Sentence Combining to Improve Writing Fluency

20 November 2017

Author: Mark Miller

One of the seven key recommendations of the EEF’s recently published KS2 literacy guidance is to ‘Develop pupils’ transcription and sentence construction skills through extensive practice’. The rationale for this is that ‘a fluent writing style supports composition because pupils’ cognitive resources are freed from focusing on handwriting, spelling, and sentence construction and can be redirected towards writing composition.’ Later, in the detailed summary, they write the following:

Sentence construction can be developed through activities like sentence-combining where simple sentences are combined so that varied and more complex multi-clause sentences are produced. Initially, the teacher can model this, but pupils should go on to work collaboratively and independently. Pupils need to learn to construct increasingly sophisticated sentences, for meaning and effect, with speed.

Andrews et al (2004), in a review of the research into sentence combining, conclude: ‘What the review of research literature in the field has shown is that sentence combining is effective.’ The EEF guidance report is focused on literacy at Key Stage Two, but it is clear that sentence combining can have benefits at all stages in writing development, including at the GCSE stage, where the written demands are challenging.
What might this look in practice? Saddler and Saddler (2010) share some examples of how we might introduce sentence combining with the following example:

  • The monkey climbed the tree.
  • The tree was tall.

There is new information contained in the second sentence, which can then lead to the new sentence: ‘The monkey climbed the tall tree.’

Jeff Anderson, in his book Revision Decisions, explores a number of very practical strategies to help students to combine sentences and move beyond simply pairs of sentences as is traditional. He suggests working with what he calls ‘propositions’ – the basic units of meaning in each sentence- sometimes by breaking down real sentences, before reconstructing them. For example, he shares this sentence: ‘Within minutes, 146 workers died, broken on the sidewalk, suffocated by smoke, or burnt in flames.’ We could break this into the following ‘propositions’ (others call these ‘kernels’):

  • It took minutes.
  • 146 workers died.
  • They ended up broken on the sidewalk.
  • Others were suffocated by the smoke.
  • Many were burnt in the flames.

The original writer’s choices can be explored, but so too can other possible combinations: ‘Within minutes, 146 workers died, broken, suffocated and burnt.’ ; Broken on the sidewalk, suffocated by smoke, burnt in flames, 146 workers died within minutes.’ While one is not better than the other, they have quite different effects.

This approach of proposition composition can be explored fully, with students seeing that there are many ways that they can be combined. After initially exploring simple combinations, they can move on to more complex ones. They can move words or phrases, delete or change words, change a verb to the participle form (e.g. moved to moving), branch to the right, introduce complex punctuation, embed clauses etc. Various combinations can be explored and it can be discussed which ones are better.

Students can be given prompts/support for combining these propositions. Strong (1986) suggests a couple of ways of doing this. The original sentence for the following set of propositions is: ‘Early to rise and early to bed make a man healthy, wealthy and dead.’

  • Early to bed makes a man healthy.
  • It makes him wealthy.
  • It makes him dead.

The highlighted words draw students’ attention to the parts of the propositions that should be kept and offer additional meaning. We can also add cues:

  • I like sentence combining.
  • It is very easy. (BECAUSE)

Teachers should choose examples which illustrate common or desired ways of combining. As with any strategy, it will begin with heavy teacher modelling before moving to student independence. With much practice of sentence combining, students should find that the act of writing composition becomes much more fluent, and the cognitive demands of extended writing are reduced.

Andrews R, Torgerson C, Beverton S, Freeman A, Locke T, Low G, Robinson A, Zhu D (2004) The effect of grammar teaching (sentence combining) in English on 5 to 16 year olds’ accuracy and quality in written composition.
Saddler, Saddler (2010) Writing Better Sentences: Sentence-Combining Instruction in the Classroom
Strong (1986) Creative Approaches to sentence Combining

Posted on 20 November 2017
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