Teaching Phrases 4: An Overview of Absolute phrases

This is the fourth post exploring phrases. The first post looked at why we should teach these esoteric constructions. The second post focussed on appositives and the last one looked at participle phrases.

What is an Absolute phrase?

An absolute phrase usually contains a noun, a participle and accompanying modifiers, although you can create them with just nouns and adjectives. Even though they are normally explained as modifying an entire sentence rather than a specific word, some of them seem to modify particular nouns. Like appositives, absolute phrases are always separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma or, if they are embedded in the middle, with a pair of commas.

Let’s look at some examples:

Type 1: Nouns, participles and modifiers

Her coat flapping in the wind, Amy shivered.

They reached the summit, their legs burning with pain from the arduous climb.

Engine revving, the car waited at the lights.

The men, huge bags piled on their backs, walked with laboured steps.

Faces covered in mud, the competitors could hardly be identified.

In all of the above examples, the absolute phrase seems to modify a specific noun in the sentence. When explaining to students, I tell them that these phrases ‘zoom in’ on and focus on a part of the noun.

The dying embers of the fire flickering, people began to walk away into the night.

The outlines of buildings could faintly be seen, the smog hanging heavy and obscuring the view.

The concert having been cancelled, we were at a loose end.

In these three examples, the absolute phrase doesn’t seem to modify a specific noun, instead modifying the entire sentence. When explaining to students, I tell them that these phrases describe the entire situation, giving extra description and information.

Type 2: Nouns and adjectives.

His meal cold, he had been sitting there for what seemed like hours.

Arms weak with fatigue, he didn’t know how much longer he could continue.

Chris looked dishevelled, his hair messy, his shoes muddy.

Why should we teach them?

Absolute phrases are not really a part of oral communication, even if it is formalised academic talk. However, they are common in written texts, particularly fiction and literary non-fiction. As a result, students who don’t read a lot are unlikely to come across these types of sentences at all. Those that do read widely will perhaps have seen such constructions, although in the absence of explicit instruction and deliberate practice, it is unlikely that they will be able to use them.

Like appositives and participle phrases, absolutes ‘enable students to include more information in a sentence and add complexity’. Absolutes lend themselves best to narrative or descriptive writing, and we focus the majority of student practice on those. However, they can also be used analytically. Compare these examples:

Hyde is ‘troglodytic’. It is as if he is atavistic and primal.

Hyde’s appearance being ‘troglodytic’, it is as if he is atavistic and primal,

Mr. Birling gives a number of dogmatic and pompous speeches. He thinks he is infallible.

His speeches both dogmatic and pompous, Mr Birling thinks he is infallible.

In my next post, I will look at how we approach the explicit teaching of vocabulary

 

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Teaching Phrases 3: An Overview of Participle Phrases

In my last post, I gave an overview of noun appositives. As well as appositives, phrases that rename or give more information about nouns, (the underlined part is another appositive example!), we have identified participle phrases (they also seem to be known as participial phrases) as a useful construction to teach to our students.

What are participle phrases?

Participle phrases can broadly be split into two groups: past participle phrases and present participle phrases. A participle phrase will begin with a present or past participle. If it is a present participle phrase, the participle will end in ‘ing’; if it is a past participle it will end in ‘ed’ (regular verbs), or will be irregular (see this link for a list). Participle phrases function as adjectives, describing a specific noun or pronoun (which is usually the subject of a main clause).

Let’s have a look at some examples:

Present Participles

Sitting quietly, the woman read her book.

The woman, sitting quietly and occasionally sipping tea, read her book.

Sitting quietly next to the window of the café, the woman read her book.

The woman sat at the table near the window, reading the book that she had bought at the market.

Sitting quietly near the window, reading the book that she had bought at the market, the woman seemed content.

Past Participles

Soaked to the skin, Peter and Amit huddled in the bus shelter.

Peter and Amit, soaked to the skin from the heavy downpour, huddled in the bus shelter.

Soaked to the skin with their hair plastered across their shivering heads, Peter and Amit huddled in the bus shelter.

Peter and Amit huddled in the bus shelter, soaked to the skin from the heavy downpour.

Soaked to the skin, huddled together for warmth, Peter and Amit waited for the night bus.

Participle phrases are punctuated like appositives: if they are non-essential, they are always separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma or, if they are embedded in the middle, with a pair of commas.

Why should we teach them?

In the last post, I looked at the benefits to practising noun appositives. Here, I will look at two of these benefits and how they apply to participle phrases.

3) Enables students to include more information in a sentence and add complexity

Like appositives, the complexity comes from the fact that the explanation or extra detail is embedded and subordinated within the same sentence rather than having two or more simple constructions. This complexity can be added not only to descriptive writing, but also when writing analytically in response to a text. Compare these examples:

Wordsworth describes the ‘huge peak’ as being ‘grim’. He makes its sound menacing

Describing the ‘huge peak’ as being ‘grim’, Wordsworth makes it sound menacing.

Ozymandias claims he is ‘King of Kings’. He seems tyrannical and oppressive. He uses aggressive and threatening language like ‘despair!’

Claiming he is ‘King of Kings’, he seems tyrannical and oppressive, using aggressive and threatening language like ‘despair!’

Macbeth is lauded at the start of the play. Duncan praises him for being ‘noble’ and the Captain calls him ‘brave’. Macbeth begins the play as a respected and loyal warrior who is utterly committed to defending his country.

Lauded by Duncan who calls him ‘noble’, praised by his peers who describe him as ‘brave’, Macbeth begins the play as a respected and loyal warrior who is utterly committed to defending his country.

6) Encourages close reading

Like with appositives, you can give students a topic and ask them to write sentences that contain participle phrases, developing their ability to analyse or paraphrase the text that they have read.

Here are some examples from Exposure by Wilfred Owen:

TASK: Explore the power of the weather in Exposure

Personifying the ‘merciless’ wind, Owen explores the torment and suffering caused by being freezing cold.

The ‘east winds that knive us’ seem baleful and menacing, causing ‘agonies’ and forcing men to ‘cringe in holes.’

Beginning with the possessive pronoun ‘our’, the poem explores the collective suffering of soldiers.

Pernicious and ‘with fingering stealth’, the snowflakes, things normally associated with peace, tranquillity and beauty, become malicious and threatening, described as ‘feeling for our faces’ as if they are malevolent and hostile.

Next Post: An overview of absolute phrases.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Phrases 2: An Overview of Appositives

What is an Appositive?

A noun appositive is a noun or noun phrase that renames another noun right beside it. It will identify, explain or give more information about that word. The appositive can be a few words or a longer combination.

Let’s have a look at some examples:

The guard, a new recruit, stood next to the gate.

The guard, a new recruit with piercing eyes, stood next to the gate.

A new recruit with piercing eyes, the guard stood next to the gate.

The guard, a new recruit with piercing eyes who was holding a machine gun, stood next to the gate.

The guard stood next to the gate, one of six heavily armoured entrances to the facility.

Appositives, if they are non-essential, are always separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma or, if they are embedded in the middle, with a pair of commas.

Why should we teach them?

One of the techniques explained in detail in ‘The Writing Revolution’ (this underlined part is an example of a noun appositive!), the noun appositive is a useful construction to teach to students. A guide to advancing thinking through writing in all subjects and grades, (another example of an appositive!) the book explains how, through explicit teaching and deliberate, purposive practice, students can develop and extend their ability to write proficiently. The American Educator published a short overview of the book in the Summer 2017 issue. and this article is well worth a read if you want to understand their approach.

The book lists a number of benefits to practising appositives and, although it does not deal with absolute phrases or participle phrases, constructions that I will explore in subsequent posts, (another example of an appositive!) these benefits apply equally to all three phrase types.

1) ‘Provides an effective strategy for creating topic and concluding sentences

2) ‘Enables students to vary sentence structure’

Both of these benefits are similar as they focus on increasing student’s ability to ‘compose complex and interesting sentences’. Although there are many other facets of good writing, being able to use and manipulate a range of sentence structures is a clear sign of proficiency. When writing descriptive, narrative or persuasive pieces, appositives allow students to create sophisticated constructions, adding variety, nuance and detail.

3) Enables students to include more information in a sentence and add complexity

The complexity comes from the fact that the explanation is embedded and subordinated within the same sentence rather than having two or more simple constructions. Compare these examples:

Macbeth is a fearless warrior. He is described as ‘valour’s minion’

A fearless warrior, Macbeth is described as ‘valour’s minion.’

Mrs. Birling labels Eva Smith ‘a girl of that sort’. Mrs Birling believes that the lower class are less worthy, less deserving of respect and perhaps even less human.

A woman who labels Eva Smith as ‘a girl of that sort’, Mrs Birling believes that the lower class are less worthy, less deserving of respect and perhaps even less human.

4) Improves reading comprehension

5) Enables teachers to check for comprehension

One of the main ideas within ‘The Writing Revolution’ is that the deliberate practice of sentences should be focussed entirely on the content that is being learnt, therefore developing writing skills as well as deepening understanding of content. As soon as students are able to use appositives, we should embed practice activities in the content that we teach. As an English teacher, this means getting students to use appositives analytically and when writing in response to texts.

6) Encourages close reading

You can give students a topic and ask them to write sentences that contain appositives, developing their ability to analyse or paraphrase the text that they have read. Here are some examples from Jekyll and Hyde:

TASK: Explore the character of Utterson in Jekyll and Hyde

The archetypal Victorian Gentleman, Utterson is obsessed with propriety and decorum.

Utterson, an ‘austere’ man who avoids pleasure and frivolity in order to maintain his reputation, is obsessed with propriety and decorum.

Despite being a man whose ‘past was fairly blameless’, Utterson was ‘humbled to the dust by the many ill things that he had done’, a statement that hints at his paranoia, his insecurity and his unhealthy obsession with appearances and reputation.

7) Familiarises students with a form that is often seen in text and rarely heard in spoken language.

As mentioned in my last post, quality prose contains a number of constructions that are unique to written communication. Even in formalised, academic speech, people rarely, if ever, use appositives. This means that students who do not read widely will rarely be exposed to or even be aware of the fact that these sentence styles exist. Explicit instruction and purposive deliberate practice can change this and students can quickly begin to incorporate appositives into their writing.

Next post: An overview of Participle phrases.

 

Grammar: Teaching Phrases

In Practice Perfect, the writers posit that “The skills you see in your top performers are the very skills you then work to develop in everyone on your team.” (p.58) and that a “disciplined approach to identifying top performers and analyzing top performance provides you with the curriculum.” (p.58). If these ideas are applied to the field of writing instruction, then we are forced to ask the question: what are the elements of good writing? ‘Good Writing’ is an amorphous and nebulous term. Clearly, there is not one definitive style, approach or list of constituent elements that results in good writing and if there was, that would only serve to remove the wonder, the beauty and the personal, potentially resulting in the sterile and the functional, creating a tick-box approach that is both bland and formulaic. However, the fact that the ingredients of good writing are varied and wide-ranging should not preclude attempting to teach some of them. Although excellence comes in myriad forms and styles, there are some sentence styles that you would closely and maybe even exclusively associate with sophisticated writing and, while many examples of excellence may avoid these constructions, the ability to use them would go some way towards improving the technicality and proficiency of a student’s written output.

So what constructions should we teach and practice?

We decided to focus our efforts on teaching the aspects of sentence construction that go beyond functional, everyday communication and usage-the kind of sentences that people rarely use in everyday oral communication, even in formalised, academic speech, yet are regularly found in high quality writing.

Instead of merely focussing on generic longer sentences-length being a poor proxy for expertise-we wanted them to practice and master constructions that allowed them to combine complex ideas into succinct, sophisticated sentences that are accurate, detailed, effective and clear.

We also wanted to teach high-utility sentence constructions that could be used across different genres, particularly the big three that our curriculum focusses on:

1) Analysis/Responding to Texts

2) Descriptive/Narrative

3) Rhetoric

I agree entirely with this statement ‘I believe that great writing is characterised by the ability to control and manipulate clauses’ (https://tabularasaeducation.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/grammar/) and we have been working on deliberate practice of multi-clause sentences across all three of our broad writing genres. In addition to the focus on clause manipulation, I would add the manipulation of phrases as well.

These are the three phrases that we have chosen to teach, complete with a few examples that demonstrate how the constructions can be used across our three broad writing genres. The next few posts will look at each in far more detail.

1) Noun Appositives

  • A woman who considers herself superior to others, Mrs Birling is condescending towards the working class.
  • The man clutched his satchel, a tattered bag which contained his meagre possessions.
  • A shame, a tragedy, an embarrassment, their defeat sent shockwaves across the sporting community.

 

2) Participle Phrases

  • Lady Macbeth begins the scene in a surprising manner: she seems troubled and uncertain, lacking the resolve, confidence and composure of her previous self.
  • Howling manically, a pack of wolves ran through the forest.
  • Convinced that she has had a part to play in causing Eva Smith’s death and that she would ‘never do it again to anybody,’ Sheila displays remorse, guilt and the potential for change.

 

3) Absolute Phrases

  • The trees, their branches creaking in the wind, surrounded the building.
  • His ‘fire and blood and anguish’ imagery verging on the prophetic, the Inspector’s final speech is a dire warning about the consequences of an atomised society.
  • The crowd looked desperate, their faces haggard, their clothes all ripped and torn.
  • The sun setting behind the sandstone mountains, Clara began to shiver as the temperature rapidly decreased.

 

Although I want my students to be able to name these particular parts of a sentence, most importantly I want them to use them. While there may be disagreement about the ‘correct’ name to give these (absolute phrases seem to be known as ‘nominative absolutes’ as well as ‘noun phrases . . . combined with participles’), we still need a name to give them if we are to discuss, analyse and practice them, creating what Lemov refers to as ‘a shared language for your team’ p.66. If we have this shared language, we are able to minimise confusion and be precise, allowing us to create focussed practice activities. Asking a student to write 4 noun appositive sentences about Bayonet Charge allows precise feedback to be given as the success criteria are explicit and clear. In such an activity, both teacher and student understand the precise styles of sentence that is being asked for.

Many of our students do not read widely and, in the absence of deliberate and focussed practice, would be extremely unlikely to be able to use and manipulate these constructions. Those that do read widely may have developed a partial understanding or at least a vague familiarity with them. When teaching these constructions for the first time-particularly the appositive and the absolute phrases-it is common to hear assertions that the examples don’t make sense, or that they are grammatically incorrect, evidence of just how unfamiliar some students are with these type of sentences. Thankfully, this initial confusion soon disappears and, given the right amount of explicit instruction and practice, students are quickly able to produce their own examples, dramatically broadening the range of sentences that they can use and increasing the sophistication and complexity of their writing.

Next post: Teaching Appositives.