What we can all learn from fronted adverbials

We all learn differently – and that's OK
Samuel Pollen
by Samuel Pollen

Are fronted adverbials the biggest bogeymen of lockdown?

If you don’t have children in primary school, you’re probably never heard of them. If you do, you may have spent the past few months trying to understand what on earth they are, and why anyone would waste their time on them.

For the record, these are fronted adverbials:

Lately, Sam’s posts had been brilliant.
As fast as they could, people clicked on the link.

You probably use them all the time. But you’ve never needed to give them a name.

And notice that, instead of providing a definition, I’ve just shown you some examples. Because that felt easier (to me) than trying to explain what they are.

People are very unhappy about fronted adverbials

Like it or not, fronted adverbials are part of the Year 4 National Curriculum. A lot of people don’t like it at all.

Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate, is one of their fiercest critics. He argues that English education should be less about naming bits of grammar, and more about the joy and freedom of the English language.

Homeschooling parents, meanwhile, have found themselves ambushed by a term they’d never heard before. Why are their children learning this stuff? On Twitter, many writers pointed out that they’ve done perfectly well without them.

But I’m naturally skeptical of people saying “I didn’t learn this, so it can’t be important”. Learning changes – and crucially, we all learn in different ways. Yes, there are many problems with the National Curriculum’s rigid approach to grammar. But for some students, a fronted adverbial may well be the thing that makes it all click, just because their brains happen to work that way.

I poked around a bit on Twitter, and found that some teachers are making exactly this point. And it got me thinking about what fronted adverbials can teach us.

1. Learning matters more than knowledge

How much of what you learned in school do you really use day to day? How often do you draw on algebra? How important is atomic structure to your everyday life?

Almost everything we learn is, in a narrow sense, useless. We learn it because the very process of learning it expands our minds, or because it’s interesting on its own terms.

Yes, joy and inspiration are important parts of education. But so are the frameworks and ideas that help us learn other things in the future. Our brains aren’t like libraries, where everything is neatly filed away. They’re more like skeletons. We hang new ideas from old ones, like muscles from bones. We can’t see the bones, but without them, the whole thing would fall down.

2. Making people feel stupid is stupid

The backlash against fronted adverbials teaches us something important, too. Jargon alienates people, because it makes them feel stupid.

Most of us understand fronted adverbials intuitively. But when confronted with the term – a piece of jargon – we suddenly worry that we don’t know anything. As a result, we reject the whole topic.

To put it another way: the problem with jargon isn’t just that people won’t understand it. It’s that they may take it as a signal that they aren’t part of the conversation.

This is particularly important when we think about, say, a service that everyone needs to access. That’s why the NHS now talks about ‘pee’ and ‘poo’ instead of ‘urine’ and ‘stools’.

3. We are all different

This is the most important point: we all learn differently.

Some children pick up English by osmosis, because they love reading so much. Some children don’t.

We do lots of writing and tone of voice training (usually for adults) at Reed Words, and we find the same thing. Some people like to learn through practical examples. Others prefer a clear set of rules. Still others need a persona or character to latch on to.

In language, as in all things, one person’s waste of time is another person’s lightbulb moment. And that’s a good lesson for us all.

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