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 :

Prompt 1:

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)

Prompt 2:

What did Ralph do to make Jack’s taunt “powerless?”  Start your sentence with “Despite Jack’s…”

Prompt 3:

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:

Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 16.36.07 Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 16.36.19 Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 16.36.40 Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 16.36.55 Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 16.37.07

Any ideas that could build on this would very welcome indeed.

Related posts

The mathematics of writing  – an attempt to make teaching sentence structure more logical
Thinking like a writer – advice on improving writing skills
How to get students to value writing

32 Responses to The art of beautifully crafted sentences

  1. IELTS Test says:

    it is really very important to have good knowledge of the English language as most of the language schools only take very high standards of students in there. Great Post!

    • Doug Lemov says:

      Hi, David. This is Doug (Lemov) writing to say that i love the sentences your scholars produced. You can almost see them pushing their syntactical capacity- if there is such a thing. But as with you it was a real epiphany for my team and i when we finally realized the untapped power of sentences.

      After all, one definition of a sentence is “a complete thought”… but when we teach writing we teach words (ie.e vocabulary) and then pretty much jump to paragraphs. We skip teaching students to develop sentences “complete thoughts” and increasingly complex sentences (“complex complete thoughts”) and so they don’t practice it. and we wonder why get get a lot of incomplete thinking.

      Anyway, we now call this the Art of the Sentence and are trying to convince every teacher in our schools to ask kids to write one great sentence a day capturing a complex idea in nuanced syntax.

      One great way to accelerate the process has been to steal sentence starters and syntaxes from students and ask others to replicate. So one of your students above started her sentence, “Considering that…:” That’s pretty unusual and adept and i might then ask other students to try it as well… or to try one of three or four student originated options i gave them to choose from.

      One other thing that’s been useful for us has been encouraging editing by reduction. A great writing teacher once told me, “go through your sentences and strike out every word that’s not necessary.” The process of recognizing what’s not necessary is not only good from an editing perspective but it makes the ideas in a sentence “pop.”

      Anyway, i’m really happy and honored to know the post was useful to you.

      Best,

      Doug

      • David Didau says:

        Thanks Doug, some great advice. Stephen King says something similar to your writing teacher. His advice is that a 2nd draft should be 10% shorter than a first draft. He is also has some very interesting ideas about paragraphs. He considers the paragraph to be the basic unit of writing. MAybe there’s some gold to be mined here? If you haven’t already, I definetely recommend reading his memoir On Writing.

  2. […] tried out some AOS ideas with his students and shared the results in a fascinating blog here.   This caused me to read more of his blog and I found myself drawn to his idea of Slow […]

  3. […] via The art of beautifully crafted sentences | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

  4. Mr M says:

    You misuse the semi colon in the ‘complex sentence’ in your fourth sentence. Try a colon instead.

    • David Didau says:

      Di you mean this sentence: “The sparse elegance of such an utterance fills me with delight and satisfaction; it communicates so much, so simply.” Why do you think the semi colon has been misused? I have connected two independent clauses with the intention of connect related statements. If I used a colon I would be giving an example. If you’re struggling to understand, this is a useful starting place: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon

      Thanks for the constructive feedback.

  5. Bill Moody says:

    Hi

    The writing here sounds so mature, so academic. I’ve been showing it to a student in Year 8 today and he thought it was by older children. I’m finding many Year 10 and Year 11 don’t have the Sentence Level awareness they should. They are clear on when how to paragraph but are either trying to shoehorn too much sense into their sentences or can’t control the subordinate clauses. Going to use this 3 step process asap thanks

    Bill

    • David Didau says:

      Great! Do let me know how you get on. Thanks, David

      • Bill Moody says:

        Hi

        I tried this with a student who needed basic help and didn’t know about the differences between simple, compound and complex sentences and it worked but I needed to provide more ‘hinge’ style words for the first model as they were having difficulty coming up with their own.

        The other students were higher grade GCSE students. It worked particularly well with Alex. He took notes on Curley’s Wife in Of Mice and Men and when he had comments and quotes on her actions and other characters’ reactions, this structure worked brilliantly well. All he needed to do, really, was review your students’ writing and he had the tone perfectly.

        Happy tutor!

  6. Debaser says:

    Interesting stuff (although I have to say I’m not a huge fan of beginning a sentence with ‘because’).

    However, the problem I have with ‘slow writing’ lessons is how to manage the pace and dynamics of the lesson. Do you get your students coming up with these sentences individually? If so, do you get them to do it in silence?

    How do you manage the pace of the lesson and stop it becoming too ‘stop start’ as they wait for the next sentence task to appear?

    Would appreciate your ideas on this.

    • David Didau says:

      Re pace – I usually prepare prompts in advance and allow students to wok at the pace that suits them. It all depends on using the stages of the teaching sequences to make sure they are where they need to be. This is scaffolding phase – students have had deconstructed and helped model sentences, now they are jointly constructing. They will go on to practise until they have a degree of mastery.

  7. Mike says:

    Great post, as usual. I think the sentence is where it’s at in terms of successful writing. Also, great to see reference to Stephen King’s On Writing in one of your responses. Such a great book.

  8. […] knowledge-based English teaching around, David has uploaded a lesson about sentence construction here, which along with Daisy Christodoulou’s message about the explicit teaching of vocabulary here, […]

  9. […] knowledge-based English teaching around, David has uploaded a lesson about sentence construction here, which along with Daisy Christodoulou’s message about the explicit teaching of vocabulary here, […]

  10. […] readers–like myself–want to continue reading to the next sentence.  In his blog post, The Art of Beautifully Crafted Sentences, the Learning Spy provides ways in which English teachers might help student create more elegant […]

  11. […] The art of beautifully crafted sentences Thinking like a writer […]

  12. […] and ‘even though’, evaluate your understanding of Shylock.  (Thanks to David Didau – here – for the ‘golden sentences’ […]

  13. […] 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.  […]

  14. […] writing: how slowing down can improve your writing The art of beautifully crafted sentences Thinking like a […]

  15. […] And if that doesn’t convince you to give it a go, have a look at this post on crafting beautiful analytic sentences. […]

  16. […] This post on crafting beautiful sentences was the start of the process. The idea was that by explicitly teaching pupils to use a range of different sentence structures they would think differently about subject content. […]

  17. Darren Birch says:

    I have been teaching grade eight (13 year olds) in middle school for the past nine years, but am returning to secondary school to teach English. When teaching the grade eights, I always wove explicit instruction in parts of speech and sentence types and construction into my lessons and found that their writing and ability to express complex thinking improved over the course of the year. Now that I’m moving to upper grades, I had thought that this instruction would prove less necessary. I am now convinced that I will have to continue to teach sentence construction and push my students toward ever more “golden” sentences. Thanks for the post. It confirms what I already knew in my gut.

  18. […] learners with a step-by-step structure to create their text. A spin on using a writing-frame, Slow Writing is a methodology similar to that of Up-Levelling within ‘Big Writing‘ and developing […]

  19. […] this, they  had specific teaching input on crafting academic sentences (inspired by these blogs: LearningSpy and Doug Lemov). They also had access to a discourse markers display to develop cohesion across […]

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