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Teaching Primary Children the Building Blocks of Sentence Construction

The methods for teaching English set out in The Writing Revolution can make a real breakthrough in the understanding of sentence construction, says Sophie Bartlett...

  • Teaching Primary Children the Building Blocks of Sentence Construction

Teaching writing in Y6, I have learned many things about children: they have brilliant imaginations; they are capable of understanding complex concepts; once they learn about that semi-colon, they love using it just about anywhere; and many of them have no idea what a sentence is.

This can present itself in many forms, from the struggling writer who has no understanding of where to use a full stop, to the more competent writer who, despite writing proficiently (for the most part) at length, still unknowingly uses fragments and run-on sentences.

There are many things we could blame for this – for starters, the curriculum, which is so rammed with content that it puts the pressure on teachers to just steamroller through, no matter how hard the party line of “they must not move on to new learning until they’ve mastered the old stuff” is drilled into us.

We’ve all tried desperately to teach that child, who still doesn’t understand nouns, about the subjunctive (“If I WERE, if I WERE!”).

We could blame Ofsted (it’s always easy to blame Ofsted) for apparently (according to some school leaders) creating a certain expectation of the ever-increasing quantity of writing that should be in children’s books through their primary school years (just to be clear, I’ve never seen evidence of this apparent expectation in any sort of official documentation).

But rather than working out who to blame, it’s far more productive – and satisfying – to find a solution.

I just want my class to stop writing how they speak! Look no further than The Writing Revolution (TWR) by Judith C Hochman and Natalie Wexler (Josey-Bass, £24.99), a book which “provides a clear method of instruction that you can use no matter what subject or grade level you teach… by focusing on specific techniques that match their [the children’s] needs” (as per the book’s blurb).

Despite being published in the US and being seemingly more applicable to secondary school teachers, TWR’s explicit method of teaching has proved invaluable in my primary school English lessons.

Each activity in the book is pitched for both “Level 1” (primary age equivalent) and “Level 2” (secondary age equivalent) students.

While the first half of the text is relevant for the primary phase, the first chapter in particular has now become the basis of all my writing lessons – Sentences: The Basic Building Blocks of Writing.

‘What Makes a Sentence a Sentence’ (p26 in TWR)? As many of you will know from experience, in children’s English books, quantity is often valued over quality.

TWR looks to challenge this by focusing regularly on sentence work. It advocates practising the skills embedded in content, so any examples I use in English lessons will be based around a topic in another area of the curriculum.

In order to write proficiently, children must understand the concept of a sentence. To achieve this, they are introduced to fragments – a group of words which are not a grammatically correct sentence. TWR suggests the following activities, which have now, on rotation, become my English ‘starters’ every day:

1 | Identifying fragments orally

Children can often instinctively hear fragments: for example, “built a wooden horse”.

When asked what’s missing, they will be able to tell you that we don’t know who built a wooden horse (the Greeks: our topic is the Trojan horse – note that every activity benefits from being embedded in content with which the children are familiar).

With Y6, we can tell them that the subject of the sentence is missing – here, we only have the verb and the object. They can then verbally add to the fragment to make it a grammatically complete sentence.

2 | Identifying standalone fragments

Once the children are familiar with this concept, they can then be given fragments on the board to turn into correctly punctuated sentences on their whiteboard.

For example: “a fraction is” and “the onions because he was hungry” might be turned into “A fraction is part of a whole” and “Zero ate the onions because he was hungry”. (Note the inclusion of our current maths and reading topics!)

3 | Identifying fragments in text

Slowly removing the ‘scaffold’, children can now be presented with a paragraph (which, once again, would benefit from being linked to a current curriculum topic), inside which some of the sentences have been altered to become fragments. They can identify the fragments and convert them to sentences.

4 | Unscrambling words

Show the children a group of words that they must order to make a complete sentence, for example “number more factors a two has composite than” becomes “A composite number has more than two factors”.

5 | Run-on sentences

A run-on sentence is one with two or more main clauses that are forced together instead of being properly connected. The most common way children do this is through a comma splice, for example “He put on suncream, it was so hot”.

Ask children to identify the main clauses (if they can distinguish between fragments and sentences – this shouldn’t be too difficult) and separate them with either punctuation or a conjunction.

For example, this run-on sentence…
My sister was taller than me when we were young now I am the tallest it is fun!

…could be corrected in a variety of ways, such as:

  • My sister was taller than me when we were young – now I am the tallest. It is fun!
  • My sister was taller than me when we were young. Now I am the tallest – it is fun!
  • My sister was taller than me when we were young, but now I am the tallest; it is fun!
  • My sister was taller than me when we were young. Now I am the tallest and it is fun!

This is only one example of the many techniques promoted in TWR.

For example, another important element in improving writing quality is sentence expansion and combination – how to create successful complex and compound sentences using activities such as “kernel sentences”, the “because, but, so” method, and the use of appositives (essentially relative clauses with an omitted relative pronoun).

I only implemented the TWR strategies in January but am already starting to see results.

My feedback alone has become more effective: before, children’s work would have sentences, or even paragraphs, that didn’t make sense, and when asked to edit, it was never as successful as I would have liked; compare that to now, where I can write “fragment” or “run-on sentence” next to their writing and they will know exactly how to correct it. The hope is that soon, those kinds of comments won’t be needed at all!

Sophie Bartlett is a Y5/6 teacher in an English primary school. Find her at missiebee1.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter at @_missiebee.

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