These are the results from a recent lesson with my Stage 5 Year 10 class on building complexity from a simple sentence: The cat sat on the mat. Students develop their writing skills through practice, and understanding that writing is a process. The more you write, the greater the repertoire of language features you possess – the tool kit you take into any high pressure writing situation, such as an exam.
Recently, I have focused on creative writing in this class without a specific product or end point. The idea is to promote writing as an everyday activity rather than a tricky task that requires competency. Typically, I remind students that ‘there is no right or wrong way to write’ and that the process of writing is not a linear achievement. So far, it seems to be working.
From a simple SVO sentence
The cat sat on the mat.
Students were asked to add an adjective for the subject and object, and an adverb for the noun. I explicitly use metalanguage where possible to build and maintain capacity for textual analysis.
While students were working, I wrote
The black cat sat solidly on the woven mat.
We discussed student samples, with many choosing descriptive words such as mine. Next, the nouns and verb needed changing. Students were also challenged to change articles and move away from colours and simple description to include a word with emotive connotations. My example
A malificent moggy made himself comfortable on the shag pile.
We noted the shift in complexity from the addition of words with many syllables. We discussed the move toward a particular kind of cat – moggy being a cat without pedigree – with an evil predisposition. I suggested that it was not necessary to ‘tell’ the reader what the cat looked like – we could all create that image for ourselves. We shared our different words and ideas, before repeating this exercise.
Our class is currently reading a biography as part of the school’s Kick Off With Reading project. Since 2014, every student and teacher has been gifted a book to read, with each faculty developing learning activities that incorporate the text into lessons across the first term. This year we are reading Turia Pitt’s Everything to Live For.
Students chose a sentence from the book and were encouraged to
- change nouns and verbs
- add adjectives, adverbs, multiple syllable words
- aim for alliteration, assonance or onomatopoeia
- and move beyond description.
The goal was to provide more details without the long list of adjectives or purpled prose that often occurs when your feedback is aimed at ‘show not tell’. I explained that once you have made sufficient changes, the sentence is now yours, and you are free to take the story idea wherever you choose. Just write in this moment.
Without using a sentence from the text, and after students had begun writing, I extended my ‘moggy’ sentence:
A malificent moggy made himself comfortable on the shag pile. Before him, consuming his vision, was a neat wire cage. Inside, perched a whistling canary, trilling for all the world to hear. Moggy sat motionless. Listening. Ears twitching with each shifting note.
At last. You are within reach.
Slowly. Carefully creeping forward an inch at a time, Moggy made his advance.
Here are some student samples:
The hissing cat sat angrily on the red mat.
The hissing mouse killer angrily sat on the red carpet.
My depressed mouse killer distractedly collapsed on his worn out scrap of carpet.
The spiteful cat carelessly sat on the cuddly mat.
The storm-grey kitten playfully pounced on the scattered newspapers.
The tabby cat lazed upon the worn mat.
The scruffy feline lazed upon the worn rug with the royalty of a snobbish king.
The cold fur ball found warmth upon the sunlit knotted sack.
The spoilt feline crouched on the soft rug.
A very productive lesson where every student was able to creatively achieve a different idea. Cats will never sit on the same mats again.
*featured image from AZQuotes