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Sentence Combining: Building Skills through Reading and Writing

An Excerpt from "Sentence Combining: Building Skills through Reading and Writing" (Classroom Notes Plus, August 2008)

One of the marks of a skilled writer is the ability to use sentence structure to enhance meaning, explains Deborah Dean. Teachers can help students develop that ability with sentence combining exercises like those Dean presents in the August 2008 Classroom Notes Plus.

Here's an excerpt, in which she introduces one type of sentence combining to try with students:

How to Create Open-ended Sentence Combining Activities

To create open-ended activities, first find one or two sentences, in the reading for the class, that you think are particularly effective or that contain structures you want your students to learn. Use those as the basis for your kernel sentences.

When my class was going to be reading a short biography of Nat King Cole, I selected this sentence from that reading to be the basis of that day’s SC activity:

“He settled on the West Coast, playing in clubs and bars and eventually on his own radio show, with a trio of piano, guitar, and bass that featured a beautifully blended sound” (Jazz: My Music, My People, by Morgan Monceaux. Knopf, 1994. p. 48).

From that sentence, I created the following set of kernel sentences:

He settled on the West Coast.
He played in clubs and bars.
Eventually he played on his own radio show.
He played with a trio of piano, guitar, and bass.
His trio featured a beautifully blended sound.

When I used this particular sentence exercise in class, my students already had experience with sentence combining and de-combining. Travis, one of my students, declared in class that he could have created several more kernel sentences than I did—and he went on to prove it on the chalkboard.

I was very pleased to see that he could break the sentences down as small as he did. It didn’t hurt my feelings; instead, I was glad that he could see what I had been trying to teach. So, if you aren’t as good as your students at creating the exercises, don’t worry. They’ll help.

Deborah Dean, a former junior and high school teacher, is associate professor of English education at Brigham Young University, Salt Lake City, Utah. She is author of Strategic Writing: The Writing Process and Beyond in the Secondary English Classroom (NCTE, 2006) and Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being (NCTE, 2008).

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