The Perfect Sentence

Many years ago in Paris, the author Ernest Hemingway spent his days sitting in cafés with a notebook, agonising over how to write what he called just one true sentence. This week, in one of their English lessons, 1SB did the same, though without Paris, without a café and, hopefully, without any agony! They did, however, have a copy of Jack and the Beanstalk, and it turned out to be the perfect place to start.

Of course, the children know and love the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, and they have enjoyed exploring the characters through discussion, comprehension and role play. Traditional tales such as this provide an ideal stimulus for encouraging young writers to express themselves, and the aim of Mrs Brown’s lesson was to persuade the class to be braver in their vocabulary choices when retelling the story themselves. For a few children this comes naturally but, in the majority of cases, having the chance to develop their confidence in experimenting with language is an essential part of the preparation for independent writing. In order to write creatively, children need to be able to tap into a reservoir of vocabulary, and this comes from having stories read to them at school and at home, and from lessons such as this one.

To start with, Mrs Brown showed the children the story of Jack and the Beanstalk on the whiteboard. She then displayed some simple sentences taken from the story for the children to read and discuss. By now, the children in Form 1 have a good understanding of what constitutes a sentence and they had to agree that the sentences they were looking at had all the required elements, namely a capital letter at the beginning and a full stop at the end, and they made perfect sense. But they were very boring! How could the sentences be brightened up to make them more exciting?

‘Jack lived in a cottage.’ Oh dear, Mrs Brown, this sentence doesn’t make me want to read the rest of your story! Luckily, the children were keen to help her, and a forest of hands flew up with suggestions. Initially, these suggestions were quite cautious. A beautiful cottage, perhaps? A ‘pretty cottage’, suggested Cecilia, or maybe even a ‘pretty little cottage’. However, in the land of fairy tales, pretty goes with little as fish goes with chips, and Mrs Brown felt sure her children could be even more imaginative. And so it proved!

Soon, the man who swapped his beans for Jack’s cow became ‘an old man’ and then ‘an old magic man’, thanks to Alexander. The beans turned from plain looking vegetables to ‘enchanted beans’, a phrase which Mrs Brown liked very much. No longer was Jack’s mother merely cross when he came home with the beans, she was ‘horrified’, according to Gurleen; or, as Raina put it, she was ‘very disappointed and very angry’.

Mrs Brown quickly convinced her class that improving sentences is not only a useful and rewarding thing to do, but it is fun, too. As soon as the children were warmed up and she could see that they understand what was expected of them, Mrs Brown explained how they were going to help each other to create exciting sentences that they could then share to help everyone. On the tables she placed a range of undeveloped sentences taken directly from the story. Working collaboratively, the children were invited to discuss how they could use imaginative vocabulary to bring the sentences to life. Once they had settled upon a sentence they liked, they wrote it down on a sentence strip before choosing another. It didn’t take long before 1SB was full of thrilling, creative sentences.

‘The giant fell off’ was transformed by Raina into ‘The giant came tumbling down with a crash.’ For Eva and Rhys, the hen laid no ordinary egg but a ‘golden shiny egg’. Harriet and Ruben brought size and colour to their sentence and wrote that ‘The big man gave Jack some red and green beans.’ Meanwhile, Amryn and Vivaan decided that the beanstalk did not just go up high, it ‘went into the clouds’.

At the end of the lesson, everyone wanted to share their sentences with the class. Next week, the children will be writing their own Jack and the Beanstalk stories, and Mrs Brown is looking forward to seeing how many of these exciting words they can use. I am sure she will have some engrossing bedtime reading to enjoy during the half term holiday!