Do you know what a fronted adverbial is? Joyfully, the woman read the report from University College London and York University, which says that grammar lessons don’t help children write stories. There you go. It’s where the adverbial phrase is at the front of the sentence, before the verb. Do you feel better for knowing that? More inclined to write a story? Nor do our children, according to the report.
None of which comes as a surprise to me. I was introduced to fronted adverbials in 2020, when I was home schooling my son, Matt. It wasn’t an easy time, I’m sure you’ll remember, and as I reeled from trying to navigate a changed world, I was stunned by how much of the actual difficulty in my comparatively fortunate daily life came from the agony of trying to help Matt with his grammar lessons.
I tried to have a good attitude about it. I wasn’t taught grammar at school and this never prevented me from expressing myself and earning my living as a writer, but maybe I could enjoy learning something new. Anyway, how hard could it be?
Dear reader, it was awful. Now, admittedly Matt is dyslexic, hypermobile and struggles to sit still, which adds complexity to his learning, but I am none of those things and it made me want to cry too. Surely this can’t be right, I thought. Surely if a highly literate writer can’t understand or see the point in the lesson then there must be something wrong in inflicting this on all 10-year-olds? Because it wasn’t just difficult to grasp, most of it would lead to bad writing.
I asked around parents of other children and found Matt and I were far from alone in our anguish. The very best that could be said about it was that it was unhelpful. A writer friend said she’d had to stop offering her daughter any editorial suggestions because she was supposed to be writing clumsy, ugly sentences to demonstrate her knowledge.
“Do you know what Kafkaesque means?” I asked Matt.
We ended up in tears so often that I pulled the plug. It felt grim and wrong to try to force my child to do something I knew was pointless, so I took an executive decision that we would read Animal Farm instead. My husband, more of a rule follower, was uneasy at me going off-piste. “He’s never going to be able to do it,” I said. “And it’s making us both anxious and distressed. And if the world does end soon I’m going to be full of rage that I spent my last days on joy-squeezing activities introduced by Michael Gove.”
The saddest thing for me about the education system, as I have witnessed it, is that it seems almost intentionally calculated to create anxious children, parents and teachers. Matt was only four the first time I was told he was “behind the benchmark”, which I still think is an obscene and revolting way to describe any child, and this emphasis on his shortcomings and failures has continued. The irony is that none of it will really matter in the future. He won’t need to understand grammar or have neat handwriting or even be able to spell to do most jobs. I just have to hope that we have sufficiently mitigated the damage over the years from him constantly feeling stupid for not being able to do things that are beyond his capabilities. Still, he knows what Kafkaesque means, which is the word I most often reach for to describe the education system.
None of this is the fault of the teachers, who are often in a situation of having to implement actions that they know don’t serve the children in their care. And the parents I feel most sorry for are those who aren’t confident writers, who don’t work out that the system is at fault, who are vulnerable to thinking that they and their child are in the wrong, that if only they work harder or concentrate better, then everything will be OK.
It’s a big, complex question, the matter of how we educate our children, and I imagine it feels overwhelming from the inside. I am not an expert. I’m just a parent and a lover of words and stories who feels deeply sad at all the unnecessary stress and missed opportunities and the avalanche of mental health problems in children and their parents and teachers. The bold thing would be to take a blank sheet of paper and start again. Could we not do that? Could we not ask how we want to educate our children, all of them, with creativity and joy? Failing that, we could undo anything that Gove had anything to do with. Failing that, we could just stop teaching about fronted adverbials.
I promise, dear reader, that even if your child ends up making their living through words, they will never need to know what one is.