Energising passages

In this post I’ll give you a strategy that can help students understand that verbs power sentences and create motion picture images. Students often choose weak verbs like ‘went’, ‘looked’ or ‘moved‘ whereas professional authors avoid these to keep action moving. Some students have trouble of thinking of verbs and the activity below is a good way to help them.

In The Art of the Sentence I provided a slide deck to support your students to use action verbs, but in this post I want to provide a simple teaching activity teaching activity from Natalie Goldberg which may be useful during this period of remote learning.

Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones designed an activity called “The Action of a Sentence”.

The Action of a Sentence

  1. Fold a sheet of paper in half.
  2. On the left fold, students write ten or more nouns
  3. On the right fold students create a list of 10 or more verbs from a specific occupation. Goldberg says “Think of an occupation; for example a carpenter, a doctor, a flight attendant,”
  4. Unfold the list and create interesting combinations and sentences.

Here is Goldberg’s example:

Natalie Goldberg – Writing Down the Bones, p88

Here are some of the interesting images she came up with:

  • Dinosaurs marinate the earth
  • The lilacs sliced the sky into purple
  • The fiddles boiled the air with their music

This would be a simple task to assign students during remote learning.

Other resources

Here is a blog post from Andrea Badgley where she completes the exercise. It’s interesting to see her combinations and how she went further with the task.

Read, Write, Think has a resource for 3 x 50 minute lessons which you might find useful to adapt for your context.

Teaching inference through writing and sentence structures

Everyone knows that inference is one of the weakest skills identified by NAPLAN. I’m not pretending that what I outline below is the only way to teach inference, but one tool for teaching this skill to struggling students. The way I have found success is through combining reading and writing skills.

So, in this post you will get a tool to help teach inference and a slide deck to support that instruction.

Essentially, we use sentence models to show students how authors craft inferences and get student to imitate those models with their own compositions.

In this strategy you need to be familiar with some of the sentence structures I outlined in The Art of the Sentence. These are the participle, action verbs, and the absolute. If you are not familiar with this, the link above will open in a new tab and you can download the slide decks for those concepts.

When we say to kids “show” don’t “tell”, often we are asking them to write in such a way so the reader needs to infer something about the setting or character.

Crafting inferences

These are the model sentences used in the slide deck, pulled from a range of novels:


  1. Pinching his nose, Harry drank the potion down in two large gulps.
  2. “Hello,” said Ben, squeezing his bottom lip.
  3. The camera crews, perched like buzzards on rooftops, only add to the effect.


  1. Lockie cooked inside.
  2. The father glared at his daughter with deep suspicion, but said nothing.
  3. The man strode along the platform
  4. Rain-rotten shingles drooped over the eaves of the veranda; oak trees kept the sun away.
  5. The remains of a picket drunkenly guarded the front yard.


  1. Ben stood, walked quietly out of his bedroom and tiptoed up the hall, heart keeping time with his footsteps.  
  2. Radley had been leaning against the wall when I came into the room, his arms folded across his chest.
  3. Fingers trembling slightly, he opened the white envelope.

Using a few targeted sentence structures and models is a powerful way to get kids to notice how writers make us infer detail about the text, and how it can transform how a student writes.

In the very first example, a typical student composition would be:

Harry drank the foul smelling and tasting potion in two large gulps.

They have gone into tell mode. JK Rowling, however, includes the participle phrase at the beginning of the sentence.

Pinching his nose, Harry drank the potion down in two large gulps

Harry Potter

JK Rowling makes us infer something about this potion; it’s smell by the visual detail conveyed by the participle phrase ‘pinching his nose’.

We can get students to learn how to craft an inference by imitating the style and structure of this sentence.

For example:

Scratching his head, John looked at the examination paper.


If you have taught these structures already, you have the opportunity to reinforce the grammatical element. It’s the authentic way of teaching grammar in context. If you have taught a kid to use the participle phrase in their writing, it is likely that they are starting to write some examples where the reader needs to infer meaning. This opens up opportunities to discuss inference on a daily basis using any text.

Look through the slide deck below to see how the other sentences can be used to support students to identify inference but also create their own in sentences.

You can download it as well.

And if you really want, drop me a comment below to motivate me to keep sharing resources. In a future post I’ll show how to authentically teach grammar in context.