Adverbials and positioning in clauses

In this lesson, we look at ways of teaching adverbials and the different ways they can be positioned inside clauses.


Lesson Plan

In this lesson, we take the concept of the adverbial and explore it through the analysis and creation of literary texts. This has 3 steps:

  1. Exploring the readerly effects of different adverbials, without using subject terminology.
  2. Explanation/re-cap on the nature of adverbials, introducing subject terminology.
  3. Experimenting with word order.

1. Exploring the interpretative effects of adverbials

To begin the lesson, show the students the following sentences, all taken from novels by Roald Dahl (of course, you could replace these sentences with suitable ones from a particular book or poem that you are reading with your class, if you prefer):

  1. Suddenly, a tremendous thumping noise came from outside the cave entrance.
  2. Very slowly, add ten hairs from your own head.
  3. As she floated gently down, Mrs Twit's petticoat billowed out like a parachute, showing her long knickers.
  4. On Wednesdays, the Twits had Bird Pie for supper.

As you show the students the sentences, ask them to discuss the following questions:

  1. What stands out in your attention when you read each example?
  2. Why do you think the writer might have placed the things he did at the beginning of the sentence? What does this make you feel and think, when you read it?
  3. Can you play with the order of the sentence, so that different things stand out, or different things are moved to the front? What happens this time?

Encourage students to look closely at the language of the text in their responses. For example:

Notice how in this activity, there has not yet been any requirement to use grammatical terminology. As it turns out, the sentences all feature examples of adverbials, the nature of which we shall explore further in stage 2. Some of your students may have noticed this in their discussions - but it doesn't matter if not. Maybe Dahl was very conscious that he placed an adverbial at the front of the clause. Or maybe he wasn't. Who knows. But the fact is, that the grammar of the text leads us to react to it in particular ways.

One reading of the sentences is that the fronted adverbial in each sentence captures our attention - it's new information, it's made prominent, and it's what our attention focuses on when we first read it. This then, is one motivation for using what we call fronted adverbials, where the adverbial is simply placed at the beginning of a clause or sentence. Thus, the terminology becomes useful for helping to explain the kinds of things that language does.

Now we have explored the potential readerly effects of adverbials and the motivations writers might have in using them, we can look at the grammatical properties of adverbials.

2. Explanation/re-cap on the nature of adverbials

If your students are already familiar with adverbials, you could use this stage of the lesson as a simple re-cap/consolidation opportunity. You could do this by using our identify the adverbials activity, for example.

Let's look again at the sentences from stage 1 of this lesson. This time, some of the adverbials have been put in bold:

  1. Suddenly, a tremendous thumping noise came from outside the cave entrance.
  2. Very slowly, add ten hairs from your own head.
  3. As she floated gently down, Mrs Twit's petticoat billowed out like a parachute, showing her long knickers.
  4. On Wednesdays, the Twits had Bird Pie for supper.

An adverbial is a grammatical function label. Adverbials can be in different forms. For example: adverbs (e.g. suddenly), adverb phrases (e.g. very slowly), subordinate clauses (e.g. as she floated gently down), or preposition phrases (e.g. on Wednesdays). Adverbials tell us more information about why, when or where things happened.

3. Experimenting with word order

One property of adverbials is that they are very flexible, and can be moved around in a clause or sentence. Moving adverbials around can produce different kinds of effects and subtle shades in meaning. Here are some of the possibilities for sentence (2):

Those who have keen eyes may also have noticed that this sentence has another adverbial: from your own head. So, we could have even more fun with word order:

Next, for each example sentence ask the class: what does the positioning of the adverbial 'do' in each sentence? Does the way you read the sentence change? If so, how? What becomes the focus of your attention in each one?

One idea would be that as the adverbial 'shifts' towards the end of the clause, you could argue that it becomes less important and prominent. So, beginning with the adverbial (as in the first example) might be a nice way to capture the apparent oddness of the hairs coming from your own head! By contrast, the final example, where the adverbial is at the end of the clause, downplays this so much that it appears rather deadpan. Both have humorous effects, but for different (grammatical) reasons.

You could then ask the class to do the same thing for sentences (1), (2) and (3). Encourage playfulness with language, and encourage students to discuss how the different positioning of the adverbials creates subtle differences in meanings.

What you could then do is print off each element of the clause and give each one to a different student (see the attached cards, ready to be printed). They could then physically arrange themselves in a line or queue, to show the flexibility of the adverbials.

very slowlyadd ten hairsfrom your own head

Doing this allows students to physically represent clause structure, and can be useful for teaching things such as the fronted adverbial. If, for example, the person holding the fronted adverbial sign is placed at the front, then that person is the focus of attention. If they are placed at the end of the clause, then the focus on the adverbial is downplayed, and the reader must wait to hear what kind of information is encoded in the adverbial.

You could try to do a similiar activity with active and passive clauses, where the shifting of different clause elements into different positions emphasises or downplays different things.

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