When one word won't do

A new scheme aims to halt the slide into monosyllabic responses and get children talking again

this is not an elaborate sentence. By contrast, because it contains several clauses and sub-clauses, this sentence might, were it used by a pupil, be considered significantly more elaborate than most.

A new scheme has been launched to teach primary pupils the benefits of complex sentences. Speaking for Kids aims to challenge monosyllabic tendencies and teach pupils to speak in fully formed sentences. It has a resource pack, including 35 pictures and lesson plans for use with pupils between the ages of three and six.

Teachers use each illustration to stimulate discussion, asking questions such as, "How many ears does the dog have?" Rather than answer "two", pupils must respond, "The dog has two ears." Sentences gradually build up, becoming longer and more complex.

Serena Greenslade, who developed the scheme, said: "Nowadays, children get away without speaking in sentences. We spend time teaching them to count or to write, but we assume they'll just pick up speech. They need to be able to put their thoughts together, so people can understand them."

Ms Greenslade believes that if pupils are unable to speak in complex sentences, they are unlikely to read or write more challenging material.

"Once you're used to using words and language, you can write better and read more easily," she said.

Mary Briggs, chief executive of Seven Stories, the centre for children's books, agrees. "There's been a simplifying of language in many children's books to make it more in line with film and television scripts," she said.

"A lot of classic books are made easier for children by cutting out the complex sentences to move the plot along. But if you've never come across complex language, it makes it more difficult."

Treasure Island, published in 1883, has a 91-word, multiple-clause opening sentence. By contrast, The Story of Tracy Beaker, (1991), opens: "My name is Tracy Beaker." But Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, says children will cope with any sentence as long as the plot carries them along.

"Good Lord, I don't write for stupid people," he said. "But people can be beguiled into being clever. Children are more capable of dealing with complexity than some people give them credit for."

Sue Palmer, a literacy consultant, says the ability to construct complex sentences is best taught by reading stories to pupils. "The key is to motivate them," she said. "Using closed questions will not develop the basic spoken language they need.

"Children want to talk about things that arise from genuine interest. They love stories, so they pick up new vocabulary just by repeating and imitating. They develop language structure because of their interest."

* www.speakupacademy.com

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