6 ways to improve GPS test technique

How about a few more marks on grammar papers?

Thanks to Ruth Duckworth for the following article.

As we are in the last few teaching weeks running up to the end of Key Stage Two SATs again, Year Six teachers like myself are now well-entrenched in test practice - encouraging pupils to keep their full focus to achieve their best and grasp the all-important ‘expected’ score (from last year of course) before May.  Then, we may all be a little more confident that whatever the real tests bring, the 100s will flow. 

For many, there is also the group of ‘not so very far away’ pupils, who could perhaps sneak into greater depth and really help the school’s progress data look even better.

Experienced Year Six teachers all have little snippets of good advice around the subject of test technique – to help enable pupils to clinch a few extra marks.  So, here is a list of teaching points gathered from several recent Year Six teacher-teacher conversations…all in one place.

Size and orientation of letters

Frequent errors occur with pupils’ formation and size of the letters W/w and S/s particularly – are capital letters clear and taller than other ‘half-height’ letters?  Also, the formation and placing of descending letters such as p, y and j on the line/ extending under the line can be inaccurate.  Encourage pupils to check/ change letters which could be interpreted as capital in the middle of sentences – as their answer could be marked wrong.

Formation of punctuation signs

There has previously been lots of discussion over the shape, orientation and placing of commas (on the line, with a tail under the line) and inverted commas (66 and 99 rather than a slash), as well as where the semi-colon dot goes (at the same height as the top of mid-sized letters).  This is the time to really insist on careful formation and accuracy of punctuation – including of course, adding a question mark if asked to write a question sentence or change a given sentence into a question sentence.

Spelling counts!

When pupils are asked to add prefixes or suffixes to root words, change words to plurals or different verb forms etc. then the words must be spelt correctly.  Spelling is not just assessed on the second, Paper 2 spelling test! Many pupils who are ‘visual’ spellers can work out that their first answer ‘looks’ wrong – in which case, practise writing the word again away from the answer box.  Then, cross out the original answer word and write the new spelling by the answer box.

When pupils are asked to write their own sentence or need to add an adverbial phrase or subordinate clause, then encourage them to use words which they can spell accurately.  Simple sentences are fine as long as they cover what has been asked – and then spelling and punctuation errors can be kept to a minimum. For example, if the mark is for adding/ changing an adjective in the phase, then ‘red’ or ‘huge’ is a lot safer to write than trying to spell ‘extraordinary’ or suchlike.

When contracted words like don’t, aren’t, I’ve etc are needed to be written, then there must be a space where the omitted letter should go.  Remind pupils not to use joined handwriting. An apostrophe can’t sit over the loop that joins n to the t in don’t for example - there must be a noticeable gap between the n and t.

Read all options before ticking

Many questions have 4 multiple-choice options (i.e. sentences with both correct and incorrect punctuation) and pupils are asked to tick one, two or all sentences which apply.  Encourage pupils to focus on the wording of the question – to ascertain whether it gives a clue as to how many answers there will be.  In a recent test paper my own class had a discussion about how it unusual it was that 3 out of the 4 statements were correct – but it was a ‘tick all that apply’ question.  In all cases, pupils must read all options/ sentences carefully even if they think the correct answer is the first one on the list.  Process of elimination comes in when obvious wrong answers can be taken out of contention first.  There may be only two answers left which are possible - so a 50/50 guess is left. Also, teachers need to help pupils iron-out bad habits of racing through pages of questions too quickly and/or not going back to check that they have read the instructions to questions properly.

Cross out rather than rub out

Due to the scanning of tests now before they are marked, answers that your pupils think are erased well, may still (due to the indentations in the paper) show up on-screen for the marker.  Therefore, crossing out neatly is preferable – when wishing to change answers, encourage pupils to make the tick into a cross, then tick the correct box carefully.

Boost accuracy of Y3/4 spellings

As the grammar SATs test is a ‘Key Stage Two’ test, a large amount of the spellings come from statutory NC spelling patterns and rules which should have been taught before Year 6 – many in Y3/4.  (55% were from the NC English Appendix 1 – spelling for Y3/4 last year.)  Encouraging pupils to continue to improve their spelling of the Y3/4 list has been a huge boost to my class recently – with even the poorest spellers (who still find many Y6 spellings a challenge) now able to achieve mid-teen scores out of 20 on practice tests.  Pupils spend 10 minutes several times a week going over word lists, testing a partner and also take word lists home.


Free GPS resources 

There are many more grammar-specific teaching tips also available in Rising Stars’ Implications for Teaching and Learning – for grammar, punctuation and spelling 2017.  Here you will find a detailed breakdown of which particular grammar question types were the tricky ones for pupils last year – definitely worth reading or reading again in the last few weeks as the clock continues to count down.

You can also download a Grammar, punctuation and spelling Progress Test sample test paper



Ruth Duckworth is a Year 6 teacher and Assistant Head who leads writing at Christ Church CE Primary in Oldbury. Drawing from her extensive teaching experience in schools across the West Midlands, Ruth leads creative and engaging courses which inspire and equip teachers with proven ideas to accelerate rates of progress in writing and grammar – including the use of class texts and visual literacy.  Ruth has worked with national research and testing agencies, and was part of the Sandwell LA writing moderation team for key stage 2 for 5 years.


english, grammar, key stage 2, spelling

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