Times explains ‘arcane’ grammar term which juniors are expected to learn

Janet Downs's picture
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Key Stage 2 tests became more difficult in 2016 after a ‘curriculum revamp’, said The Times.

Children are expected to identify grammatical formulations and use arcane terms such as fronted adverbials,’ the paper said before explaining what fronted adverbials are.

The Times obviously thinks its readers wouldn’t have understood what this obscure jargon means without an explanation.  And it would be right.  I taught English for two decades and got a degree but I’d never come across this terminology until it appeared in the national curriculum.

Learning such esoteric terms is what now passes as education, it appears.  And it’s supposed to make our children among ‘the best in the world’.   How the rest of the world must laugh.   

Yet this is what teachers in England are expected to teach – obscure vocabulary which does nothing, absolutely nothing, to instil a love of English.   If anything, it has the opposite effect.  It reduces literature to nothing more than texts for analysis.

Worse, such pedantry can result in muddle and confusion. 

For example, the national curriculum says children must learn ‘use of commas’ after fronted adverbials.  I found several worksheets giving examples all followed by a comma.    My spirits sank.   Some I could understand.  ‘Totally overwhelmed’, for example.  Yes, I would put a comma after this phrase:

Totally overwhelmed, the child wept.

Nobody ever explicitly told me a comma was needed.  Without a comma, there would be no pause where it’s necessary.

But other listed words can be used with or without a comma depending on the context: ‘Daily’, ‘Outside’, ‘Perhaps’, ‘In the distance’, ‘Once’.

Consider Henry Reed’s poem, ‘Naming of Parts’.  Commas after the fronted adverbials are omitted or included for effect.  But an eleven-year-old Henry would be expected to include one after every instance of ‘today’.

 Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts
.’

‘Naming of parts’ is what children are being tested on in England.  When the Times’ education correspondent describes national curriculum content as ‘arcane’, it’s time to question whether this pedantry is really necessary.

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