Saturday, 1 February 2014

Death to sentence stems! Long live the sentence structures!

Before I start writing this blog, I need to thank Anne Williams and Kerry Pulleyn for allowing me to put these sentences on here. Plus, I need to thank all the other teachers who have added a sentence to this little project. This whole thing couldn’t have been done without their help. A big thank you from me!

Last year, I was inspired by Alan Peat and his great little book, ‘Writing Exciting Sentences’. He inspired me, and a lot of other people, with a very clear approach: teach students to write better by teaching explicit grammar structures and identifying different structures with a different name. I didn’t just blog about it once, but about several times. I was amazed at how much it transformed the writing of students for me. It gave some of my students the push above others in creativity and variety.

The problem with English is the misconception of what the subject is. Most people, outside education, think English teaching is simply about teaching about reading and writing skills. However, the more I teach, the more I realise it something more. For me at the moment, it is about teaching students to think. To solidify a thought. To develop an idea. To express a point of view. Aside, from the usual guff (necessary of course) of reminding students of proofreading, checking spelling and making work neat, I now ask students to show me their thinking in their writing. I want them to show me original thought and how clever they are. The autonomy of some aspects of teaching has meant that students are brilliant at repeating things parrot-fashion, but try to get them to come up with a thought of their own and it can be like searching for Wally in a party full of people dressed as  ‘Where’s Wally?’. It becomes hard to distinguish original thought with thoughts gained from others. For me, what makes an A* is somebody that has thought about something. In depth. In detail. Made their head hurts a bit with the thinking. And then a bit more.

The reason why I think David Didau’s ‘Slow Writing’ is so popular, and effective, is that it is based on the notion of crafting and thinking. When did writing become an autonomous process? Is technology to blame? Or, more importantly, when did we stop thinking when we write? This autonomy is at the heart of some aspects of literacy teaching. Yes, we want them to make some skills autonomous, like proofreading and making sure apostrophes are in the right place, but when did it become acceptable that all pieces of writing have AFOREST in them?

I was at a meeting for Heads of English this week. We were shown some examples from AQA of the writing questions on the Unit 1 exam paper – exciting stuff! Anyway, each one started with a rhetorical question. Yes, each one. Even the one with full marks. And the one with only a few marks. All of them blooming started with a rhetorical question. I was even tempted to start this blog with a rhetorical question; it is so infectious. But, where is the original thought? Where is the expression of a person’s ideas? It is writing like dot-to-dot. It makes ‘beige writing’. I want my students to be colourful. In fact, one student this week wrote my favourite opening to a question.

The question was a ultra-bland-exam-type question: write a persuasive magazine article persuading teenagers that eating healthy is important. 

He wrote: Young people are going to die.

I loved it because it was so simple but effective, and because it did not go anywhere near a rhetorical question. It showed me more thought in that one sentence than fifty questions put together. It was the right thing for doing the job at that moment.

Look at ‘sentence stems’. I like them. I use them. I teach around them, but they are quite limiting to the most able. They are limiting to the able as well. The writer shows…. The reader feels… The experiment shows… Will we ever progress to real thinking if we rely on these starting blocks of ideas? Don’t get me wrong: I think they are invaluable at times, but do we rely on them too much? Teaching other ways of expressing a thought is surely much better than a rigid form of writing? Look at an A* piece of writing and you will notice that they will use a range of structures in their writing and not just rely on the simple few obvious ones. They experiment and play around with the sentences. In fact, the only thing that is autonomous is their ability to vary and play around with ideas.      

So, what am I saying? Sorry – started with a rhetorical question: it is ‘really’ infectious. Sentence stems or openers should be lower down on our arsenal of tools to develop writing. The grammar structures we use should be paramount. The stems just help students to get going, but the sentence structures enable students to think and make concrete an idea or thought. I don’t want to be too negative about sentence stems, but they are the writing equivalent of a cloze exercise: writing by filling the gaps in. We want students to engage with the writing and the ideas. Filling the gaps is a nice starter, but it doesn’t have the meat and bones to develop things further.

Therefore, I am sharing the project with you to help other students think better in the classroom. The sentences below are from a variety of sources and they have been kindly been shared by other teachers. You can use them in a number of different ways

The sentences here can be taught explicitly as a starter or plenary. Or, the students could be given the sentence and they work out the structure on their own.

  • Use as a poster for students to go to for inspiration.
  • Print it out and stick on your desk and point to a sentence, when you want a student to include a particular structure.
  • Print out and cut up sentences. Stick a sentence on a table and get students to move around a room and write a sentence at each table.  

We, Kerry, Anne and I, are aiming to create a resource for teachers to use when teaching writing in lessons. The teaching of sentence structure is often underrated by teachers and this document will hopefully address this issue.  We are searching for new and interesting sentences. As you find one, add it to our list. Variations on a theme are allowed.

Please feel free to add another one in the comments. Anne and Kerry will add some more sentences to their blogs at a later stage.  

Thanks for reading,

P.S. Please leave a sentence at the end.  

The Sentences

Comma sandwich : a sentence with an embedded clause (which is surrounded by commas).

The sun, which had been absent for days, shone steadily in the sky.

The more, more, more sentence

The more he worried, the more he felt uncomfortable, the more he wanted to leave the room.

The less, less, less sentence

The less I tried, the less I cared, the less I got.

Sentence, comma and list of verbs ending in –ing

The road unspooled on and on, rising, falling, rising, turning, falling.

A list of prepositions after a verb

I look outside, down, away, beneath, near the dazzling presents under the table

Comparative (-er), more, more sentence

Every day, Kitty felt smaller, more ugly, more useless.

Sentences with a semi-colon in the middle to connect two clauses.

Spider-Man was in trouble; he was surrounded by his enemies.

No but sentence

True, he had no calm, but she shattered whatever calm there was to look forward to in the future.

Three adjective ‘of’ sentence  

I felt full, full of food, full of bad television, full of incessant chat.

Colons to clarify

A strange hint of something filled his nostrils and made his stomach lurch: it was blood.

Two similes sentence

It could have been Esther’s, as black as jet, as dark as the night.

It’s hard to describe how I felt - like an object no longer of use, like a parcel packed up in string and brown paper.

Distance (closer, nearer, further) / More sentence

The further we went, the more anxious I felt.

The size, the (blank) sentence

The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

The doubting sentence (end with an if clause)  

I had finished the essay, if the teacher was happy with it.  

The three verb sentence

The monster pushed, crashed, smashed its way through.  

Not, nor, nor sentences

Nobody, not the postman, nor the housekeeper, nor Jim himself knew how the letter had got onto the doormat.

Fortunately / Unfortunately paired sentences    

Unfortunately, the door was locked. Fortunately, there was a catflap just big enough for him to fit through.

Start with a prepositional (position word - under, by, near, beneath, over) phrase

Under the moon, the river snaked its way to the sea.  

Never did... ,than...  

Never did the sun go down with a brighter glory in the quiet corner in Soho, than one memorable evening when the Doctor and his daughter sat under the plane-tree together.

The writer’s aside sentence

The computer, as you know, is quite slow.

I think, to be honest, it will never work.

Two -ings at the start sentence

Raising a hand to my brow, shielding my eyes from the rain once more, I saw no monster.

So so sentence

There was one item, so small, so unrecognisable, it didn’t register.

Subject first sentence

Lamp posts and trees reared up at him, splintering his shins.

The Big Bad Because sentence

Because it was the last day of term, Martin felt relieved.

But none more than sentence

But none more than Tom would agree that smoking is bad for you.

Verb  -ed opening

Wracked with fear, Tommy crept slowly towards the door.

Scared for her life, Anna searched frantically for the key.

Whoever/ Whenever/ Whichever two of these...

Whoever had been at the scene, whenever they had been there, it was clear something very sinister had taken place.

x wasn’t/isn’t the word

Disgusting wasn’t the word. There were no words to describe what lay before her.

Riveting just isn’t the word. There’s nothing to say that can do this thing justice.

Adjectives at the start sentence

Cold and hungry, Martin waited for someone to take pity on him.

End loaded sentence - dramatic ending

After working every day of his life and saving lots of money for his retirement, Tom died suddenly.

Not only but also sentence

Not only was he cold, hungry and tired, but the chance of him being discovered would also increase.

The deliberation sentence

Sandwich, hot dog, salad - which would he choose?

‘It was’ semi colon ‘it was’ sentence

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Verb followed by detail sentence

He shrugged, heavy shouldered.

-ing clause before the main sentence

Having no choice about it, Chris decided to agree with her.

However after the first word sentence  

People, however, were watching gobsmacked

Second Conditional Sentence:  It’s still possible   If I were to......

If I were to win the lottery, I would buy a Lamborghini Gallardo.

Third Conditional Sentence :  Also known as the ‘Too late’ sentence   If I had.....  I would have.....

If I had left the house earlier, I would have been on time for registration

The ‘as if verb’ sentence

He pulled absently at some grass, as if searching for memories.

The as if and three verb sentence

It was as if the cold was pulling at Tansey, breaking her up, trying to take her away from them, back somewhere.

Three adjectives at the start sentence

Ruthless, dangerous, lethal, the animal leaps for its prey.

It was one of those, one of those when sentence

It was one of those days, one of those when the air was cold and crisp and the birds’ melodious singing pierced the air.

Almost, almost, when sentence

I was almost there, almost asleep, when I heard footsteps coming, then the sound of someone breathing close by.

One simile and three evers sentence

The silhouette standing on the hill, looking out, keeping watch like the North Star at night, ever present, ever caring, ever there.

Shakespearean I wish I was.... sentence  Would that I were....

Would that I were a glove upon that hand.

Repeat and develop ideas sentence

The teacher’s decision to set double homework was both surprising and distressing - surprising in that she had never set homework before, distressing in that it was to be completed in one day.

I did something twice sentence

I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960;and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

The Loose Sentence (an independent clause followed by a series of phrases)

It was a happy summer at the zoo, the zebras romping, the giraffes grazing, the elephants trumpeting, and the lure of a drippy popsicle on a hot day beckoning me to the snack bar.

The personification, 5 commas and 3 tos sentence:

Harsh white walls frown at the monotone uniformed prisoners, men with bleached faces and no eyes threaten, guns hoover, thunderously muted, waiting for someone to move, to think,

Start with a simile sentence

Like a ghost caught in a fan, he spun round and round on the roundabout.

Using dashes instead of brackets sentence

The roof - the straw thatch - was gone.

Or, and, or sentence

They flew in circles, or else there were many of them, and the whole group passed in and our of the light on their way to settle on a rooftop, or on some tree that asked to have its branches filled, at least until winter was as far away as it could be.

Without a, without a sentence

Without a how, without a why, Sid fell up towards the sky.


  1. Nice ideas. Sentence variety is something we're working on a lot in our school.

    The way that we ensure use of complex sentences in Year 6 is to do explicit grammar teaching of main and subordinate (inc. embedded) clauses, and then to teach children the whole range of subordinating conjunctions they can use to start their subordinate clause. We group these for teaching according to type e.g. cause & effect, contrast, time etc.

    This is efficient because it means that instead of e.g. teaching the 'because sentence' above, you can teach the whole range of cause & effect subordinating conjunctions at the same time (because, since, as a result of, due to etc.) since they are all used in the same way.

    We then teach other ways of starting subordinate clauses such as gerund/adverb openers and so on, moving on to joining main clauses with semi-colons and (recently!) adding in colons to replace connectives. Of course these sentence types are then included in all our modelled, shared and guided writing. I find this explicit grammar approach really helpful for me as it ensures my teaching language is always identical.

    1. Hi JB

      This sounds like an interesting and thorough way of teaching sentences. I wonder if you would be ok with sharing some of your resources with me? I would love to see the things that you do so that I can try to make my teaching of this topic more detailed and consistent.



    2. A sentence checker can be an enormously valuable tool. You can utilize a sentence checker online. A run on sentence checker is particularly important. An English sentence checker can be useful if a writer knows English as a second language. A complete sentence checker will eliminate sentences that are not complete. Basically a complete sentence checker is the opposite of a run on sentence checker. One checker determines if a sentence has ended too soon, and the other checker determines if the sentence has run on too long. A sentence fragment checker is a group of words that simply do not make a sentence. A correct sentence checker pretty much checks everything. A grammatically correct sentence checker checks noun/verb usage etc.

  2. It takes a lot of time to put this sort of document together - and it's a very valuable resource. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Thanks. It was a team effort. ; )

  4. Very helpful, thanks for sharing!

  5. These are fantastic, thanks! Just what I need to get my 9th graders writing more interesting sentences.

  6. Thanks for these, used them with my Y10s when they were thinking about structure for their creative writing controlled assessments and also for year 9s for their creative writing end of year assessment. Brilliant resource - really made them concentrate on challenging themselves to vary their sentence structure.

  7. I think that these are fantastic, and they've had a massive impact on the way that I teach writing. In fact, I've written a post about the way that my thinking on writing has changed over the last couple of years, referencing and using some of your sentence structures. I'd love to know what you thought:

  8. Students will learn how to recognize the parts of sentences such as nouns, verbs, and prepositions, improve their understanding of how combinations of these parts create basic sentence structure. Students have the opportunity to record their sentences in their own voice to improve their receptive and expressive language skills

    1. When you do it for the first time, it can seem rather odd. This technique takes much more time than a usual check, but it works great. You pay attention to the details you didn’t notice at first. It’s a nice fresh look.
      While checking, use a notebook to write down or type things you’ve already done and things you are going to do. Note typical mistakes, and note your thoughts on text improvement, so that in the future you could do a better job.

    2. A sentence checker can be an enormously valuable tool. You can utilize a sentence checker online. A run on sentence checker is particularly important. An English sentence checker can be useful if a writer knows English as a second language. A complete sentence checker will eliminate sentences that are not complete. Basically a complete sentence checker is the opposite of a run on sentence checker. One checker determines if a sentence has ended too soon, and the other checker determines if the sentence has run on too long. A sentence fragment checker is a group of words that simply do not make a sentence. A correct sentence checker pretty much checks everything. A grammatically correct sentence checker checks noun/verb usage etc.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Summarizing texts or documents is an essential skill for any student, researcher or scholar. In this article we will present several guidelines for proper summarization of textual data. See more complex sentence checker

  11. I just stumbled upon your blog and i am really impressed . Respect! It is clear your put so much time and hard work into preparing this presentation on Sentence Structure . It will definitively enhance my knowledge.


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