Nearly a quarter of pupils failed controversial Sats semi-colon question

The Tes reports that marked Spag test papers suggest some pupils were penalised because of the shape of their semi-colons. Almost one in four Year 6 children failed to answer a question about semi-colons correctly in this year’s spelling, punctuation and grammar (Spag) test.

The question asked pupils where to put a semi-colon in the sentence “Come and see me tomorrow I will not have time to see you today” and was worth just one mark.

But it made national news headlines after it emerged that “secret” guidance had been given to markers on the correct size, height and orientation of the semi-colon, and that some pupils who had put the semi-colon in the right place in the sentence did not get the mark.

Now information obtained by Tes through a Freedom of Information request has revealed that 77 per cent of all candidates got the controversial question correct and 77.5 per cent of those who attempted it got it correct. The figures do not include any changes following successful appeals.

Michael Tidd, Tes columnist and deputy headteacher of Edgewood primary in Nottinghamshire, said: “Although semi-colon use is one of the higher-level punctuation skills, placing one in a pre-written sentence is a fairly basic use, and so its position very early in the paper didn’t seem exceptionally out of place.

“However [the fact] that nearly a quarter of children got that question wrong does raise questions about the suitability of the question – and particularly its marking.”

Writing consultant Pie Corbett, described the question as an “affront”. “If they are being tested on the slope of the comma, everyone needs to know that is what they are being tested on. When people set up testing systems and put things like that in, it’s not fair because no-one knew that was being tested and it is ridiculously pedantic.

“It’s the sort of thing that really, really annoys teachers and deeply upsets them. They find it a real affront and we shouldn’t be doing that to teachers.”

Read more  Nearly a quarter of pupils failed controversial Sats semi-colon question

Will you tell your pupils to take more care with the semi–colon in next years Spag test? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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Categories: Exams and Primary.


  1. Why am I not surprised by this news? I like the semicolon and use it a lot. In year six I taught it as a sneaky way to bend a rule. It appealed to the 11 year old mind. Being a grammar nerd, I enjoyed teaching it as part of supplying children with the tools for good writing. What next? Micrometers and microscopes to measure the size and shape of full stops? Now I’m beginning to giggle.

  2. Anonymous

    This is news because it was in the media. SATS markers are forbidden to discuss the ridiculous pedantry surrounding the marking of many questions in all papers. This silence is imposed for a reason .. to stop further ridicule and loss of faith in tests which already aren’t held in high regard.

  3. Steve Jones

    So we live in a world where thousands of children lose a mark because of the shape of a semicolon yet an A-level paper remark can yield a change from 22/90 (U) to 67/90 which is grade A!

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