Sentence Salvation

Stop pulling your hair out about the state of student sentence structure. It can be improved by using a range of simple, yet effective strategies.

Many of the same techniques used to teach fluency in reading can be used in writing. We need to highlight to students the importance and power of fluency. By exposing them to writing samples that flow easily, they will be more able to recognise good sentence structure and apply this skill to their own writing.

By working with students and sharing exemplary literature samples we can highlight such important features as sentence beginnings, sentence length, sentence combining, and run on sentences.

Sentence Beginnings:

Sample Student Writing 1

I have a bike. It is red. I like to ride it. It is fun. My friend and I like to ride in the forest. It is really cool there. We have a good time. When it is time to go home I have to put my bike in the garage. That is where I keep it

*Circle the starting word in each sentence
Notice the following
The sentences lack variety
The structure of the sentences is similar in most sentences
The sentences lack energy or excitement

Sample Student Writing 2
One January morning, Grandma and I looked out the window and saw snow. About ten centimetres of white, fluffy stuff formed a big cloud on the porch. Grandma was the youngest of seven children and always said it wasn’t fair that I had no brothers and sisters to play with. So guess what we did? Dressed in our warmest clothes we put on hats, mittens, boots and went out the back door. We walked around the yard, carefully tiptoeing up the edge of the porch steps. Plopping in the snow in front of the window, we made snow angels. Getting up carefully, we left the same way we came. When Grandpa got home we took him into the living room and had him look out the window. There were two perfect snow angels, one big, and one little. Grandma and me.

*Circle the starting word in each sentence
Sentence beginnings are varied.
The writing possesses energy.
Sentence structure is varied.

Sentence Length
Sentences become boring when they tend to have the same number of words. Using the above student writing samples, have students count the number of words in each sentence. Once the two samples have been surveyed compare the sentence length.

Combining Sentences
Sentence combining involves making one smooth, more detailed sentence out of two or more shorter sentences. Research by Hillocks. G , 1987, Routman, R 1996) found that building complex sentences from simpler ones was shown to be effective in raising the quality of student writing. Now that’s important news!

Short sentences can be combined by deleting unnecessary words, moving words around or using adjectives in a series. They can also be joined using conjunctions ( after, when, since, because, before) and relative pronouns (who, whose, which, that)

If a child writes the following:

I am going to the doctor. Her name is Dr Usher. I am going tomorrow.

Have them combine these sentences into one sentence.

Revision : Tomorrow I have an appointment with my doctor, Dr Usher.

Example 2 Sentence Combining

My dog loves to swim. He loves to run along the shoreline. He loves to fetch the ball.

Revision: My dog loves to run along the shoreline, retrieve the ball, and swim back to shore.

This is what Mark Tredinnick in his book, ‘The Little Red Writing Book’ refers to as the triadic sentence. It links three items of information to make the sentence more memorable and powerful. It provides greater clarify and flow. Three items is the magic number. Four is too many.
Teach triads for fluency!

Example 3 Sentence Combining
My Mum is short. She is blonde. She is pretty.

Revision: My Mum is short, blonde and pretty.

As with all strategies for improving writing, it is important to have students practice until they can perform the task independently. This will enable them to revise their own writing with increased awareness and confidence. Don’t forget the value of having them read aloud from their own writing. It is a proven revision strategy for checking fluency.


Using Literature To Enhance Writing Instruction, Rebecca Olness, International Reading Association, 2005

Moving from Correct Alls To Mentor Texts, Jeff Anderson, Stenhouse, 2005

Mechanically Inclined, Bulding Grammar Usage and Style into the Writer’s Workshop, Stenhouse, 2005

English Grammar – A Functional Approach John Collerson, PETA 1994

The Little Red Writing Book, Mark Tredinnick UNSW Press, 2006


  1. Great article, Alan! Keep it up!


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