Penny Slater takes a look at exemplified writing and finds that simple writing is not to be sniffed at.

Whilst working in a school recently and engaging in yet another bout of ITAF tussling, it came to my attention that both the Subject Leader and I were unsure about the exact meaning of the 5th bullet point in the Working At Standard for writing:

  • Using a wide range of clause structures, sometimes varying their position within the sentence

I was surprised that something so seemingly straightforward had us so unsure about its exact meaning. What clause structures are being referred to? What constitutes a wide range?

How many varied positions are expected? Being an absolute advocate of Einstein’s quote: ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’, I set about strengthening my own knowledge with the intention of shedding light upon what this innocuous statement actually requires of the young writer.

And so, with a new pack of fine-tips and an eagerness that should strictly be reserved for less nerdy pursuits, I set about colour-coding the correctly demarcated sentences in Morgan’s writing (a child deemed to be ‘working at the expected standard’ in writing – 2016 teacher assessment exemplification: end of key stage 2) according to their complexity. And here is what I found:

36% of the writing was made up by simple single clause sentences.

In all honesty, I was quite surprised – and pleased, I might add – by this figure. In recent times, it has come to my attention, that the ‘simple sentence’, or ‘single-clause sentence’ has suffered a little in the sentence level Hall of Fame. Some, I fear, see it as a grammatical hoop to be jumped through and then discarded; left to loiter in the KS1 classroom and not considered worthy enough to be discussed and deployed in KS2. But thankfully, Morgan – and his teacher – know better.

In the right hands, this sentence structure is capable of so much.

In its simplest function, it can state a fact, as in Morgan’s recount of Macbeth and allow the writer to convey events quickly and efficiently:

They had a glorious feast.

But, what about when the statement that you want to make is so epic…so momentous…so over-whelming, that there simply aren’t the words available to convey its significance? Then, a short simple sentence might be just the thing to encapsulate the enormity of the situation, such as:

Macbeth was dead!

Of course, simple doesn’t necessarily mean short. Morgan knows that a lot can be packed into a simple sentence to help the reader really visualise the events taking place:

Macduff walked back to the castle with Macbeth’s bloody head in his hands.

Too much elaboration here may have been over-kill (excuse the pun)! There was no need in my mind here for the additional frills of extra clauses. The reader benefits from having this stark image left to burn a little into the visual memory. It works especially well as it ends the paragraph – a dead end so to speak!

In Morgan’s first piece in the collection – the time slip story – we see that he/she is able to judge where a short, single clause sentence could be well-placed within a paragraph to lead the reader to a point of high tension. In this example, Morgan takes us on a journey using her/his choice of sentence structure. He/she begins with longer, more complex and convoluting sentence constructions – not unlike a roller coaster ride where we are slowly, painfully, breathlessly dragged up an incline of tension – and then finishes with the short sharp shove of the single-clause sentence which sends us tumbling down with the character into the dark abyss of unconsciousness:

Anabeth sat next to her injured father, thinking about the picture and where it would be. All of a sudden, her knees buckled and she felt like she was leaning forward. She blacked out…

In the next paragraph, two closely worded, repetitive single-clause sentences reflect the character’s confused state and blinkered thinking:

She managed to open her eyes. “Mum?” She threw herself at her mother.

 

A further examination of Morgan’s writing confirms to us that she/he doesn’t simply rely on single-clause sentences because she/he hasn’t yet perfected any other clause structures. Across the collection, I identified the following correctly punctuated structures and variations:

23% Main clause followed by subordinate clause, using a subordinating conjunction.

20% Compound – mostly using ‘and’ and ‘but’ to join.

Only 6% of the writing was made up of correctly punctuated sentences that followed the pattern: Subordinate followed by main clause.

9% consisted of main clause followed by subordinate clause, followed by coordinating conjunction (‘and’ or ‘but’).

6% were made up by other varied constructions.

Obviously, the ability to wield a range of well-structured and varied sentences around is a desirable thing. We clearly want our children to be able to have the knowledge and confidence to write for a variety of purposes, using a variety of sentence types to suit the job at hand.

What is clear however is that the single-clause sentence should not be relegated to Early Years and Key Stage 1. This analysis suggests that they remain, even at upper KS2, the stalwart of proficient writing. By this stage however, a child should have mastered their form and be able to manhandle them in a way that allows them to use them purposefully to achieve a range of different functions and effects.

Long, short, with adverbs, or without, loaded with adjectives, or just plain and simple – the humble simple sentence can come in many forms, but one thing is for sure: keeping it simple is sometimes best!

Click here for a follow up blog suggesting some texts and detailing some practical ideas to use in the classroom.