While I was getting my MFA in Creative Writing, one of my mentors asked us to find our favorite sentence in a writing piece. I remember scanning and then scouring my piece for a special sentence. Eventually, I found one that was sort of my favorite. I can’t remember the sentence, but the concept of how words fit together and the choices I make about which ones I choose to use has stayed with me.
I had a lot of fun with this concept as I worked with a fifth-grade student who has struggled with sentence combining and run-on sentences. Our work started with her combining two short sentences:
- I am eating my dinner.
- I am sitting at my desk.
I gave her a list of conjunctions, explaining that these are the words writers use to combine sentence, starting with: and, or, but, and because.
- I am sitting at my desk, and I am eating dinner.
- I am sitting at my desk, but I am eating dinner.
- I am sitting at my desk because I am eating dinner.
I wasn’t expecting the following conversation that happened about the differences between and and but in the sentence, and we also laughed at the implications of the word because. Is that how I bribe myself to get any work done??? These three sentences also provided a meaningful pathway to talk about when to use and when not to use commas.
From there, I opened up the possibilities of other connecting words– although, when, while, even though– as well as no connecting words, and she created more possibilities:
- I am sitting at my desk while eating dinner.
- I am eating dinner and I am at my desk.
- Although I am eating dinner, I am sitting at my desk.
- Even though I am eating dinner, I am at my desk.
- Even though I am at my desk, I am eating dinner.
Once again, we had a lot of laughs because of the nuances of the different sentences.
And then, I brought in the idea of what is the “best” sentence. After she read them all over and over, she chose the third sentence of the second grouping, and she talked about how it made her voice go up in a way that sort of created suspense. I loved listening to her describe this! It was a much more interesting and impactful way to talk about dependent and independent clauses than any worksheet offered!
We have continued this work, paying attention to the power of single words to change the meaning of a sentence. She’s a gymnast, so here’s a pair of sentences we played with recently:
- You can do a back handspring.
- Back handsprings are really hard to do.
Some of the combinations included:
- You can do back handsprings, and they are really hard to do.
- Even though back handsprings are really hard to do, you can do them.
- Although you can do a back handspring, they are really hard to do.
- Although back handsprings are really hard to do, you can do them.
- Back handsprings are hard to do, but you can do a back handspring.
- If back handsprings are hard to do, you can do them.
These combinations inspired conversations about where and why to use dependent clauses, and how writers can make readers change their voice and create inflections when they read. These sentences also led to some insightful conversations about mindsets and what people expect from themselves and others. How writers combine words leads to some very different implied meanings!
As I do with any lesson, I look for my teaching to show up in students’ writing, and this student has transferred these concepts into her own pieces. In this student’s case, I didn’t have to look hard. She was excited to show me how she’d been intentionally combining sentences and looking to create variety and reader interest.
I hope you give some of these ideas a try in your classrooms, and, if you do, I’d love to hear about the impacts and conversations. Why are some sentences stronger than others? What makes a sentence powerful? What are the subtle but important differences that a single word can make? Maybe you’ll inspire some word-based debates as you nudge along fluency and language skills.
I am the Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, CT, and I love what I do. I get to write and inspire others to write! Additionally, I am the mom to four fabulous daughters and the wife of a great husband.