In Primary School classrooms, it’s rare to hear students cheer for the start of a SPAG (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) lesson. It’s an aspect of the curriculum which may feel like a chore and can inspire fear in even the most experienced teachers. Most books about grammar teaching have typically been pitched as ‘survival guides’, even before the increased detail of the current National Curriculum.
English language ‘rules’ are unpredictable and have many exceptions. Lots of its structures have no equivalent in other languages. English has many irregular patterns, illogical spellings, and complex verb forms. The terminology can be bewildering, especially for people learning English as an Additional Language (EAL).
Yet the importance of fluent SPAG fundamentals is clear: grammar errors can undermine the flow and meaning of a text. It’s like driving with the handbrake on. It was a challenge I faced in my Year 6 classroom at an International School in Shanghai, with a large EAL cohort. We taught SPAG in context via great novels and extracts, using Talk for Writing as a writing structure, and Pobble prompts to inspire short-burst creativity. Yet the children I taught – native speakers and EAL learners – needed more long-term reinforcement than I could achieve in short SPAG activities. Mandarin – for example – has no verb tenses, so it is no surprise that native Mandarin speakers find it difficult to remember to add tense suffixes, even when they experience a full English-language education. There are countless other examples:
These interferences for speakers of different first languages can be particularly tricky to overcome. The same is true for native English speakers, too: consider how many reminders students need to remember to use capital letters, full stops, or speech marks, even when they cognitively ‘know’ how to use them, and understand their importance. Such transcription errors largely occur because writing is extremely difficult! Consider the array of different considerations for a student to hold in working memory while composing:
Researchers (Kellogg, 2008) advocate focused, deliberate practice to build long-term retention. This frees up working memory for writers to pay more attention to composition – audience, tone, vocabulary, purpose, etc. The problem in this area of the curriculum is the volume of repetitions required to achieve the unconscious automaticity we call fluency, when the content itself is either narrow, dry, functional, or all three! Enter gamification: the mashed potato in which we can hide the peas of learning!
Fun that Sticks
Gamification can have a magical effect on learners — it spurs motivation to practise regularly and helps build fluency day by day, through retrieval and repetition, with fun and friendly competition replacing the dry and abstract facts of grammar knowledge. For some teachers, this may conjure painful memories of laminating flash cards, or lengthy student-made ‘board games’ which teach less about the desired content and more about cutting and sticking. The proliferation of education technology has removed many of the barriers to gamification – see what TTRockstars has done for times tables, or the impact on motivation of a good Quizizz or Quizlet. Researchers in Finland have studied gamification in learning (Majuria, et al., 2018), and identified a range of features that have a positive impact.
Some are obvious, others less so:
Adding gamification elements to SPAG learning lightens the burden of teachers by personalising independent practice while creating time in the curriculum to focus on more creative aspects of writing, instead of reteaching and revising blocks of content.
Online grammar games can come in a range of flavours – matching cards, ordering words, multiple-choice quizzing, spotting errors, and identifying parts of speech in sentences. No lamination or cards required!
To be clear, gamification is not an all-in-one solution. Students still need great teaching to be introduced to new terms and concepts, and to understand. Teaching SPAG in the context of great texts and extracts is the best way to help students understand how SPAG features contribute to meaning. Gamification adds replay value to the process of independent practice, which helps build unconscious fluency.
(And note that I didn’t mention SATs!)
Andrew is co-founder of Rollama, an online SPAG activity platform for KS2-3. He taught Secondary English and then KS2 for 15 years in the UK, Malaysia and China, before leaving to launch the website. He currently lives in Prague with his wife Bethany, who is a teacher and digital artist for the site.
- Kellogg, R.T. (2008). Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective. Journal of writing research, 1(1), 1-26
- Marjuri, J., Koivistoa, J., Hamaria, J. (2018) Gamification of education and learning: A review of empirical literature. (25 November 2023)
- Sedita, J. (2019). We Need a Writing Rope. (27 November 2023)