Several questions are of the type 'circle all the X in the sentence below'. Q16 Circle all the adverbs... Q23 Circle the connectives... Q42 Circle the preposition... Q44 Circle the article... This is how grammar was taught before the 1960s. The approach used to be called (after the Henry Reed poem) 'naming of parts'. I spent hundreds of hours in the 1980s and 90s, along with examiners such as George Keith and John Shuttleworth, running in-service courses where the aim was to move away from that kind of thing, and I really thought we were getting somewhere. The right question, in their (and my) view was not: 'Circle all the passives in the paragraph' - end of story - but 'Identify the passives and say why they are there' - beginning of story. This semantic and pragmatic perspective I eventually wrote up in my Making Sense of Grammar (2004). It was the way grammar-teaching seemed to be going, and I was delighted to see the message being put into practice in schools. Teachers would take students 'on a passive hunt' (we're going to catch a big one) - finding real examples around the school, in newspapers, and on the high street, and discussing what the effect was of using a passive as opposed to an active. It could be quite exciting - a word not traditionally associated with the teaching of grammar - and it certainly gave them a good basis for using (or not using) passives in their own writing. And now we have a test where it is enough, once again, for the students to simply 'Circle the passives'. Q3 in Paper 2: 'Which sentence is the passive form of the sentence above?'
The second thing that worries me is that some of the sentences to be analysed present students with problems because they ignore context. What would you do with Q1 in Paper 2, for example? 'A pair of commas can be used to separate words or groups of words and to clarify the meaning of a sentence. Insert a pair of commas to clarify each sentence below. (a) My friend who is very fit won the 100-metre race. ...' Of course, anyone with a shred of knowledge about relative clauses can see straight away that this sentence is perfectly all right without commas - depending on the intended meaning. It's not a question of clarifying anything. It's the basic distinction between a restrictive and a non-restrictive relative clause. In My friend, who is very fit, ... I have one friend in mind. In My friend who is very fit... I have more than one friend (the other one, who isn't very fit, nonetheless managed to win the egg-and-spoon race). Out of context the question becomes artificial and largely meaningless.
My third worry is that several questions ignore changing usage, and try to impose a black-and-white distinction where there is none. Take Q15 in paper 1: 'Which of the sentences below uses commas correctly?' The correct answer is We’ll need a board, counters and a pair of dice. The other examples all have a comma before the word and (the so-called 'serial comma' or 'Oxford comma') and are viewed as wrong. In the guidance notes to Q27 'Insert three commas in the correct places in the sentence below' markers are told 'Do not accept' the serial comma. Evidently Mr Gove, or his advisory team, does not like serial commas. In which case that's me failed, as I regularly use them. And most of Oxford University press too. But how can (how dare?) examiners ignore the facts of educated usage in this way? This is the ugly face of prescriptivism - defined as the imposition of unauthentic rules on a language - and it shows behind several of the questions in these tests.
One more worry: conflicting advice about basic grammatical terms. Take the important distinction between word and phrase. Q35 is 'Write a different adverb in each space below to help describe what Josie did'. This is actually a useful question, as it elicits creative thinking about how language is really used. But the test guidance notes say that adverbial phrases will be accepted, despite the question asking for an adverb. So, does that mean that anywhere a question asks for an adverb, an adverb phrase will be accepted? What is the correct answer, then, to Q16? 'Circle all the adverbs in the sentences below'. The sentences are: 'Excitedly, Dan opened the heavy lid. He paused briefly and looked at the treasure. The intention is obviously to get the two -ly adverbs circled. But if students were to take at the treasure as an adverb phrase of place (answering the question 'where did he look?') would they get their marks?
I could go on, and on... I found myself making comments of this kind on about two-thirds of the sample questions. I feel very let down actually, especially as I was one of those asked to provide some initial perspective, in 2011, and spent a worthwhile day (as I thought) discussing principles and examples with the government team tasked with taking these things forward. I left at the end of the day feeling optimistic. But my optimism, I fear, was misplaced. I hope things will change - and I especially hope that there are enough linguistically aware teachers out there these days to see the limitations in tests of this kind and continue with the more informed approach to language study that I know exists in many schools. There's nothing wrong with being able to identify adverbs as long as this is not thought to be the end of the story. It would be like giving people a driving test where all they had to do was name the parts of the car. With a linguistically informed approach, one can do this, yes, but then go on to drive the language, as it were, and take it to all kinds of exciting places.