Thinking through the best approach for the high school ELA classroom…
As a high school English teacher with 15 years of experience, I still struggle with the best way to teach my students how to use complex sentence structures in their writings.
What is the best way to help students vary sentence structure and demonstrate complex thought processes? Should students be required to label and identify the 4 English sentence types? Or is teaching this skill in context preferable to direct grammar instruction?
The 4 English Sentence Types
This video gives detailed instructions on the 4 English sentence types and would be a great resource to help students review this information. But I ask myself, is it imperative that students can label the different sentence types to be able to use them effectively in their own writing?
Or is the better method to allow students to learn through practice, observation, and peer revision? Do students need to understand the different types of sentences before applying complex sentence structure to their own writings?
Application over direct grammar instruction
This video from the series “Grammar Lessons That Work” fits a little more closely to my philosophy. It is my belief that it is more important that students can apply this skill rather than identify it, and sometimes we lose them in the identification process. So I decided to do a little scholarly research on the topic to see what the experts think.
Through my brief research on this topic, I have read several accounts of the best way to approach this particular grammar skill in the ELA classroom. From this research, I have gleaned the following:
- Some targeted instruction is beneficial.
- Sentence combining trumps traditional grammar instruction.
- Authentic audiences and topics enhance student engagement.
Below, I briefly explore three journal articles that address best practices in helping students improve their use of complex sentence structures:
Sentence combining versus traditional grammar instruction
“Thus, sentence-combining instruction was effective in improving the sentence-combining skills that were taught.”Saddler and Graham
In “The Effects of Peer-Assisted Sentence-Combining Instruction on the Writing Performance of More and Less Skilled Young Writers” Saddler and Graham claim the following:
- “…peer-assisted sentence-combining treatment can improve the sentence-construction skills of more and less skilled young writers.”
- “Such instruction can also promote young students’ use of sentence-combining skills as they revise.”
- “Finally, sentence-combining instruction can have a positive effect on the quality of young students’ writing,”
Targeted instruction improves skill…
“Results suggest that a focused intervention can produce improvements in complex sentence productions of older school children with language impairment” (p. 713)Balthazar and Scott
In “Targeting Complex Sentences in Older School Children With Specific Language Impairment: Results From an Early-Phase Treatment Study” Balthazar and Scott suggest that targeted instruction can help older school children with specific language impairments improve their usage of complex sentences.
The targeted instruction in this study included sentence combining and other work with complex sentence structures rather than traditional grammar instruction that includes identification of parts of speech, etc.
While Balthazar and Scott employ the use of sentence combining in their study, the results suggest that direct instruction is also particularly important for students who may have a language impairment.
In the digital age…
“Clearly this was language composed and constructed to fit its purposes – to explain, hypothesize and speculate” (p. 121).Kelly and Safford
I would be remiss not to also think about digital literacy in my brief research. I wanted to touch on how we might approach teaching complex sentence structure in the digital age. Kelly and Safford’s article “Does Teaching Complex Sentence Have to be Complicated” addresses this very topic. In this article, the writers reflect on a blogging activity in which students blogged about the 2006 World Cup. The authors came up with the following implications:
- “Blogging offers a real-world digital medium for communication. It is multi-dimensional in that it does not just offer a ‘‘container’’ for writing but has the possibility of multiple audiences and access points.”
- “It seemed to be the dialogic nature of the blog that powered this language: perhaps it was the blog’s communicative network that enabled the children to hypothesize and defend their reasoning and speculation using complex sentence structures.”
- “From this small-scale pilot we propose that the bringing together of the blog with a temporary, global event taking place in real time and with unpredictable outcomes, together with children’s authority and passion about the subject matter, provided a moment of linguistic empowerment, fired particularly by the language and content of sports commentary.”
By allowing students an authentic audience and purpose, Kelly and Safford suggest that students will begin to use complex sentence structures in an almost organic fashion. Because the type of writing requires students to “explain, hypothecize, and speculate,” they will use complex sentence structures to achieve this end.
While I’m not solely convinced that students will inherently begin to use complex sentence structures because we ask them to blog about a real-life event, I do think the authentic audiences and real-world scenario do provide an engagement and purpose for students that would make an activity like this beneficial in the ELA classroom.
As is the case with most issues in education, the solution tends to be a combination of many factors. As I begin the 2019-2020 school year, I plan to keep in mind the many ways in which I can help my students improve their writing. Peer editing and revision with a specific emphasis on complex sentence structure will be at the forefront of my writing instruction. I will add greater direct instruction for my struggling students, and I will incorporate authentic blogging experiences for my students on relevant, contemporary topics that will encourage them to think deeply with the hope that this critical thinking will manifest itself in sophisticated writing.
Resources for Combining Sentences
Below I have added some helpful resource links that can help with the practical application of combining sentences and complex sentence structure instruction:
Balthazar, C. H., & Scott, C. M. (2018). Targeting Complex Sentences in Older School Children With Specific Language Impairment: Results From an Early-Phase Treatment Study. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research,61(3), 713-728. doi:10.1044/2017_jslhr-l-17-0105
Dean, D. (2008). Sentence Combining: Building skills through reading and writing[PDF]. Urbana, IL: NCTE.
ELA Common Core (Ed.). (2019). Sentence Combining Made Easy. Retrieved July 27, 2019, from https://www.elacommoncorelessonplans.com/language-standards/combine-sentences-improve-writing.html
English Lessons with Adam – Learn English [engVid]. (2016, January 28). Retrieved July 27, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urr55rAreWc
Kelly, A., & Safford, K. (2009). Does teaching complex sentences have to be complicated? Lessons from children’s online writing. Literacy,43(3), 118-122. doi:10.1111/j.1741-4369.2009.00501.x
Randazzo, L. (2017, September 09). Grammar lessons that work. Retrieved July 27, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RY58OddW-T4
Saddler, B., & Graham, S. (2005). The Effects of Peer-Assisted Sentence-Combining Instruction on the Writing Performance of More and Less Skilled Young Writers. Journal of Educational Psychology,97(1), 43-54. doi:10.1037/0022-0622.214.171.124
Texas Education Agency (Ed.). (2019). Strengthen Sentence Variety and Sentence Combining (English I Writing). Retrieved from https://www.texasgateway.org/resource/strengthen-sentence-variety-and-sentence-combining-english-i-writing