"Modal verbs? Not a clue!"

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A couple of years ago, a LLOG guest post by Richard Hudson proposed "Three cheers for Michael Gove" in recognition of his role in "the re-introduction of grammatical analysis n the British School curriculum".

Now Ben Hemmens draws our attention to A L Kennedy's recent BBC 4 manifesto, "The power of language", which introduces the topic this way:

My work has been translated into more than twenty languages, I've won national and international awards, even, and yet I have no idea what a fronted adverbial is. Modal verb? Not a clue. In three high-functioning decades, I've never needed that language to describe my language, my personal voice rendered in writing; and I am lost for words when I learn that primary school children are now forced to scramble over unwieldy syntactical terms in order to communicate.

Ben writes:

I am a bit gobsmacked by Kennedy's ferocious denunciation of the grammar teaching, which is probably so sweeping that there wouldn't be much point responding to it – but it did make me wonder how the program is going, as seen by people who know something about it.  

Is there any review of how well the primary-school grammar teaching is working, or is it perhaps time for an update to the LL post?



  1. Laura Morland said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

    Are PRIMARY schoolchildren in the U.K. *really* taught to learn "fronted adverbials" (a term not in my lexicon, either, although I could hazard a guess)? That sounds like wild hyperbole.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 1:08 pm

    "Fronted adverbials, words or phrases that describe the action in a sentence, are introduced to KS2 children in Year 4. Find out how to identify them and how your child will be taught to use fronted adverbials in their writing in our parents' guide to primary grammar concepts." http://www.theschoolrun.com/what-are-fronted-adverbials

    I believe BrEng "Year 4" = AmEng "third grade."

    I think I first learned what a modal verb was in ninth or tenth grade. Not in English class, of course! Don't be silly. I was taking German as an elective, so in that context they actually did feel the need to teach us grammar in a structured and explicit way, despite the fact that it was circa 1980 and all was generally chaos and nihilism in the U.S. public schools during the brief interregnum between the hippies' overthrow of the ancien regime and the rise of helicopter parenting (largely invented by aging hippies turned overprotective worrywarts).

  3. Cheryl Thornett said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

    Yes, identifying a 'fronted adverbial' was part of an English test for 11 year olds. The Goves of this world tend to think that learning labels is the same as actually knowing how to use the structures and patterns of language, perhaps because you can test that with multi-choice questions that can be run through a computer more easily than skill in language use. I rate 'modal verb' as a more useful label to know, but would prefer that children know how to use them effectively whether they know the label or not.

  4. Cheryl Thornett said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

    J.W. Brewer Year 4 is equivalent to 5th grade: reception, Y1, Y2, Y3, Y4, Y5, Y6. The test is taken in year 6.

  5. Simon said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

    Gove's ill-conceived grammar crusade is causing lots of problems – not least because the teaching material and tests are riddled with errors. Children's author extraordinaire Michael Rosen has blogged extensively on this: http://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.co.uk/ there is even a recent contribution from LL guru Geoff Pullum.

  6. John Baker said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

    Is Kennedy wrong? She doesn't sound wrong (although I only read the excerpt above and did not listen to her). I had a lot of grammar instruction in what would now be considered middle school, although it did not cover fronted adverbials or modal verbs (at least not by those names), and I don't feel that I got much out of it.

  7. Bas Aarts said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 3:19 pm

    In answer to Ben's question, have a look at these publications:

    2016. Safford, Kimberly. “Teaching Grammar and Testing Grammar in the English Primary School: The Impact on Teachers and Their Teaching of the Grammar Element of the Statutory Test in Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG).” Changing English 23 (2016): 3–21.

    2016. Bell, Huw. “Teacher Knowledge and Beliefs about Grammar: A Case Study of an English Primary School.” English in Education, 2016, 1–16.


  8. BenHemmens said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 3:58 pm


    Thanks for the link to rosenblog. Seems like there is more than enough material there to give me an idea of what's going on.

    I am someone who grew up in the essentially school-grammar-free era of the 70s and 80s but have developed a need for at least a rudimentary knowledge of grammar because I now work as a translator between German and English. It is simply impossible to describe the things that have to be done to sentences and paragraphs to transform them from decent German to decent English without being able to identify some of the bits and name them; and quite facinating to do so to even the sketchy level I have reached.

    I'm convinced this does not harm my writing ability, to say the least.

    At the same time I guess I understand someone like AL Kennedy who has learned easily to write well (I presume: I must now read some of her work) getting irritated at the idea of young kids being taught these terms at an age when she and I were learning to express ourselves perfectly well in writing without bothering about them.

    But it drives me a bit crazy hearing a rant like this. It makes me wonder what she is really attacking: the whole idea of teaching kids about grammar, which seems to me to be potentially good, and it seems pretty evident that people like Dick Hudson have put a good effort into getting it done right, or perhaps the stuff described in the three cheers post has since been through the expert-hating part of the Govian policy-processing machine and been implemented all arseways.

    I make a note to delve into the rosenblog when I have time.

  9. Rubrick said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 5:29 pm

    Based on the "fronted adverbial" discussion, it does rather sound as though Gove's program is repeating a lot of the mistakes of New Math. Teaching children the concepts of grammar in a way that will make sense and be useful to them is a fine idea, but it is certainly not the same as teaching them a (likely innacurate?) version of what academic linguists study.

    I shouldn't sit too tall astride my high horse, though, since I haven't looked at the actual instructional materials.

  10. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 10:16 pm

    Heaven forfend children should learn true facts in school!

    I applaud high standards in school. I think the problem is when we expect everyone to be able to meet those standards. A lot of people can do very well in life without ever understanding what a modal verb is, but that shouldn't stop us from trying to teach them.

  11. maidhc said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 11:35 pm

    Grammar fell out of favour because no one could come up with a study that convincingly demonstrated that being taught grammar made you a better writer.

    I believe that there might be other reasons to learn grammar, however. I'd consider it to be a part of general knowledge.

    I have observed, however, people who think it would be helpful for people who are completely unable to express themselves in writing, for them to learn long lists of terms like hyperbole, simile, litotes, etc. I'm not sure why.

  12. Sawney said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 2:35 am

    Can I just point out that there is no such thing as a "British School" curriculum? If you have another look at Richard Hudson's post, you'll see that the education system is different for each of the constituent countries of the UK. The Govian reforms applied only to the National Curriculum in England.

  13. Sawney said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 3:09 am

    Sorry, I meant to add that AL Kennedy is a product of the separate Scottish education system, albeit from one of its private, fee-paying institutions (which may account for her distinctly non-Scottish accent).

  14. Biscia said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 4:25 am

    Whether there's a point to it or not depends on what actually happens in the classroom, but I think in any case she's getting it backwards. Grammatical analysis shows us how to break down and comprehend a highly complex system that everyone uses already. It’s like teaching music theory to people who can play the piano fairly well: of course it’s unlikely to improve their performance, because that depends on all kinds of other factors. But by engaging them on an abstract, level, you give them the tools to talk and think about it, and to transfer the skills they've acquired to an unfamiliar but related field (learning a different instrument, learning another language).

  15. Biscia said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 4:27 am

    (Lost a word, sorry: on an abstract, intellectual level.)

  16. Eneri Rose said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 7:15 am

    Thank you for your excellent example and analysis!

  17. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    Through learning Latin and French at school, I know lots of grammatical terminology. I know the genuine, technical, meaning of 'passive voice'; I know what a relative clause is; I know several possible meanings of 'subjunctive'. But I, too, have no idea what a fronted adverbial is. The puzzle is not simply why children are being taught grammar, but why they are being taught it in such a weird way.

    (And the passage J.W. Brewer quotes does seem to show that children are indeed being introduced to these concepts in the course of being taught to use them, not just to think about them analytically.)

  18. languagehat said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 11:17 am

    But I, too, have no idea what a fronted adverbial is. The puzzle is not simply why children are being taught grammar, but why they are being taught it in such a weird way.

    I deprecate the common tendency to conflate "something I am not personally familiar with" with "weird."

  19. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 11:21 am

    Once upon a time, "grammar" (grammatica, γραμματική) meant the formal study of a (usually "dead") literary language, such as Latin in medieval and early modern Europe. However the meaning of the term may have changed, a knowledge of grammar is still useful primarily in learning foreign languages, or, in the case of (even mild) diglossia, the standard variety of one's own language. As Sawney points out, A L Kennedy (as evidenced by her speech) was educated in a kind of English that is very close to the literary standard, so she may well have "never needed that language to describe [her] language"; but it's rather presumptuous of her to claim the the same is true for British schoolchildren in general.

  20. DWalker said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    Similar to J.W.Brewer's comments, I learned quite a bit about English (American) grammar, and grammar in general, while trying to learn Spanish in high school.

    I had done well in grammar before that (the say it was taught in my part of America in the mid-70s), so my previous knowledge might have helped.

  21. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    I find that, as a writing tutor, some command of grammatical terminology and analysis is very useful in explaining to students how and where they err in their writing. Even the conventions of formal writing, which aren't of interest to most academic linguists, are easier to describe and teach if you have a grasp of linguistics. For example, why do we place commas around so-called "nonessential" modifiers, but not around "essential" modifiers? The usual way writing coaches explain it doesn't make a lot of sense to me and I dare say not to students either. According to the traditional explanation, the essential modifiers change the meaning of the sentence, while nonessential modifiers do not. But surely any modifier adds new information and changes the meaning? Once you understand the difference between reference and sense, however, you can explain how the nonessential modifier affects the sense, but not the reference, of a sentence.

  22. BenHemmens said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 1:29 pm


    "But I, too, have no idea what a fronted adverbial is."

    Indeed. You can call it Suzy. But I tend to believe it can hardly be completely useless to be able to spot that bit of a sentence and put it here or there.

  23. Sandy Nicholson said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 4:39 am

    As a footnote to J.W. Brewer and Sawney’s comments, it’s worth noting that the term ‘Year 4’ isn’t actually BrEng terminology: it’s as meaningless to us in Scotland as it is to Americans. I just looked it up, and apparently it is equivalent to either ‘Primary 4’ or ‘Primary 5’ in Scotland (depending on where in the year the child’s birthday falls). The KS (key stage) terminology doesn’t mean anything in Scotland either. And, luckily for us in Scotland, Michael Gove has never had anything to do with our education system.

  24. peterv said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 4:56 am

    Grammar is a language for talking about language. Who needs to talk about language? Well, linguists do. And perhaps it is helpful for anyone, adult or child, learning a second language. But none of us needed this language about language to learn our first language, so it is not obvious to me that we need it to learn any subsequent language. I am still waiting to see a compelling pedagogical argument that we should be teaching primary-school children such abstractions.

    Of course the changes in British education are not driven by any good pedagogical arguments, but by an obsession (mainly on the right) with teaching children so-called facts. Learning the parts of speech, learning by rote the times tables, learning the dates of great historical events, etc,all mean there is far less time for students to understand the causes of anything, and thus to critique what they are told, in school and outside.

  25. Carmen said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 6:12 am

    I teach in a secondary school in London and, in my opinion, children would benefit from learning grammar. I am not talking about the different approaches to linguistics or a long list of technical word. They are already learning technical words and it is not helping them at all, partly because what they are taught is not fully true (a verb is not a doing word). Simple concepts like commutation and permutation are very useful and they can be taught in a playful manner while they manipulate language, while they see their possible consequences on agreement or loss of meaning, for example.

    My students, even the more able ones, punctuate randomly because they don't know how to parse sentences in their own language. They also capitalise randomly, possible because they don't know what a name is, but I am sure there is more to it because it looks so random.

    When I was at school most of us learned to punctuate and spell by practising and reading extensively. Pinker has recently argued that good writers are either very experienced readers or have learned how to parse sentences (or both). Most of my students' choice of reading is very different from what I was reading at their age, so it is not a bad idea to give them extra tools so that they can manipulate language for their own purposes in a creative manner.

    If I am going to explain to my students why "we was robbed" can be a funny punch line to a football match that went wrong I need them to understand what "subject verb agreement" is. This knowledge will also be useful later on when they attend job interviews (for example). Labels like "fronted adverbials" and other latinate labels do not have to be taught or used in school and are often used because of the weight of authority that they used to carry in the times before "descriptive grammar". These labels were used to mark people as "the uncouth" who split infinitives and did not know how to use the fish knife.

    There is a place for grammar in school and when I explain grammar to my students they understand it and they feel cheated that they have not learned it before. They also enjoy it and find it useful.

  26. BenHemmens said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 4:32 am

    Michael Rosen has just posted this: http://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.co.at/2016/07/fronted-adverbial-fronted-adjectival.html?spref=tw

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