Following David Crystal’s appearance at the Hay Literary Festival (where he was brilliant, by all accounts), The Guardian published an article outlining Crystal’s view, that ‘Exam board rules on punctuation are wrong, wrong, and wrong.’

In the article, David Crystal criticises the ‘latest guidance’ aimed at teachers, which allegedly bans the use of the Oxford comma.

My first thought was immediately as to the whereabouts of this ‘latest guidance’. The article chooses (conveniently?) to utilise the passive voice and omits the subject from the sentence, thus rendering the task of being guided rather troublesome.  Which is a concern. Mostly because, this year I started teaching an English Language GCSE in which 40% of marks are awarded for ‘technical accuracy.’ So, with this in mind, I really need to know: is the Oxford Comma a goer, or not?

A few other things:

What’s the deal with quotation marks? I instruct my students to use inverted commas to delineate quoted material, but I know for a fact that students, even at KS5, still think it’s okay to chuck speech marks all over the place. Presumably this is because they haven’t been told otherwise by every single teacher they’ve had before me.

And ‘quote’ is a verb right? Because I’ve been telling my students to write, ‘In the article, the writer uses a quotation from Gordon Brown to convey a sense of…’ but I’m quite sure that others are happy with, ‘In the article, the writer uses a quote from Gordon Brown to convey a sense of…’

Going back to The Guardian’s article, there seems to be some ambiguity as to who is to blame for this…er…ambiguity. Is it the fault of the Government, or the exam boards? Let’s start with the exam boards. I teach AQA. I love AQA. They give me qualifications when I need ‘em, and they can be very helpful. But, as far as I’m aware, what they haven’t given me, is guidance on punctuation and grammar.  A style guide is what I’m after. An ‘AQA Style Guide for Key Stages 3, 4, and 5’. Perhaps there’s one about, I thought, and I just haven’t seen it. I asked Twitter:

 Teachers of AQA English. Have you ever seen a document outlining accepted spelling, punctuation, and grammar forms?

As I write, there’s 5 hours left to vote and so far I’ve had 77 responses. 95% of respondents replied in the negative. That is, of 77 English teachers, 73 have never seen any official guidance on what is correct, and what is incorrect, in terms of the SPaG element of the English course.  Granted, this is a really small sample, but that still equates to 2190 students being taught by teachers who, to be frank, don’t know what they should be teaching with regard to SPaG, myself included. Incidentally, of the people who replied ‘YES’, only one of them responded to my pleas for advice as to where they found this guidance, and this she said, was found in an AQA textbook. I’ve not found any guidance in my own AQA textbooks.

I’ve asked AQA for some advice as to where I might find some official guidance. So far, they’ve not replied to my tweet. Serves me right for not wearing a tie in my profile picture. My own search for guidance on the AQA website was fruitless. I could find no official guidance, other than what’s outlined in the mark schemes. Which isn’t very useful. The new English Language specification tells us students must be able to ‘use grammar correctly and punctuate and spell accurately’, but offers no advice as to what is classed as correct.

So that’s the exam boards. Now, the Government.  Guidance on Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar for the KS3 National Curriculum implores teachers to build on the knowledge acquired at KS1 and 2. The expectation of what is to be learned at KS1 and 2 is outlined in this document:


The second half of the document, specifically the glossary, is very useful and I urge all Heads of English to do whatever they can to ensure that their staff are familiar with the terms. This can only be a good thing.


Is it fair to ask Secondary Teachers to base their teaching of SPaG on the knowledge that kids should have acquired at Primary?

Is it fair to ask Secondary Teachers to sift through documents aimed at primary school teachers just to find the slightest whiff of guidance relating t SPaG at  GCSE and A-Level?

Is it fair for the government, the exam boards, or whoever, to tell David Crystal the Oxford Comma is banned, and not me?

I don’t think it is fair.

So, this is what I want.  I want exam board guidance on exactly what’s allowed. I want exam board style guides aimed at Secondary Teachers, telling us exactly what’s right and what’s wrong. Who’s up for it. AQA?

Author: PositivTeacha

Whole School Literacy Coordinator and Lead Practitioner


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: