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SPAG Test - Linguistic Linguine

Gareth is a Secondary Teacher from Australia who is working in West London Primary schools through Protocol Education. In his latest blog, Gareth explores the SPAG Test in Year 6, as well as providing us with some revision material.


Last academic year the British government incorporated a Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation test in SATS testing for Year 6s across the country. As with all great bureaucratic British innovations an acronym has been coined and the test is known around the traps as the SPAG test – a grammatical bolognaise if you will; an alphabet soup of examination; a linguistic linguine.

The test has received a mixed reception; perhaps mainly for the mysticism surrounding grammar and the English language in general. For years parents and teachers have bandied around thoughts such as “The English language is the hardest to learn,” or “Just ‘sound’ the word out,” or “Read it back to yourself and see if it sounds right”. While these attitudes are somewhat useful if a child is brought up in a well-spoken grammatically correct environment, they are of no use when the choice turn of phrase is “You ‘right bruv” or saying “Should of” instead of “Should have”.

Where should the emphasis be?

In my opinion, the emphasis on teaching language should be to focus on phonics for spelling; and sentence structure for grammar and punctuation. There also needs to be a whole school approach to teaching concepts of the SPAG test across all grades, if schools are going to get successful results. From Reception to Year 6, these concepts should be taught – not only in the final nine months leading towards SATS doomsday.

A for...

Although it would be ambitious to expect all children (or for that matter all adults) to memorise each different combination of letters that make phonetic sounds, it is important that students understand there are more than just the basic sets of sounds you get from singing the Alphabet song with Elmo. The letter ‘a’ for example makes a very different sound in the word ‘apple’ to the word ‘ache’ to the word ‘heart’. If there is awareness that there may be many sounds a letter can make, students will be more inclined to try various pronunciations of a word before giving up.

Phonics screening

There is also the problem of the phonics screening check given to Year 1 and 2 students in the UK. It allows teaching staff to ignore what is a fundamental part of reading, speaking and writing, beyond the initial years of learning. Instead of just screening at this age, there should be further study of phonics throughout a student’s school life. There are so many secondary students that still can’t spell.

Once students understand how to spell a word, they should then be taught what different types of words exist; i.e. nouns, verbs, adjectives etc.
When they know the main types of words they should start building word phrases. This way there is a systematic approach to language. It is no longer esoteric, but almost mathematical.

Phrase Trees

Linguist Noam Chomsky gives helpful explanations for how the construction of phrases can be accomplished through mathematical ‘if’ statements and through a logical pattern. He draws phrase trees, which help many students better visualise how language fits together.
Once you have taught students how to build phrases, use those building blocks to construct a sentence. This is also when you should start the discussion of main and subordinate clauses.

And so a sentence can be made from clauses made from phrases made from words made from phonemes made from letters.
If these foundations are put in place within primary schools in a clear and logical fashion, then secondary schools will be able to make paragraphs from the sentences, and essays or long form writing from the paragraphs.

Finally if you are looking for more revision material, here is a practice SPAG test I dummied up. Bon appétit:

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Other Blogs by Gareth:

Primary Teaching: Finding Your Reading Voice

Gareth's Protoblog: Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept

Secondary Blog: Teaching Religious Education

Tags: Gareth, Protocol Education, Year 6, Teacher, SPAG, SATS, Language, Learning, Linguistic, Phonics, Spelling, Grammar, Australian

Category: Australian Teachers

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