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Fronted adverbials and sucking the joy out of language


The British government, in all its collected wisdom, has decided that school children aged 10-11 should be able to identify by name grammatical rules like fronted adverbials and split digraphs.

In case you're wondering, a fronted adverbial is “a word or phrase that is used, like an adverb, to modify a verb or clause and has been moved in front of the verb or clause”. What kid wouldn't be rampant to learn more after hearing such an exciting definition?

This, coupled with the push for younger students to use ever more flowery language, has many worried that it's damaging children's creative writing and, more worryingly, interest in learning language.

Before 'what', how about 'why?'

I'm not against teaching grammatical rules and telling students what they are, but do kids need to know the names of these rules so soon?

It seems the emphasis is on what to teach, rather than why. Students at the age of 10 are still developing. They're still learning a lot and experimenting with what they're learning.

Even if you tell students the name of the grammatical rules - which, again, I'm not against - is it necessary to force them to identify them by name on tests? Surely being able to use them correctly is better than being able to identify them?

Are they trying to produce a generation of grammarians or trying to help students use language effectively and creatively?

To illustrate my point, let's turn to mathematics for a second. Which is more important, students being able to correctly complete sums like 2+2=4, or being able to identify terms related to those sums like infix notation, operators and operands, integers, and telling you that it's commutative and associative?


Sucking the joy and creativity out of learning

Like I said, knowing grammatical terms can be very useful. I work in education, develop English language materials, and work as an editor and writer, so knowing what I'm doing with language certainly helps.

But when I was 10, I just wanted to write stories and read books. I cared that I'd made spelling mistakes or made some grammatical errors, but I wasn't required to identify the name of the mistake I'd made - that came much later when my knowledge of language had grown a great deal.

This why a bunch of politicians shouldn't be deciding what kids learn, especially when it all seems geared towards passing tests. Here in Japan, I've met many people who can tell me the name of grammatical terms in English, yet can't string a sentence together in the language. Surely that's not what we want for native speakers of the language - especially at such a young age.

Sadly, it's not just language learning that people seem determined to suck the joy and creativity out of. It's education in general.

As a teacher, one of the joys of teaching is seeing students have that 'aha!' moment when something clicks. Seeing them then use what they've learnt in creative, personalized ways shows me that they're internalizing it in a meaningful way far better than any test could.

Rather than forcing ever more rules down children's throats, let's encourage them to be more creative and active in their own learning.

Let's encourage them to be inquisitive and curious.

Let's show them that language is a wonderful thing that's flexible and living, rather than reducing it to a list of terms they need to remember and name.

Let's give them skills rather than rules.

On that note, and in case you haven't seen it already, please watch this wonderful talk by Ken Robinson which shows that killing creativity in schools certainly isn't a new thing.


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