The Art of the Sentence: Emphasizing the Fundamentals to Elevate Student Writing

When students walk into a room, they are likely to encounter some type of warm up like the following: read the prompt and write a paragraph.

Now, they have to write. They must simultaneously remember key facts, decide which ideas are most important, consider spelling, grammar, and syntax in response to the prompt and length requirements– all while putting that into their own words. This is a recipe for cognitive overload. 

Though the common tendency is to assign lengthier writing assignments whether out of a desire for authenticity, district mandate, or even due to pressure based on the grade level we teach, we should turn our attention to a much smaller unit if we want students to experience success. We should teach them how to write starting with the building blocks of writing: the oft overlooked sentence.

The Writer’s Workshop Facade

In the writer’s workshop model, personal and “authentic” assessments are put to the forefront under the guise that students only want to write about what they care about.  As such, reader response is emphasized, and students are given tasks like “write a realistic fiction story” or– my personal favorite– “write a play” and then a mentor text to emulate. Based on these assignments, and upon closer examination of student work, it’s apparent that the basic skills of sentence writing have been eschewed under the mistaken assumption that students already know everything they need to be successful. Whether that assumption is based on the idea that the more students write, the more they will learn or the idea that novice learners are already accomplished authors, the intended aims of this progressive ideology are at odds with the outcomes.

A writing prompt from a middle school reader’s/writer’s workshop classroom

Further, when we supply students a mentor text and confer with them just a few times and yet expect them to emulate that expert-level writing, we set them up for more frustration. Paraphrasing Dylan Wiliam in his chapter “Providing Feedback that Moves Learning Forward”, in using the mentor texts as models, students know the level of work they need to achieve, that they have missed them mark, but do not have practical tools to address it. 

On one front, however the writer’s workshop model is correct: students do need practice, and lots of it.  The difference is the type and quality of  that practice, as that affects the final outcome.  Contrary to Caulkins ideology, and per research on what is necessary to move to proficiency:

“… mere repetition of an activity will not automatically lead to improvement in, especially, accuracy of performance”

K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer

Students won’t become better writers if they “just keep writing”. If we forgo the basic building blocks of writing and students are left to flounder, the teacher is likely to stumble upon them googling “how to” after we have set an assignment.

Just like any other skill, writing proficiency is dependent on prior knowledge and must be explicitly taught.

Writing Reconsidered

Rosenshine’s Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know has a number of strategies for effective and explicit teaching. One principle that can easily be overlooked in regards to writing is the need to present new material in small steps. This has a number of benefits, primarily avoiding cognitive overload for students (think of the kid who just stares at the paper when asked to write a paragraph that cites and explains evidence. It’s a lot to sort out for developing writers).

Another principle from Rosenshine is frequent feedback to improve performance. Per Dylan Wiliam in Embedded Formative Assessment, it’s not just that feedback is given, but also how that feedback is used. Of successful teachers he writes, “Evidence of student achievement was elicited, interpreted, and used to make a decision about what to do next”.  Using sentence level practice allows the teacher to plan ahead for where they will check for understanding, give frequent, instant feedback to the students, as well as serving as a marker of whether or not to charge forward in the lesson. For instance, if your lesson was focused on characterization of Macbeth/Banquo, but students weren’t able to compare characteristics in the sentences, you could circle back to the text in the moment versus having to wait until you find time to mark the papers a week later.

A further benefit of sentence level practice as told by Doug Lemov in Reading Reconsidered is that, “writing your own complex sentences… is one of the best ways to hone the skill of unpacking sentences written by others”. When we turn our attention to the sentence level versus emphasizing long-form writing, we focus the writing task and give students specific criteria for success. This frees their working memory to focus on craft and precision of language in the sentence as well as priming them before having them write their own.

The teaching of writing is best done within knowledge and language rich instruction, not as isolated skills with a mentor text. Analysis and discussion of meaningful texts lends itself to rich writing where students can manipulate the knowledge they’ve learned, and within the parameters of the specific writing task and worked examples from the teacher, find success and growth.

Summary:

  1. students don’t write about what they like, they write about what they know. 
  2. We need to model, practice, practice again, and then practice some more
  3. Sentence level work has a ton of benefits:
    1. Ensures every student get focused feedback on their writing every day
    2. allows teacher to pinpoint certain writing skills and knowledge, 
    3. Simplifies the task for students so they understand what they are meant to be doing in the lesson. This reduced cognitive strain and overload. 
    4. Allow for frequent, low-stakes practice so students can give maximum effort without fear of penalty. 

Research Into Practice: Using “The Writing Revolution” to Check for Understanding

Deliberate practice is characterized by including activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance. In this short section, I’ll walk through what I’ve found success with and how I have students deliberately practice sentence level writing every day.  The resources I use are Match Curriculum, which has a learning objective for each lesson,  and The Writing Revolution and Reading Reconsidered which are full of sentence level strategies for teaching.

Here’s what I do

  1. Establish what students need to know at the end of the lesson cycle 
  2. Develop comprehension and/or analysis questions so the students can “answer” the questions by the end of the lesson
  3. Take the questions and turn the into sentence stems, sentence expansion, subordinating conjunctions to practice comparing and contrasting,  or something else (there’s a lot of options)
  4. Monitor student progress and give feedback to the individual either in the moment and/or whole-class feedback (this lends itself to the “Teach Like a Champion” technique “Show Call” which also works extremely well with a visualizer)

Examples

Lesson Objective: Analyze the difference
between Macbeth and Banquo in 1.3
Exit writing: Compare and contrast Macbeth and
Banquo using 3 different subordinating conjunctions. 

Objective: How is Othello perceived by other characters in the play?

Takeaways: 

When we tell students to write, we should be cognizant of exactly are we asking them to do. Whether it’s summarizing, analyzing, or interpreting, we want to avoid receiving those evergreen responses ranging from the stilted ”this quote is important” to the blood-curdling  “since the dawn of time”.

Within the confines of team planning, district mandates and the like, we may not have much say over what to teach, but within our classrooms, we do have say over how.  Sentence level work is one way toward creating proficient and confident writers. 

But in the meantime…

Students still have to write longform essays. In terms of what I want them to be able to accomplish independently without assistance or scaffolding, below is the outline I’m roughly following this year (subject to shift):

  • Quarter 1: every student will know the essential elements of a paragraph and can write a cohesive paragraph in response to prompt using sentence starters for every portion.
  • Q2: Students will be able to write topic sentences, thesis statements, and conclusion sentences independently.
  • Q3: SWBAT integrate quotes and write original technique/analysis sentences independently.
  • Q4: SWBAT write a singular cohesive paragraph independently without sentence starters. Teacher will focus on precision of academic verbs and language in general.  

I’m on twitter.

Further Reading and Resources:

Writing and Cognitive Load Theory by Natalie Wexler
Principles of Instruction by Barack Rosenshine
Embedded formative assessment by Dylan Wiliam
Reading Reconsidered Lemov, Wiggs, Woolway
More Technical: The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer 

More Examples from my classroom:
Using Appositives to teach characterization in Things Fall Apart
Sentence stems, sentence expansion, summary, conjunctions to comprehend a nonfiction article about Igbo Culture

Other Teacher’s Examples
Tim Roach on teaching creative writing with year 6 (5th grade– twitter thread)
Tarjinder on moving from guided to independent writing in the primary grades (presentation slides)

3 comments

  1. This article is very helpful. I am partway through Writing Revolution (gleaned from Wexler’s Knowledge Gap), and your article has helped me decide to purchase the Lemov book, a sample of which I’d downloaded and liked. I am an ESOL teacher coming from schools where Lucy Calkins Writing Workshop was the required writing curriculum, and have seen it not working for my students. Your information is very timely and inspiring.

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  2. Some of your advice good here, but you make some mistakes. You give a “straw person” version of authentic writing and then you oppose it to sentence-level work. Sentence revision can be (and should be) a powerful part of authentic writing instruction. You are also using writing to teach literature here, which is not necessarily the same as teaching writing for the sake of learning writing. There is simply no question that students will learn more and better if they are actually interested in what they are learning and writing. Why you would dismiss that is beyond me.

    If you’d like to learn more about authentic writing, here’s a post I wrote about it: https://writerswhocare.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/school-writing-vs-authentic-writing/

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  3. What troubles me about WRiting Workshop-style teaching is that students don’t get the sensation of mastery that they get when sentence-level work leads them to be able to construct clear sentences (which is to say, convey meaning accurately). Math instruction that never gets students to feel that they have mastered a mathematical tool has the same problem. Even mastering the times table up to 12×12=144 can give students a solid feeling of accomplishment.

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