Sentence Hacking Through Social Media

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Today we bring you another amazing guest post from Jeremy Hyler, a middle school language arts teacher and co-director of the Chippewa River Writing Project. He is the  coauthor of Create, Compose, Connect: Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools with Troy Hicks.

There is no arguing that the landscape of teaching students how to write has changed and continues to evolve. Students aren’t just writing anymore with their pencils and paper, they write in a number of different spaces and with different devices. Students don’t consider spaces such as Facebook, Emails, Twitter, or even Snapchat writing spaces. However, they truly are places where our students write on a daily basis. With that in mind, I feel that as a teacher of writing — and being a writer myself — we need to shift our thinking about how we teach our students grammatical skills in today’s digital age.

One of the ideas I want my students to think hard about are those spaces where they write. I spend a lot of time discussing the terms formal and informal writing with my 7th and 8th grade students. Oftentimes students (and adults) blur these lines and don’t realize that it is critical for them to write in a more formal matter when they have a certain audience. For instance, students should know that when they send an email to a teacher, there should be a proper greeting and closing within the email. In addition, there shouldn’t be any, what Kristen Turner, a professor and author at Fordham University, calls Digitalk in their writing.

Turner writes: “I see digitalk as a complex and fascinating combination of written and conversational languages that adolescents use when they text, when they instant message (IM), and when they participate in social networks” (37). Students today have found their own language and ways to communicate with their peers that is easy for them to write and understand information in an informal way. We can’t chastise students for using the letter “u” to represent the word you or how they spell love l-u-v.

As mentioned earlier, it is an opportunity to teach my students the difference between formal and informal writing. I want my students to know I respect their own language, but want to show them the appropriate times to use it. They need to know that what Turner refers to as code switching is necessary. Turner has written two different articles in English Journal about the idea of students using their own language and teaching our students to code switch:  “Using text speak as an example of code-switching may acknowledge the legitimacy of the language while bringing its use to the conscious level, where students can choose to use it or not, depending on the context” (61). In my own classroom, I want my students to practice code switching to help them to think critically about the moves they make as writers, especially in the different writing spaces they write in daily, in and out of school.

The activity I use to help my students work through their different writing spaces is simply titled “Sentence Hacking”. It deals specifically with the different types of sentences students are playing with through the process of sentence combining and composing — a process that is outlined in the Writing Next report.

Now, the sentence types my students focus on are:

  • Compound
  • Complex
  • Compound-complex

Each year the activity grows and evolves with the help of student feedback. Students start off with a template I share with them through Google Slides. As you can see in the example below, it encompasses many different social media spaces that my students write in daily. In this template Google Documents, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Email, and instant messaging are represented. The idea behind Instagram is that the students find pictures that represent the grammar concept being taught.  

Before the students begin working on the template, we establish as a class which spaces are formal and informal writing spaces. This can lead to some great conversations with students, and you can decide as a classroom community which spaces could be formal or informal. As my class and I have this discussion, we often talk about the audience for each writing space, which can change whether it is a formal or informal space.

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Blank template students start with


The task for the students is to first work with a group of 4-5 of their peers to complete the template using a type of sentence that I give them to start. For example, as we read The Giver in 8th grade, I give them an example of a compound-complex sentence from our text:

The fabrics on the upholstered chairs and sofa were slightly thicker and more luxurious; the table legs were not straight like those at home, but slender and curved, with a small carved decoration on the foot (Pg. 74).

My 8th graders then take the sentence and plug it into the template demonstrating what the sentence could potentially look like in the different social media spaces when it comes to formal or informal writing. Students are learning 3 important things

  • Students are learning how to rearrange and “play” with specific types of sentences to adapt in future writing assignments.
  • Students are learning how to differentiate between formal and informal writing spaces.
  • Students are using technology in meaningful and purposeful ways to make them better writers while using mentor texts.
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Template completed by 8th grade students

Now, I could get into how this activity connects to the Common Core State Standards, but I am more interested in sharing the actual activity than the curriculum connections.

After the students complete their templates as a group, I have each group share their template with the class and we discuss the moves that each group made as writers with their sentences or the grammar skill that was taught. Generally, it takes two 60-minute class periods. The skill the students learned is then applied to their own mini writing assignment where I can assess them on the skill that was taught. I do not drill and kill my students with worksheets or teach grammar in isolation.

Though the activity addresses the necessary skills that students need, it continues to evolve and change as I receive student feedback. Recently, my students wanted Snapchat added instead of Instagram because they use that social media tool more. As with any lesson that educators try to implement into the classroom, it should be adapted to your students needs. Also, students’ access to technology can play a key role in how the template may look.

It is without a doubt our students live in many different writing spaces and in general they actually spend a lot of time writing. Technology is not going away and using it just to use it, won’t help our students. Instead, we need to be smart about the implementation of tech in our classrooms. As teachers, we need to embrace the spaces that our students write in and help them differentiate when to write formally and informally.



What digital tools can you you use in your classroom to help students engage more in grammar? Do you think technology is to blame for students lack of correct use of grammar?

You can contact me on Twitter @jeremybballer or at

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