Exciting Sentences – a word of caution

Almost thirty years ago I was discussing alliteration with a group of Year 6 pupils. We looked at examples in both prose and poetry. Later that week I was reading a piece by one of the pupils  – almost every sentence was alliterative. The fault was mine, not the pupils. I’d told them that I really enjoyed a well-crafted alliterative sentence (I still do) but what I’d failed to make clear was that the overuse of alliteration diminishes its power.

In 2007 the first book of Exciting Sentences was published. My aim was to help pupils to focus, not only on plot, but also on the way that authors manipulate language. I used simple language as I hoped this would help younger pupils (I had Year 2 in mind) to begin this process. The simple language didn’t preclude the use of metalanguage – it preceded it.

The sentences in the first volume were taken from books I had read by a range of authors and they were sentences that had ‘stood out’ in the texts. I hoped pupils might begin to use similar sentences in their own writing and also begin to consider sentence structure when reading. In many schools that has happened but in others the sentences have morphed into a prescriptive list for inclusion in pupils’ writing – this is the exact opposite of what I had hoped for. It also inhibits the flow of pupils’ writing as they spend more time considering how to include the sentences than on the meaning of their writing. Many of you have heard me talk about this issue during conferences and INSET’s over the past decade BUT it is clear that the sentences are still being misused in this way.

So, a couple of key points (which I alluded to in the first book and specifically mentioned in the introduction to the second book) need reiterating.

1. The sentences included in the books are engaging but, just like alliteration, if they are overused they lose all of their power. If I had a pound for every ‘lovely, wonderful, pairs of trainers that walked down a long, leafy, winding lane’ that I’ve read about in the last few years I’d be a rich man!

We need to overtly discuss overuse with pupils.

2. Pupils need to understand the purpose of a sentence and be able to articulate why they are using it. They also need to understand that a simple sentence is of equal value to a complex sentence. I regularly tell the (probably apocryphal but nevertheless interesting) tale of Hemingway being asked to write a six word story, that could make someone either laugh or cry.  Hemingway’s response was,

For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

Six words in exactly the right order certainly beat adjective after adjective after adjective…

To conclude, I’ve spent my whole life writing: poetry books for Redbeck Press and Crocus books; art history books for Scolar Press; ceramic histories; textile histories; chapters for books by the Fine Art Society AND books about literacy for pupils and teachers. The only one I lose sleep about is ‘Exciting Sentences’ – please don’t turn them into ‘must-do’ lists and please don’t overuse them.

Children should play and experiment with language – playing with the structure of sentences can be an engaging part of this experimentation BUT I wish to stress that the flow of writing is far more important than the inclusion of a list of sentence types. Please help an ageing man sleep well – don’t overdo them!!!


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