(SPaG) Tests: Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar

Do Teachers Have Enough Support to Deliver Them?

In 2013, the UK government introduced compulsory ‘SPaG’ (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) tests for all state schools in England at the end of Key Stage 2. This was because statistics revealed that children between 7-11 were below their expected level for writing ability.

A further test was also introduced in 2017 for children at the end of Key Stage 1, with the original KS2 test revised according to the National Curriculum. That year, despite arguments against the test, 77% of children reached the expected standard of the SPaG test.

Even so, the KS1 test remains optional and is set to be discontinued in 2020 or soon after. The KS2 still attracts criticism to this day, especially its 50-question paper for grammar and punctuation.

For this reason, the Committee for Linguistics in Education (CLiE), which attempts to build bridges between higher education and schools in the area of language, published a brief position paper about SPaG tests, and whether teachers are sufficiently supported by the Department for Education to deliver them.

Here’s a summary of the supportive comments and suggestions from CLiE.

Supportive comments

  • These tests provide an opportunity for children (and schools) to gain credit for achievements in grammar
  • The questions require children to apply general categories such as ‘noun’ or ‘subject’ to new examples, so they are tests of understanding rather than memory.
  • The questions recognise variation by asking about Standard and non-Standard English and formality, and in general avoid prescriptive assumptions about correctness.
  • In general, the questions follow the National Curriculum closely, so they are a fair test of success by that standard.
  • Since the National Curriculum is informed by research-based grammar, so are the tests.
  • The results for SPaG are slightly better than those for the other SATs.


  • Teachers have received far too little help in preparing for the tests. Any high-stakes assessment creates a great deal of anxiety among teachers but this is especially so in grammar because most teachers have never been taught it. Teachers need high-quality CPD on grammar, whether provided by government or by subject associations.
  • Because grammar is so new to most teachers, some schools may have found it hard to teach grammar in the way recommended by the National Curriculum, and may instead have squeezed all grammar work into Year 6 and tended to ‘teach to the test’.
  • In spite of the appendix on grammar and its glossary, the National Curriculum does not define a curriculum for grammar which might guide teachers in selecting important and productive areas to cover in class; the government should commission such a book to provide a proper intellectual context for these tests.
  • The CLiE would prefer a test format focused on a more realistic text based on a single extended paragraph in which students identify various examples and show their knowledge of grammar in different and creative ways that go beyond the current heavy reliance on labelling instances of categories.
  • The tests reflect certain weaknesses of the National Curriculum, in particular the inclusion of the term subjunctive (which the National Curriculum mentions but which is very hard to apply to English).
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