This Much I Know

Lynne Barrett-Lee


At her laptop, she toiled away, and happily. Because that day, a bright spring day, full of birdsong and daffodils, she had a moment of divine inspiration.

‘Hold the front page!’ she sang. ‘I have thought a great thought!’ And though the singing, of necessity, was mostly to herself, she sang so merrily and finely that her cats stretched and left, clearly keen to venture out and spread the word.

Her thought was this. That there were all sorts of areas in her life where ‘a little knowledge’ was not the danger most supposed it to be, but, perhaps ironically, a Very Helpful Thing. She paused in her singing to count them off on her fingers.

Knowledge about her car, for example, which automobile, for the most part, she drove happily, instinctively, and well. About her washing machine, whose centrifugal mysteries were mostly lost on her, but which, via the accurate deployment of liquitabs and softener, rendered her husband’s noisome gym kit clean and fresh. About the smart phone and tablet that sat beside her, ever ready, and which, when she applied gentle thumb print to portal, sprang obligingly into pixelated life.

‘Why, Lola, why Harvey,’ she told the cats when they returned. ‘You know, sometimes – if you’ll forgive the somewhat over-tired metaphor – knowing a lot about a little can be an obstruction to enlightenment, because you can’t see the wood for the trees!’

Because the key thing was this. That she had, by some miracle, managed to make a living as an author, despite having NEVER heard of ‘fronted adverbials’! Lordy, she thought (beset by imposter syndrome, obviously). How could that possibly be? Because, according to the current National Curriculum for English, if you don’t know your fronted adverbials by the time you are eight, you are destined for the linguistic scrap heap.

This might seem random, but it’s not. It’s important. One of those bugbears that’s been brewing in me (I’m also a trained teacher), fermented by regular exposure to a newly qualified teacher – my Joe’s Hannah – and the astonishingly daft things she’s expected to teach. It was also sparked by a humorous piece I saw on facebook this week, in which the primary school English curriculum was skewered for its bonkersness – a piece in which not a single member of an entire family could do their child’s homework on ‘fronted adverbials’.

Straw poll. Can you define, and give examples of, a fronted adverbial? A modal verb? A determiner? Really?

If so, good on you. But I can’t. At least, I couldn’t.  But since I’m not a professor of linguistics, or teaching English as a second language, it’s my bold assertion that perhaps I don’t need to. Which makes me wonder – why are today’s seven and eight year olds expected to?

Happily, because I do like a bit of robust corroboration of a Saturday, NATE (The National Association for the Teaching of English) agree, citing, in their 2016 analysis of the curriculum, the requirement to teach ‘an extraordinary overload of metalinguistic concepts and grammatical categories’, for children who, in many cases, are still learning to read. Which, much like an overwrought fronted adverbial, they consider as completely ‘back-to-front’.  Just as you don’t to know how your carburettor works before taking your driving test (if indeed, ever), so it’s not necessary to know your adverbials from your determiners before penning a thrilling story about your trip to Barry Island, or a jaunty prose poem about your dinner.

What you do need to do, of course, is read, and be read to. We learn how to use written language by reading it. And reading it. Because the more we read, the quicker, and more intuitively, we learn.

Yes, yes, yes, I hear you cry, but why the sudden rant, Lynne? Well, to quote Edgar Rice Burroughs, who knew a bit about English, because it sometimes seems as if there’s ‘a universal pedagogical complex. To make the acquiring of knowledge a punishment rather than a pleasure’. But mostly, and crucially, because there’s a big crisis in teaching currently, with a 25% increase in unfilled posts in just two short years. Because less and less people want to do it.

Would you? Having to stand and drone at little ones about metalinguistic concepts, before they have a hope in hell of even spelling it? Of testing them on their understanding of modal verbs, when you could be reading them The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?

As quickly as she could, Miss Brodie ripped up her teaching post application and applied to work in banking instead.

And, yup, that’s a fronted adverbial.



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