Sunday, 16 October 2016

Beyond the ‘Show Sentence’

Back in January, I wrote about a method for improving pupils’ writing, coined as the ‘Show Sentence’. The method was simple: model sentence construction, using synonyms for words that come up often in analytical writing. Instead of ‘Shakespeare uses tricolon to show’, pupils had a number of different options in their armoury, such as highlight, emphasise, underline, imply, reveal, explore, among others.


We supply pupils with academic vocabulary for other parts of the analytical writing process, too. For example, when discussing characters (here, the witches in ‘Macbeth’), pupils were given a large bank of words to use, such as sinister, devilish, satanic, diabolical, fiendish, demonic, abominable, odious, nefarious, malevolent, and so on. Facts on pupils’ knowledge organisers, which were frequently tested and drilled, were used to link their analysis directly to the quotations and Shakespeare’s use of language. Again, they had a number of words available to them to use, e.g. ‘this would have horrified, yet fascinated/ terrified, yet intrigued/ alarmed, yet captivated the Jacobean audience’.


This, combined with a detailed, specified knowledge curriculum, enabled my bottom set year 8 class to write some fantastic sentences. For example:


Shakespeare amalgamates alliteration and chiasmus to reveal the witches’ demonic, satanic characters.


Shakespeare fuses alliteration with repetition and rhyme to demonstrate the malevolent sorcery of the devilish witches who would have horrified, yet fascinated the Jacobean audience. James I was petrified of witchcraft and wrote a book called Demonology in 1597.


Merging chiasmus with alliteration, Shakespeare cleverley implies that the witches are demonic, conniving and fiendish, and perhaps also they are determined to get Macbeth to commit abominable things.


The purpose of this exercise is to attempt to overcome some of the drawbacks of the PEE model. Whilst it is useful for pupils to have an overarching structure, a sequence of questions to respond to, and a number of sentence openers, this doesn’t really get to the heart of what pupils find difficult. Telling the class to start their sentence with ‘This demonstrates….’, is one thing, but many pupils (particularly the weakest) will struggle to know what to say next. A small part of me dies inside every time a kid puts their hand up to ask: “But Miss, what does it actually demonstrate?”.


The Show Sentence approach was designed with precisely this problem in mind. In the past I had assumed that my pupils had all the ideas, but just needed a structure to help them to write it down, but I now believe that it’s about much more than that. Pupils need clearer guidance on exactly what to say, not just how to say it.


This approach enables me to drill pupils in the hardest part of the analytical writing process every single day. I will often start a lesson with a quotation on the board, and ask pupils to annotate it in their books, looking specifically at striking vocabulary and techniques. Once they have done that, I then ask them to write a Show Sentence about the quotation. In the early stages, I need to model and give them guidance, and remind them of the vocabulary they could use, but eventually, they get into the habit and don’t require much help at all. After about 5 minutes or so, every child has written a lovely, analytical sentence about the quotation.


One legitimate challenge people made of the Show Sentence previously was that it would result in 30 identikit sentences, all containing the same words and ideas. Critics argued that the approach would hinder creativity and diversity of interpretation, that pupils were being too heavily spoon-fed and dictated to.


I’ll admit that in the beginning, this is a fairly accurate depiction of what happens, particularly with less able pupils. Over time, however, as they become more confident, they branch out and make it their own. In the early stages, they need this support because they are novices who would otherwise struggle. But in the long run, this is far better for their writing. Creativity in any form is simply the result of a happy union of converging bits of knowledge, and writing is no different.


Drilling pupils in this approach for months on end has really helped to improve their essays. Last week, the same class (now in year 9) wrote an essay on Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Now that they have really embedded their understanding of the Show Sentence, and have automated including academic vocabulary and contextual links, paragraph writing becomes very straightforward.


When asking them to consider how Shylock’s character is developed throughout the play, I tell them to construct their paragraphs in this way:


  1. Write a sentence about Shylock’s characteristics in the scene.
  2. Quotation
  3. Show Sentence including context.
  4. Quotation
  5. Show Sentence including context and/or stagecraft.

Each pupil wrote three paragraphs using this structure, and some also managed to write a conclusion. They all had an hour and a half to write it, with only a page of brief notes to help them.

Whilst they still have a long way to go – particularly in terms of improving their written accuracy- their writing has improved enormously, and whilst there are some things that many essays have in common, no two essays are identical. Below are a few extracts from some of their essays.

essay-1 essay-2 essay-3 essay-4


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