Currently, I am teaching gothic horror with my Year 8 before we look at ‘Great Expectations’. We are doing the usual stuff and working towards writing a piece of creative writing. Over the summer, I finally managed to get around to reading one of the Descriptosaurus books. It is book mostly aimed at primary schools, but I do think it has some use in secondary schools. The book offers example phrases and words to use in a context, when writing. This got me thinking and experimenting with my Year 8 class.
Often, when preparing students we get them to look at good sentence and vocabulary, but what I like about the Descriptosaurus book was that it was about specific choices at specifics moments in a story. For example, it would list all the verbs a student could use when describing a character’s feelings when seeing a ghost. Students could decide the best word, in their opinion, for their piece of work. The book also contains phrases and sentences too.
No disrespected to the books and the author, but the level of sophisticated needed at GCSE surpasses the suggestions in the book. The suggestions provide a strong base, but we need more nuanced and original choices and combination. That’s why I have adapted the book’s approach to my teaching of gothic horror. I have told students that they can have one A3 sheet of notes to help them when they are writing their story. After we have read each of texts, students find words and phrases and add them to their sheet. The key thing here is phrases.
We spend a long time on vocabulary and sentence construction, but do we spend enough time on phrases? We chuck words at students until they are bloated and their writing is suitably bloated. A phrase is easier to knit in to a sentence, than a cumbersome word. In fact, I’d argue that sophisticated readers aren’t necessary good at words, but better at recalling phrases and the syntax surrounding a word. We largely refer to students having a clear voice in their writing, but in reality it could be that they have a vast knowledge of phrases in their heads. They pick them off the shelf and use in their writing.
Take a phrase a student picked up from a text we were reading:
supress a shudder
If we were teaching things, we’d focus on ‘supress’ but here it is the combination of words. Once you get what supress means, then you can play with the sentence.
supress a smile
supress a smirk
supress a scream
supress a yawn
Then, you can develop the rest of the sentence.
I tried to supress a scream as the shadow fell across the window.
Supressing a scream, I watched helplessly as the figure inched closer.
I have been largely influenced by ‘The Writing Revolution’ and this focus on phrases links to their approaches to writing, looking at getting students to create sentences from a collection of phrases. Instead of the teacher finding the phrases, I am getting students to find and knit the phrases together. In fact, I’d say that I am mimicking what I suppose good readers do: store phrases and combinations of phrases. This time it is on paper, rather than in their heads.
Recently, I have been looking at Tier 2 vocabulary and the KS2 papers. In my exploration of the texts and the reading quality of the texts, I noticed how actually it wasn’t always vocabulary that confused students, but the combination of words or phrases that insecure readers struggle with. Take the phrase ‘blood boils’. We know it means to be angry, but is it obvious to somebody with inexperience to language. The student could know the meaning of both words, but it is the combination her that creates the meaning. Yes, a student could use their imagination to jump to the idea of being angry, but is that the first inference they’d make. I’d say they’d probably come up with a large variety of options before they get to anger. Our overfamiliarity with phrase means we don’t have to think.
Looking at texts through the microscope of ‘phrases’ has made for securer bits of analysis too. We often tell students to talk about words and techniques, which they zoom in on like hawks. We rarely look at phrases. When you move to looking at the phrases across an extract, you stand a better chance of understanding the whole text and picking up on effect and structure. You see an emphasis on emotions, rather than actions. Or you see emphasis on character, rather than setting. You see patterns. You see the craft better. Thing are clearer.
I think we don’t put enough store on phrases. We jump to questions about words and meaning, but we leave phrases out. We’ve been looking at gothic fiction and looking at the following phrases:
Phrases to describe the character
Phrases to describe the character’s thoughts and feelings
Phrases to describe the setting
Phrases to describe action
Phrases to suggest something bad is going to happen
Phrases to create mystery
And, this has led to exploration of words, but it has helped students make the leap into analysis. It is far easier to spot a phrase and a specific technique. Plus, you say much more about there being lots of phrases to do with setting than you can about there being seven examples of personification.
The GCSE unseen extracts stump students with language analysis, because there’s too much store on words and techniques. A lot of the language features in the texts relate to phrases. Take the following phrases from a past paper.
‘ran like gazelles’
‘pounced like tigers’
The phrases are more interesting than the techniques employed. Pick the phrase and then the analysis follows. Maybe, we need to be looking at GCSE texts and spotting the phrases rather than the words and techniques. Phrases route the meaning to the rest of the text. Pick the word ‘tiger’ and you miss the fact that it ‘pounced’. Pick the word ‘run’ and you miss the fact that it is ‘gazelle’ running and not Mr Fisher. Pick the verb ‘soared’ and you miss out that… you get the idea. When looked at as phrases, you see imagery to do with animals and movement.
I think we need to readjust how we look at things and not to forget the humble phrase. We should be exploring the phrases that are set to stun.
Thanks for reading,