I’ve been focusing a lot of posts about how I taught my 4th-grade students to write opinion essays. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t address what I consider the foundation of a great essay – the sentence. Sentences, to me, are the building blocks of paragraphs and essays. I suppose one could argue that it goes even farther back to words, but my students are beyond creating basic words so I dedicate a lot of my instructional time throughout the week having kids write good sentences.
What’s a Good Sentence?
In my classroom, a good sentence is one that is grammatically correct even though there might be spelling errors. Would I love my students to write without any spelling mistakes? Of course! Writing is a cognitively demanding task, and I’d much rather they compose a complex sentence with no grammar mistakes even if that included some misspelled words. We can clean up the spelling later, but a sentence that expresses ideas clearly and correctly is harder to achieve. I also expect my students to be able to write a variety of sentences as the situation calls for them. Our first grammar unit focuses on different types of sentences way back at the beginning of the school year – declarative, interrogative, imperative, exclamatory, compound, and complex. We hit it hard, and I use those very terms to describe them.
Basic Sentence Expectations
Once we’ve completed our sentence unit, I establish my basic expectations for writing them. These expectations are posted in our classroom for everyone to see:
- Use capitalization for the first word and proper nouns.
- Use correct punctuation (this includes not only ending punctuation but commas in complex and compound sentences as well as apostrophes in contractions).
- Sentences must have at least 7 words. (Later in the year I might ease this restriction for short, sentence fragments that are used creatively in an essay. For now, however, I want them to develop some writing stamina and not produce short, simplistic sentences.)
- Back-to-back sentences cannot start with the same word. (Vary those beginnings!)
- The subject-verb agreement must be in every sentence.
Weekly, Consistent Practice
Finally, we practice writing a variety of sentences every week using my Sentences Roll-and-Write activity. (You can read more about how I use this activity by reading this post.) I have my students complete this activity during our spelling time, which has really maximized my writing instruction. Instead of spending so much time in our Writing Workshop correcting poorly written sentences, I’m now free to concentrate on text structure and writer’s craft concepts because I’ve already address writing strong sentences elsewhere during the day. We typically use our spelling words in these sentences, which gives students a chance to acquire vocabulary and practice their spelling words at the same time. I introduced this assignment only after we had completed our sentence unit. The first week was pretty rough! Not a lot of well-written sentences despite our initial unit of study. I made note of several weaknesses that showed up frequently in their writing and had quick mini-lessons each week targeting one weakness at a time. Slowly, through persistent practice, our writing improved. Tomorrow’s post will also feature sentences, but with an explanation of how I expanded on our skills later in the school year. Happy teaching! ~ Sally