See Laura’s fronted adverbials word mat and game ideas here.

When I was an NQT I taught in Y5. It was the era of summer term QCA tests.

One evening I was marking a child’s writing (comparing two seasons) and celebrating the excellent job they had done: most definitely showing elements of level 4.

My husband appeared at my shoulder and read the child’s writing.

“It doesn’t make any sense!”, he exclaimed. I reread the piece as a reader, rather than with my checklist magnifying glass and realised that he was right.

Yes, the child had included conjunctions, complex sentences (now referred to as multi-clause sentences in the national curriculum), interesting sentence openers and a range of vocabulary.

I had also been mesmerised by the good spelling and legible handwriting. But the heart of the matter was, the content of the writing was incoherent.

Fronted adverbials can have a tendency of creating the same grammar blinkers for teachers (particularly Y4 teachers!). They spot one and praise the child for using it, regardless as to whether it makes sense within the context of the rest of the sentence. For example:

  • As quick as a flash, the tortoise headed to the lettuce/li>
  • All of a sudden, the old boat slowly began to appear on the horizon.
  • Quietly, the boy said his name with a booming voice.

Excellent fronted adverbials and excellent sentences, but together they do not work. The grammatical skills we teach explicitly will provide children with an excellent toolkit as they become proficient writers if we teach that skill within its context.

Children need to understand what a fronted adverbial is, how it can be used and the effect it can have. They also need to know when it works and when it doesn’t.

What is a fronted adverbial?

The 2014 national curriculum glossary explains that when a word or phrase that normally comes after a verb is moved before the verb, it has been ‘fronted’.

It defines an adverbial as a word or phrase that is used, like an adverb, to modify a verb or clause. Adverbs can be used as adverbials, but many other types of words and phrases can be used this way, including preposition phrases and subordinate clauses.

For children (and teachers) to understand adverbials, they need to understand word classes more generally. All sentences will have a subject and a verb: ‘The dog barked.’ They may even have an object too: ‘The dog barked at the cat.’

It would be hard to write this sentence in a different order and retain the same level of coherence. An adverbial, however, is very flexible. ‘The dog barked at the cat at 11am.’

Here the adverbial (‘at 11am’) is after the verb (‘barked’). ‘At 11am, the dog barked at the cat.’ Here it is fronted. Personally, I think it works better fronted in this sentence, otherwise ‘at’ is used twice in quick succession. But there are other occasions when the adverbial sounds better after the verb.

Adverbials tell us more about the verb. They might tell us when, where, how, how long, why or how much. They add an extra level of detail to our sentences and you may find more than one in a sentence: ‘In 2020, at the age of 100, Captain Tom was finally knighted.’

Have a go at moving these adverbials around. Notice how you can make this sentence look quite different, but it’s still coherent and has the same meaning. That’s the wonderful thing about adverbials!

Hit the books!

The best way to teach children about fronted adverbials is to look at them being used by experts: children’s authors. Pick up any good children’s chapter book (and many picturebooks too) and you’re bound to spot a fronted adverbial on whichever page the book falls open at.

You’ll undoubtedly also find a sentence which starts with a determiner. This is good because we want children to see that fronted adverbials work best when used as one way to start a sentence, not the only way. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

When looking at a children’s book, select a sentence which includes a fronted adverbial and discuss it. I’ve chosen the excellent Fergus Crane by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell for my example: ‘Further along the road, the air swirled with mournful music.’

Discussions about word class should form a normal part of a lesson. Identifying verbs and nouns allows children to see when a sentence isn’t complete.

If they’re unable to spot a verb and realise that a sentence requires one, you’ll find incomplete sentences making their way into children’s writing, like ‘Further along the road, a girl with long, blonde hair’.

Play around with the adverbial from Fergus Crane. Can we place it anywhere else in the sentence? Why have the authors decided to write it like this? Identify what it tells us about the verb ‘swirled’.

Once children understand what fronted adverbials are, what they can add to a sentence and have seen them being used in real writing, then it’s time to have some fun as writers. 

Free teaching resources

Using this resource ask children to play a game of pairs with a partner.

Each time they must select a blue card and a yellow card. If the fronted adverbial makes sense with the sentence, they get a point.

Alternatively, get pupils to sort the pairs they make into the following categories: ‘makes sense’, ‘makes sense but silly’ and ‘nonsense’. As a further challenge, ask children to explain why the sentence is silly or why it’s nonsense.

This resource can also be used with just the fronted adverbial cards. In groups of three, ask children to turn over one card. Two pupils must then have a go at completing the sentence. The third child votes for which sentence they prefer and explains why.

Finally, this resource can be used to consider how flexible adverbials are within a sentence. In pairs, ask children to select an adverbial and a sentence. How many ways can they write the sentence with the adverbial in, and still achieve the same meaning?

A word of warning: both the fronted adverbial cards and the sentences begin with capital letters. As they play around with these, they must remember to remove the capital letter that is not required.

In addition to these activity ideas, try the fun fronted adverbial online wheel spinner game at Wordwall. It makes a good warm-up to a lesson where fronted adverbials are being taught.

Effective use

Once children have seen real examples of fronted adverbials in writing and have experimented with them they will inevitably be on the success criteria for a writing lesson.

Hopefully, you will have instilled in your class the importance of variety in sentence openers and structures. They will have seen, both in real writing and in your modelling, the importance of using fronted adverbials alongside a whole plethora of ways sentences can be written.

After all, including fronted adverbials in her writing didn’t get JK Rowling published, it was using them effectively that did. When we mark children’s work, we must congratulate effective writing decisions and not simply praise a grammatical structure being used.

Find Laura on Twitter at @inspireprieng.