How Do You Teach Students to Write Solid Sentences?

This guest post is written by author Michael Laser. 

If you’ve had success, please share what worked!

This post is adapted from a much longer post on Doug Lemov’s blog, Teach Like a Champion.

MichaelLaserI’m a novelist and a relatively new teacher of freshman composition (going into my 4th semester). I’ve been searching for effective teaching methods to help my students improve their writing at the sentence level. To give you a sense of the problems I’m trying to address, here are a few sentences from their essays:

Because now in today’s age if it were opposite and it was a group of males in a store shirtless and a male manager walked in he would 9 out of 10 times ignore it and say that they weren’t doing anything stupid or unnecessary, holding women to a different standard.

The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones. 

The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage. 

I’ve read books and articles on integrating grammar instruction into a writing curriculum and have adapted the strategies that seemed most promising. I’ve also invented lessons of my own, including “Recognizing Awkward Sentences” and “Improving Awkward Sentences.” But even students who seemed to get the idea when we practiced usually forgot the lessons when they wrote their essays. And, though it hurts to admit this, very few of my students improved significantly—at the sentence level, at least—by the time they handed in their final essays.

I expect awkwardness in a first draft, in student writing and in my own; but I know that I can clear up most of the problems by going back and revising. That’s the skill I’ve tried to teach my students. So far, I haven’t found a way that works.

Frustration has led me to rethink my search. Instead of trying one teaching strategy after another, I want to find teachers who have gotten better results and ask how they did it.

Have you seen significant improvements in your students’ grammar and style between September and June? If so, would you be willing to share some of your methods? The more specifics you can provide, the better.

You can post suggestions in the Comments section, or email me at Michael@michaellaser.com. Eventually, if enough people respond, I’d like to compile these ideas and present them for other teachers to use, either on the Web or in book form. Either way, I would credit the teachers who suggested the methods.

Note: Many writing specialists believe that an emphasis on correctness crushes confidence, stifles creativity, and produces less capable writers. For decades, they have sought to engage students by assigning topics that matter to the writers, encouraging students to flesh out early drafts with more detail, and overlooking most errors. They have worked to overturn students’ belief that I can’t write—a belief that results from finding their best efforts bloodied with red marks, repeatedly. These insights are important. Still, it seems to me that, in the reaction against oppressive teaching methods, basic skills have been lost. If students graduate from college and go on to write emails, letters, and reports that are as awkward and error-filled as the papers they’ve written in my class, they’ll be judged harshly.

I want to encourage my students to think creatively. The challenge is to build their confidence at the same time that we teach them to write graceful, grammatically correct sentences. If you’ve accomplished that, please take the time to explain how.

Michael Laser writes novels for adults and younger readers. You can read more about his work on his website, michaellaser.com. 

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About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

20 thoughts on “How Do You Teach Students to Write Solid Sentences?

  1. I can’t say I’ve mastered this, but, after fifteen years of teaching middle school writers, I have two strategies that I have found helpful. One is adapted from Kelly Gallagher’s sentence of the week model. To build their grammar skills, we work on different sentence styles each week- admire their flow, acknowledge the grammar, do a little practice in imitating the model. The second strategy, and perhaps the most effective, is the student reading their essay aloud to me. Though it’s time consuming, students read their first draft of large pieces aloud. Most of the time, they’ll stumble on their own awkward sentences and stop to highlight them for later correction. If they don’t, I’ll ask them to read a sentence again, explaining that I’m confused, and they typically hear the issue the second time and make a note of it.

  2. I have found that a combination of teaching sentence structure and conferencing with students (labor intensive, I know) produces results. As I go over their papers, I look for patterns among the students’ writing. I address the issue in a lesson and then have students look for the issue and correct their own writing. During conferencing, I read confusing parts, describe to the student what I think they mean, usually the answer is “No, that’s not what I mean”. I ask them to explain in more detail, then have them rewrite the sentence correctly. Additionally, diagramming a sentence helps them visualize where each part of speech belongs. I have not heard teachers use language such as: “Adjectives describe nouns, providing further information” or “…that is a prepositional phrase” or ” One begins a sentence with subject pronouns, object pronouns belong at the end of a sentence for instance: He and I danced, rather than me and him” . Students need to understand the difference between colloquial language used in casual situations and standard English(universally understood in the wider world) and that each has its place.
    I hope these suggestions help. Good luck.
    Roberta Robinson (literacy doctoral candidate)

    1. I have a similar approach to what Roberta has mentioned here. I use both written feedback and conference to start the conversation about what my students intended and what they wrote could mean or sound like. In doing so, I try to connect the conversation to values appreciated in English writing as my students are mostly multilingual writers (still, I believe this can help so-called “monolingual” or “mainstream” students as well; we were all non-native when it comes to academic writing!).

      I also try to squeeze in the workshop recursively for every paper that they write toward the end of their drafting process (like 2nd or third draft depending on how many drafts you allow in the class). This way, they could pay more attention to issues like style, which some of my students does not seem to take as a serious issue.

  3. I am very interested in the comments you receive. If you have found improving student writing in one’s native language difficult, achieving it in students learning an additive language has proven perhaps even more challenging, especially for academic purposes.. Please keep me informed.
    Ellen Shubich

  4. I, too, am interested in the comments you receive. I’ve taught 9the and 10th grade Language Arts for 17 years, and have similar experiences to what you’ve described.

  5. The only really effective approach for me has been marking & commenting on their “final” pieces, then having them use that feedback to rework and resubmit. That very often includes one-on-one meetings to show individual students how to make those improvements. It’s painstaking, but helpful.

  6. I am not sure how it will go over with college students, but with my high school students I do two things that offer some measure of success:

    1. Sentences for imitation. Things like, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s not just an allusion–it’s also a great way to start an argument of definition: All married mothers are alike; each single mother struggles in her own way, for example.

    I keep a file of sentences ripe for imitation, some, like the Tolstoy, easily memorized and useful in a number of circumstances. Some (like this Norman Mailer: “Let the passions and cupidities and dreams and kinks and ideals and greed and hopes and foul corruptions of all men and women have their day and the world will still be bettie off, for there is more good than bad in the sum of us and our workings.”) are just fun to watch kids wrestle with and learn that sentences are flexible, lively, vital things.

    2. Sentence templates, mostly lifted from Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/ I say. Again, they’re easily memorized and useful in a variety of kinds of argumentation. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth it–it might even be worth having students buy the text.

  7. I teach middle school Language Arts. Last year I spent some time watching my younger-grade teachers provide context for revision in their classrooms. Then I went back to my own class and used their strategies, adapted up of course. My final product became a modified version of “revision stations” from Lucy Caulkins work. (All of the younger-grade teachers use her Writing Workshop model.) I had the students type up their first draft in google docs and then we spent one week of class time (a lot, I know) going through revision stations in small groups. These stations can vary, but we focused on “word level”, “sentence construction”, “adding quotations”, and “integrating theme or a moral of the story”. I identified the stations from a review of the first drafts over the weekend. Then every student had to complete a few tasks at each station. The trick that helped was requiring them to mark their changes with the “Suggesting” tool in google docs. I reviewed their changes each evening and scored their efforts. This helped the students see that every piece of writing can be improved. Some of my strongest writers struggled the most with this activity, but all of the students found the stations fruitful. Most students felt they would enjoy it more with fewer days and possibly being able to choose 2 stations they felt would benefit them most. I intend to try their feedback this school year.

  8. I have always believed that the way to learn how to write is to become an avid reader. It worked for me and my four children. It worked even better at the elementary and middle schools where I was the principal. Of course it is easiest for sensitive readers, who without any special effort or specific instruction absorb the structure, vocabulary, and grammar of literature, non-fiction, newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, songs, poems, letters, and anything else that is well written.

    I first became aware of the power of reading to create good writers when my oldest son wrote a fairy tale in first grade that he named, “The Bat Who Eats children” Of course his story was a close imitation of “Hansel and Gretel”, also influenced by watching “Sesame Street” on television; but so what? He was six years old and had absorbed the basics of writing a fairy tale along with proper sentence structure and fairly good spelling.

    The elementary grade teachers I worked with also understood that appealing professional writing could be the foundation for children to learn writing. A special advantage of using a piece of professional writing as the starting point was that young writers could take as much or as little from a book or a story as they needed. For example, one of the books teachers frequently chose for young children to read was “xxx and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Day” by Judith Viorst. After reading and discussing that book, each child would write about a bad day, or a good day, a surprising day, a magical day, etc., etc. It was up to each kid to choose the kind of day he wished to describe and to use as much of the the original book structure as he needed. Their finished products varied widely, according to their interests, abilities, and experience, but they always showed some degree of learning about the basics of good writing.

    In addition to fiction, teachers used examples of good writing to teach kids how to write newspaper articles, poems, greeting cards, advertisements, personal and business letters, and even academic writing. It was not a matter of having students read a piece once and then write something similar, but of getting well acquainted with a particular genre and using its basics for support in creating something of their own to fulfill a personal purpose.

    I can’t go on to explain the full range of writing students worked on or all the fine points in this brief(?) comment. What I wish to emphasize is that in our schools, writing was purposeful, meaningful, personal, varied, and motivating for our students.

    P.S. If I made any spelling or grammatical errors in this comment it is because I reread what I wrote.

  9. P.S. The xxxs in my comment above occurred because I couldn’t immediately remember the name of the boy in the book was “Alexander”. Since I’m writing another comment, let me offer the titles of other books and other pieces that make good models for teaching writing to young kids, including English Language Learners. “Mary Wore Her Red Dress”, “It Looks Like Spelled Milk”, “Fortunately”, “Are You My Mother?”, “Q is for Duck: An Alphabetic Guessing Game”

    For older kids try using Native American legends, tall tales, fables, and pattered poems such as haiku, triplets, and cinquains

  10. I found the Education Week Spotlight article Creating a Community of Writers in the Classroom by Annette Christiansen very helpful.

  11. Thanks to everyone who has responded so far. I’m copying and pasting all of your suggestions into a separate document, and will consider how to use these ideas in my college classroom. The biggest obstacle I foresee is that I only have 28 sessions with my students — which may not be enough to make as big an impact as I’d like. But your ideas are in line with strategies I plan to try.

    If I get good results, I’ll report back at the end of the semester on what I did, and what worked best.

    Thanks again, all of you, for taking the time to help!

    1. Whether in a 10th-grade English classroom or in a first-year college writing course, the students’ reactions toward facing the seemingly insurmountable challenge of having to learn elements of grammar and syntax is usually the same. We are all familiar with the dramatic sighs and the unwelcoming remarks. As you know, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all template for successful writing instruction. As a result, I adapt and reflect on these basic strategies for a variety of courses at different grade levels from year to year. Cultivating a community of student writers is a constant work in progress.
      Here is what I have figured out to far: I am real with my students and let them know from the beginning that they are part of the meaning-making process. We start by making a list of writing complaints filled with issues they have concerning grammar, punctuation, or sentence structure. Students mentioned common challenges like comma placement, run-on sentences, and the function of a semicolon. This list becomes part of our shared goals for the year. I post the list as a reminder and point of reference . We revisit that list at the end of the year as well. I’ll agree that teaching grammar separate from individual student writing is rather pointless. Therefore, I incorporate mini-lessons throughout the week depending on the course because daily practice is key. In order to make sure we all begin at the same point and feel comfortable discussing our writing, the students have to know a few basic terms and how they function. The conversation begins with hip hop lyrics (clean ones) as a starting point. We go over independent and dependent clauses as the foundation from which all else builds. We work with various lyrics and songs to first recognize and identify various arrangements of words. Listening to the lyrics and reading them allows the students to pick up on grammatical errors that they might not be able to label or fully explain if addressing in isolation. Once we have a working definition of clauses, we slowly build and expand. Writing with my students is a big part of my instruction. Together, we work to create rules that the students practice every time they write (and know to check for during the revision process), which eventually helps establish a mutually relevant writing standard. For the sake of brevity, I can’t cover every stage of instruction, but I am happy to further discuss how I build on each mini-lesson, reinforce mindful writing practice, and work from student writing for the purpose of revision and monitoring student progress. Please reach out with any questions.

      1. Thank you for this detailed reply. Please send me your email address and I’ll come back to you with more specific questions. (The biggest challenge I’m finding is that I only see my students twice a week for 14 weeks. It’s hard to reinforce these lessons in so little time.)
        –ML

  12. I teach 9th grade, and I’ve had good luck improving student writing by “forcing” them to use various sentence structures. I give them a handout with five basic structures, and I require them to use a certain number of each in their writing. After a few assignments, I require additions to the variations (types of phrases). Early on, I ask that they label these sentences so that I can check that they are using correct punctuation and sentence parts.

    1. Independent clause, conjunction + independent clause
    2. Independent clause; independent clause
    3. Independent clause; conj. adverb, independent clause
    4. Independent clause + dependent clause
    5. Dependent clause, independent clause
    Later, I ask them to add specific phrases to the sentences. I might require that three or four sentences within a paragraph follow specific variations, or I might add a requirement for them to include an infinitive phrase or whatever. Although this is a regimented approach, it does seem to help. Good luck!

    1. I am astounded and dismayed by the emphasis on teaching writing through grammar I see in the preceding replies. Grammar was invented long after human language was developed by human beings wanting to communicate with each other. Grammatical rules responds to patterns of speech and writing, but it does not control them. By using grammar as the tool to create writing –or speech–we work against effective communication and art. In teaching it is far better to use good examples of speaking and writing as the models for writing and to encourage students to shape their writing on the structures in those examples. That can be done in many interesting, creative, and effective ways without resorting to grammatical structures.

      1. OMG, I committed a grammatical error above! I would not have done that in speech, but because I changed the written word “grammar” to “grammatical rules” I messed up a sentence. But I was able to recognize my error without diagramming the sentence.

      2. In many ways, I think of my writing teaching–at least on the granular, sentence level–like teaching jazz. We “listen” to a lot of good models and imitate them, but we also learn and practice structures and patterns that are indispensable in writing.

        And yes, that sometimes means demanding students write a bunch of compound sentences using coordinating conjunctions in a row. But if you don’t practice your scales, you can’t improvise when your turn comes around.

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