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Good grammar and spelling – are they enough to guarantee good teaching?

Teachers have to know where to put apostrophes, but more important is why. from

The long awaited literacy and numeracy test for teachers in Australia will finally make its appearance in 2016.

It will be piloted this year with 5000 pre-service teachers throughout the country. This is on top of previous pilots conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), the organisation responsible for the construction of the test.

Teaching is not copy editing

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has declared the multiple choice test will allow

teacher employers and the general public to have absolute confidence in the skills of graduating teachers.

If the “skills” required of teaching were equivalent to those required for good copy editing then it is possible to see the veracity of Pyne’s claim the test ensures teacher quality. But passing a multiple choice test of copy editing skills does not a teacher make.

The test is no panacea

I’m as frustrated as the next person by spelling errors in the school newsletter and fragment sentences in school reports. I’d like to see fewer of them. But I’m even more frustrated by the simplistic assumption that knowing how to spell “exaggerate” equals teacher quality.

Teachers should be held to the highest standards in spelling, grammar and punctuation. I’m happy to have pre-service teachers sit the test - after all, as a teacher educator I expect I will be a key beneficiary of this test. Perhaps there will be fewer spelling and punctuation errors in their assignments.

But this new test is not the panacea for the challenges facing teacher education, nor is it a guarantee of quality teaching for our children. If quality teaching and high student learning outcomes were achieved simply through knowing how to spell “accommodation” then shame on us for not having figured that out a century ago.

Let’s not make any more claims for this test beyond what it is - a spelling and punctuation test for teachers.

What should teachers know?

Teachers should know how to spell “accommodation”, and all the other words that will come up on this new test. But more importantly, they should know why “accommodation”, and every other word, is spelled the way it is. And even more crucially, they should be able to teach that reasoning to their students.

They should be able to spot a grammatical error, but they should know why it is wrong, and how grammar is at the heart of communicative and creative competency in writing. And they should know how to teach that information to children.

Teaching literacy is complex. As politically appealing and cost effective as it seems, a multiple choice test of spelling and grammar will not provide the answer to the vexing questions around why some children struggle to read and write.

One of the biggest issues I see with low achieving pre-service teachers is their inability to read critically and write coherent arguments. But the proposed test does not assess deeper reading comprehension skills, or the capacity to write cohesive texts with well supported arguments. These skills are expensive to assess as they cannot be marked by a computer, hence they are not included in the proposed test. Or perhaps such skills are not deemed necessary for teachers?

What will universities do?

In any case, tests don’t teach. So it will be interesting to see how universities respond to the introduction of the test. Will they introduce courses that teach basic literacy, spelling, grammar and punctuation? Will they offer test preparation classes? Or will they simply enrol a cohort with higher university entrance scores or ATARs?

Pyne has said low ATARs are not indicative of the quality of teachers, claiming the ATAR is a “blunt instrument”. If a score reflective of at least two years of schooling is “blunt”, then it’s hard to imagine what the descriptor for a one hour multiple choice spelling, grammar and punctuation test might be. I searched the thesaurus for a synonym for “blunt” and found “pointless”.

Let’s roll out the test for all the professions

The Daily Telegraph yesterday published sample questions from the test - although it is not entirely clear whether these questions have come from ACER. Hopefully the answers to the questions were not provided by ACER because the answer to Question 1 is not D, as indicated in the article.

Perhaps it is time to put a literacy and numeracy test into journalism degrees. Certainly restaurateurs and sign writers would benefit from a course in apostrophes, or as they are known in the world of greengrocers - apostrophe’s.

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