Tactile sentence craft

This extends the previous post where I provided a simple activity for students to play around with sentence structure and craft. All of this stuff builds on the ideas I wrote about in The Art of the Sentence. This activity adds a layer of complexity and creativity through the range of phrases students could choose. You will find the resource at the end of this post.

The activity has a list of participle phrases and their punctuation to be used as an opener of a sentence, a closer to the sentence, or a interrupter of the subject and verb. The images below show the openers and interrupter participle phrases.

Below are the main clauses – which you would use with the opener and closer phrases. The second image of the main noun and verb enables students to flexibly create their own interrupters using the participle phrases. You should be able to get some interesting combinations with this activity.

Here is the what I would generally do with this activity. The first focus on the opener and closer structures. This limits the choices and students are only dealing with a few strips of paper/laminated cards or digital artefacts. When students have created some combinations and shared them, continue to reinforce the language conventions and the discuss the impact of the different choices.

Then add complexity to the task and distribute the interrupters, main noun and verb phrases. There are a range of different possibilities students will come up with. The image below shows some possible combinations.

Make a copy of this resource

Grammar in context #1

In this post I’ll show you a few ways to embed the basic subordinate clause into your teaching. This is one of the clauses assessed in Australia’s National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). This approach can be used with the various sentence structure concepts I outlined in The Art of the Sentence.

This approach is easily differentiated – for struggling writers you focus on learning how to write the structures, and for stronger writers you can use the structures as way of teaching and embedding grammatical knowledge and concepts.

Below is the Stage 3 indicator for Outcome EN3-6B (this is built upon in EN4-4B and EN5-5B).

  • understand the difference between main and subordinate clauses and that a complex sentence involves at least one subordinate clause (ACELA1507)

The general ‘rule’ is that when you begin a sentence with one of these words, you are likely to need a comma at some point to separate the clause. The image below contains the common subordinating conjunctions, easily remembered by the mnemonic AAAWWUBBIS (ah-woo-bis). NAPLAN training uses the mnemonic of A White Bus.

Here is a table of examples of this structure

The approach

How can I make this content statement part of a regular instructional practice and not as a standalone grammar instruction unit? The steps below are a rough guide of what I do, progressively adding detail.

  1. Begin with a model sentence(s) and interrogate what kids notice about the model sentence. Ideally this should be the simplest model you can find to explain the concept.
  2. Draw attention to the use of punctuation and discuss what the punctuation in doing in the sentence.
  3. Imitate the sentence as a joint class construction.
  4. Provide opportunity for independent imitation of the model sentence. This will give you rapid formative feedback on student skill.
  5. Look for examples of the structure in the texts your class is reading. Collect examples and use these as WAGOLL samples (What A Good One Looks Like).
  6. Repeat this routine on a daily basis with different models. Provide a mnemonic to remember the common subordinators
  7. Interrogate the model sentence – where are the verbs, which part is the essential meaning, can the sentence be rearranged without impact on the meaning, which part can be deleted and the sentence still make sense, which part is only a ‘part of a sentence’.
  8. Consider naming the relevant parts (main clause, subordinate clause)
  9. Look for examples in daily texts.
  10. Quick write opportunities with the success criteria being the use of this sentence structure. Students review their piece identifying the concept.

Other activities

The key is to continue to embed these concepts into daily conversation and writing. Apart from some of the writing activities mentioned above (Quick Writes and Imitation of model sentences) here are a couple that I think are great to do to reinforce and develop these ideas further:

  • Chapter titles
  • Parallel writing structure

Chapter titles

One activity is to get students to write chapter titles using only the subordinate clause. These are titles that begin with the common subordinators in the list above. It is an easy task to implement and it provides the necessary practice that some students need. It also gives you the opportunity to discuss the grammar of the sentence, if the students are ready for that.

Here are some samples for you:

  • When in Rome
  • While the City Sleeps
  • Until Day Breaks
  • Because of Winn-Dixie
  • Before Sunrise
  • If Looks Could Kill
  • Since Vietnam
  • parallel writing structures

    Parallel structures are a way to create rhythm and beat in writing. We can use grammatical and literal repetition to help students to emulate professional author craft.

    Harry Noden uses this sentence as the base for students to build some parallel structures:

    “The old cabin made me feel close to nature.”

    He then adds the subordinate conjunction when:

    When I awoke to the aroma of burnt fire logs, when I looked out the window and saw the morning fog roll across the lake, when I felt the slight chill of the mountain air, the old cabin made me feel close to nature

    You can see how the rhythm and beat has been impacted by this grammatical and literal repetition. If they know the model, then look for ways to help them use it. Ask them to create parallel structures using the subordinating conjunctions.

    Other resources

    You can download this explicit slide deck, if it is useful to you, on the subordinate conjunctions. You can find it in the Art of the Sentence post.

    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:

    Participles

    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.

    Verbs

    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.

    Absolutes

    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.

    Imitation

    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.