Sentence-combining intervention is underused strategy for improving student writing

Despite strong research evidence of its effectiveness, educators don’t make sufficient use of sentence combining to help students improve their writing, says a recent article in Preventing School Failure.

“Sentence-combining provides structured practice manipulating and rewriting basic or kernel sentences into forms that are more syntactically mature and varied,” write the authors.

Students learn to create more mature and interesting sentences by combining short, simple sentences such as “The boy is short. The boy has red hair.” A denser sentence such as “the short boy had red hair” or the red-haired boy was short” is more compelling and helps the writer place greater emphasis on the more important and relevant feature, depending on his or her intent.

“Consistently throughout more than 80 studies, sentence combining has positively influenced the ability of students with and without disabilities to create more complex sentences of higher quality,” the authors write. “There is also evidence that sentence combining improves revising skills and story writing.”

Teaches how to simplify sentences

Recent studies have shown that pairing students to work on sentence combining is effective even when the students are not skilled writers. For students with disabilities, a further advantage of sentence-combining is that content is provided so that students can focus on expressing themselves in sentences without the additional stress of having to develop the ideas.

Working with sentence-combining is also beneficial for students who produce sentences that are overly complex or unclear. They can benefit from breaking down sentences into their basic kernels and recombining them into a more understandable whole.

“Through this process, students can learn to untangle, tighten, and focus sentences that are too complex for a reader to easily understand,” the authors write.

Here are some quick tips on working with students on sentence combining:

—First, analyze samples of students’ writing to determine what skills need to be acquired. Be on the lookout for students whose writing consists of

  • short, choppy sentences
  • sentences connected by a series of “ands”
  • sentences that almost always begin in the same manner

–The best source for exercises is students’ own writing. Sentence combining is particularly practical for students when they are revising their own writing. But educators can also create exercises from any form of literature such as trade books, content-area texts or magazines by simply reducing a passage into kernel sentences.

—Regardless of students’ individual needs, it’s best to begin with 2 simple sentences to keep the initial activities uncomplicated until students understand how to combine sentences effectively. Keep sentences as similar as possible, except for the words to be combined. For example, 2 good sentences for an early exercise would be “The bird flew. The bird was white.”

–Set up the exercise so that the base clause comes first (“The bird flew.”) followed by one or more modifying sentences (“The bird was white.”) The combination sentence would be “The white bird flew.” –Add connecting words in parentheses following the sentence in which they appear, for example, “I went to sleep. (BECAUSE…)”

–Underline words in the second sentence that are to be embedded in the base sentence. For example, in the 2 sentences, “The pie was sweet” and “The pie was delicious”, the underlined cue word is delicious. Students could then create the sentence, “The delicious pie was sweet.”

Once students have practiced combining simple sentences, teachers could move on to combining sets of sentences into paragraphs. Sentences could also be changed for better stylistic flow and rhythm.

“During this process educators should focus on helping the students write better, more meaningful sentences, not on editing the work for spelling mistakes or other technical writing problems,” the authors write.

“Writing Better Sentences: Sentence-Combining Instruction in the Classroom,” by Bruce Saddler and Kristie Asaro-Saddler, Preventing School Failure, 2010, Volume 54, Number 3, pps. 159-163.

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