Sentence fluency is one of the primary writing skills we focus on in my 4th grade classroom, both in speaking and in writing. Early in my teaching career, I can remember looking at a student’s rough draft and inwardly sighing…so many errors. Grammatical. Mechanical. Organization. Where does a teacher begin? With an average of 24 students, there’s just not enough time to spend in a one-to-one conference, painstakingly correcting every error.
Sentences as Building Blocks
It was a real “Aha!” moment for me when I grasped the importance of strengthening the sentence fluency skills of my students. As I have repeatedly shared with my colleagues during our PLC meetings, you can’t write a strong paragraph, report, story or essay without first being able to write a good, complete sentence. Sentences are the building blocks of all paragraphs. The first two posts in the Writing 101 series integrated the Ideas, Sentence Fluency and Conventions traits. For the next several posts, I’m going to drill down and describe in detail why and how I devote so much class time on developing sentence fluency and how you can teach your students to write strong, varied sentences.
Common Writer’s Craft Choices
Many of the errors your students make in their writing occur “within the sentence.” These include mistakes with capitalization, punctuation, subject-verb agreement and spelling. As I discussed in last Friday’s post, I use the COPSS strategy to address these concerns. Then there are the common writing habits that students display, which while not exactly an error, demonstrate weak writer’s craft. For example:
- The same type of sentence throughout the essay – a series of simple, declarative sentences most likely.
- Little to no variation with sentence beginnings. Who hasn’t read a narrative with the monotonous and predictable pattern: “And then…” repeated in one sentence after the other?
- Safe, boring word choice that fails to relate an idea or experience in descriptive detail.
Old World School
Once I grasped the importance of sentence construction and fluency, I realized that I needed to find time that would consistently give me an opportunity to teach these important writing skills. For me, that time comes during Spelling. Let me explain. Much of our educational practices are rooted in time-honored traditions from previous centuries. Why do we test students over their spelling words on Friday? Probably because that’s how it was done when we were in school. Times change, and both language usage in society as well as technology also change. I think most spelling and cursive handwriting instruction that teachers do is from a bygone era. We live in the 21st century and my very limited instructional time must be spent on those skills/knowledge that will best serve my students who live in this century. In just a few years, we will be teaching students who will live and work into the next century!
Sentence Fluency Instruction
So, I use my “spelling” time to focus on sentence fluency. I understand your hesitation, but I really think any qualms you may have are a result of a deeply entrenched habit that comes as a result of your own educational experiences coupled with long-standing tradition. Those are two powerful influences on how we use our instructional time. That being said, I teach sentence fluency three days a week during my 25 minutes of Spelling. Now you don’t have to throw out your spelling list, just have students use their spelling words during these fluency lessons. Honestly, I just don’t see how completing the workbook pages in our Spelling series truly helps students improve their spelling ability. It may help them pass the weekly spelling test, but how much of that transfers to their writing? Do you want students who are great at passing a weekly test, or students who are great at writing sentences?
Look back at some of your students’ past essays. Break them down and look at their sentences, one at a time. Are they making these types of sentence-level writing choices? If so, then don’t try to address it within the entire essay as a whole. It’s just too overwhelming to deal with for you and your students. Instead, devote instructional time each day apart from your Writer’s Workshop to focus improving your students’ writer’s craft at the sentence level.