I’ve come across an example recently of an idea for helping students to write long sentences – and I don’t like it. I’ve written a sonnet about this idea to satirise it, the urge to do so a reflection of my dislike for the idea and approach, and will post it at the end of this introduction. I trust the ‘methodology’ of using a poem to dismantle the errant idea will be obvious.
I think the idea and approach is well-intentioned, provides a structure that involves group work and is physically active [sequencing ‘cells’ of parts of the model sentence] and I have some reservation – though not a huge amount – in therefore having a go at another professional’s presentation.
However, what inescapably underpins my distaste for this approach to teaching Writing is how it is still steeped in the Literacy Strategy, a methodology that had a pervasive and detrimental impact on English teaching for many dreadful years.
More widely, and as a context for my particular focus here, there are also currently grammar-based approaches to the teaching of Writing out there and I know about the integrity of the significant research and evidence of success-criteria having been attained in this process. But I am still uncomfortable with it.
I’m sure I am ‘old-fashioned’ in this respect. I increasingly want to rely on the teaching of Writing through the exemplification of good writing – largely literary – but never exclusively so because good writing is much broader than this, obviously.
Now that last sentence is a longish sentence. It isn’t about hamburgers. How would we teach students to write a sentence like that? And when I first wrote it, I used commas either side of largely literature, but when I reread I decided to replace these with dashes. Is there a grammatical reason for this? No. I did so because I ‘listened’ to the sentence and realised there needed to be a longer pause either side of those two words, which were not, by the way, intentionally alliterative.
If there had been a finite number of dashes and commas in a set of cells set up as an activity for constructing that one long sentence, this might have provided a clue for those dashes. If the word hamburger had been supplied in one of those cells, it would have made the sentence in some way about hamburgers.
I think we teach students how to write long sentences by sharing examples with them, getting students to talk about how they work, and to focus on understanding this by reading aloud and hearing the movements and pauses and other ‘sounds’ in the sentences. Or better still, you go here to see one idea – just the one – on how to do this.
The sentences we want students to write should be interesting. They should be engaging and perhaps playful. There are plenty of times when the writing of long sentences will be of the discursive variety and these will not be as entertaining as the ones I would generally want to use as models, but they would be explored in meaningful contexts, probably discursive, like debating how we teach students to write long sentences.
The activity I have satirised in the poem I am just about to present contained a deconstructed long sentence about hamburgers. I think the theme/content of ‘hamburgers’ could have been more entertaining and playful and therefore engaging as a learning tool, but as I have said, I do not think it is a disastrous model and approach, yet I personally still dislike it and am probably worried about it not on its own but more so if it is seen as an exemplar for how we teach students to write long sentences.
And by the way, I make brilliant hamburgers.
Not Quite There
It clearly cannot be a haiku and is unlikely to make it all the way
to a completed sonnet where this will be heading in its empathetic
plodding way. Mentions of McDonalds and Wimpy – this latter
revealing more of the writer than a notion of writing as a link to
a less bugerlicious past – will not motivate without the cheese and pickle
topping: but I have already used two of the four dashes, not yet any of the
three commas, taken the one full stop and thus destroyed the exercise with
early relish [these brackets mine to claim herein the independent punning],
and two of the twelve separate single words or words in phrases
not counting grammatical connectives, but picking up a comma just now –
that have all been placed in cut-up cells as strips of dialectal inspiration
to make a long sentence on the subject of hamburgers, though I feel my
own complex linguistic unit celebrates a meatier imagination.
And this the vegetarian line excluded by the recipe regulation.