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How to teach the subjunctive form

The subjunctive is a tricky topic for sure – but Rachel Clarke’s masterclass will have you teaching it with confidence in no time...

  • How to teach the subjunctive form

It’s fair to say that not all grammar objectives are made equal. Some, such as using commas to separate items in a list, are easily understood by teachers and pupils alike.

Whereas others, such as the subjunctive, leave us scratching our heads trying to work out what they are and how to explain them to children.

The subjunctive is tricky. It appears as a sentence level objective for children in Year 6 and requires a thorough understanding of prior learning about verbs, subordinating conjunctions, levels of formality and Standard English.

The subjunctive is a verb form associated with very formal Standard English. There are two main ways that it is used. The first focuses on the expression of dreams, possibilities and aspirations and the second on how to express importance and commands.

Wishes and hopes

Dreams, possibilities and aspirations are ideas that are subject to change. They cannot be pinned down or proven as facts. In formal Standard English, these ideas are expressed using the subjunctive.

This means that the verb ‘to be’ takes the form ‘were’ rather than ‘was’ as it would in other sentences:

If I were a millionaire, I’d buy a racing car.

This use of were instead of was can be confusing to children, who may well start writing phrases such as I were going to town in the misbelief that they are using the subjunctive.

To combat this, drawing their attention to the conditional nature of the subjunctive is essential. Point out how the example sentence uses the conditional (subordinating)
conjunction ‘if’ and how this suggests the idea is hypothetical and may never come to fruition.

One way to practise this in the classroom is to display sentences using ‘were’ and ask children to identify whether were is being used to form the subjunctive, the plural past tense of the verb to be or incorrectly:

If I were a grown-up, I’d go to the cinema every day (subjunctive)

James and I were riding our bikes. (plural past tense)

Sam were doing his homework. (incorrect)

Useful models

If you’re looking for examples that use if within a subjunctive sentence, there are a range of songs and poems that can be studied with children and then used as models for writing, eg the worship song, If I were a Butterfly; If I were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof; ‘If I were a Boy’ by Beyoncé; If I were a King by AA Milne.

When studying these poems and songs, you’ll also note that the modal verbs ‘would’, ‘could’ and ‘I’d’ are also frequently used.

Reminding children that these modals reflect the uncertainty of dreams and aspirations will help them form the subjunctive in their own writing. You may also want to remind them that negative forms of these words such as ‘wouldn’t’ and ‘couldn’t’ are still modal verbs.

One of the greatest challenges we face when teaching children grammar, is knowing which types of writing use the feature authentically In the case of the were form of
the subjunctive you can use it to write simple poems about hypothetical situations:

If I were a teacher for a day I’d give the children extra play The subjunctive can also be used to good effect in discursive writing (If people were to stop hunting whales… If you were to consider the following points…); and it can also be used to promote the features of a place or product in persuasive texts, eg If you were lucky enough to visit the rainforest, you would see…

Importance and commands

The second form of the subjunctive centres on being authoritative. This form of the subjunctive simplifies verbs so that they are in their infinitive form (to go, to be, to dance etc) but without the ‘to’.

It also uses ‘that’ to link the subjunctive clause to the main clause in the sentence:

We ask that children be able to recite their times tables.
(We ask that children are able to recite their times tables.)

It is recommended that he stay indoors until he is better.
(It is recommended that he stays indoors until he is better.)

You may find that you need to spend time identifying the infinitive form of verbs with children. Providing them with a variety of verbs and asking them to write each in the infinitive is a good way to do this.

You can then ask them to use these verbs in model sentences using ‘that’ and the infinitive (without the ‘to’). Vital to this work, is helping children remember that the infinitive of has, had and having is ‘to have’ and that the infinitive of am, are, being, been, is, was, were is ‘to be’.

If you’re looking for authentic opportunities for children to use the authoritative form of the subjunctive, you will almost certainly want them to use the highly formal tone used in letters from people in authority and in letters of complaint (Dear parents, please ensure that all homework be completed in blue ink… I request that the item be returned to me…).

It can also be used for formal requests to visitors, such as those at a tourist attraction:

Whilst on the premises, we ask that visitors keep to the paths…

Essential prior knowledge

  1. Ensure children recognise that verbs are having and being words as well as doing words.
  2. Make sure children recognise which modal verbs indicate uncertainty. Extend this to understanding when modal verbs have been contracted (I’d) and that they recognise when modals have been combined with a negative statement (wouldn’t, couldn’t etc).
  3. Talk to children about the infinitive form of verbs. When inflections are regular e.g. swimming, it is easy to go back to the infinitive (to swim), but irregular past participles eg swam may be confusing to some children. Again, recognising all forms of the verb ‘to be’ is important here.
  4. Children should recognise subordinating conjunctions such as if and that and appreciate how they affect all the words that follow them in a clause. They should also recall how commas are used to mark subordinate clauses when they appear at the front of sentences.
  5. Talk about Standard English with children. Explain that Standard English is about grammatical rules such as subjects and verbs agreeing. In the case of the subjunctive, they are rules which make the Standard English sound very formal. Standard English is not about having a particular accent and it’s possible to have informal writing that still uses the rules of Standard English

Rachel Clarke is director of Primary English. She trains teachers all over the UK and beyond and is the author of Reading Detectives and Writing Mechanics, both available from Collins.

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