Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

10.18.13Syntax Play: Trading Ideas with David Didau

writingJust had a really nice Twitter exchange with UK blogger/teacher David Didau in which we mutually geeked out on the importance of teaching writing by teaching the craft of idea development one sentence at a time– an idea I like to call “Art of  the Sentence” and which is going to get a big fat clump of pages in TLaC 2.0.

David tried out some AOS ideas with his students and shared the results in a fascinating blog here.   This caused me to read more of his blog and I found myself drawn to his idea of Slow Writing.  A fascinating phrase because I’ve had a bit of an epiphany of late about slowing down with writing.  For a stretch of time last year I was really pushing folks to develop writing stamina in students- the ability to write steadily on a topic for sustained periods of time and without stopping- ten or twelve minutes say.  Sadly, many students struggle to do this so when we give them long blocks to write. They are, for some students, long blocks to sit. I still think there’s power in building stamina but have come to recognize that unchecked it can incentivize “junk writing”–students writing poorly and practicing the un-reflective propagation of half-formed ideas. So, without naming it as David did, I’ve come to see the critical importance of teaching writing slowly as well- sentence by sentence.

After all, one definition of a sentence is “a complete thought,” but when we teach writing we teach words (i.e. vocabulary) and then pretty much jump to paragraphs. We skip teaching students to develop “complete thoughts” in increasing complexity by teaching them to construct careful nuanced sentences in increasing complexity. And then we wonder why get get a lot of incomplete thinking.

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about a book my colleague Jessica Petrencsik introduced me to several years ago: Fearn and Farnan’s Writing Effectively …a lost classic.

It has lots of great sentence-play activities. In the section on starting a sentence with an introductory word, for example, it asks students to:

  • Write a sentence in which the main idea is your favorite breakfast and today is the introductory word.
  • Think of a sentence in which look is the introductory word. Be sure to use a comma to separate the introductory word from the rest of the sentence.

Below, there were six birds flying carefully between rock ledges.

  • Read the sentence above and notice the introductory word. Now write a sentence in which above is the introductory word.

When I use dot use it I like to add to the questions:

1) Write a sentence in which above is the introductory word. 2) Write a sentence in which above the house is the introductory phrase.  3) Make it a sentence describing a beautiful day. 4) Now make it a sentence from the script to a horror movie. 5) Now reverse one of your last two sentences so the content is the same but the phrase above the house comes at the end. 6) Challenge: For three glory points in the afterlife, re-write the sentence so the phrase above the house comes in the middle and the sentence described a beautiful day and comes from the script to a horror movie and involves six birds flying.

What I am realizing as I write this is that teaching writing is a lot like teaching vocabulary well, which, in my opinion, is an activity pursued by a small but vigilant minority. Isabel Beck’s book Bringing Words to Life, the BEST vocabulary book EVER, advocates starting with the definition and spending students’ time playing with words. Instead of saying: “Does anyone know what mimic means?” Say: “To mimic means to imitate someone but in a way that’s sometimes playful and often mean-spirited.  Tell me an animal you could mimic easily [and insist they use mimic in the sentence?]  Good, when might you get in trouble for mimicking? Good, when might it be ok to mimic someone?  How is imitating someone different from mimicking them? Why might someone mimic their little brother or sister. Good, now write me a sentence about a gorilla in a zoo mimicking a person. Go.”  Word play, using the word 10 times in various ways, is the way to master vocabulary, Beck argues, and I suspect it’s the same with writing forms.  Syntax Play, using a phrase or structure 10 times, is, I suspect, the way to master its inclusion in your expressive vocabulary and it’s the principle behind both the Art of the Sentence ideas my team has been working with and David’s Slow Writing ideas.



5 Responses to “Syntax Play: Trading Ideas with David Didau”

  1. 05dml
    November 14, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    You have to read about what Judy Hochman is doing:

    We are just starting it at our school (we are already TLAC devotees), and seeing good results.

  2. Doug_Lemov
    November 14, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    Really like hochman’s approach. lotta similarities and everything i’ve heard about it/her is great.

  3. Jillian Robinson
    July 7, 2015 at 7:09 am

    I love the fact that I can come back to field notes and rediscover some gems. I always read them as they are published, but come back again when I’m working more closely with a topic. At the moment, that’s writing. I love the quote in TLaC 2.0 (p.283) where Doug says …’I sometimes did not truly grasp what I was trying to say until I fought the idea into a sentence.’ Fighting an idea into a sentences resonates with me when I consider the complexity of teaching students to write well. Found this awesome little quote by Flannery O’Connor I thought was also worth sharing…’I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say’.
    When our students are able to use writing, not just as the end in itself but also as a means to an end, I believe they (and we) have unlocked the real power in writing. And now my own thoughts are just that little bit clearer for having written them and reread them.

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