This post leans heavily upon the great work by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler in The Writing Revolution. In my school, the least advantaged children are not as competent as their advantaged peers at crafting accurate and effective sentences. To combat this, we aim to put sentences at the heart of the curriculum, with a number of strategies that can be used not only during English lessons but in any subject using the fascinating content that each subject brings. After all, writing is thinking and getting children to think clearly about the curriculum is fundamental to them building schemata.
Understanding children’s misconceptions
The starting point for any strategy selection is to understand the misconceptions that children have around sentences. From The Writing Revolution, categorising these misconceptions as grammatical or stylistic can be helpful. These strategies may help children to write better sentences but reading is just as important. For example, children might use run ons when writing and ignore full stops when reading. Paired reading, sentence by sentence can ensure that children pause at full stops and hear the demarcation of sentences more clearly.
Securing subject knowledge
Teachers need good subject knowledge in order to clearly explain the intricacies of the grammar and stylistic choices that need to be made when forming great sentences. The following images show some key concepts that the sentence strategies rely on:
The role of oral rehearsal
Children can only write what they can say and the following strategies must be built upon plenty of oral rehearsal.
#1 Fragments for completion
Using the subject content from various subjects, provide children with fragments. These fragments contain the key vocabulary and turns of phrase used in the unit of work. Remember to set up plenty of oral rehearsal first.
Using a part of a sentence as a focal point of discussion around how it make it complete draws attention to what is and what is not a sentence. Doing so provides opportunities to talk about what is missing (subject, verb etc) and what those might be in order make a complete sentence. This task also provides an opportunity for precise thinking about the subject content with the aim of putting across information learned in a concise way.
#2 Because, but, so
A main clause is provided and children are encouraged to extend it using a conjunction. The choice of conjunction is important. Because prompts a causation; but sets up a contradiction and so leads into a consequence.
The three chosen conjunctions make the sentence take very different turns. If the initial main clause is selected well enough from the subject content in any given subject, children will have to think hard about completing them to portray the subject content accurately.
#3 Sentence functions
Provide prompts for children form one of the 4 functions of a sentence. Use vocabulary, concepts or ideas from the subject content of the wider curriculum.
Aside from more practice in forming different sentence types, children are given an opportunity to think about subject content in a different way.
#4 Change words and phrases for effect
A sentence is chosen from a text and a discussion is prompted about the word choices that the writer has made. Experiment with adding, removing or changing words and phrases and thinking about the effect that the changes have on the reader. Consider changing the intended effect – what words or phrases would need to be adapted?
Shared writing at the sentence level helps children to see and hear the thought processes of good writers. Sometimes this can be lost in writing longer pieces so spending time on the analyse and crafting of individual sentence is time well spent.
#5 Convert the voice
Provide sentences in the active voice for children to convert to the passive voice and vice versa. Once there is a sentence in each voice, consider which voice sounds better.
Choosing between the active and passive voice is important when deciding where the reader’s attention should be directed in a sentence.
#6 Manipulating word classes
Provide children with a word that can be classed differently depending on context, drawn from the wider curriculum. Prompt children to write sentences where the word is classed in different ways.
Words can only be classified in context. A sentence can come alive with carefully selected words used in the right context.
#7 Adding adverbials
Provide a single clause sentence which children develop by adding adverbials. They’ll need to first choose which information would be valuable to add:
- when the action happened
- where it happened
- why it happened
- how it happened
- for how long it happened
- how often it happened
- with whom it happened.
A further discussion would be useful about whether the adverbial is best placed at the beginning of the end of the sentence.
A sentence can have complexity whilst still retaining only one clause. Writers are deliberate in what information is included and how a sentence is organised.
#8 Single to multi clause
Provide children with a single clause sentence and experiment with using conjunctions to join further clauses to it. Choose a coordinating conjunction and a further main clause to make a multi clause coordinated sentence. Experiment with other coordinating conjunctions and decide which coordinated sentence sounds best. Choose a subordinating conjunction and a subordinate clause to make a multi clause subordinated sentence. Try the subordinate clause before and after the main clause and decide which configuration sounds best. Does the coordinated or the subordinated sentence sound better?
Adding further clauses using different conjunctions enables sentences to put across links between ideas.
#9 Adding a relative clause
Provide a main clause and consider what more information might about the subject that a reader might need to know. Which relative pronoun would be best: which, who or that?
The use of a relative clause combines otherwise separate ideas into one sentence, particular when the extra information about the subject is better coming before the action in a particular sentence.
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