SPaG: A quick guide to teaching spelling, punctuation and grammar
What is SPaG?
SPaG is an acronym often used in schools to refer to ‘spelling, punctuation and grammar’; which are the key tools we use when crafting and understanding the English language. It’s also used to refer to parts of the SATs taken by children at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, testing their understanding of spelling patterns, grammar terminology and the structure of language generally. Some schools prefer to talk about ‘GaPS’ instead, whilst still others avoid shortening ‘spelling, punctuation and grammar’ at all. The relevant National Curriculum assessments are called ‘English grammar, punctuation and spelling tests’.
Why is SPaG important?
SPaG is important for KS1 and KS 2 pupils; not just to pass SATs exams, but to access the curriculum more generally, and enable them to thrive in life as effective communicators with good comprehension skills. It’s not just about formal writing; the same basic grammar rules underpin all our verbal interactions - and whilst we may choose to ignore or deliberately break some of them for effect in a piece of work, or for informal writing or spoken exchanges, knowing them in the first place is what puts us in a strong enough position to do that without loss of clarity. In a 2013 article in The Guardian, the columnist Quentin Letts described grammar as “the coat hanger on which language can hang.”
SPaG: the background
Of course, grammar, punctuation and spelling have always been taught as part of how children learn to read and write - however, the rules, and certainly the terminology, have not always been explicitly laid out in the curriculum. It was the introduction of the English grammar, punctuation and spelling tests for children in Year 6, in 2013 (under Education Secretary Michael Gove and Education Minister Elizabeth (now known as ‘Liz’) Truss) - and in 2017, the addition in 2017 of a similar test for children in Year 2 - which really moved the explicit teaching of English grammar right to the heart of the primary curriculum.
These days, teaching and learning very specific rules around the structure of language - including precise grammar terminology - is highly prioritised in primary schools, in a way that it probably wouldn’t have been when most of today’s teachers were going through their time at school. This can make teaching grammar a particular challenge, as ‘correct grammar usage’, as defined by the National Curriculum and SATs, won’t necessarily always match with teachers’ experience of good writing.
SPaG: the breakdown
Spelling refers to the correct use of letters and letter combinations in written words. It involves writing words with the correct sequence of letters and adhering to the standard rules of spelling for the language being used. During the Year 6 SATs spelling test, pupils are given a list of words to spell in a set time period, read out by the teacher. Contrary to what is often assumed by parents, these words will not necessarily be taken from the Year 6 statutory spelling list, although pupils should be familiar with the correct spelling of those words, and understand the common errors to avoid.
Punctuation refers to the marks and symbols used in written language to clarify the meaning of text and to make it easier to read and understand. Punctuation helps to indicate the structure and organization of written language, as well as the intended tone and emphasis of the text - and it is essential for complete sentences. Examples of common punctuation marks include the full stop, comma, question mark, exclamation point, and quotation marks (inverted commas).
For the Year 6 SATs, punctuation and grammar are tested together as part of the Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling (GPS) test. Pupils are presented with a range of questions that may include multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank (cloze questions), and short-answer format. The questions may assess a variety of language skills, including knowledge of grammar and punctuation rules, as well as the ability to identify and correct errors in written language.
The Year 6 SATs are a series of tests that are taken by pupils in England at the end of their primary education, typically at the end of Year 6 (around age 10-11).
The SATs are designed to assess pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the curriculum that they have studied throughout their primary education. They are used to measure the progress that pupils have made and to help teachers and schools understand how well they are doing. They are also used by the DfE and Ofsted to assess how well schools are delivering education to their pupils.
For pupils, the SATs can be a stressful and anxiety-provoking time. The tests are usually taken over the course of a week, and pupils may spend the weeks leading up to the tests revising and practising in order to do their best. Some schools and teachers may also put extra emphasis on preparing for the SATs, which can add to the pressure that pupils feel. It is important to remember that the SATs are just one way of measuring pupils’ progress and that there are many other ways in which their skills and abilities can be recognised and valued.
SPaG teaching tips
Teach it in context
Wherever possible, ensure you are teaching grammar and punctuation in context - in other words, relating what is being taught to authentic and extended writing, not just single example sentences. When children understand what the rules they are learning look like in ‘real’ writing, those rules become much easier to remember.
Use model texts
Model texts are crucial for the successful teaching of grammar and punctuation - Plazoom’s Real Writing programme includes 150 original texts, commissioned from published children’s authors, and fully mapped to the KS1 and KS2 English writing curriculum.
Plan spacing and interleaving
Spacing and interleaving are two instructional strategies that can be used to help primary-aged pupils learn more effectively.
Spacing involves spreading out learning over a longer period of time, with regular retrieval opportunities, rather than trying to learn all of the material in a single sitting. This can help pupils retain information more effectively and improve their long-term retention of the material.
Interleaving involves mixing up the material that is being studied, rather than focusing on one subject or skill at a time. This can help pupils see connections between different concepts and develop a deeper understanding of the material. Interleaving can also help pupils learn to transfer their knowledge and skills to new situations.
Have regular, low-stakes assessment
Regular, low-stakes assessment - for example, quizzes - can help embed understanding for pupils, and gives them important retrieval practice. Be warned, however: weekly spelling tests are not the most effective way to teach spelling! Instead, concentrate on teaching spelling patterns and rules, as well as exceptions.
Give children the opportunity to use what they’ve learnt in their own writing
Don’t try and keep ‘grammar lessons’ separate from your teaching of writing more generally. Encourage pupils to use what they learn in their own work; highlight correct usage of grammatical structures, and model the use of correct terminology as you give oral feedback, either one to one, or as a class.
- What are the most common mistakes in SPaG by Year 6 pupils?
Of course, the types of errors can vary depending on the individual child and their specific strengths and challenges. However, some common grammar mistakes that children at this age may make include:
- Confusing subject-verb agreement: This refers to using the correct verb form to match the subject of the sentence. For example, “The cat is sleeping” is correct, while “The cat are sleeping” is incorrect.
- Misusing possessive pronouns: Children may sometimes use the incorrect possessive pronoun, such as using “her” instead of “hers” or “his” instead of “he’s.”
- Misplacing modifiers: Modifiers are words or phrases that provide additional information about a noun or verb. Children may sometimes place these modifiers in the wrong position in a sentence, which can change the meaning of the sentence.
- What is a fronted adverbial?
A fronted adverbial is an adverb or adverbial phrase that is placed at the beginning of a sentence to provide additional information about the verb that follows. Fronted adverbials are typically separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma.
“Early in the morning, the birds began to sing.” (The fronted adverbial “early in the morning” provides information about when the birds began to sing.)
“Suddenly, the door burst open.” (The fronted adverbial “suddenly” provides information about how the door burst open.)
- What is the difference between ‘practice’ and ‘practise’?
Practise is a verb; practice is a noun. This can be hard to remember, as both words sound the same when spoken. A good test is to think about ‘advise’ (verb) and ‘advice’ (noun) in the same context you wish to use practise/practice.
- How can I teach SPaG so children will remember it?
There are a few strategies that teachers can use to help children remember SPaG (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) concepts:
- Use a variety of teaching methods: Children learn in a range of ways and using a variety of teaching methods can help to engage all learners. This can include things like hands-on activities, visual aids, and games.
- Provide plenty of opportunities for practice: Repetition and practice are key to helping children remember SPaG concepts. Encourage children to apply what they have learned in a variety of contexts and to practise regularly.
- Make connections to real-life situations: Help children see the relevance of SPaG concepts by connecting them to real-life situations. For example, you could show how correct punctuation can make a recipe easier to follow or how proper grammar can help convey a message more effectively.
- Use mnemonic devices: Mnemonic devices are memory aids that can help children remember information more easily. For example, you could use a rhyme or acronym to help children remember the order of the days of the week or the parts of speech.
- Review and revise regularly: Regular review and revision can help children retain what they have learned. Consider incorporating SPaG review into your regular lessons or setting aside dedicated time for revision.
Ultimately, a sound grasp of SPaG will enable children to develop as strong communicators, with good comprehension skills; which will not only help them succeed in exams, but also in life.
Find more grammar resources at plazoom.com/real-grammar