You’ve all seen writing from students who struggle at the sentence (syntax/grammar) level – full of fragments, run ons, missing punctuation, unclear ideas etc. Are you wondering what the most powerful, evidence-based and time-efficient approaches are for supporting these writers? Teaching text structure (TIDE, TREE) dramatically improves overall organization and clarity in writing. Then many students grow ready to more deeply examine and uplift the quality of their writing at the sentence level. Does this mean grammar lessons? 40 years of research shows grammar lessons (worksheets, daily drills, disconnected practice) do not lift overall writing quality. Will students naturally grow into better sentence writing? Probably not. Most, especially those who struggle, will need lessons that directly support the sentence level to achieve their fullest potential as writers.

Sentence level writing develops far more slowly than the text structure level, especially if students have solid tools such as TIDE or TREE to help them with organization. To help with the sentence level, will collaborative writes and models help as much at this level? We found that given the different cognitive areas of the brain involved in composing paragraphs vs sentences – that students needed an intensified approach.

In fact, Recent fMRI research shows that brain connectivity acts differently at the passage vs sentence/syntax (grammar) vs word levels in students, particularly for those who struggle. What might this mean for us as teachers? Supporting students with spelling/word vs sentence vs paragraph level writing difficulties may require significantly different approaches. Fortunately, we have found some practices that are dramatically improving sentence writing – even banishing fragments and run-ons for good.

Sentence instruction should actually begin at the word level, since words form the basis of sentences. Students need strategies to identify and collect word banks that they can then use when they go off to compose. This can be as simple as boxing words in texts they read, writing them on post its or scrap, and taking a stab at what they might mean so they build up word lists. Collecting exciting words has actually become a hobby for some of our writers now! Next, students can practice growing sentences as they learn about how prepositions and adjectives help them paint a clearer picture with their words (instead of ‘painting a cloud’, as one writer shared!). They can then learn to show complex relationships between ideas with conjunctions, followed by learning how to vary and cohere their writing. Finally, sentence combining and imitation are well-researched approaches to use once students gain a solid foundation.

To learn more – On May 11 in Andover, MA – join myself and Dr. Charles Haynes to learn about the latest research on how to support students who struggle at the sentence level. Teach your students how to write (and thereby more easily read, as well) beautiful, meaningful and grammatically accurate sentences in the most efficient and enjoyable ways. Learn how to support students not just in becoming accurate at the sentence level, but fluent and focused on creating their deep meanings on the page as they find their voices and use them to express their deepest truths when they write.

Can’t attend? Here are some wonderful resources worth taking a look at:
Debra Myhill on sentence imitation and focusing on impact on reader over ‘correctness’ when learning grammar
Bruce Saddler on sentence combining
Shawn Datchuk on building sentence fluency
Charles Haynes “From Talking to Writing”

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