Gymnastics is not a doing word!
Understanding sentence structure is harder than you think.
What percentage of Year 6 students do you think will get the following question right?
Answers will be revealed at the end!
Last September, we launched our new Automark website. It uses artificial intelligence to automatically mark and analyse paper-based multiple choice questions.
You can use it for any multiple-choice questions you want, but we have created sets of questions about sentence structure which lots of our schools have used.
In particular, we have created three versions of a quiz about sentence structure. The September quiz gives us a baseline, and then we can check the students’ progress in January and May.
We’ve also provided schools with a set of resources on sentence structure that they could teach to their students across the year.
In total, in the academic year 2022-2023, we've processed just over a million question responses using the site. What have we learned?
Here are two key insights
Our students have made huge progress in their understanding of sentence structure Here's an example: In September, our Year 6 cohort averaged 11/20 on the quiz. By January, that had gone up to 13. That may not sound like much, but in the context of this quiz it is pretty significant. It meant that by January, the Year 6s were doing better on the quiz than the Year 9s had in September! So you could argue that 3 months of targeted instruction have allowed them to improve by 3 years.
But… there are still fundamental aspects of sentence structure that students find very difficult
Although the average score has leapt up, there are some questions that students still really struggle with - including the one you saw at the start of this post.
In September, only 10% of the Year 6s got this right. In January, the exact same cohort took a cloned version of this question and 43% got it right. On the one hand, that’s brilliant: it shows enormous progress, and that the teaching is working. On the other hand, over half of students are still struggling with this question even after dedicated teaching on the topic.
Other questions involving short simple sentences were also some of the hardest on the quiz - for example, this one, which nearly half of Year 6s were still getting wrong in January.
When we’ve spoken to teachers who have carried out these tests and taught the lessons, they say that students often tend to define sentences by length and think that a sentence shouldn’t be too short or too long.
Often, students are unaware of the deeper structures of a sentence. That’s why plenty of our teaching resources focus on identifying verbs and subjects, as these are the building blocks of sentences. But students particularly struggle to identify verbs, even after instruction. Our teachers report that many students focus on the idea that a verb is a ‘doing word’ which makes it hard for them to identify the verb in sentences like the following.
I enjoy swimming.
We like football.
They prefer gymnastics.
In all of these cases, students are very likely to identify ‘swimming’, ‘football’ and ‘gymnastics’ as the verb.
What are the implications for the curriculum?
The quiz question I began this post with may seem incredibly easy and obvious and not worth bothering with. But our data shows that teaching students so that they can reliably get questions like this right is not easy at all. Understanding sentence structure is much harder than we might first assume.
It’s also much harder than the national curriculum assumes. We’ve shown that right up until Year 9, students are struggling to identify simple sentences & verbs, even after receiving targeted instruction. And yet, the national curriculum says that by year 3 & year 4, students should be extending the range of sentences they use with more than one clause, using fronted adverbials and extending noun phrases.
Interestingly, whilst the national curriculum mentions verbs 181 times, at no point does it ever say that students should actually learn what a verb is. For example, in year 1 it says that students should learn how to add suffixes to verbs, in year 2 that they should use progressive forms of verbs, in year 3 that they should use the present perfect form of verbs. Nowhere does it say that they should learn to identify what a verb is.
This feels to me like a recipe for total confusion. Imagine a student who thinks that ‘gymnastics’ is the verb in ‘They prefer gymnastics’ being told to write a sentence using the present perfect.
What next from us?
This first year of data has provided us with incredibly useful insights that will inform our plans for next year.
We’re working on a writing progression map that will cover national curriculum content, but also include some of the vital foundational concepts - like verbs! - that it doesn’t fully address.
We’ll also soon have further analysis from the May version of the test.
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