Teaching grammar proper good.

I’ve been meaning to write a series of blog posts about grammar for a while. The new expectations in primary require a high level of understanding from pupils (and therefore teachers), and the terminology list is daunting. There is lots of discussion about ideological and political connotations related to grammar, which I don’t want to get in to here. There is also some discussion over the validity and reliability of the grammar tests in primary school. I have views on this, but won’t express them here.

This post was provoked by a twitter discussion in which the classification of the word ‘bright’ was brought in to question when used in the sentence ‘the bright red coat’. It’s a useful example to sharpen our intuitions against. In the rest of this post I’d like to discuss adverbials, and if it seems useful I’ll write a series of posts on teaching grammar in primary school.

It’s a very complicated subject, and although I’ve endeavoured to improve my subject knowledge, I’m bound to get things wrong. I’d be most grateful to anyone who can point out any errors so that I can correct them.

Before we begin, it’s worth noting that grammar has different levels (sentence, clause, phrase, word, and morpheme), and we can look at texts focussing on any of these levels. It’s also worth noting that words, phrases and clauses can do different jobs and be described in different ways. This makes teaching (and learning) grammar confusing because words, for example, can often be classified in more than one way. Similarly, the classification of a word can change depending on its context, or the job that it is doing. Individual words can broadly be split into either words that carry meaning (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs), or words that help with structure (preposition, conjunctions, prepositions, determiners).


Adverbials provide a good example of the dangers of over-simplifying grammar when teaching children. For a long time, I believed that adverbs were “-ly words”. There a clear examples of where -ly words aren’t adverbs (e.g mayfly), and there are also lots of examples of adverbs that don’t end in ‘-ly’.

Adverbs are single words which provide extra information, usually about time (soon),  place (everywhere) or manner (carefully). We can see that in the final category, adverbs will often (not always, for example: fast) end in -ly. So if that’s all we teach when we talk about adverbs we are only giving part of the story. When I teach this I usually display a simple sentence (Jon played football), then split my flipchart into time, place and manner, and ask children to think of single words that will add that information (e.g. Yesterday, Jon plays football).

Adverbs can also combine with adjectives to make adjective phrases. If they do this (as in the case of the bright red coat) we call them ‘intensifiers’ which is a special kind of modifier (lots of word classes can be modifiers). Adverbs can also combine with other adverbs to make adverb phrases (extremely quickly, very slowly).

The word ‘adverbial’ is the name we give to the component of a clause when investigating at a sentence level. This could mean an adverb, or adverb phrase, like we were just looking at (we call these adverbials ‘adjuncts’), but it could also be a link between two sentences (e.g. moreover; we call this group conjuncts) or to provide a commentary on the preceding sentence (e.g. However; we call this group disjuncts).

With grammar, the more you learn, the more complicated is seems to get. Just when you think that you’ve cracked a term, you see a ‘but…’. For me, this is half of the fun. Once the basics have been taught, you can have interesting discussions and debates with your class, which will help with depth in understanding.

This is only a brief introduction to adverbs. The next step would be to talk about adverbial clauses. But we’ve all worked very hard and so I think it’s time for a break now.

If this was useful do let me know. I’m thinking of putting together a bit of a guide, starting at the start, working up through the primary curriculum. I might even do some videos so that I can model ideas of how to teach different concepts. Let me know if this is something you’d like.



  1. Hello, I’m still here 🙂

    I’m going to respond more fully as I find this fascinating, both linguistically and from the perception of colour.
    I realise there is a risk of conflating two things here, when thinking about the language of colour vs the grammar of English language in general.
    There is a whole class of linguistics around colour that I’ve just started to (re- in some cases) read about and I find the whole thing quite fascinating (especially around the way order of colour compound adjectives matter in some languages but not in others – yellow-green is different from green-yellow in Russian for example. The inherent brightness of a colour (i.e. brown vs yellow) seems to have an impact as well.

    But I want to confirm: which category of adverb does “bright” in “the bright red coat” fit?
    Are you saying it is an intensifier? And is an intensifier definitely always an adverb?

    If so, can I ask whether you class the following x words as intensifiers or not in the following versions of the phrase “the x colour noun” (and why / why not in each case)
    * the bright blue sky
    * the bright green leaf (an example from the OED in definition of bright as adjective)
    * the [bright yellow] sun
    * the bright, yellow sun
    * the dark red coat
    * the blood red poppy
    * the bluey green shirt
    * the blue green shirt
    * the blue-green shirt
    * the bright-red coat

    Despite the slam dunk from David Crystal which confirmed your stance as “bright” being able to be replaced in the sentence by “very”, I argue that either the noun modifier “bright red” is a cumulative adjective (contrasted with a coordinate adjective for “bright (and) red coat”) or “canary yellow coat” might be. Can you at least agree with me that canary is not an intensifier in this case and so is either an adjective of yellow (because it ain’t an adverb that fits in time, place or manner categories). I also feel that having a specific rule for “bright” in this case from other colour modifiers is overstating the case of the intensifier. Consistency is key. Is “dark” a (de)intensifier, and so what about “light” or “pale” or “deep” or “dusky”.

    Alternatively the bright refers to how bright that coat is regardless of it’s redness – oh my eyes – in which case, it’s definitely an adjective (but we should have a comma).

    I look forward to your insightful response 🙂

  2. Great post. Very intelligently done. I did a level 3 teaching functional skills English certificate in 2013 that is a good grammatical intro to this level of teaching, but as you suggest, methods for teaching delivery is a whole different ball game. It has to be age and ability appropriate. Much of the level of detail you go into here is way over the heads of the 16-19 year old students who I get retaking their GCSE English in FE college. For all that is taught in primary, it will sadly be a waste of time unless that learning is consolidated and reinforced and built on in secondary.

  3. Reblogged this on Carol's Learning Curve and commented:
    Some great knowledge to revise here for English teachers. This is now what’s expected at primary level on grammar teaching. Anyone struggling with this needs to do the NOCN Level 3 Cert in Teaching Functional Skills English course that I did in 2013 at Kirklees College in Huddersfield. It covered all this technical detail and more. Something that is missing though is a similar course in teaching methods and age/ability appropriate delivery skills. What works in primary won’t work in secondary or FE and vice versa. I think something that has also helped me in this regard was my TEFL training, which did give help with learning how to teach grammar, mostly to adults, which suits the FE environment. In TEFL you mostly elicit from learners and provide concept based examples and scenarios. Teaching using the direct method and repetition also helps. Grammar is still mostly embedded though. The best grammar tuition I have ever had was in Germany, learning German as a foreign language. Highly structured, excellent exercises to repeat and practise key points learned. I still got away without needing to know what morphemes and graphemes were though. Do kids at infant school really need that?!?

  4. Now you’ve made me think again. Colours don’t appear to be the same as other intensifiers like ‘really’ (I think I said this in about tweet 5). Hmmm…… Carol’s points are spot on too.

  5. This is such an interesting discussion!

    From the off, I saw ‘bright’ as an adjective rather than an adverb. I still do.

    Crystal did not say that ‘bright’ is definitely an adverb. Important in Crystal’s tweet was the conditional ‘if’.

    ‪@stefguene If it’s the redness that’s bright’ (replaceable by ‘very’). adverb (intensifier). If it’s the coat that’s bright, then adjective.

    ^ So, how do we decide which?

    To me, ‘bright’ and ‘red’ both refer to the coat – but in a non-coordinating way. They are examples of list (string / multiple) adjectives in front of the noun. Truly, I can’t see how ‘bright’ modifies ‘red’ in this sentence. Rather, I understand that the initial modification comes from ‘red’. That is, ‘red’ modifies ‘coat’ to make ‘red coat’. This, in turn, is modified by ‘bright’ to make ‘bright red coat’. To me, therefore, the sentence seems to say that the ‘red coat’ is ‘bright’ and so ‘bright’ is an adjective.

    I think you see the sentence as saying that the ‘coat’ is ‘bright red’. Is that right? I’m confused! If so, I’m not sure that the sentence suggests that clearly.

    See Crystal’s blog on adjectives here:

    ‘bright’ passes the adjective test. As to describing ‘bright’ as an adverb (intensifier), it is worth noting that adjectives can also be intensifiers. Maybe ‘bright’ is an adjective intensifier rather than non-coordinating adjective?

    So what about this lot then?

    big green car
    big green coat
    big red coat
    bright red coat
    bright red car
    bright green car

    I’d love to know what others think.

    I’m a member of the eng lang list. I’ve just posted the sentence on there to see what others come up with. Will let you know.

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