Adverbs and Opportunities

I wasn’t going to blog about my thoughts on education.  I was going to stick to mathematics and resources, but a conversation on Twitter this week got me thinking, to the point where I had to write.  I know none of the people involved, but engaged with a tweet I simply didn’t understand.  If the people on the thread happen to read this, please be aware I am only trying to make my point in a way I couldn’t on Twitter.

It started with this:

I read the article, which says year 2 pupils will be tested on basic fractions (like half, quarter, third), spelling of words such as paints and thanked and knowledge of grammatical terms, including adverb.  My response was this:

Of course, Twitter is not a platform for sustained and reasoned debate, but neither was my question really addressed.  The first reply said, “No but being tested on them at 7 is.”  Yes and no.  I am going to stray into the realms of anecdotal fallacy here, but stick with me.  I sat some tests in primary school – at least I think I did.  I remember being taken to a room with a handful of others and told to answer some printed questions on a sheet of paper (I remember it because it was unusual) before returning to the classroom to get on with the normal day.  I didn’t think anything of it, no one mentioned tests, no one talked about it afterwards, it was only when I became a teacher that it occurred to me that I must have taken some kind of external assessment.  How vastly different that is from the current situation, when so much time in year six in numerous schools is given to SATs revision, and where we hear that the exams are built up to the point of inducing stress in children.  The existence of tests isn’t something to be complained about, but the way they can be administered is.

We will not get away from tests, the government wants to hold schools to account and chooses to do this through testing so, accepting that testing is here to stay, here’s my first thought: at no point in their seven years does the primary school child need to worry about a test.  This means they don’t need to do lots of practice papers, they don’t need to attend extra revision sessions and they don’t need to know that they are doing anything which is, to the school, high stakes.

My second issue with the Twitter thread is more about fundamental beliefs of education.  When a six year-old can learn the difference between a verb and a noun (which they absolutely can) a seven year-old can learn what an adverb is, they can put them in their writing and identify them in others’.  They may be crude or basic in their application of this learning, but the knowledge is not beyond them.  The suggestion that learning a part of speech takes something away from childhood is, quite frankly, ridiculous.  Young childhood is a wonderful state, where the brain soaks up the most fabulous information and the most pointless trivia with innocent delight, and the quest for more is unending.  So here’s my second thought: the child who wants to know everything should be taught as much as we can teach them, from grammar to mathematics to history to music to art to science and everything in-between.  Good spelling and grammar increases our capacity for engagement with the world, our ability to understand and to be understood.  By encouraging this in our children we help them to access so much more – please tell me why that is a bad thing.

They can still go home and play pirates in the garden.

Instead of giving any real reason why seven year-olds learning adverbs is so very wrong we moved to out-of-context Stephen King quotes (“The road to hell is paved with adverbs“) and proverbial babies in bath water with mention of the errors in the DfE’s exemplification materials for the year six assessments.

 

There are plenty of valid reasons to bemoan the new primary assessments.  Jon Brunskill, for instance, describes the physical impossibility of doing them properly, but the fact that adults cannot do the grammar is not one of them.  It certainly doesn’t render them pointless.  I’d contend it’s more of an indictment of the education those adults received – what a shame 95% of adults don’t know the grammar of their own language.

Is something really pointless because 95% of adults cannot do it?  I expect more than this proportion cannot do advanced mathematics, but that discipline is certainly not pointless.  Of course that doesn’t quite address the argument here, since we are not teaching eleven year-olds advanced mathematics, but the comment highlights an attitude I dislike in education, and leads to my third thought: knowledge is not only useful if it is relevant.  If I taught my students only things they found relevant (or things they envisaged would be relevant in their next twenty years), they would learn very little indeed.  They would end up rather empty-headed, able only to work out how much discount they were getting on their sale clothes and to explain why they should never trust a statistic on TV.  As an adult teacher, and more expert than they in my field, it is my responsibility to expose them to more, to open their minds and to open doors.

Primary teachers are exhausted, coping with more curriculum change than most of us, with less non-contact time to do so, and it would seem many are resentful, but that is no reason to lose sight of the opportunity here: we can raise the bar, the next generation can be better educated than us.

And they can still go home and build their Lego.

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17 comments

  1. I agree with 95% of this. The only thing I disagree with is the lack of practice tests for the kids. Why send them into the testing environment without any experience of it? Obviously, no need to associate any stakes with these tests. Anyway, the rest is absolutely spot on (in my irrelevant, killjoy opinion).

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    • Thanks for your thoughts. My reason for the lack of practice tests is the fact that I’m talking about seven year-olds (and, I guess, eleven year-olds too). There’s not much more reasoning to it than the fact that they’re so young, and there’s plenty of time for test practice at secondary school.

      I can’t quite see how doing practice tests wouldn’t then start the whole process of “turning it into a big deal” which I was trying to avoid.

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  2. I’d agree with your point that just because 95% of adults don’t know it, that’s no reason to say that we can’t teach it! And that knowing about adverbs is certainly not mutually incompatible with having a childhood. However, being highly stressed is incompatible with successful learning. There is no reason that the learning of adverbs and fractions can’t be led by teachers, and consolidated with low-stakes classroom-based quizzing. The only problem is a lack of trust in teachers.

    I think it’s a bit unrealistic to say “at no point in their seven years does the primary school child need to worry about a test.” The fact is that people do worry about formal tests and exams! Keeping testing low-key and teacher-led avoids a lot of the stress, and makes it more about learning than about government standards.

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    • Thanks for your comment.

      I deliberately didn’t talk about the necessity or validity of the tests themselves for fear of losing my main point. You’ll notice I said, “accepting that testing is here to stay”. I’m actually inclined to agree with you, but that situation is a long way off.

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  3. People who argue emotively about taking away children’s childhood never talk about the actual amount of time children spend in school. Which, over the course of a year, is actually only around 25% of their waking hours. And in my experience no more than half of that, at most, is devoted to “formal” lessons – which at that age are rarely all that formal anyway.

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  4. Reblogged this on Lightening the load and commented:
    This sums up very well the nonsense around the high-stakes testing of GPS (or SPaG!). It applies to Y6 as much as Y2. A teacher commented to me yesterday that this robs writing of its fun. The problem is that we are in a time of high prescription and high accountability. The groundwell of parents opposed to the Tests and the pressure from unions to boycott them may have the power to bring about change, but this isn’t going to happen overnight. It was J S Mill who said, ‘my father never gave me a childhood’. These Y2 children, whom jemmaths refers to are not 100 months old! They need their childhood too. Go figure, Nicky Morgan.

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  5. Hi there, I stumbled across this and since you quote me fairly liberally in it, it seems only polite to reply. The point I was making about adverbs is not that a 6 year old can’t learn to spot one – of course they can – but that this focus on the naming of parts is slanting the whole of KS1 and narrowing the curriculum, to the point at which 20,000 parents end up signing a petition saying they are going to keep their kids out of school on 3rd May in protest. (Also, I think it is completely fair to say that quite a lot of 6 year olds don’t actually care if it’s an adverb or not.) If the adverb spotting wasn’t checked in a high stakes test, then schools wouldn’t focus on it to the exclusion of other things. Kids could still learn what adverbs are (and hopefully learn how to avoid them as well – see the Stephen King quote below.)

    I saw a Year 6 timetable yesterday which was basically English and Maths all week, interspersed with a couple of lessons of PE. Is that really what we want to happen? Is that really what you want to happen? It strikes me as crazy that we are testing the ability of 11 year olds to use things like semi colons, not because they can’t be taught to do it in what might appear to be an accurate manner, but because they are just that bit too young to get how subtle you need to be with using these forms of punctuation. I can slap a semi colon into every piece of writing I do, but it doesn’t turn it into a good piece of writing. The problem for me isn’t with SPaG, the problem is trying to come at the teaching of writing from the direction of SPaG. Good writing is not about sticking bits of grammar together because you know what they are called, it is about expression.

    In terms of my comment about adults not knowing grammar, we are now at the point with the KS2 tests where even teachers on Twitter are debating about whether or not the DfE have correctly shown the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a subordinating one in the exemplification materials. If the DfE can’t get this right, or we can’t agree on whether they have got it right, then is this really something that we should be asking 10 year old kids to do? (Remember that ‘grammar’ is not about a set of rules, it is about an agreed form of communication and there are plenty of disputes, even among copy editors, about what is and is not ‘correct’.) In the grand scheme of things, I think there are far more important things for my children to be able to do at 10 years old, than to identify these kind of things (such as to make sure that they use there/their correctly every time). If the curriculum is narrowed to ensure that they can spot the grammatical terms (which is patently what is happening) then that is a big problem for me and for many parents and teachers. It’s also a mistake to assume that someone saying ‘don’t test children on x’ means they are saying ‘don’t ever teach children x’ although it’d probably be wise to leave just a little bit of stuff over for them to learn in KS3.

    “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Stephen King.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Sue. I should have tagged you on Twitter so you saw the piece, this is all new to me, my apologies that I didn’t.

      Having read what you’ve written, I don’t think there is any main point I disagree with. A curriculum of maths and English at the expense of all else is a travesty. I firmly believe what I wrote, that primary school kids should have no testing pressure whatsoever, but I also believe that senior management teams need to be stronger and not pass this pressure to their staff. I also agree that this ridiculous situation is a direct consequence of the pressure of high stakes testing, but that doesn’t mean these things shouldn’t be on the curriculum. I guess the solution is to remove the tests, but the politicians won’t do that, how else would they keep tabs on us?!

      The only thing you write that I take issue with is the idea that a 7 year-old doesn’t care what an adverb is. You’re right, they probably don’t, but that has no bearing on whether or not they should be taught it, in my opinion.

      We can’t properly discuss any of these very important, very complex issues on Twitter, it just doesn’t work, hence why I wrote what I did. Your King quote, for instance, comes from a fascinating wider discussion about the nuances of adverb use, as you know, but on Twitter it gets reduced to a sound bite that appeals to the inner ranter in us all!

      I’m really glad you’ve replied, and through the piece I’ve had a number of very interesting discussions that have helped to further develop my thinking.

      Thanks again for taking the time to reply.

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  6. Hi again, thanks for replying to my reply.

    Just something else for you to ponder on this subject. My kid just came home from school with a story she had written (she’s in Year 5). Because of the emphasis at the moment on knowing what ‘fronted adverbials’ are, her story writing has gone totally weird. Every sentence starts with a fronted adverbial, which makes for a very strange sounding story (I wrote this blog a while ago about this problem: https://suecowley.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/unsurprisingly-perhaps/). So while it seems in theory like a fine thing to teach a child to spot and use fronted adverbials, the reality is that if you introduce the naming (and using) of parts too early, you get some very odd effects. Her story writing has probably gone downhill because of the requirements of the SPaG test, rather than uphill, because she is young and she doesn’t understand the nuances of only using this stuff when it is appropriate. It’s the same problem with adverbs, which professional writers will use rarely if at all, but if you teach a child to over use them because you want them to be able to ‘spot’ them, their writing will be full of them when really, they are best avoided. In my experience you are far better off focusing on getting to good writing through lots of talk, and lots of reading, rather than from the direction of grammar. The most appropriate place for the teaching of complex grammatical terminology is probably more in MFL or linguistics, than in primary literacy.

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    • Interesting. I’ve yet to encounter this, but we’ll be seeing the year 2 tests first-hand next year.

      Thinking out loud here, will the nuance not come later, as it probably would anyway, only with a potentially larger arsenal than would currently be the case?

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  7. I’m sure you’re right: the nuance will come later as all sorts of grammatical nuances do. To talk about ‘readiness’ is to me a nonsense. Why shouldn’t teachers be teaching the names of the various parts of speech, starting with the simple and moving towards the more complex. After all, we use fronted adverbial phrases in our speech and our writing all the time.
    Of course, it is also to be expected that many children will ‘regress’, which is to say that they will overuse/over generalise structures of language to which they have just been introduced until they sit happily within their overall repertoire. Exactly the same is true of learning a foreign language. And, might I say that developing a knowledge of the formal structures of English is a huge help when learning a foreign language.

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    • Thanks for your thoughts. I see no reason why knowing explicitly about these structures should inhibit nuance, I think nuance comes with experience anyway. It’s like playing an instrument – you learn the notes and the structures, you play rather dull music for a long time, nuance and expression come after greater fluency and automaticity is gained.

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