'Students who use shorter sentences get better exam results – here's how to help your class to be concise'

A deputy head of English explains how teachers can coach their students to use shorter sentences ─ something which could potentially help them to achieve better grades

Sophie Hederer

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Twitter has recently brought a certain interesting pattern to my attention: the correlation between shorter sentences and higher performance in exams.

According to the Cambridge Assessment publication "Aspects of Writing 1980-2014",  data shows that GCSE students awarded an A* in 2014 had an average sentence length of 16.8 words in their exam answers, while C-grade students averaged 17.7 words and F-grade students used 28.3 words per sentence.

This is certainly a pattern worth looking into.

However, it would be silly to ignore the obvious facts. Students who attain higher grades don't do this through shorter sentences alone. Getting an A* requires a certain level of sophistication and accurate spelling. All skills must be working in unison to create a convincing piece of writing that an examiner will reward highly.

As the exam boards always remind us, we need to mark holistically and, therefore, teaching should be holistic, too. Shorter sentences come as a result of effective punctuation and confident vocabulary choices. Let's not focus purely on sentence lengths at the expense of everything else.

But, with the current focus on exam grades, and in the spirit of “every little helps”, here are four tips for encouraging your students to write concisely:

1. Focus on powerful words

Explicitly teach that using one powerful adjective in a sentence is better than using three mediocre ones. Aim to introduce three new words per lesson, contextualise them and make sure that students fully understand what they mean before using them. You can interweave this throughout units: if they learned “nihilistic” through the teaching of one text, ask them to create a nihilistic character in their writing or spot one in a source in a later unit. 

2. Teach them to avoid ‘empty’ phrases

Shorter sentences are particularly helpful in analysis, so try teaching shorter sentences during analysis activities. I explicitly direct my students to miss out phrases like “I know this because” or “this quotation shows” because they add no value but take time to write. Instead, just tell the reader what you know or what the quotation shows.

3. Watch out for PEE

Sometimes, PEE paragraphs can lend themselves to woolly sentences; because students know that they need to write a "point" sentence and they need to write an "explanation" sentence, they fall back on writing any old thing. Coach them to be really specific here. Rather than saying something like, “the writer uses many techniques to explore ideas”, make it clear that they need to say which technique and which idea.

4. Drill punctuation

In some cases, struggling students may be writing longer sentences simply because they are not using full stops where they should be. You already have a million and one things to teach in the run-up to exams, but if you can incorporate some punctuation refreshers ─ as starter activities, for example ─ then that will help to ensure that students are not being let down by the very basics.

Citation: Elliott, G., Green, S., Constantinou, F., Vitello, S., Chambers, L., Rushton, N., Ireland, J., Bowyer, J., and Beauchamp, D. (2016). Variations in aspects of writing in 16+ English examinations between 1980 and 2014. Research Matters: A Cambridge Assessment publication, Special Issue 4.

Sophie Hederer is a deputy head of English in Nottingham. She tweets @engteachwbs

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Sophie Hederer

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