an English text book for Heinemann [IGCSE English First Language] which was published in 2011and is still selling. He has been an English examiner for O and A-level, for Common Entrance and for the International Baccalaureate.

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