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Adverbials – What They Are & 6 Great Ideas for the Classroom

Adverbials Teaching in Class

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Teaching adverbials can be tricky. 

For one thing there are so many similar terms: adverb, adverbial clauses, fronted adverbials & adverbial phrases. 

Another thing is that the requirement to teach “fronted adverbials” has been focused upon in order to criticise the primary national curriculum. With all the criticism, only a very few can feel confident that teaching them is a worthwhile exercise. It’s hardly a motivating start. 

In order to deliver a clear and easy-to-understand class to your children, it’s worthwhile to take some time and understand what an adverbial really is, clarify some common misunderstandings, and be familiar with some tricks that can help you better deliver in class.

Table of Contents

What is an Adverbial?

So the definition of an adverbial is “a word or phrase functioning as a clause constituent and typically expressing place, time, or manner“. So it is a part of a clause that describes where, how or when something was done. (Really, really similar to an adverb.)

Alternately, adverbials consist of a single word or an entire phrase to modify a verb or a clause.

Types of Adverbials:

More specifically, there are many types of adverbials which play slightly different roles in a sentence:

  • Complements: makes a sentence grammatically wrong or meaningless if it’s removed.
  • Adjuncts: a part of the core meaning of a sentence, but not a must-have element.
  • Conjuncts: link two sentences together (yes a conjunctive adverbial!).
  • Disjuncts: make comments on the rest of the sentence.
  • Prepositions (such as in, out) may be used as adverbial to indicate direction or location.

It’s also interesting to know that expletives may take up many adverbial syntactic functions in a sentence. (Surprisingly not tested in SATs or part of the national curriculum & hopefully your students won’t figure it out!)

To try and cement our understanding, i think it is useful to understand where adverbials fall in relation to other grammatical terms.

Adverbials vs Adverbs

In my mind, adverbs are one of the BIG four word classes – nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs

Adverbials are a “grammatical label” and as such they are more about describing a function in a sentence. A much vaguer concept. 

Adverbials do function the same as adverbs – modifying verbs, adjectives, adverbs,… 

Confusingly, while all adverbs are adverbials, not all adverbials are adverbs. Here’s a Venn diagram for you: 

Adverbs & adverbials venn diagram

But for the purposes of key stage 2/SATs papers, adverbs usually end in “-ly”, while adverbials are combinations of words that tell you when, how or where something was done.

Adverbs vs Adjectives

It is best to check that adverbials don’t get confused with adjectives. 

Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns. 

Adverbs & adverbials modify verbs, adjectives and adverbs. 

The most confusing case (probably thanks to US media) is that of  “well” vs “good”. “Well” is an adverb & “good” is an adjective. Let’s look at some examples:

  • He plays guitar good.
  • She is doing bad.

“Good” and “bad” are wrong as they are adjectives – normally used to describe a noun or pronoun – and here they are describing a verb – “plays” and “doing”; so they should be replaced by an adverb. 

The sentences would be better as: “He plays guitar well.” and “She is doing badly.”

There is a whole debate whether or not adverbs can modify nouns. Some people argue by definition if something modifies a noun then it is an adjective. Others would point to phrases such as “hardly anyone” and “nearly everyone” showing adverbs modifying nouns. 


6 Activities to Teach Adverbials in the Classroom

Now we can move on to perhaps the most useful part of this article: classroom ideas! 

1. The Fronted Adverbial Challenge

It refers to placing an adverb or an adverbial at the beginning of a sentence to engage the reader in someways. For example: “Interestingly”, “Strangely”, “Suddenly” etc. Tell pupils how the fronted adverbial could be a phrase or clause that lets them know the manner, place, or time of the main action.

How many fronted adverbials can they fit in a paragraph of text or story (or news article or letter…) What affect does it have on the writing? 


2. The great ed/ing/ly fronted adverbial challenge!

A more “scaffolded” version of the challenge, ask students to use words that ends with the 3 different suffixes in a sentence and make the sentence as interesting as they can!


3. Spot the adverbial!

Ask the children in pairs to decide how to answer each of these questions and to be prepared to explain their choices: 

Do all of the following sentences include adverbials?

  • As soon as he reached the safety of home, the wolf rang the police.
  • The wolf rang the police, as soon as he reached the safety of home.
  • Exhausted, the wolf decided to watch the football.
  • The wolf, exhausted by a day learning grammar, decided to watch the football.

Which of the following does not begin with a fronted adverbial?

  • Not even waiting for midnight, the prince turned into a frog.
  • The prince, deciding not to wait until midnight, immediately turned into a frog.
  • Immediately, the prince turned into a frog.
  • Deciding not to wait until midnight, the prince turned into a frog.

4. The where, when, how, and why detective!

See if the children can add all theses features into sentences and still make the sentence worth reading. For example, provide them with a sentence like this:

The boy woke up late, jumped out of bed and dashed out.

Show them how they can modify the sentence like this:

The boy woke up late that morning(when), jumped out of bed and dashed madly(how) out to school(where) to avoid yet another detention(why).


5. Word Place Challenge

We talked about placing the word “even” into a sentence, and now let’s do more. Grab a piece of writing – from the class book, or even previous work written earlier in the year and ask students to adverbial phrases to most sentences and see what they think. 


6. Grammar with Emile

If you want students to practise identifying adverbials why not get a free trial of Grammar with Emile. It features over 100,000 grammar questions all with Emile’s trophy & tamagotchi systems that will make your students want to identify adverbials. 


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