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Start at sentence level for writing success

Sentence structure is a key component of teaching writing at primary school. Following the release of How to Teach Writing, Spelling and Grammar, author Christine Braid explains how to build sentence knowledge clause by clause.
Start at sentence level for writing success

Writing sentences is one of the most cognitively demanding tasks we learn. It follows then, that teaching writing is one of the most difficult tasks for teachers.

The act of writing goes beyond ‘talk written down’ because there are constraints on a written sentence that do not exist in talk. Also, in talk, we do not need to employ the skills of spelling or handwriting, which are needed for writing tasks.

The sentence is the basis of a written message. Mastering sentences clearly, correctly, and creatively is the basis of improving as a writer. Well-written sentences grab our attention and well-crafted sentences can move us.

Notice sentences
Become good at noticing the sentences in texts you read aloud to children.

Break the demand – sentence by sentence

Learning to craft a piece of writing, sentence by sentence, is something we continue to perfect, no matter how long we have been writing. A powerful piece of writing will be built from the manipulation of sentences, meaning that the sentence is the perfect unit to focus on for improving writing success at all levels.

Writing one correct sentence is a massive task for our youngest writers. Assuming our older students have mastered sentence skills can also be a mistake.

As teachers, it can be tempting to try to make progress beyond one correct sentence too quickly, which can lead to the ‘and then and then’ phenomena. When the simple sentence is not mastered, we also find incorrect use or complete absence of punctuation.

The simplest way to teach the basis of a sentence is to consider the two key parts that make the clause: a subject (who or what the sentence is about) and the verb (the action of that subject). A sentence that includes one subject and verb (or subject phrase and verb phrase) produces the simple sentence.

Simple does not mean basic. A simple sentence is not necessarily less desirable than a complex one. The simple sentence can be short (and powerful) but can also involve added phrases that give a different rhythm.  

Having the small goal of mastering the sentence enables us to teach sentence by sentence, celebrating small steps and giving value to the mastery of one sentence at a time.

The goals in How to Teach Writing, Spelling, and Grammar start with mastering the basic clause. We teach a useful skill for learners in the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of simple sentences. Later on, we explain how to expand or join those clauses to include a variety of sentences with intention.

Build the demand up for sentences

Building the demand of the writing task can start gradually with expanding a simple sentence or joining two simple sentences.

We can teach learners to expand from the clause by introducing the adverbial phrase, which adds information to the verb phrase, telling where, when, or how. Adverbial phrases can be placed before or after the clause. This provides the beginning of learning how to vary sentence beginnings and lengths.

For young writers, it is appropriate to teach the addition of one phrase. For more advanced writers, we can teach two or three phrases and the manipulation of the sentence structure using those.

Simple sentences
Using one clause and expanding the simple sentence with adverbial phrases.

Once learners begin mastering the clause, we can consider teaching intentional joining of two clauses. The most straightforward joining tool is the co-ordinating conjunction (eg, and, but) to make a compound sentence.

compound sentences
Building a compound sentence using a co-ordinating conjunction.

Building from the co-ordinating conjunction, we can teach the use of sub-ordinating conjunctions to make complex sentences. A complex sentence contains two (or more) clauses.

An easy way to begin with complex sentences is to use the conjunction ‘because’. Then, progress to using a range of conjunctions that sub-ordinate one of the clauses, making it dependent on the other (Traffis, 2020).

Complex sentences
Building a complex sentence using a sub-ordinating conjunction that results in a dependent clause.

Technique teaching for better sentences

Technique lessons can allow teachers to show, and learners to trial, different ways of crafting a piece for effect, outside of the burden of producing a piece of writing.

The teaching of these techniques does not have to be boring, nor does it need to result in writing that is inauthentic. It is important to teach writing techniques and then guide the writer to select their techniques with purpose. I use the phrase “You are the author and you have the choice” to begin the journey of authorial choice.

There are many techniques you can try with some examples in the primary school resource, How to Teach Writing, Grammar, and Spelling. Some useful activities include trialling different ways to write the same sentence or combine sentences in different ways. The focus might not be on the product at this point, which gives our learners the chance to learn technique in small manageable bites.

Different sentences
A child responds to the task of writing the same clause and adverbial phrases in different ways.
combining sentences
Sentence combining using controlled texts such as Ready to Read levelled readers.

Sentence combining helps with both improved writing techniques and  reading comprehension. Sentence combining can start with the teacher modelling the technique.

There are many texts we can utilise to find sentences that can be combined. A sentence combining exercise for young learners can be created around levelled readers as these tend to use simple sentences, which could be intentionally joined.

Sentence combining for older learners can also start by looking at two simple sentences and finding ways to join.

There are many other ways to teach sentence combining, as shown by the Australian Education Research Organisation.  

Story Seekers sentences
Sentence combining using controlled texts such as Story Seekers.

Let’s get going with sentences

The importance of teachers understanding sentence structure cannot be over-emphasised. The technical aspects can help us be confident in helping our learners improve as writers.

The explicit teaching of sentence techniques builds a writer’s skill. The techniques taught can form the basis of meaningful feedback on a piece of writing, which is an important part of teaching writers.

Knowing how authors use sentences for effect is also useful in teaching writing. It is both a delight and a useful tool when we can see what published authors have used for impact.

Teaching writing is a massive undertaking but taking a straightforward approach can create a useful pathway for teachers. The sentence is a very good place to start.

References

Traffis, C. (2020). What Is a Subordinating Conjunction? Retrieved from https://www.grammarly.com/blog/subordinating-conjunctions/

About the author

Dr Christine Braid has 40 years experience as an educator, including 12 years as a classroom teacher and 25 years as a teacher educator with a focus on literacy teaching. In her academic studies, she has specialised in literacy: she has a Diploma of Children’s Literature, her MEd thesis looked at using picture books for developing comprehension discussion with older primary students and her PhD examined the influence of teacher knowledge and practice on literacy outcomes for new primary students. Combining her practical and her experience, Christine works with teachers to promote systematic and explicit teaching and to provide opportunities for incidental learning. Christine has a particular enthusiasm for finding ways to inspire teachers and children using books.

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