Teaching grammar in context – sentence structure

An understanding of sentence structure is both an important aid to comprehension when reading, and vital assistance for students who have been given the instruction: ‘Make your writing interesting!’ (An instruction, by the way, that is of little use unless students are given some clues as to how this might be done.)

So, how can an understanding of sentence structure be taught as part of the reading and writing that is done in the classroom?

  • Interest and style are created by sentence variety. Using only short or long sentences can be equally boring and monotonous for the reader. Demonstrate this to students by showing them a paragraph that is comprised of a series of short sentences, each highlighted in a different colour. Ask students to read the paragraph and to give their opinion of the writing, hoping to elicit from them that it is not very interesting. Encourage them to look at the way the sentences have been highlighted to explain that the lack of interest derives from the monotony of a series of short sentences. Ask students to suggest how it might be improved, or made more ‘interesting’ for the reader.Make the changes to the paragraph as suggested by the students and be explicit about what they have done in order to improve the writing.
  • Depending on their year level and previous experience with metalanguage, you might point out (or get them to identify) how they have changed some simple sentences into compound ones, or how they have created complex sentences by adding adverbial, adjectival or noun clauses. Draw particular attention to those sentences that have been left as simple sentences because you want students to understand that variety in sentence length can make writing more engaging.
  • Students might also suggest changes to the way in which the sentences begin – that is, instead of all beginning with a subject followed by a verb, they might suggest that a sentence should start with an adjective, adverb or phrase. Again, if they make these suggestions, be explicit about what they have done in order to create and emphasise the metalanguage for future use. In particular, ask students what effects are achieved by adding the extra detail.
  • Repeat this activity on another occasion with a paragraph comprised of a series of long sentences. Again, ask students for their opinion of the writing, hoping to elicit from them that it is not easy to read or understand. Encourage them to look at the way in which you have highlighted the sentences to demonstrate that they are all long sentences.  Get students to suggest changes to the paragraph and to discuss those changes as described in the previous activity.
  • Select a short, interesting extract from a novel to read to your students – for example, a description of a person that effectively creates a character in terms of appearance and behaviour; a description of a place that makes it seem particularly attractive, enticing, frightening or disgusting; or a retelling of an event which effectively conveys the pathos, humour or horror of the situation.Discuss their responses to the extract and then explain that you are going to look more closely at how the author has created this piece of writing.Display the extract on an interactive whiteboard so that it can be easily highlighted and marked up. Ask students to identify:
    – the kinds of sentences used by the author (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex).
    – where in the sentences the clauses  have been embedded (at the beginning, in the middle, at the end) or phrases added.  Depending on student experience, you might also ask them to identify the kinds of clauses and phrases.
    – particular words or images that help to create a vivid picture or mood. Again, depending on student experience, you might ask them to identify whether these words are nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, and whether the images are similes or metaphors.
  • From time to time, when students are providing peer feedback on each other’s writing, identify a specific focus for them to concentrate on. For example, in the context of sentence construction, ask students to concentrate on providing each other with feedback about sentence variety. Ask them to offer explicit advice about where a peer might change a simple sentence to a complex sentence, for instance. Encourage them to use the metalanguage. For example, the peer feedback might be:
    Change this sentence into a complex sentence. You could add an adjectival clause to describe the car.
    Or, where students need a little more help, the feedback might be:
    Add an adjectival clause here to describe the car, such as:The car, which had been sitting out the front of our house for two weeks, seemed to have been abandoned.”’
    When you are providing feedback, be explicit about what you are doing so that you create a model for peer feedback – for example: ‘I’m giving Jay an example of an adjectival clause so that he can use one in his writing.’
  • If you encourage students to use editing and reviewing checklists when they are checking drafts of their writing, add a reference to sentence variety so that students become accustomed to reviewing their writing for more than spelling and punctuation. In writing conferences, encourage students to comment orally on their choice of sentence structure and to evaluate the effectiveness.
  • A short, simple sentence can sometimes be extremely effective; it is not necessarily the case that a long and complex sentence is always best. Demonstrate this for students by focusing on the shorter simple sentences in specific texts. Get them to identify, for example, how these sentences can be used to build tension and assist them to see this by substituting the short sentences for longer ones and examining the effect. Other selected texts might use short, simple sentences to grab attention, especially at the beginning of a text, or to sum up an argument. In a set of instructions, too, simple sentences might be more effective than complex sentences. Ask students to use these texts as models for their own writing, and encourage them to explain their choice of sentence construction, based on the effect they were hoping to achieve.
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