Department for Education
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New grammar, punctuation and spelling test will raise children’s literacy standards

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss said the rigorous new spelling, grammar and punctuation test would raise standards for all children.

The new test – made up of a 45-minute grammar test and a separate 15-minute spelling test of 20 words – will be taken for the first time this week, by around 600,000 11-year-olds.

An evaluation by the Standards and Testing Agency in March found that the tests “are rigorous, are in line with international best practice, and ask pupils the appropriate questions needed to assess their grammar, punctuation and spelling”.

Children will be tested on whether they can:

  • spell some of the most commonly misspelt words – including separate, preferred and necessary
  • punctuate sentences properly – including the use of colons, ellipses and apostrophes
  • use grammar correctly – including the use of subordinate clauses and a range of connectives

It will mean that primary schools will once again place a strong focus on the teaching of key writing techniques and ensure that children leave primary school confident in these skills.

Statistics for writing in 2012 showed that:

  • almost 100,000 7-year-olds were below the expected level (17%)
  • about 125,000 11-year-olds were below the expected level (23%)

In the CBI’s 2011 skills survey, more than 40% of employers said they were not satisfied with the basic literacy of school and college leavers.

Grammar, punctuation and spelling are also prioritised in the draft primary school English curriculum that will be introduced from September 2014, putting it in line with the level of demand of the curricula in some of the world’s leading education jurisdictions:

  • the Massachusetts curriculum sets out the expectations of grammatical and spelling knowledge in detail, and is more challenging than the existing national curriculum for England
  • Alberta’s curriculum also has a separate section on grammar and spelling
  • the Singapore curriculum has a very detailed grammar and spelling strand which has a greater level of specificity and challenge than other curricula analysed

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss said:

Many children struggle with the basics of the English language at primary school, then don’t catch up at secondary school.

That is why employers bemoan the poor literacy of so many school and college leavers.

This new test will mean that children are again taught the skills they need to understand our language, and to use it properly, creatively and effectively.

The Department for Education has already made changes so that from this summer there will be marks awarded for spelling, punctuation and grammar in key subjects at GCSE.

The Bew Review

In 2011 Lord Bew reviewed the testing and assessment system for 11-year-olds. The government agreed with the recommendation of the independent Bew Review panel – made up of headteachers, teachers and assessment experts – to develop a test for spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary.

Lord Bew’s review highlighted significant issues with the existing writing national curriculum test. These issues were most apparent in writing composition, where marking can be affected by a professional’s judgement of a piece of written work, rather than there being a clear “right” or “wrong” answer.

In 2011 primary schools asked for 29,926 writing tests to be reviewed, compared to just 7,176 reading test papers sent for review. In recognition of this issue, the government accepted Lord Bew’s recommendation that writing composition should be subject to teacher assessment only. This allows pupils’ writing to be assessed by their teachers in a broad range of genres during year 6. However, the more technical aspects of English – such as spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary – were viewed differently in that they can be assessed effectively via an externally marked test.

Further information on the Bew Review can be found on the department’s website.

The proposed primary school curriculum for English

It includes:

  • a particular focus on spelling. For instance, there will be a list of words that all children should be able to spell by the end of primary school. There is currently no such list in the national curriculum
  • a focus on grammar and punctuation. Children will be expected to understand how to use the subjunctive, and how to use the apostrophe correctly – for example, not using an apostrophe to indicate plurals such as “I went to buy some apple’s” nor using “it’s” as a possessive

Sample questions for the test

The sample tests are available on the department’s website.


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