“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”
“The more you know, the more you can improvise. You do have to know what you are doing, but once you have the skills, you can make it up as you go along.”
While I’m by no means a stylish writer, the ability to express myself clearly on paper is something that I don’t have to think that hard about Where I sympathise with my students – for many of whom writing is an effortful struggle – is as a musician. As a bass player, the effortless flow of pen to paper creating a multitude of meaningful shapes and structures is something I can only dream about. True musical improvisation is something that I aspire to but rarely achieve. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve played bass for fifteen years, know my scales and practice whenever I get the time, yet seemingly effortless improvisational flow, perfectly suiting the chords, melody and rhythm of the song, eludes me.
I imagine that this is how novice writers must feel, this struggle to translate thoughts into words and sentences; the idea that none of the sentences that they know how to write really fit the bill. The musical improvisation metaphor is an apt one for developing expertise in writing: freedom brought about by true expertise is one that requires mastery of a huge amount of knowledge, mastery so ingrained that it bypasses the conscious mind. If I really wanted to develop my skills at improvisation, I would need to devote time to explicit mastery of scales and musical patterns. My students need to devote time and effort to mastery of the myriad sentence structures help to express meaning.
Recently, I’ve been thinking along these lines in trying to teach my students to be better analytical writers. In the past, I’ve worked on improving the analytical writing structure I teach my students (from low expectations P.E.E to the more challenging I.E.E.A.E model, as written about here), and I’ve also written about teaching sentence structures in order to develop students’ abilities as expressive writers.
What I’ve not, until the beginning of this year, realised is the idea that in order to free students up as analytical thinkers and writers, I need to devote time to explicitly teaching a variety of analytical sentence structures, allowing them to better express the relationships between ideas. In embarking on this project, a striking realization I’ve had is that teaching sentence structures is actually far more than this: it is teaching students how to think about texts with increased complexity, helping them to draw together their knowledge in new ways.
Here’s an example. I imagine every English teacher has at one time or another struggled with the temptation of marking work with a ‘look deeper’ comment, a comment that, of course, students have no idea of how to respond to. Instead, what if we taught students that the following sentence structures were specific ways to look deeper?
In fact, by using these structures I think that students do more than simply ‘look deeper’. To use them, they have to recognise that the evidence they are examining has an alternative meaning that contradicts first impressions.
Likewise, teaching the following structure helps to develop the thought that characters can have varied motivations for their actions, and that it helps to think carefully about these when we write.
My thinking here is that, through the learning of analytical sentence structures, students are actually learning to connect what they know about texts in new and more complex ways. The structures give shape and form to what might otherwise be disconnected thoughts. On top of this, the structures help students to develop an academic tone to their writing, something which is vital for high attainment at KS4 and beyond.
It is important to note, however, that I don’t think that learning these sentences alone is sufficient for improving student work: if students don’t know what a character’s differing motivations for action are, then there is no sentence structure in the world that can help them to analyse this. The substantive knowledge must come first; the sentences just help them to use this.
Finally, I should add that the great majority the structures to follow are taken from brilliant work done by Phil Stock at Must Do Better… His post, ‘Mr Benn and the Anatomy of Extended Writing’ is a vital read for all teachers who want to improve the writing of their students. He also came up with the format for laying out the sentences, giving students different options for the academic vocabulary they use.
Analytical Sentence Structures
I grouped and adapted these sentence structures to fit with my current procedure for analytical writing, IEEAE, discussed at length here.
For identify (Give your opinion about a text or provide an answer to a question, using examples to support your view) the following structures were grouped together:
For explain (Explain how and why the quotation you selected supports your opinion, often using the word because):
For explore (Look deeper into your view and/or offer an alternative explanation of what your quotation might mean):
For analyse (Zoom in on individual words and phrases to discuss their effects):
And finally, for evaluate (Zoom-out to relate your work to ideas outside the text: look at what the critics say):
For KS4 and 5 students, I grouped a series of structures – also fitting into the evaluate bracket – designed to help them refer to critical opinion:
Finally, I put together structures designed to aid students in writing a thesis statement, or introduction. The whole lot then went into a booklet, which I had laminated and bound for ease of use.
The entire booklet is available to download below, and you can also download a simplified version that I put together for KS3 students.
How to teach the structures?
I taught these structures to students across a range of year groups. Year 7 worked on a simplified version of the booklet, while every class from year 8 – 12 used the more complex version. This is what I found out in the process:
- It is far more effective teaching the structures in chunks than simply handing out the booklet and expecting students to grasp the structures for themselves. This did not seem to be age dependent.
- For my students in years 7 and 8, I taught the structures across an entire unit, teaching them how to identify in week 1, explain in week 2 etc., I also found that student needed to see the different structures explicitly modelled before they grasped how to use them. Once they had seen this, they found them easy to use.
- Repeated practice was vital: my key stage three students practiced each stage in isolation multiple times, and we practiced stitching them together.
- Giving the booklet to older students and expecting them to understand and be able to use it without the same level of teacher support and modelling was not effective, even at KS5. I found that I had to backtrack and reteach it in segments.
- So, to summarise: teach it in parts; explicitly model the use of the different structures; introduce lots of opportunities to practice before moving on.
I tried this with student across a wide ability range. This is an example of the structures in use at the end of the first half term of the year with a year 8 student who came into secondary from a very low starting point in their reading and writing. This example was completed after lots of practice but without the aid of the booklet; the student utilised the structures from memory.
This student completed this paragraph without the aid of the booklet of sentence structures to help them. Even so, the use of the tentative ‘perhaps’ in the exploration section and ‘The audience is trapped between…’ in their evaluation I think demonstrates the impact that the structures have had on their writing, both in terms of the creation of an academic tone and in helping to develop new connections between facts. That said, there is clearly work to be done: some of the paragraph is a little repetitive, the identify section could be clearer, and some of the structures are not used perfectly.
Equally, I could do more to teach students the vocabulary they need to analyse really well: the words mono- and polysyllabic would have been so much better than ‘short’ and ‘long words’. This just reinforces to me the importance of teaching the ‘what’ as well as the ‘how’. Actual content – facts – that students can use in their analytical thought is vitally important. Without these, students can know all the flashy sentence structures in the world, and they still won’t be able to say anything of value.
Across all the groups I used this with, particularly with KS3 where we really focused on lots of practice and modelling, outcomes were good. All students completed an essay on an unseen book extract or piece of ancient rhetoric, without the use of the structures to help them with the essay. What I saw, across the board, were high quality pieces of analytical writing that would not look out of place in a GCSE class.
Areas for development
- Transfer to memory – across all students, there were issues with committing the structures to memory. When the booklet was removed, students did not write as well as with it, and some students forgot lots of the structures and their writing was limited to just a few examples, albeit a few more than they would have used if they’d never used the booklet at all.
- Fundamentally, even when students did manage to memorise the structures well, they were still reliant on other people’s structures: there was not much evidence of students using them creatively (blending or experimenting with structures, for example). To return to the music analogy from earlier, they were still very much focused on scale practice, rather than improvisation.
- I need to do more work on memorisation of these features, for example by starting lessons with recall tests. Examples of appropriate questions could be: What sentence structure can you used to make a tentative point? , and ‘What sentence structure can you used to show divisions in a character’s motivation?’ When I teach this again next year, I will certainly focus more on memorisation of structures.
- In order to really gain a level of virtuosity with these sentences, I think regular practice is needed all the way from key stage three onward. Students need to know these structures really well, before they can begin to bend and break the rules. I don’t think that the 6 week trial I held was enough. To that end, I have arranged all the structures into a scheme of work, designed to run from years 7-9, available to download here. In this, students will perfect their use of a small selection of structures each year, working towards mastery of the whole set by the time they reach KS4. Hopefully, this will free them up to be more creative.
Again, the files to download:
- IEEAE analytical structures: full, advanced version
- IEEAE analytical structures: simplified beginner version
- Analytical writing long term plan