Friday, 7 June 2013

Sense and sentences

I am sorry if this is the second time you are reading this, but I felt I needed to tweak this a bit, given the great English teachmeet in Leeds yesterday.



This week has been a busy week. Last Friday I had my back sliced open to remove a large mole. It hurts. Then, on Tuesday I was notified of Ofsted's arrival to our school. The following two days included one observation and two meetings with an Ofsted inspector - I will blog about this later, when I can. Then, yesterday I visited my first ever teachmeet and gave my first presentation. Today, I am a knackered mess. But, what a day yesterday! It was a great experience, but weird at the same time. Meeting people for the first time you have only conversed with over Twitter is very disorientating.  You feel you know people, yet you don't quite know them. Or, they know you and chat with you as if you are a long lost friend and you are staring at them thinking, 'Do I know them?'. Either way, it was fun meeting all these people, if a little strange. It was like having a pleasant out-of-body experience that allowed you to collect a few resources along the way.

Anyway, this week I am looking at sentences. I know, again. But, I think there is quite a lot to do on sentences, and, if I am honest, it has been one of weaknesses in the past. It may not be a strength now, but I teach them much better than I did in the past.


Below are some links to some of my other blogs on sentences.





I feel before I tell you what I do now with sentences, I need to tell you about the different stages that occurred in my journey to teach students the different types of sentences. Warning: I taught them in a boring way.

 Stage 1
I taught explicitly what a compound, complex and simple sentence was. Students were then able to spot these types of sentences, but only the most able were able to use these effectively in their writing. Look here is a compound sentence. Isn't it exciting? Why the blank faces people?

Stage 2
I taught specific structures when teaching students to write a particular style of writing. This was partly successful, but students didn’t use these sentences when writing in a different style. They kept that type of sentence for one style of writing only.

Stage 3
I taught sentence structure by giving stems and getting them to fill in the blanks. This was the best approach so far as it made students use a variety sentences very quickly.
 

My journey to teach sentences effectively hasn’t been successful and I think that the role of sentences plays a complex and difficult role in lessons. Teaching sentences effectively can unlock the ability to articulate ideas effectively and clearly. Yet, I feel that in the past I haven’t always done it so well. Yes, I think I have taught paragraphing, specific techniques and other aspects effectively, but teaching sentences has always escaped me. To be honest, it is the one thing that pushes students up in their writing. A technique or an effective word is showy, but a complex structure is subtle and clever. That’s why I think it has taken me quite a while to get a handle on it. Note, I don’t say master it, because at this stage I don’t think I have mastered the teaching of them. I just think I am starting to use the teaching of sentences more effectively in planning. I owe a lot to Alan Peat, as his book ‘Writing Exciting Sentences‘ fuelled my thinking and set me on a better path. You can buy it here.
 
Indirectly, I feel that Peat unlocked an idea in my head. He unlocked the idea in my head that writing is about choices and importantly choices in sentences. Too often I was narrowing the choices that students make in their writing. They would write boring things because I insisted that their writing must include a particular type of sentence. I wasn't showing them that there are lots of different sentences that you can use for lots of different reasons. Rather than teach one type of sentence now, I focus on showing how you can make lots of choices in your writing. Why pick that one dull sentence, when there are 50 more interesting alternatives to choose from?

If we look at how we teach aspects of writing, you notice that we tend to do a lot of obvious things. I teach students to include the obvious features of that type of writing and I get them to include some obvious sentences as well. This is a major problem. Examiners want understanding of a genre, but at the same time they want creativity. Yet, as teachers, we focus on the obvious and neglect the creative element. Take advice writing. I always teach students about using modal verbs, conditional sentences and starting sentences that start with the word 'you'. But, this is all obvious. These are the conventions of that particular style of writing. B-O-R-I-N-G. Is it any wonder that I am disappointed when I see their final pieces? They always lack that flair. That creativity. That variety.

I have spent ages teaching the conventions of text types again and again over the years and I think this hasn't helped me or my students. KS2 and KS1 spend a lot of time teaching the conventions of text types, so why should I be doing it in KS3 and KS4? They should have the conventions ingrained in the brain by the time they get to us in KS3, but why do we keep them on that carousel of spot the features of a text type and write the text type in a lesson? Do we really push them on? Maybe, we should be doing one lesson on the conventions and then the rest of the lessons of a SOW on playing around with the convention or just showing them that there are other things you can do that are less obvious. I should be teaching students about how writing is about making the best choices and not just necessarily the right choices. I should be teaching students to see writing as being a palette. You don't just use one colour all the time. You mix. You blend. You experiment. You shade. You fill. You mix everything together and the end result is the masterpiece.

This palette approach to writing is one I am working on at the moment.  Teach the conventions and then work on showing them all the different varieties you could have. My new approach has worked as I am starting to see grade C students use complex sentence structures in the most surprising of places. The students have the structures ingrained in them so much that it has become a natural thing for them to use a variety of structures without thought or direction from the teacher. I feel that by doing some of the following things, my students are getting much better at writing sentences and becoming more articulate with how they present their ideas.

 1: Have fun exploring the use of different structures

I often have a sentence structure lesson when writing fiction or non-fiction. It usual is made up of one of the following methods:

1.       Stuck on each desk is a type of sentence and students, in pairs, move from one table to another, writing down a sentence using that given structure. The trick is making the writing flow, while using that particular structure. Students could revisit a sentence again, if they felt the writing needed that sentence for that moment.

2.       Stick up on the walls around the room, A3 sheets of paper that each have a different type of sentence or example. Students go around the room and write a silly sentence that matches up with that type of sentence. I also make this relevant to an aspect in lesson by making the sentences link to the topic or thing we are studying.

3.     This idea is borrowed from Teachology's 'Outstanding Literacy' course, but it works brilliantly. It is a bit like a teaching ‘Simon Says’. You get students to write a type of sentence in their book quickly and then after 2 minutes they write another one after your instruction. Do this several times and they will have a variety of sentences.

4.       The folding sheet of paper game – get students to write a sentence and then fold it over and get another pair to write a different kind of sentence.

These have worked for me several times and students tend to love them, because it is about getting their hands dirty and playing around with sentences. I think the reinforcing of the different structures is important. At the end of each activity, I will ask students to articulate in some way what the different structures are.


2: Be detectives

I have changed the way I read books because of my search for new and different types of sentences. I am always on the hunt for an interesting sentence that I can use or teach within a lesson. At the moment, I am reading ‘Somnambulist’ by Essie Fox and here are just some interesting examples:
He had to think of what was best - best for Cissy, best for the child - the child rocked in her new mother's arms, her tiny mouth opening wide in a yawn.

Everywhere were the sounds of water - the sucking and glugging of drainpipes and gutters, the tapping of branches and leaves against windows.
 
 

Before writing now, I get students to look at books and find examples of sentences or sentence openings that they could use.

By now I had ….

I have to …
From the time I …. , I have …
I knew … , but I still …
I would do anything to …
But by far…
For years after that …
By this time, I …
Little did I know …
Two weeks later, I …
That’s not to say that …
Eventually, I decided to …
Take my ….
When the … and the … had begun, I ….
For a reason I could never properly understand, ….
After it all…
After years of …
Soon afterwards
In the following …., I learnt …
A year later, …
At the time, …
Ever since I was a child, I…
But there was nothing I could do…
Shortly after,…
In fact, to be brutally honest…
It is strange that …
By the time this happened, I …
That evening, I …
People would …. but so and so would ….
To accomplish this, …
Then of course I …
Now, after year of waiting, ….
Towards ….. , the …… happened…

By doing this before their writing, I am getting them to think about variety and the different types of sentences they can use. Plus, subtly I am getting them to see that they can steal and that I am OK if they steal a few sentences. I always tell GCSE students to have a look at the reading texts in the non-fiction exam. There are three texts that use a range of structures and words to get their ideas across. Use it as a springboard for their writing.
 

3: Use sentences structures in everything you do


Every lesson is an opportunity to teach a sentence structure. Recently, I have been preparing students for GCSE Literature exam and during that I experimented with using sentence structures.  After reading Simon Armitage’s  ‘Out of the Blue’, I asked students, as a plenary, to write me five sentences using the following structure.
 

The sentences they produced were brilliant and very clever. I had sentences like: the less confident the voice is, the more the poet repeats words. Now, I admit in the past I have neglected focusing on grammar and sentence structure when analysing a text, because I just wanted them to say something clever. Surprisingly, by using this sentence structure they were able to say something clever quickly and without much input from me. I then realised that actually, if I use different sentence structures I can make students do some clever things:

If the writer used the word ________ instead of ________, it would make the reader feel…

By using ____________, the poet makes the reader feel ….

Towards the end of the ____________, the _____ changes to show …..

The more the writer uses .... , the more the voice shows .... , the more the reader thinks ....
 

 I am still experimenting, but I will, as a starter or a plenary, get students to write four or five sentences using a particular structure. The more they do, the more natural it gets for them to use it. Hopefully, I am moving away from this superficial learning and developing a deep learning of these types of sentences. I have certainly seem a difference in some of my C/D students. Their writing has improved as I can clearly see these sentences being used and they are not being used because I told them to use it. It is becoming natural for them as it more natural for me to talk about sentences and sentence structure, even when we are not focused on writing skills in lessons.

 4: Ban sentences starting with the words ‘it’, ‘the’ or ‘this’.

Enough said, really. I am not the only one to say this. Check out the David Didau's blog.

 
And finally…

Every lesson is an opportunity to teach a sentence structure. Whether it is through speech, writing or reading, everything I do now has got me thinking where I can weave in a particular structure or type of sentence.  Best line from the teachmeet: "You really do look like your picture!".

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