Focus Question: How can we use sentence variety to improve our writing?
Students will work on sentence variety, analyzing professional models and composing their own, combining sentences and breaking them apart, then applying what they have learned to the revised description of a startling moment.
Show Instead of Tell
Collect the revised papers from Lesson Plan 1 at the beginning of class. You can use them to
- check the progress of individual students.
- make quick suggestions to the writers.
- decide if the entire class and/or selected groups need to revisit sensory details, specific details, strong verbs, concrete nouns, or focus for the piece.
You can also look over the writing group responses to see if additional assistance or discussion is needed before writing another response.
Call students’ attention to a sentence you have written on the board (e.g., “The room was a mess.”). Tell them, “Before we begin today’s lesson, we are going to do a quick warm-up exercise based on what you have already learned. Look at the sentence on the board. Would you say that this sentence shows its information or tells it?” (Students should realize the sentence only conveys the information by telling it.) “Now, make that sentence come alive. Show us that messy room! Take a couple of minutes to write your revision of this sentence, and then you’ll read it aloud.”
When students have finished, have as many as possible quickly share their sentences and then ask which details they remember from the sentences––and why.
You may use a short exercise like this at any time, for a variety of reasons: to get students’ minds moving, to practice a skill, or to let you see what students remember or understand. Make the exercises brief with a clear purpose, like this show-instead-of-tell sentence.
Analyze and Imitate the Structure of Model Sentences
Next, tell students that the present lesson will be focused on sentence variety so that they can learn additional techniques for improving their own writing. You could begin with a sentence describing a fearful Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Put the sentence up on the board or screen and announce that the first thing they are going to do is to “unpack” it:
The schoolhouse stood in a rather lonely but pleasant situation, just at the foot of a woody hill, with a brook running close by, and a formidable birch tree growing at one end of it.
Point out to students that this sentence could be considered a combination of the following five sentences:
- The schoolhouse stood in a rather lonely situation.
- The situation of the schoolhouse was also pleasant.
- The schoolhouse stood just at the foot of a woody hill.
- A brook ran close by the schoolhouse.
- A formidable birch tree grew at one end of the schoolhouse.
Read the five sentences aloud (or have a student do it); then read aloud the model sentence. Ask them what differences they notice between the two readings. (A student should mention that the five sentences sound somewhat choppy and repetitive, while the model sentence does not./The model sentence contains more action, is more interesting./“Schoolhouse” is not repeated.)
Have students look again at how the sentences can be combined to produce the model sentence. Ask them to observe what is dropped, added, or changed during the combining process. For example:
- Sentence 2 becomes “but pleasant” and is added to Sentence 1.
- Sentence 3 adds “just at the foot of a wood hill,” placed after a comma, and drops the rest of the sentence.
- Sentence 4 becomes “a brook running close by” and is connected to the sentence using “with” and a comma.
- Sentence 5 becomes “a formidable birch tree growing at one end of it,” and is connected to the sentence using “and” and a comma.
Tell students, “Before we leave the model sentence, I would like you to do one more thing: write a sentence that imitates the structure of this sentence. You can either begin with the five separate sentences as we did here or use the original sentence as your model. You won’t be working alone on this. You will work with your writing group to compose a single sentence. Take about 15 minutes to work on these, and then we’ll look at what you’ve written.”
As they are working, walk through the room and observe the groups. Feel free to make a suggestion if a group is having trouble with language choices, but let them work it out. You should also note which students will probably need additional practice. After 15 minutes, or after the first group finishes, start putting up their results on the board or screen. Tell them not to worry if they’re not finished because the whole class will do its best to complete what the groups have started.
You should work through this exercise, too, so that you know the kinds of problems students are likely to encounter. One possibility for an imitation sentence is:
The old house stood on a rather expensive but noisy site, just under the shadow of a high bridge, with heavy traffic passing close by, and an untalented band practicing in the house next door.
If possible, have the class complete the sentences begun in the groups. Leave some time so that students can comment on sentences (or parts of sentences) that they thought were particularly effective, and to explain why they thought so.
Tell students, “For the next class session, use another sentence as the model for one that you write yourself. Think about your description of a startling moment and write a sentence that you could use in that paper.” The model for this one is also from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”:
On all sides he beheld vast stores of apples, some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider press.
Create “Texture” in the Writing
Have students take out the model sentence they prepared. A quick check by you will reveal any students who are unprepared. Have students sit in a circle so that no one has his/her back to anyone else. Tell students, “Each of you is going to read your sentence aloud now. There won’t be any discussion until everyone has read. Give your attention to each one. When everyone has presented, I’ll ask you to identify particular details that you recall and to explain why you think they are particularly memorable. I’ll select one writer to begin, but we won’t be going in order around the circle. I’ll call the name of each new reader.”
Keep this moving quickly; then have students identify particular details that they recall and why. Also ask which sentence they found most striking and again, why. (Always ask “why”––students should make that question a habit.) The sentence will go into their portfolio and perhaps into the next revision of their paper.
Tell students, “Not all the sentences you write will be lengthy. In fact, some may be very brief. One important thing to keep in mind is that your writing should have ‘texture.’ Texture comes from a variety of things, such as the words you choose, their length and sound, the length of your sentences, and the patterns you use within the sentences. Let me show you what I mean. If you don’t think that sentence length matters, this should change your mind.”
Read to students a paragraph in which all the sentences are nearly the same length. (Also display the paragraph or write it on the board.) For instance:
Tim heard the sound of the warning bell. He tried to close his locker. His books and jacket fell out. He tried to pick them up. A crowd trampled them. Tim gathered them up. He put them into the locker. He ran to chemistry class.
Tell students, “You can hear the stultifying, boring effect of having the sentences all about the same length. What other suggestions can you make to improve this paragraph?” Students will be able to see that this is a bland paragraph, presented in the most uninteresting way possible. Aside from noting sentence length and word choice, a student should mention that most of the sentences have the same opening pronoun and structure (subject–verb), which also contributes to the paragraph’s lack of appeal.
Say, “Take this paragraph to your writing group, and I’ll give you about 10 minutes to revise it. Make it as readable and interesting as possible without adding other actions. Make the most of what you have here. Definitely improve word choice, combine sentences, change sentence openings, and add some sensory details.” Check to see how the groups are progressing, and then have each group present its revision aloud. Collect the revisions.
Next, mention casually that you want to show students a device called an appositive that they can use in their writing. Show them a pair of sentences such as:
Edgar Allan Poe was a famous American mystery writer. He also solved real-life mysteries.
Demonstrate how easily the sentence pair can be combined:
Edgar Allan Poe, a famous American mystery writer, also solved real-life mysteries.
Tell students that an appositive (i.e., “a famous American writer,”) comes right after the noun that it renames and provides more information about it. If they think appositives are easy to understand, they will use them easily.
Give each student a copy of a paragraph like this one:
I saw the sun sink into the west. It looked like a golden ball of fire. Night was coming soon. It would sift through the lingering flame of the sunset. It would, at last, extinguish the flame, leaving only embers. Finally, only the deep darkness of a moonless, starless night would prevail.
Have each student revise the paragraph, thinking about sentence structure, sentence openings, and appositives. Then, ask students to share the results with their writing group and discuss. Remind them to watch for wordiness, use the strongest details, combine sentences, and remember appositives. For instance:
The sun, a golden ball of fire, sank into the west. Night would soon extinguish the lingering embers of sunset, leaving the deep darkness of a moonless, starless night.
Return their descriptive drafts and say, “For the next class session, revise your paper once more, this time paying particular attention to sentence length, sentence openings, and the variety of structures that provide your writing with its ‘texture’ and interest. Staple your newest revision on top of the others and date it. You will need two copies of this newest revision for your writing group.”
- Students who might need additional opportunities for learning can practice more model sentences. Have students practice “unpacking” the sentences within the model and analyzing the way in which they are blended together. They can work in groups so they can have immediate feedback from others as they work. Let them work through at least two additional model sentences.