Many of my writers seem stuck in simple sentences. I think this has something to do with their reading fluency. When I ask them to read me a few lines out loud, they read in monotone with faltering phrases and seemingly little knowledge of the workings of punctuation. One of the best assessment tools I have for knowing what my readers need to help them become better writers is these few moments of one-on-one read alouds– them to me — in conferences. These conferences also remind me how closely my reading and writing instruction must be aligned. If my students cannot read well, I cannot really expect them to write well. (And it shows the huge variance of abilities in my AP Language classes.)
In an effort to move my readers and writers into more complexity, and to get them to start paying more attention to sentence structure in their independent reading, I know I must expect them to take action with what they learn. But I do not want to mandate anything I cannot keep up with, nor anything that will make students not want to read. So I decide to start a new challenge with our “quotes board” — the one that’s remained largely empty for most of this year.
Objective: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels students will recognize and identify interesting and complex sentence structures; they will then copy the sentence into their writer’s notebooks and/or onto a notecard to use it as a mentor; then in their weekly blog posts, they will write and practice their craft, including at least one beautifully constructed sentence in their post. (If they choose to share their mentor sentence, they will pin it to our “quotes board” to display it for the week.)
Lesson: First, I remind students that we’ve talked about sentence boundaries and sentence structure since the beginning of the year. I tell them that today we’re going to learn two different types of sentences: periodic, and loose or cumulative, and look at how writers link details and ideas within sentences that create description and often rhythm.
I say, “We are going to study sentences from the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Doerr is our writing coach for the week. Let’s see what we can learn about writing more interesting sentences.”
I project the loose sentence, and we talk about where the independent clause lies within it. “How do all the details trailing off of the main idea make the sentence more interesting? What do you notice?”
After we’ve discussed the loose sentence, and I feel like students understand what makes it loose and how to identify this type of sentence, we move to the periodic sentence.
I project the following periodic sentence, and we talk about where the independent clause lies within it. “Why put the main idea of the sentence at the end?” I ask.
We discuss why the author might have chosen to craft the sentence this way. “What does putting the main clause of the sentence at the end do for the meaning?” I ask.
Next, we study a few other beautifully crafted sentences I pulled from the novel. (There are so many!) Each time encouraging students to talk with one another to first identify the independent clause and then determine if the sentence is loose or periodic or an interesting combination. I remind them to discuss the meaning of the sentence and why the structure might matter.
And before we move into searching for loose and/or periodic sentences in our own independent reading books, I ask students to practice reading these four sentences aloud to one another.
“Pay attention to the rhythm of the sentence and what the punctuation does to create that rhythm,” I say. I give them a few moments to read sentences to one another at their tables. Low stakes. They know one another well, and there is no pressure. They help each other read, which is exactly what I want in my community of learners.
Follow up: I ask students to pay attention to the sentences in their independent reading books. “Watch for loose or periodic sentences,” I say, “and here’s the challenge: When you find one, write it out on a notecard, and post it on the quotes board. Let’s see how many of these beautiful sentences we can collect this week.”
And remember to write at least one loose or periodic sentence in your blog post this week. Let’s work on crafting beautiful sentences like Doerr in our own works.