When is a question not a question?

New test frameworks were published on the GOV.UK website today, setting out the requirements for National Curriculum tests from 2016 onwards. And they contain a couple of surprises to those of us who consider ourselves to be speakers of the English language.

For it appears that no longer is a question defined as “A sentence worded or expressed so as to elicit information”, as your old-fashioned ‘dictionary’ might imagine, but rather as a specifically-structured sentence that meets the need of writers of tests.

“Nonsense!!” you might exclaim. Except that’s not an exclamation either.

“Not an exclamation?” you might ask. But you’d be wrong to do so, since that is no longer a question.

For it seems that the DfE have deemed that exclamations must begin with the word “How” or “What”. So while your dictionary might think that an exclamation is a sudden remark or cry; while the world at large might include “Hello!”, or “Utter nonsense” in this group, it seems that we are collecting in error.


So rather than teaching children the real meaning of the word, or bothering the good people at Oxford dictionaries with your queries, remember now that exclamations begin with “how” or “what”. No further questions necessary. (And don’t ask what type of sentence that last one was: it doesn’t exist!)

And as for question… if you thought that intent was what made a question, you’re quite wrong. Questions are only formed in one of three ways.questions

So if you were thinking of teaching any meaningful understand of what a question is, stop yourself right away. That is not your place. Your role is teach the testable definitions. Now, behave!

If you want to put yourself through reading the test frameworks, you can find them after much hunting on the DfE part of the gov.uk website:



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24 thoughts on “When is a question not a question?

  1. dodiscimus 29 June 2015 at 7:48 pm Reply


  2. theplews 29 June 2015 at 8:45 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Big Blog of Teaching Ideas.

  3. littlemavis 29 June 2015 at 11:58 pm Reply

    Is this another example of Gove’s unique slant on the rules of grammar?

  4. mmiweb 30 June 2015 at 3:15 am Reply

    Are these people just pillocks!? I would say this beggars beleif but sadly expereince makes me just sigh and say, here we go again. I remember marking some of the first science SATs and being told (on inquriing) that the only correct answers were those in the mark scheme even if the answers the children gave were scientifcally correct if they were not the answers in the scheme they were not correct – I think we have gone beyond paranoia into … well I’m not sure but it is a surreal place.

  5. cazzypot2013 30 June 2015 at 5:52 am Reply

    Reblogged this on cazzypotsblog.

  6. teachingbattleground 30 June 2015 at 6:50 am Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  7. Mark Bennet 30 June 2015 at 7:30 am Reply

    “Do you like this one?” is more complex than an inversion, because the verb is not “Do”. A strict inversion would be “Like you this one?” – which just goes to show that inversion isn’t the universal method for creating a question in English idiom. “Do” as an auxiliary allows the question to be asked without inverting the original order. In the sentence “You do like this one!” “do” is there for emphasis, and with different emphasis “You like this one?” could easily be a question. What happens to pupils’ understanding of reported speech, which will be written inaccurately if these GPS “rules” are followed? And if pupils are taught early a rule that certain things are not questions or exclamations, the remedial work required later will be extraordinarily difficult.

  8. suecowley 30 June 2015 at 7:57 am Reply

    This has gone beyond ridiculous and moved into the realms of the insulting.

  9. klootme 30 June 2015 at 4:12 pm Reply

    What the F@*k? What the F@*k!

    • Red 1 July 2015 at 8:54 pm Reply

      OH said something very similar when I read him this. He also wondered what right the DfE have to make these decisions.

  10. siancam 30 June 2015 at 9:34 pm Reply

    I don’t believe it!

  11. nearfar 1 July 2015 at 1:08 am Reply

    In the (large) print at the start of the document you are referring to, it says: “The test frameworks are written primarily for test developers; they will be used by item writing agencies and the Standards and Testing Agency throughout the test development process.

    Teachers should not use the frameworks to guide teaching and learning. They do not provide information on how the new national curriculum should be taught.”

    Anyone who knows anyone about testing will know that there is a rigorous process for test question development. The items you refer to in your blog about the terminology of ‘question’ and ‘exclamation’ are to ensure that the actual test questions are not misleading or ambiguous.

    Surely, teachers should be looking at the sample materials in the first instance. I’m not a big fan of testing young children, but equally, I hate to see teachers being misled by such lines of enquiry. Here are the sample materials. https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/national-curriculum-assessments-2016-sample-materials

    By all means, if teachers have the time or inclination, they might then be interested to look in further detail at the actual test development process.

    • Michael Tidd 1 July 2015 at 7:49 am Reply

      The problem with saying that you shouldn’t use it to guide teaching and learning is the high stakes nature of the tests. If teachers continue to teach exclamations as they always have they may then find that children’s answers on tests fall short of the DfE’s requirements. And every mark counts.

    • Jane C 8 March 2016 at 9:32 am Reply

      Nearfar – At last someone else who has taken the trouble to actually find out the facts behind this story. The guidance relates entirely to the wording of questions in the tests to make them as clear as possible to the children. What I don’t understand is why the DfE haven’t come forward to give a clear explanation of this.
      Michael Tidd – please have a look at the sample tests and the guidelines on the links given. You will soon see that teachers can “continue to teach exclamations as they always have” without any risk of falling short of the DfE’s requirements!

      • Michael Tidd 8 March 2016 at 9:57 am Reply

        Have you seen the new exemplification framework for KS1?

        • Jane C 8 March 2016 at 10:45 am

          I hadn’t, but I’ve just given it a very quick whizz through. The comments on exclamation marks there seem quite sensible. Is there something particular I should be looking at? I haven’t ploughed through the whole thing yet, but will do.

        • Michael Tidd 8 March 2016 at 10:50 am

          Can you give an example of the sort of sentences you’d imagine a 7-year-old child using that might count as an exclamation under those rules?

        • Jane C. 8 March 2016 at 11:32 am

          Sorry if I’m being a bit thick but I’m not sure what “rules” you mean. In the annotated version of the exemplification framework I’m looking at there are several examples (from genuine pieces of childrens’ work I believe) of exclamatory phrases children of that age have used (“What an amazing adventer!” and so on). The comments made in the annotations seem perfectly fair and not at all proscriptive.

        • Michael Tidd 8 March 2016 at 11:41 am

          You’ve misunderstood. The example “What an amazing adventer” is specifically *not* sufficient to warrant credit as an exclamation sentence. For it to count in this framework it would need to be a sentence with a verb, e.g. “What an amazing adventure it was!”
          This is where the real nonsense lies.

        • Jane C. 8 March 2016 at 1:43 pm

          Ok, I understand your point now – the examples given are counted as ‘exclamative phrases’ but not ‘exclamative sentences’ because they don’t contain a verb. Which is a bit of a nonsense, yes, I quite agree, and simply a matter of rather pedantic semantics on the DfE’s part. (However, at least credit is allowed to be given for the correct use of exclamation marks in those phrases.)
          The DfE has, as usual, managed to make itself look ridiculous as the examples given in test framework – “What a lovely day!” and “How exciting!” – are not sentences by that definition either. And in question 9 of the sample test paper, “What an interesting painting!” is described as a sentence when according to the DfE’s own definition, it is no such thing.
          But the main point of this debate still stands – the DfE are not compelling children to begin all exclamations with ‘how’ or ‘what’. That advice is purely for the question setters, in order to avoid ambiguity in the tests.

        • Liz Mynott 6 April 2016 at 8:48 pm

          Unfortunately Jane the DfE have said that exclamations must start with a what or a how to be classified as an exclamatory sentence, which yr2 pupils must have evidence of using within their writing. Yes, you can use an exclamation mark where you feel appropriate, but this is different to a sentence type. Please refer to the clarification document published March 2016:
          “An exclamation must be introduced by a phrase with What or How and should be followed by a subject + verb + any other element. It is typically demarcated by an exclamation mark.”
          This does indeed mean that the KS1 sample test, Q9 is incorrect. As the exclamatory sentence does not have a verb “What an interesting painting!” It must become a statement under the four sentence classification rule. Therefore they have two answers to choose from – but only one is correct “James washed the paintbrushes.”

          Isn’t this all so terribly sad.

  12. Janette de Voil (@Janetteww) 1 July 2015 at 6:43 am Reply

    That’s probably true but the same people that develop the tests also develop the mark schemes. Teachers have been frustrated over and over again by mark schemes that are too restrictive and do not allow all correct answers to actually be correct.

  13. fjfish 1 July 2015 at 9:04 am Reply
  14. […] Please take a look at Michael Tidd’s blog. […]

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