On Grammar Teaching and Fronted Adverbials.

Disclaimer – I’m not a grammarian. If I’ve got stuff wrong here, and it is more than likely, it is because I am entirely self-taught. Grammar wasn’t taught at all at my school. I’ve had to bolt on bits of knowledge as I’ve gone along and the some total of this can be higgledy-piggledy. I’m happy for people to let me know where the errors are, but crowing over them might be taken to be a bit yucky.

Encountering the phrase ‘performative ignorance’ on, I think, a primary teacher’s twitter timeline recently caused me to consider a response on the Great Fronted Adverbial Debate 2021. The reason I don't weigh in on matters like this is because, broadly, it seems, the rejection of (certainly) the form of grammar teaching supposedly/probably mandated in primaries is a position of the left, and there is a long history of the left arguing with itself that has made a sizeable and continuing contribution to being continually governed by those who seem as if they don’t have everyone’s best interests in their hearts. Also, because it involves disagreeing with Michael Rosen and, on matters of grammatical understanding, this is spectacularly unwise.

I write as a practitioner rather than an author and as a secondary English teacher rather than a primary teacher. There’s a lot that I don’t know about the best ways of getting students to write enlivening English in the younger years. I also acknowledge that many of the ‘rules’ are matters of personal taste, that kids have an implicit understanding of how spoken grammar works, that spoken and written grammar are not the same and that written grammar is not a closed system.

But …

While it may be true that fronted adverbial worksheets are a drab way of teaching something useful, to infer that students’ writing is improved by not being taught the discipline is quite, quite silly.

How do you get better at a skill? Football, for instance? First, you learn the rules of the game then you practice[1]. It also helps if you have a decent coach to feedback on how elements of your game might be improved. If no one thinks it useful to teach you the rules, then you may find yourself picking up the ball in midfield and running with it while punching your opponents and thinking this constitutes a goal. So it is with writing.

There seems a view, and I’ve encountered this teaching primary kids in Australia, that outlining the rules of the game and providing feedback on students’ writing somehow inhibits their creativity. The reverse is true. “Creativity”, as is described in one of the better lines in ‘Rules for Mavericks’, “is the most elegant response to the constraints you’re under.” Greater circumscription, for me, equals a version of creativity that comes from a place of knowledge, as opposed to ignorance, and from a point of discipline rather than its obverse: the free-form, multi channel, just chuck it at a wall and see whether anyone’s interested approach. Breaking the rules because you don't know them has nothing like the same moral weight as playing with them from a position of knowledge. The latter, as evidenced by every single one of the poets on the curriculum is, vastly,[2] the more subversive position: Wilfred Owens’ experiments with para-rhyme come from a deep understanding of how rhyme works; Wordsworth could not have played with French heroic verse if he didn't know what it was; Dharker is not ungrammatical because she doesn't know the rules - she breaks them deliberately from a point of knowing them.

Whether the fronted adverbial in the form mandated in primaries is actually a thing is debatable. The idea, I think, is that the element of a sentence that modifies the action contained in main clause can be placed at the beginning of a sentence so that “I constructed the piece of writing poorly” becomes “Poorly, I constructed the piece of writing.” This shouldn't really apply to reversing “I read under the blanket” to “Under the blanket, I read” as, despite modifying the action, ‘under’ here is prepositional rather than adverbial (also, as with both prepositional and adverbial forms of this construction, it reads a bit Yoda). Where the idea of the fronted adverbial is useful in grammatical terms is in introducing conjunctive adverbs, the arcane rules for their usage (see footnote) and the fact that they are used for quite fine distinctions in meaning (I’ve never quite understood the difference between  ‘nonetheless’ and ‘nevertheless’). It also allows you to look at the genuinely important and fundamental rule that complex sentences starting with subordinate clauses have a comma separating those clauses. “I was grateful for half-term because I was knackered” (no comma) becomes “Because I was knackered, I was grateful for half-term” (comma). To argue this is not useful knowledge for students is to argue that it is better to not know things and, as far as I can see, is not really a position that has any adequate defence attached to it that is more sophisticated than, “It’s a bit boring, isn’t it?” To which one might reply, “No. Just as being only able to play a toe-poke doesn't make you the same level of player as someone who can put top spin or curl on a crossed ball, writing only simple declarative[3] sentences that are incorrectly punctuated makes you quite a boring writer.” [4]

I can see why authors think they have a right to expound on how to teach someone to write well as many of them are really quite good at writing and will have learnt through some, perhaps self taught, process that didn't involve discrete grammar teaching. But being an author is not the same job as teaching thousands of children to write over decades. It’s not the same discipline, and it doesn't have the same rules.[5] With the greatest of respect to authors and parents arguing that children’s writing does not benefit from having a range of techniques available to them, a shared language that teachers can use to drive their feedback and through which they can analyse the work of others, I’m not sure how they would know this. You learn what works in teaching through teaching. The fact that many of these people achieved brilliantly despite not being taught grammar does not disprove that grammar teaching is pointless; it proves, as if proof were needed, that they had a passion and were either able to learn and assimilate rules without much tuition … or that they have a copy editor who was actively taught grammar.


[1] I’ve chosen to break a rule here. “Then” is a conjunctive adverb. When starting a main clause my belief is that it should be prefixed by a semi colon and followed by a comma, “First, you learn the rules; then, you practice.” But it feels a little performative, so I’ve chosen not to punctuate it in that manner. So, yes, rules are open to debate and you can decide not to follow them, but the decision was taken from a position of ‘some’ (though certainly not elite level) knowledge.

[2] I revised this as in the first draft the comma came directly after ‘curriculum’. My understanding is that when a potentially parenthetical word “vastly” appears after a subordinate clause that is, itself, used parenthetically then (ulp) the parenthetical commas around the second one override the closing parenthetical comma from the subordinate clause. I might be wrong here, but you get the point. Writers make grammatical decisions all the time. I prefer my students to have access to this level of decision making than not.

[3] I’d originally written “declarative, simple”, but this didn't feel right. The reason is that they feel as if they are cumulative adjectives of opinion and purpose, though you could argue with this, and, as such, it felt as if it was more in keeping with the royal order of adjectives than the other way around.

[4] With apologies to Raymond Chandler.

[5] I generally put a comma before the coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence. Others regard it as unnecessary. I use it as I am a teacher, and I want to model a certain rectitude to my students when I am marking so they might have examples of what I am teaching to refer to when they attempt to implement what I’ve taught them. I respect your right, as an adult, not to use a comma in the same way, but I prefer that any students I teach make this decision from a position of knowing it is a thing they can use.

Added Tue, 16 Feb 2021 15:31

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