Changing the Subject: Grammar and Descriptive Writing

The context

Coursework time is here, and I’ve just embarked on a descriptive writing piece with my year 11 class. In total, they’ll produce three pieces of writing, the aim being to demonstrate they can adapt and shape their writing to suit a variety of styles and purposes. The descriptive writing piece is perhaps the most familiar style to the students, yet one of the most difficult to master.

One of the main problems my class was having with this task was developing their narrative voices. We’d done a lot of work discussing the pitfalls and benefits of writing in the first person, as well as discussing whether writing in the first person meant we were writing from our own perspectives. But, even after a lot of thought about these questions, the majority of students unsurprisingly opted for imagining themselves in whatever scene or setting they were describing. Maybe another time I’ll be more strict on insisting students try more ambitious approaches, but for now, I let them choose their own path. Here’s an example of an early piece of writing from one of my students:

Standing in the water I looked up at a giant white castle. It was huge but as I was looking bits of the castle was falling. However, I see green big branches hanging over the castle all it had was a little path with a door. I see the shadows and it looks like it was coming towards me.

Although this is just one example, there is one particular feature of this writing which was common across the whole class – the reliance on framing the majority of the descriptions with ‘I’ as the subject. The result, despite this student’s best effort at using a variety of sentence openers, is a fairly repetitive piece of writing. Most students have it drilled into them from an early age that using the senses is a good way to structure ‘writing to describe’ tasks, but with some students, this limits descriptive writing to a range of things the ‘I’ subject can immediately see, hear, feel etc.

The mantra of ‘showing not telling’ is a potential road to travel to avoid this problem. Asking students to try and show what they can see, feel or hear without stating it simply. Whilst this can be useful, with this class I have found little success. The problem is, there’s something subjective about showing not telling. Students may think they’ve shown you everything they’ve seen, whilst you think they’ve simply told you. With this class, I feel we needed something more concrete, a road less traveled than ‘showing not telling’. We needed grammar.

The lesson

I’m extremely lucky with this particular class. The majority of them are working at around a ‘D’ grade level, but they’re kind, they’re behaviour is good and they’re game for trying new things. Also, and perhaps most crucially, they’ve bought in to my approach that multiple redrafts are necessary in order to secure their best possible work. With this in mind, I was fairly sure they’d be up for a grammar lesson. Here’s the slides:

We started by discussing what a sentence was. We moved from definitions like ‘has a full stop’ to a ‘group of words’ and finally got to something like: ‘A group of words which makes sense together where something happens’. I used this as a spring board to introduce the basics of a sentence. After a brief discussion, we had a game of ‘guess the subject’. Students used mini whiteboards to give me their answers, which provided instant feedback for me, enabling me to see who exactly was able to successfully identify the subjects.

After, we looked at an example of descriptive writing based on an exotic island, a task many had chosen to complete for their coursework piece. We assessed the model example, starting with identifying the subjects. The class quickly decided that by relying on ‘I’ as the subject, the writing was boring, despite the vocabulary and the range of sense descriptions. After a short discussion, each student had a go at rewriting the description, focusing on experimenting with their use of subjects. We did the first sentence together and came up with these ideas:

  1. Crystal clear, the beautiful water stretched off into the distance.
  2. Stretching off into the distance, the beautiful, crystal clear water glimmered in the sun.
  3. The beautiful, crystal clear water stretched off into the distance
  4. Into the distance, the beautiful, clear water stretched.

After, students redrafted the whole paragraph by themselves. I then typed up an example for us to critique publicly. Here it is:

Crystal clear water stretched off into the distance. Trees gently leaned over the edge of the beach, with beautiful green leaves. The smell of the water was fresh. As I walked further, the soft sand dragged my feet to the ground. The nice, relaxing noise was coming from the waves of the sea.

During the public critique, we identified where this student had tried hard to use a variety of subjects. She immediately looked at the piece, and pointed out her repetition of the word ‘the’ to start her ideas, which led to further redrafting and editing. We also explored alternatives to ‘nice’ and ‘coming’ and different potential ways to describe the smell of the ocean.

The impact

Time will tell. I was pleased at how quickly and comfortably the students dealt with the new information, and the level of reflectiveness it prompted in their own writing. In subsequent lessons, we’ve been able to include looking at variety of subjects as part of the public and peer critique process, and it has added a new dimension to their proof reading. It’s also given us a concrete and grammatical element to the redrafting process, one which we can keep revisiting. There’s still a way to go, but this seemed like a good start.

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3 thoughts on “Changing the Subject: Grammar and Descriptive Writing

  1. Something else you can try is to ban adjectives – this effectively stops the writer from telling and forces them to show instead. If they are not allowed to say that the sand is ‘soft’ then they have to describe a character interacting with it instead (story is character in action). So, ‘my feet sunk into the sand as I walked, leaving footprints behind’ replaces ‘soft sand’. This forces the writer to really think about the words that they choose. Interestingly we have this ‘thing’ in schools about teaching writing in a way that is totally opposite to how writers work. For instance, getting kids to look for alternatives to ‘said’ when every writer knows that said is the right choice 99% of the time because it is an invisible word.

  2. Pingback: 365 days in my shoes 339 | high heels and high notes

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