This book takes sentence-level instruction seriously and invites you to teach children about sentences in a way that helps them write what they mean.
We know that formal grammar instruction has always had a negative impact on children’s writing development (Young & Ferguson 2021). However, the types of instruction suggested within the pages of this book are far more promising (Young & Ferguson 2020). Any work around sentences should be in the service of developing children’s style as writers. Inspired by the writing of Nora Bacon and her book The Well-Crafted Sentence, we describe sentence work, and by extension work on style, as being about helping children:
- Share their writing voice and identity.
- Achieve the purpose they have for their writing.
- Write with clarity and simplicity.
- Develop, elaborate and embellish their initial ideas.
Navigating the book
The English National Curriculum’s programme of study for writing isn’t very well organised, nor does it give much advice on developing children’s understanding of sentences. At times you get the impression that certain items have been plucked from the air and arbitrarily assigned to particular year groups without a rationale. This is a shame because, as we have described earlier, knowledge about sentences is useful, and children find it interesting when they see how it can enhance their ability to write meaningful and successful texts. If we want children to develop their own style, to write with their own identity, to elaborate and write with a playfulness, and if we want children to write with an honest simplicity, and for their writing to be well received by their readers, then we need to ensure they are knowledgeable about sentences. With this in mind, we have organised our sentence-level mini-lessons in such a way that they reflect what children are trying to achieve in their writing. This allows teachers to ask: what is it my class actually needs instruction in?
Our categories include the following sentence areas:
- Focused sentences
- Balanced sentences
- Developed sentences
Our first category is Focused sentences. These lessons look to focus children on the most important parts of their writing: their nouns and verbs. This is about focusing on the subjects they choose to write about and what those subjects mean and do. Nouns and verbs are what matter most to young writers which is lucky because this is what forms the basis of well-focused sentences. When children are composing mentally, their thoughts will be on the subject of their sentence or what their mind is seeing or feeling in terms of action or emotion. When these two things come together, children have the basis of their sentence. That’s why, when working with a child who might be experiencing ‘writer’s block’, it’s useful to ask what they wish to make their main focus? Who or what is involved in their composition? What is occurring? What emotion do they want to convey?
Next, we have Balanced sentences. Mini-lessons about crafting well-balanced sentences are vital. Without them, children can’t make connections. They can’t bring their thoughts and ideas together. Balanced sentences help children to share their reasoning, provide contrasts, establish conditions and discuss alternatives with their readers.
Finally, part of good craft is writing Developed sentences which push your reader’s thinking, understanding and imaginings. This can sometimes involve making a film with words (Young et al. 2021). At other times, we need to extend, clarify or qualify our thinking. Whatever the purpose, it’s about elaborating on or decorating our meaning using artistic flair or poetic metaphor.
We believe orientating your writing teaching to what your class is wanting (or struggling) to achieve within these areas is far healthier and more effective than simply following a predefined writing scheme or unit plan. For example, we hope that teachers will turn to our pages on Focused Sentences if they notice that their class lacks the ability to write with clarity and ease. We want you to turn to our lessons on Balanced Sentences if you feel children could benefit from giving more attention to the connections they are trying to make in their writing. And we want you to teach mini-lessons about Developed Sentences if children’s writing could benefit from providing elaboration and artistic detail.
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