A Lesson for Tomorrow: Sentence Study

Last week Rebekah blogged about teaching students how to find and use mentor texts to increase their independence and cure their writing blues.

She posted a fantastic chart that uses a problem-solution or if-then approach to guiding students to and through mentor texts.

As her chart indicates, sometimes a mentor text is just a sentence. How many times have you watched students struggle to put their idea into a sentence? To get the first words down? Sometimes individual sentences seem to pose a greater challenge to students than the essay itself.

We can help students get started by directing them to mentor sentences and showing them how to fit their own ideas into a sentence’s framework. This is known as the pastiche technique.

Sentence Study: An Example

Last week I happened upon a great sentence from an old New York Times article written by Anna Quindlen:

Every year about this time I get the urge to buy a copybook. And some of those little rectangular pink erasers that look good enough to eat. And a whole lot of those round reinforcements, which were supposed to be pasted around the holes in your loose-leaf paper but were more often made into designs on the inside cover of your loose leaf binder.

I knew it would make for an excellent mentor sentence because 1) it offers a framework (Every year about this time I…And…And…) and 2) it packs in detail.

When studying sentences, the first thing I do is project the found text onto the board. I read it aloud twice and ask students to jot down anything they notice in their notebooks.

Here are some of the features we noticed:

  • She begins her sentences with “and”

  • The second and third sentences give specific examples of supplies she wants to buy

  • Each sentence becomes longer and more descriptive

  • She uses the second person in the third sentence to draw the reader in

  • She uses a triplet (three sentences) to convey her point

Then, I help students find the framework in the sentence and the creative parts. In this case, the framework is the idea of getting an urge to do something at a specific time of year (Every year about this time I…And…And…) The creative parts are: the specific time of year, and the things you get the urge to do. For this sentence, I asked students to brainstorm other moments or times of year that might elicit imagery and examples. Possibilities include:

  • Every Saturday morning

  • Every first day of spring

  • Every Christmas

  • Every Fourth of July

(Found in Peterson)

  • Every time I put on my basketball sneakers

  • Every time my alarm goes off

(Created by students)

Then you write in front of them, modeling the process of using and adding to the framework. Here are two examples that I wrote with different classes. You can see the edits I made in later periods (in red).

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 1.53.24 PM.png
Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 1.53.44 PM.png

Finally it’s time to let them go. I give students 5-7 minutes to craft their own sentences. If students need more scaffolding, have them choose one moment and brainstorm, alone or in groups, different details that describe that moment. Then they can play around with placement and rhythm within the template.

Students who finish early can revise to make their sentences a little bit better. Later, invite students to share their sentences in writing groups or pairs. Ask a few volunteers to share out.

Here’s a sentence written by my ninth grade student, Benton. I can still hear the collective gasp of awe and admiration that filled the room when he finished reading his gorgeous sentence.

IMG_4290.jpg

Sources:

Peterson, Art. The Writer’s Workout Book: 113 Stretches Toward Better Prose. Portsmouth: Heinemann. 1997.

Quindlen, Anna. “Life in the 30’s.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co., 9 Sept. 1987. Web. 10 March 2014.

What sentences have you stumbled on that will make excellent mentor texts? Please contribute to our dropbox project and add your sentences!

– Allison

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5 thoughts on “A Lesson for Tomorrow: Sentence Study

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