The art of beautifully crafted sentences
I came across this post on Doug Lemov’s blog earlier today and instantly decided to rewrite my Year 8 lesson to make use of the ideas within.
The idea is, like all good ideas, a very simple one: that pupils should be taught explicitly to construct beautiful sentences. Now, I like a good sentence as much as the next English teacher. Here’s one of my all time favourites, courtesy of Sylvia Plath from The Bell Jar:
The lawn was white with doctors.
The sparse elegance of such an utterance fills me with delight and satisfaction; it communicates so much, so simply. I long to write sentences of such power and clarity. But sadly, I’m just a hack.
The sort of sentences Lemov is concerned with though are complex sentences; the sort of twisting, slippery beasts that wriggle and curl their serpentine meaning as unwary readers try to nail them firmly to the page. Kinda like that one. Sentences in non-fiction texts are often packed with nominalised meanings that can make them seem opaque to pupils lacking fluency in academic register. If we’re committed to making the teaching of subject specific language explicit, and I hope we are, then we need to give them practice in not only analysing, but also constructing this type of complex sentence.
The solution Lemov offers us is the rather Bergeresque, Golden Sentence. Here are some prompts used to help pupils master the art of sentence construction from a sequence of lessons on Golding’s Lord of the Flies :
How did Ralph’s actions lead to a “violent swing”? What did he do, and what was the effect of his actions? Use the following format:
Because Ralph ______________________, _______________________________.
Ralph’s action(s) – cause main effect(s) of Ralph’s action(s)
What did Ralph do to make Jack’s taunt “powerless?” Start your sentence with “Despite Jack’s…”
In one beautiful sentence, explain the most important development in this section of the text.
Note how the prompts contain progressively less scaffolding as pupils become more proficient in structuring their ideas into complex sentences. This immediately struck me as an obvious and useful addition to Slow Writing.
My Year 8 class are currently reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas alongside a variety of non-fiction texts on Auschwitz and the treatment of Jewish people under the Nazis. I had planned that we read chapter 17 (in which Bruno, the nine-year-old protagonist is told that he must leave his new friend Shmuel and return to Berlin) and practise their inference and deduction skills by analysing layers of meaning in language. Adding the proviso that pupils must use Golden Sentences to explore their ideas, seemed a straightforward and useful addition. I decided I’d need to set aside some time to model how to construct these sentences and then provided them with a series of scaffolds to create their own. Here’s the lesson I came up with:
And the results? Well, this is first time I’ve made them respond so specifically in their responses to reading, and although they’re used to using Slow Writing to construct first drafts of written responses, I’ve never properly explored how I could use it to craft better analytical writing. It sounds ridiculous in retrospect, but I just couldn’t seem to make the mental leap to apply the ideas to reading. Bizarre, I know. Anyway, some of them struggled, and I monitored their progress with a series of Dot Rounds (another absurdly simple technique picked up from Lemov’s blog!) to point out where they had made mistakes and misunderstood the subtleties implied by starting sentences with words like ‘despite’. By the end of the lesson though, everyone had produced some pretty impressive sentences full of subtlety and grace. A few were clunky and have some kinks that will need ironing out, but the depth of thinking prompted by asking pupils to respond in this way is a no brainer. I will definitely continue to refine and adapt this idea and am already feeling pretty damn excited about the impact it could have.
Bearing in mind that these haven’t yet been marked and redrafted, here are some of the sentences they produced:
Any ideas that could build on this would very welcome indeed.