‘Fox’ by Margaret Wild and ‘Cow’ by Malachy Doyle – teaching time adverbials

Fox when sentence cropped

Subordinate clauses relating to time are the easiest to teach, so they should probably be the starting point for any work on fronted adverbials. It is the least literary of all the types of subordination, being one that children actually use in speech – you will hear them recount things from their own lives as well as from stories using ‘when’: ‘When we got there, we had to…’ or ‘When Goldilocks saw the bears she…’

I can grade the picture books I use for teaching writing according to a sort of ‘subordination hierarchy’, or to put it another way, how literary the language is. Having said this, books that come higher up the hierarchy can still include lower level subordination, and ‘Fox’ is one of these. It includes six types of subordination (see Mog examples): those starting using a preposition, those starting using ‘with’, one starting with an adjective, a couple using an ‘-ing’ verb and one with a simile starting with ‘like’. The majority of the subordination in the writing is to do with time, and it is done particularly well.

These are the sentences in the order that they appear in the book:

Magpie drags her body into the shadow of the rocks, until she feels herself melting into blackness.

After the rains, when saplings are springing up everywhere, a fox comes into the bush …

In the evenings, when the air is creamy with blossom, Dog and Magpie relax at the mouth of the cave …

That night, when Dog is asleep, Fox whispers to Magpie, “I can run faster than Dog.”

But later that day, as Dog runs through the scrub with Magpie on his back, she thinks, “This is nothing like flying!”

And when at dawn Fox whispers to her for the third time, she whispers back, “I am ready.”

While Dog sleeps, Magpie and Fox streak past Coolibah trees …

[NB: Most, but not all of these adverbials are fronted.]

 

Margaret Wild uses time subordination in two ways: to situate events precisely in time, and to situate events in relation to each other. The time relationship can be ‘this happened at the same time as this happened’ or ‘this happened immediately after the first thing happened’. Often Wild does both – situating events in time and in relation to each other – at the same time.

If we focus on just those sentences of the type ‘this time happened at the same time as this happened’, and break them into chunks of main idea and subordination, we get:

 

Position in time – time of day, time of year More detail about that time Main idea
1.       After the rains,

 

when saplings are springing up everywhere, a fox comes into the bush…
2.       In the evenings,

 

when the air is creamy with blossom, Dog and Magpie relax at the mouth of the cave …
3.       That night, when Dog is asleep, Fox whispers to Magpie, “I can run faster than Dog.”
4.       But later that day, as Dog runs through the scrub with Magpie on his back *, she thinks, “This is nothing like flying!”
5.       And when at dawn Fox whispers to her for the third time, (‘at dawn’ adds more detail, but it is not separated into a separate clause with commas) she whispers back, “I am ready.”

[NB: ‘as’ is used in the same way as ‘when’ *]

 

If using these as examples, I would point out that either column works on its own – i.e. column one plus main idea, or column two plus main idea. Then guide children towards an understanding of how the second column adds greater detail and so improves the quality of the sentence.  (Click here for an editable version of this table.)

Sentences 3 and 4 are easier than the others. They follow the structure: time of day plus subordinating event plus main event.

The other sentences require greater knowledge as well as skill. We need to make explicit the knowledge that Margaret Wild is drawing on when adding this type of detail: she has an awareness of the time of day and the cycle of fire/re-growth in the bush, and how different things happen at different times in the day (or year). Sometime she expresses these in terms of how they can be experienced on a sensory level – e.g. ‘when the air is creamy with blossom’.

This last sentence is writing of the highest standard. It draws not just on great skill but on experience – experience that children do not have. They might be able to make reference to the smell of flowers in a piece of writing, but we would not expect them to be able to specify that it is blossom. And to describe the smell as ‘creamy’ – there are plenty of adults who couldn’t do that. And then, to use the word creamy in a phrase ‘the air is creamy with blossom’, requires an even greater level of skill.

Yet we can begin to teach primary age children how to do this. We can ask them to notice their own sense impressions and to include them in their writing. And children being children, what they can do with this will be limited by their own skill and knowledge. Here is where great children’s literature steps in to provide models of what can be done.

One of the best picture books in this respect is ‘Cow’ (another singular animal…) by Malachy Doyle. The writing and the illustrations take the reader through a day in the life of a cow, making reference to the time of day/year, the sense impressions of the cow and the actions of the cow. Unusually, it is written mostly in the second person – ‘you’. It also describes the actions of the humans on the farm.

I would suggest using ideas from ‘Cow’ to combine into sentences with an element of time subordination, as follows. First I’ll start with a table of ideas, ordered as they are written (a row relates to a double-page spread).

Time of day/year Sense impressions What cow (referred to as ‘you’) is doing
On a hot summer’s day (feeling) hot Grazing in the field
Early morning.

Dawn is breaking.

(sound) the first birds sing

(sound) the farmer whistling

 
Morning (feeling) sodden grass

(feeling) thick coat wet with morning dew

You rise from the grass

You amble to the gate

  (sight) sheep, pigs, gander, farmhouse  
  (feeling) your hooves click on the floor of the yard You enter the stall
  (feeling) gently the farmer cleans your udder You bend to eat

Milk is sucked out

  (sight) house, coop You wander back to the field
    You tear the grass and chew the cud, rolling your mouth from side to side. Pushing the food with your thick, wet tongue, over and over for hours.
Slowly the morning passes    
The day warms up (feeling) the day warms up

 

 

(feeling) a long drink of the cool, clear water.

 

 

Your breath comes hot and heavy from your broad wet nose.

You wander down to the river and take a long drink

The midday sun blazes (feeling) in the shade

(feeling) flies from your face

You rest, you close your deep, dark, eyes. Your ears twitch, you swish (your) long busy tail
The hot afternoon drags on    
Later (feeling) your milk-full udder aching You wait by the gate,
  (feeling) the cool parlour Lowing deeply, pressing forward
The sun has gone

The long, hot day draws to an end

  You’re back in the field
(illustration shows the cow under a night sky)   You graze, you chew, and you rest

 

You can then use the ideas, colour-coded or not (for colour-coded editable table, click here), to combine into sentences using time adverbs, i.e: when, as; while; until; after. Use the structures as in the ‘Fox’ text as a guide (so not all the adverbials will be fronted).

 

Magpie drags her body into the shadow of the rocks, until she feels herself melting into blackness.

You graze in the field until the first birds start to sing and the farmer comes whistling down the track.

 

After the rains, when saplings are springing up everywhere, a fox comes into the bush …

After the dawn breaks, when the grass is sodden with morning dew, you rise and amble to the gate.

 

In the evenings, when the air is creamy with blossom, Dog and Magpie relax at the mouth of the cave …

In the morning, when the morning dew lies wet on your thick coat, you rise from the grass and amble to the gate.

In the afternoon, while the hot day drags on, your udder fills and starts to ache.

 

That night, when Dog is asleep, Fox whispers to Magpie, “I can run faster than Dog.”

At midday, while the sun blazes, you sit in the shade and twitch your ears.

 

But later that day, as Dog runs through the scrub with Magpie on his back, she thinks, “This is nothing like flying!”

Later, as you wait by the gate, your full udder aches to be milked.

 

And when at dawn Fox whispers to her for the third time, she whispers back, “I am ready.”

And when in the evening the sky fills with stars, you graze, you chew and you rest.

 

While Dog sleeps, Magpie and Fox streak past Coolibah trees …

When the sun has gone and the long, hot day draws to an end, you are back in the field, tearing the grass and chewing the cud.

 

Some of these sentences (for colour-coded version, click colour coded Cow sentences) work better than others (e.g. ‘After the dawn breaks’ doesn’t sound quite right), and there are plenty of other possibilities. Notice how sense impressions can be turned into main ideas. Certainly children will come up with combinations that don’t really work but there is a lot of value in discussing with them why it is that they don’t work, also in showing how to make small changes so that they do.