Why teach This?
You mean, apart from not having much choice because of changes to GCSE English Literature with the introduction of marks for SPG? For me, though, it’s also about helping students to develop their communication skills. They aren’t all natural readers (which is the quickest way to become an effective communicator, I think), so let’s give them a helping hand by explicitly teaching elements of SPG.
The introduction of new GCSEs after the summer could be an opportunity to have a positive impact on teaching literature; let’s say goodbye to the seemingly continuous stream of controlled assessment that has recently made up English and hello to the chance to spend quality time exploring texts – the kind of time that only some teachers remember from a past now distant. Let’s respond positively to the call for terminal examinations and look forward to enjoying texts while developing a student’s love for literature.
I know that terminal examinations will mean all kinds of different pressures for teachers and challenges for students, but I can’t help thinking this is a special chance to build students into lovers of literature, provided we select the right texts for the students we teach, and crucially, give them the language skills they need to engage with them creatively and effectively.
‘Use a range of vocabulary and sentence structures for clarity, purpose and effect, with accurate spelling and punctuation.’ These words, or some like them, appear in GCSE English Literature specifications, for teaching from 2015 and for examination in 2017 and beyond. So SPG is now worth 5% of the overall GCSE grade. It will also be worth 20% of the new GCSE English Language qualifications, so there’s very much a two-birds-one-stone scenario for us to embrace here.
If a student finds writing simple sentences difficult, usually because he misuses commas and comma-splices, he will almost certainly struggle to produce complex sentences. To truly understand how to construct a sentence, correctly punctuated, I tell my students to imagine that a sentence is a puzzle: it contains a number of pieces that have to fit in the right places for it to become complete.
Before you can teach complex sentences, students need to understand how to construct simple ones. I like to think of sentences as ideas (technically: an idea that makes complete sense on its own and contains a main verb = a main clause; an idea that does not make sense on its own and can be removed from a sentence without it losing meaning = a subordinate clause). So tell students that a simple sentence is an idea that makes sense on its own: if, for instance, you walked into a room and said it, you’d be understood. Give students an example simple sentence – and let’s make all our examples relate to literature texts that feature in the new specifications. I’ll use Macbeth.
Simple sentence: Lady Macbeth is unable to overcome her feelings of guilt.
To create a complex sentence, I tell students to have a simple sentence like the one above in mind. We have three ways to extend it and make it complex: place an idea that does not make sense on its own at the beginning of the sentence, or somewhere inside it, or at the end, and use a comma or commas to separate the ideas/clauses.
Here are the three options, which I’d give as examples
Beginning: Although she plans King Duncan’s death, Lady Macbeth is unable to overcome her feelings of guilt.
Inside it: Lady Macbeth, having planned King Duncan’s death, is unable to overcome her feelings of guilt.
End: Lady Macbeth is unable to overcome her feelings of guilt, even though she plans King Duncan’s death.
Draw students’ attention to the positions of the commas to mark off or surround the idea that doesn’t make sense on its own (the subordinate clause) and emphasise the necessity to use them. Once you have modelled how to construct the pieces of a complex sentence, using a character from a text, ask students to create their own: first as a simple sentence, then developed into a complex sentence.
1. Even more complex
Take the complex sentences from above and demonstrate how, with carefully selected vocabulary, the sophistication of the sentences can be improved. So:
From: Although she plans King Duncan’s death, Lady Macbeth is unable to overcome her feelings of guilt.
To: Although she orchestrates King Duncan’s demise, Lady Macbeth is unable to conquer her feelings of guilt.
Give students time to extend their own complex sentences, or some you provide for them, by using a thesaurus (every classroom’s best friend if used carefully) and asking them to replace some of their vocabulary choices. Top tip: it’s useful to have dictionaries on hand too, so that students can check if their new vocab choices actually make sense in their sentences.
2. Puzzle pieces
Cut up a complex sentence into single words, phrases and punctuation marks so that you can give them to students as small cards. In pairs or groups, students can race to piece together the complex sentence. The beauty of a complex sentence is there’s often more than one way of formulating it.
3. Vocab game
Generate a list of sophisticated and adventurous vocabulary that can be used when writing about a text. For example (again, relating to Macbeth): malevolent, empathy, tenacity, vulnerable, tyrannical, unscrupulous, antithesis.
Give students time to explore the meaning of these words with a dictionary. Then ask them to apply them to sentences that explain something about the characters or their attitudes, for example. Perhaps the ideas they come up with could be written as complex sentences.
Through teaching students to love literature, we can spark a life-long passion for books. And at school-achievement level, when English teachers can offer students two separate but entirely complementary qualifications, focusing on literature texts, while mixing in language skills, is surely the way forwards.
Identify the adventurous vocabulary and complex sentence structures that are used in a text. Give students a section and ask them to grab the writer’s complex vocabulary and then apply the words to their own sentences, perhaps responding to the text or in an entirely separate piece of wprk.
Working on a section of a novel, or perhaps a whole chapter, students could be challenged to locate a number of complex sentences and then rewrite them into alternative complex sentences without changing the meaning. They could also be challenged to use some alternative vocabulary in these sentences, again without changing the meaning.
About our Expert
The Head of English at the Ofsted-rated Outstanding St Michael’s Catholic High School in Hertfordshire, Karl Vadaszffy is also a freelance journalist and bestselling novelist. He is the author of the thrillers Sins of the Father and The Missing.