Helping students use literary language

July 6, 2008

Girl reading close up

Teachers often comment that students write the way they speak. In imaginative or literary writing, this often manifests itself in pieces that are action oriented and are dominated by the following features:

  • First person
  • Simple and compound sentences (‘and/but’ as conjunction)
  • Short noun groups
  • Everyday, colloquial language, including for evaluations (e.g. ‘The ride was really awesome’)

In order to make their works appealing and accessible for older children and adolescents, much professional young adult literature displays these same characteristics.

However, recent research into ‘demand’ writing tasks (standardized writing tests) is suggesting that the features most valued by markers include:

  • Third person
  • Complex sentences (independent & subordinate clause/s)
  • Choice of nouns and verbs for implicit, evaluative purposes (e.g. ‘The snow was lofted onto the window sill.’)
  • Long noun groups
  • Figurative and symbolic language, especially for evaluations.

In my own work with schools, I am starting to notice a disconnect between the type of texts that students are reading and writing in the upper primary and middle schools, and the expectations of the senior school. Put simply, in addition to the highly accessible and popular books available, students also need exposure to and immersion in more sophisticated (age appropriate) writing from quite early in their schooling. For at least some of these texts, they need to study the language use closely so that they can develop an explicit understanding of how particular literary effects are achieved.

Provided below is a first attempt at providing some recommendations for stories that use various elements of a more literary style of language, should be appealing to students, and could be read independently or read aloud by the teacher – extracts will work best in some circumstances. They are arranged in rough groupings according to age suitability, the list includes a number of titles published in Australia, and there is a mix of classics and more contemporary stories (including some well written popular fiction). The editions listed may not be the most recent and some books may be out of print; where this is the case, try your local library or second hand book store. Finally, this list will be updated over time and your comments on the selection are most welcome.

Note: Please make sure you preview titles before using them in your classroom to ensure that they are appropriate for your school and community context.

Younger children

Start with: Muntean, M and Lemaitre (illus.) (2006). Do not open this book! New York: Scholastic Press. [No literary masterpiece, but a fun book to introduce the notion of word play and the power of language.]

Early, M. (1991). William Tell. Montville, Qld: Walter McVitty Books.

Issa and Karas, G. B. (2007). today and today. New York: Scholastic Press. [A beautiful book of haiku for children – based on the seasons of the year.]

Lester, A. (1994). Isabella’s bed. Rydalmere, NSW: Hodder Headline Australia Pty Ltd.

Lester, A. (1990). Magic Beach. North Sydney, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Mahy, M. and Chamberlain, M (illus.) (1985). The man whose mother was a pirate. London, England: Puffin Books.

Older children/Young adolescents

Adornetto, A. (2007). The shadow thief. Australia: Angus and Robertson.

Babbit, N. (1975). Tuck Everlasting. USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Barrie, J. M. (1998). Peter Pan and Wendy. Bath, UK: Robert Frederick Ltd.

Bear, G. (1998). Dinosaur summer. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

DiTerlizzi, T. and Black, H. (2003). The Spiderwick chronicles: the field guide. Sydney: Simon and Schuster.

Gurney, J. (1992). Dinotopia: a land apart from time. Bathurst, NSW: Crawford House Press Pty Ltd.

Hartnett, S. (2007). The ghost’s child. Camberwell, Victoria: Viking (Penguin).

Lewis, C. S. (1950). The chronicles of Narnia: the lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Great Britain: Geoffrey Bles.

Lynch, J. (2008). The highest tide. London: Bloomsbury. (See Review of The highest tide)

Sutcliff, R. (1992). Beowulf: dragonslayer. London, UK: Red Fox (Random House Children’s Books).

Tan, S. (2008). Tales from outer suburbia. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994). The Lord of the Rings: the fellowship of the ring. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Wild, M. and Spudvilas, A (illus.) (2006). Woolvs in the sitee. Camberwell, Victoria: Viking (Penguin).

Older adolescents

Bear, G. (2003). Darwin‘s children. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Betts, A. J. (2008). Shutterspeed. Western Australia: Freemantle Press.

Blixen, K. (1954). Out of Africa and Shadows on the grass. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Greene, G. (2001). Twenty-one stories. Sydney: Vinatge. (see ‘The destructors’ in particular)

Guterson, D. (1995). Snow falling on cedars. Great Britain: Bloomsbury.

Proulx, E. Annie (1993). The shipping news. London: Fourth Estate Ltd.

Scott Fitzgerald, F. (1950). The great Gatsby. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Suskind, P. (1985). Perfume: the story of a murderer. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Temple, P. (2005). The broken shore. Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing.

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One Response to “Helping students use literary language”

  1. RYErnest on November 30th, 2008 12:02 pm

    Nice post u have here 😀 Added to my RSS reader

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