Posted by Susan Young at 14/06/2012 14:59:31
Well, it's taken me the best part of an hour of sleuthing on the web, but I now know what a fronted adverbial is. That is to say, I've understood them for years and years, but never knew what they were called before.
Just to explain, fronted adverbials have been the subject of much mockery on Twitter this week since they popped up, somewhat unexpectedly, as a requirement for 7-9 year olds in the government's shiny new draft English curriculum.
Here I am, degree in English and history, educated at a school which insisted we had etymological dictionaries and taught grammar explicitly -- and baffled by something that the government thinks my young son should be learning in school.
At the time, I was spending hours ploughing through all three draft schemes of work and all the associated material to write a guide for this website and the line about fronted adverbials was one of several eyebrow-raising sentences meriting further investigation.
Hoping to find the easy way out, my opening gambit was to ask someone who can cheerfully quote great chunks of Early and Middle English poetry over lunch and whose learning in the subject is probably unusually rarified. He screwed his face up. "A what?" he asked. "Never heard of it. Though fronted probably means that it goes at the front of the thing it's modifying."
The best part of 40 minutes' web research later, I'd managed to prove he was right -- though only thanks to a site aimed at students learning English as a foreign language. I can tell you there are people out there asking what a fronted adverb is, but precious few answers, and even fewer which are comprehensible.
So here (thank you Alex Stringer) is the explanation: "Fronting is mainly used by writers (authors, journalists etc) for dramatic effect. It is not common in everyday speech. It is useful to be able to recognize fronting when you see it. However, you do not need to use these structures to demonstrate a good working knowledge of English."
And here is an example: "On the table stood a vase of flowers (A vase of flowers stood on the table)."
My point here is that this is actually quite a simple way of writing for emphasis, but very few people know the correct grammatical term for it -- so why on earth stick it in the draft curriculum without explanation? Like other aspects of these documents, it strikes me that a point is being made: that teachers should be experts in all these things, and that it's OK to rub their noses in what the authors regard as "ignorance" in their drive to make learning more demanding.
Further to that, reading and re-reading the curriculum gave me the nagging feeling that it was a very political document in places, with a politician's view of what should be taught. This sentence in particular stood out in the English curriculum: "Reading widely and often increases pupils’ understanding and vocabulary because they encounter words they would rarely hear or use in everyday speech. It also opens up a treasure-house of wonder and joy for curious young minds."
If that wasn't written personally by Michael Gove, I'd be extraordinarily surprised. Another with the same sort of feel about it, which pops up more than once, is: "teachers should ensure pupils build secure foundations by using discussion to probe and remedy their misconceptions." Remedy their misconceptions? That's the sort of sentence you might hear from an elderly Oxbridge don.
What I'm driving at here is the troubling feel -- articulated far better than I can by a former member of the expert panel, Professor Andrew Pollard -- that this is a curriculum where the demands of politicians over-rode the experience of the experts.
I am not a curriculum expert in any sense, and so can't opine on how good, bad or workable the drafts are. For what it's worth, the science seemed particularly well thought through, and I'm quite comfortable with the learning of times-tables and poems, spellings, and the push towards oral presentations. And I really liked the reiteration that books should be read to children throughout their primary years. I have to admit, though, to being slightly puzzled by the requirement for 8-year-olds children to learn to tell the time on a clock with Roman numerals, and doubtful about explicit teaching of grammar names early on.
But there are bigger questions. How feasible will it actually be for all children to master all of the things in all of these curriculum areas before the class moves on? Is this what happens in the "high-achieving jurisdictions" which we're told have inspired the new curricula -- and if so, what percentage of the pupils keep up throughout? What about in mixed-age classes, common in many rural schools? How likely is it that a school could choose to run some of the topics in a different order to that prescribed in the 3 programmes of work?
And how equivalent is the new curriculum to the level of the current one? Much higher, would be my guess. (I think I've just written a fronted adverbial there. Not sure what good it's done for any of us to know what it's called though.)
A final thought -- how are the KS tests going to work? Are we going to be seeing tests for 11-year-olds covering everything they've learned, with GCSE-style A-G marking? Something tells me that although much of what's in the drafts is already being taught, they are going to herald some truly enormous changes. It's going to be fascinating to see what comes out of the consultation.
Susan Young is an education journalist. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org