The beauty of simplicity

    Published: 11 December 2016

    Penny Slater follows up her earlier blog on the value of simple sentences in Year 6 writing.

    Following on from my last blog, where I unpicked the clause structures used by Morgan in his Working at ARE writing portfolio, I felt the urge to spend a little more time lingering on the beauty of the simple (or single-clause – depending on your definition preference) sentence, and how we can secure it in our children’s writing.

    I return to the same quote that I used in my last article: often attributed to Einstein, whoever said it, they got it right in my opinion when they suggested that, ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’.  I believe the same sentiment can be applied to explaining what makes some writing so effective. In a nutshell – its beauty lies in its simplicity. It is in its ability to get to the point of the matter without the huff and puff of unwieldy sentence constructions getting in the way. It is the stripping back of language structures to allow the message of the writing to be laid bare.

    It is therefore a brave and confident writer who harnesses the power of the simple sentence. In selecting this simple structure, they have given themselves nothing to hide behind. No reader will compliment them on their overtly sophisticated writing style. They will not be heralded for their expert command of the English language. Instead, they have to have supreme confidence that their writing has something special to say and that what they want to say is so poignant, that a simple sentence construction will suffice.

    So if a writer manages to do this and manages to do it well, then in my mind that writing should be celebrated. I am not suggesting that complexity in sentence structure is bad. It is of course at times welcomed and necessary. However, the point I would like to make in this article is that there is definitely a time and place for simplicity and that, where it occurs and works well, it is important that we draw our young writers’ attention to it so that they too can sense its power. Hopefully then, they will see that this is an acceptable way of writing – more than this, that it is sometimes a necessary way of writing in order to really get across the message that you want to convey.

    I have for a long time alerted teachers on my KS2 training courses to the delights and charm of the simple sentence. There are several texts I lean on to help back my cause. One of my favourite’s being S. F. Said’s gripping tale of a martial-arts cat living on the tough city streets (who couldn’t be drawn to a text with a strap line like that!) – Varjak Paw. The following section comes from the first chapter in the second book in the series, The Outlaw Varjak Paw, and in my opinion, the clarity of the scene setting achieved through a flurry of simple sentences is an example of simplicity in writing at its best.

    It was winter in the city. The sun was sinking fast. Night was drawing in. Snow whipped down from the sky in icy flakes.

    What better way could there be to get the reader ready, in position from the very beginning, than layering up a mental image of the scene, snapshot by snapshot? I have often followed this discussion by inviting the teachers to create a contrasting scene using the same pattern of sentences, perhaps a summer scene, for example.

    It was summer in the city. The sun beat down. The air was stifling. Heat radiated from the melting pavements.

    Moving on then to another stalwart of my book collection: Malorie Blackman’s wonderfully gritty and challenging text, Pig Heart Boy. This book has never failed to get my classes of Y5 and 6 children talking. The first chapter is, in my mind, sublime in its simplicity. Through her use of mainly simple sentence constructions, juxtaposed with the odd compound sentence, and a smattering of complex constructions, she is able to convey to the reader the main character’s state of mind at a point of peril. The boy is drowning, and as you would imagine, he is incapable of coherent thought. Thoughts race through his mind, sometimes forming in stark clarity – indicated by the formation of simple sentences, before they are whipped away in the confusion of his mind, to be replaced by another thought – hence the succession of simple sentences, one following another. I like the way the simple sentences quicken my reading pace – I am not slowed down by long, winding sentence constructions – and in doing so give me a sense of the panic that is gripping our young character. The minor sentences are also of interest to the reader here. Perhaps they help us to get a sense that at times during this episode, our character is incapable of complete and lucid thought – the fragmented thoughts are encapsulated by the fragmented sentence structure.

    All of these things I would discuss with my Y6 children, but before doing so, I would want them to ‘feel’ the effect of the sentence choice. And for this, I would need to get them moving…

    I invite the children to form a circle round the classroom, all facing the same direction. Each child is given a copy of the text – just a snippet to start with, from the start of chapter one, up to the line ‘No choice.’ I then invite the children to all join in with reading the text together in unison. Importantly, they must walk while they read. More importantly still, they must change direction every time they get to a full stop. I stand in the middle of the circle and observe. As you can imagine, the children move back and forth, chopping and changing direction almost after every pace. Alongside getting the children up and involved, this activity adds another very visceral element to the learning experience… I follow the reading by asking the children to describe the movement. The responses usually involve descriptions of ‘jerky movements’. Some children say that they feel dizzy, from constantly changing from one direction to another. Some talk about confusion, and disorientation – not knowing which direction they should be heading in. All of this is useful in leading up to my next question: so what do you think this tells us about how our character is feeling? Ahhh…the lightbulb pings on! The children are now usually able to tell me that our character is confused…thoughts are racing through his mind, unable to take hold…he is disorientated…his thoughts, like the sentences, are broken, fragmented and fleeting.

    Then comes the joy of challenging our young writers to mimic this style. For this, I turn to A. F. Harrold’s touching and terrifying tale, The Imaginary (I have to thank my colleague, Martin Galway, for pointing me in the direction of this little gem. I was a little late to the party with this one, but thank goodness I got there in the end. It is a fab book!). Specifically, we would turn our attention to chapter 13, where Rudger (I promise you that isn’t a typo!) is in a perilous situation. Mr Bunting, the Imaginary hunter, is just about to devour Rudger:

    Rudger stretched out, began to drip in drops towards the bald man’s mouth. It was as if she were watching a waterfall running in slow motion upwards into a sewer pipe.

    Here we see the terrifying situation unfold from the perspective of the main character, Amanda. But, what about if we were to write the account from Rudger’s point of view? This gives them the perfect opportunity to employ some of sentence structures that Malorie Blackman uses so well. No doubt the children’s sentence choices will be concise, stripped back, stark and honest. In short, their writing will be simply beautiful!

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