Sunday, 7 May 2017

Precision in writing – the Show Sentence  

This week I found a student standing outside one of the English classrooms. I asked my usual question: Why are you standing outside? The student, unfortunately for them, used the word ‘apparently’ in their response. I then proceeded to explain that one word ‘signified’ their guilt in the wrongdoing.  Most teachers know that ‘apparently’ used in story is often used to deflect blame and responsibility, by questioning the teacher. Apparently, I…..

The precise use of words is important and cannot be stressed to students enough, but that precision in writing can be quite hard. Recently,I have been using the Michaela ‘Show Sentence’. The principle is quite straightforward: you build a sentence by exploring synonyms and building it up in stages. See here for more details and examples. From a teaching point of view, I like it because it provides a great backbone to textual analysis.

The playwright unites alliteration, emotive language and a simile to underline the urgency of the matter.

The playwright blends anaphora, contrasts and an extended metaphor to suggest the complexity of the subject.

Now, the ‘Show Sentence’ has quite a lot of uses in the new GCSE. I have found it incredibly helpful in preparing students for Question 2, Paper 1 (AQA). Students have to identify a technique and comment on its effect. The show sentence is very helpful for working on this structure. But, it has been much more useful than that to me. There I was happily teaching the sentence and working with it when I came to the techniques and started thinking.  

The writer fuses the adjective ‘_______’  with the verb ‘_____’  to…

I then got students to think of adjectives to describe the adjective and the verb.

The writer fuses the unsettling adjective ‘_________’ with the violent verb ‘______’ to ….

This led to phrases like:

The playwright merges the subtly violent verb ‘drugg’d’…

The playwright combines the harsh verb ‘drugg’d’…

The playwright combines the insulting verb ‘mock’…

The playwright integrates the demanding verb ‘Hark’…

The playwright unites the unsettling noun ‘death’ and the peaceful noun ‘nature’…

What impressed me most with this, is that one little adjective, before the term, added so much meaning and precision to the analysis. Sometimes we are just happy for them to spot the technique. What if we made more of the type of technique used by the writer? We are forever looking at techniques and literary devices, but we don’t often explore 'the what' more. We are quick to move to the writer’s purpose and the reader’s feelings before we analyse the choice made.  

What kind of verb is used?

What kind of adjective is used?

What type of simile is used?

What type of contrast is used?

Students obsess on the identification and the translating of a device: the writer uses a smile of a cat to make us see he is sneaky. Students rarely classify the technique. In fact, in my experience, it is usually the most able students who do it and that is usually a natural thing.

Therefore, can we classify a simile?

The writer uses an animal simile

The writer uses an exaggerated simile

The writer uses an inappropriate simile

The writer uses a clichéd simile

The adjectives alone show a precise understanding of the simile used.

Animal – the content of the simile    

Exaggerated – effect of the simile

Inappropriate- effect of the simile

Clichéd - evaluating the choice of simile

One little word can add so much more meaning to the analysis. You don’t need the big guns of explores, suggests and implies to get to some meaningful and effective points of analysis.

Then there are the possible alternatives:

Animal / Landscape / Mechanical

Exaggerated / Subtle

Inappropriate / Relevant / Personal / Impersonal

Clichéd / Realistic / Powerful / Predictable / Unique / Unusual   

The great thing about this is that I didn’t spend ages making PowerPoints of loads of different words students could use; I simply tell students to put an adjective before the term. This is a list of words I got from my most recent lesson:

strong, deadly, soft, powerful, demanding, subtle, extreme, aggressive, indirect, violent, vague, possessive, unsettling, insulting, peaceful, harsh.

It will come as no surprise that the students were analysing the language of Lady Macbeth. One simple adjective can add so much more meaning to the analysis. The next stage would be to develop the adjectives and combine or link them creating longer noun phrases, but that’s probably another lesson.

So, when that student used that vague, tactical and predictable adverb ‘apparently’ they had little understanding of the significance it would have that week…apparently.  

Thanks for reading,



  1. Hi Chris
    Great blog as usual.
    Can see where you're coming from here, but I'm wondering whether or not the addictive actually might hinder the students because there may be an element of repetition in their explanation; after all it seems like the adjective is essentially an explanation? I may have misinterpreted it though.


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