Where’s the research on teaching at the sentence-level?

“Dear Ross and Felicity. Our school is looking to focus on teaching children about sentences. However, I would like to read some of the research around this before we start making any instructional changes. Can you point me in the direction of some?”


Firstly, it’s great to hear that your school is deciding to focus its attention on sentence-level instruction. We’ve already written a number of articles about how sentences are the building blocks of writing:

  • Guidance on teaching at the sentence-level [LINK
  • How do we develop writing fluency? [LINK
  • The components of effective sentence-level instruction [LINK]

Teaching students to construct coherent and meaningful sentences is essential if we want them to convey their thoughts and ideas happily and successfully (Young & Ferguson 2022). But what does the research say?

The aim of this article is to share a list of research papers (and associated literature) which investigates what it means to teach children at the sentence-level.

📝 Limpo, T., & Alves, R. (2013) Teaching planning or sentence-combining strategies: Effective SRSD interventions at different levels of written composition, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 38,328–341 [LINK]

This study tested the effectiveness of two strategy-focused interventions aimed at promoting fifth and sixth graders’ opinion essay writing. Over 12 weekly 90-min lessons, two groups of 48 and 39 students received, respectively, planning and sentence-combining instruction, which followed the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model. These intervention groups were compared with a practice control group of 39 students receiving standard writing instruction. The following main findings were noteworthy: 

  • Planning and sentence-combining instruction enhanced planning and sentence-construction skills
  • The treatment increased opinion essay quality and text length
  • Planning instruction enhanced not only discourse-level writing but also some sentence- and word-level aspects of composition
  • Sentence-combining instruction enhanced not only sentence- and word-level writing but also some discourse-level aspects of composition
  • After instruction, there was a correlation between self-efficacy and writing quality

📝 Weaver, C., Bush, J., Anderson, J., and Bills, P. (2006) Grammar intertwined throughout the writing process: An inch wide and a mile deep, English Teaching: Practice & Critique, 5(1), 77–101 [LINK]

Drawing on theory and practice, the authors of this paper argue that, rather than trying to “cover” all grammatical skills, something traditionally done in many classrooms, and with limited results, teachers can teach grammar with better results by focusing on key grammatical options and skills in the context of actual writing, throughout the writing process and over time.

The article includes specific examples of teachers integrating grammar within writing instruction, as supported by theoretically and pedagogically sound practices. The article also presents a planning framework for teachers seeking to integrate grammar more effectively in their classrooms. Particularly emphasised is the value of using literature as a source for grammatical examples and skills. Sections also address specific adaptations for elementary writing workshops and the teaching of editing.

📝 Walter, K., Dockrell, J., Connelly, V. (2021) A sentence-combining intervention for struggling writers: response to intervention, Reading & Writing, 34 pp.1825-1850 [LINK]

Children who struggle with writing are a heterogeneous group and may experience difficulties in a range of domains, including spelling, reading, and oral language. These difficulties are reflected in their writing and may influence their responsiveness to writing interventions. 

Children receiving a sentence-combining intervention showed significant improvements. Findings indicate that when devising interventions for struggling writers, specific profiles of skills should be considered. Specifically, sentence combining may be more appropriate for students whose primary area of difficulty is reading, rather than poor spelling or oral language.

📝 Saddler, B., Ellis-Robinson, T., Asaro-Saddler, K. (2018) Using Sentence Combining Instruction to Enhance the Writing Skills of Children With Learning Disabilities, Learning Disabilities, 16(2) pp.191-202 [LINK]

One area of writing that may be particularly problematic, causing both academic and behavioural challenges for writers with learning disabilities, is constructing sentences. Sentences are the building blocks of coherent and effective writing and constructing syntactically correct and complex sentences is a critical skill characterising expert writing. Unfortunately, many students with learning disabilities struggle with this critical skill. These students may produce sentences with fewer words, less syntactic complexity, and more errors of spelling and grammar than their regularly achieving peers. 

For researchers and teachers of children with learning disabilities, improving sentence construction ability with empirically based interventions is imperative. In this review of literature a method to teach sentence construction, called sentence combining, is presented and current research providing support for the use of sentence combining as a method to improve sentence construction ability, overall writing quality, and quantity of revisions is summarised.

📝 Graham, S., and Perin, D. (2007) Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents In Middle School & High Schools Washington, DC: Alliance For Excellent Education [LINK]

This report offers a number of specific teaching techniques that research suggests will help 9-17 year old writers. The report focuses on all students, not just those who display writing difficulties, although this latter group is deservedly the focus of much attention. The premise of this report is that all students need to become proficient and flexible writers. In this report, the term “low-achieving writers” is used to refer to students whose writing skills are not adequate to meet classroom demands. Some of these low-achieving writers have been identified as having learning disabilities; others are the “silent majority” who lack writing proficiency but do not receive additional help. As will be seen in this report, some studies investigate the effects of writing instruction on groups of students across the full range of ability, from more effective to less effective writers, while others focus specifically on individuals with low writing proficiency. 

Eleven elements of current writing instruction found to be effective for helping adolescent students learn to write well and to use writing as a tool for learning are identified. It is important to note that all of the elements are supported by rigorous research, but that even when used together, they do not constitute a full writing curriculum. These elements are: 

  • Writing Strategies, which involves teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions
  • Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarise texts
  • Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions
  • Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete
  • Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments
  • Sentence Combining, which involves teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences
  • Prewriting, which engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organise ideas for their composition
  • Inquiry Activities, which engages students in analysing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task
  • Process Writing Approach, which interweaves a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalised instruction, and cycles of writing
  • Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyse, and emulate models of good writing
  • Writing for Content Learning, which uses writing as a tool for learning content material

📝 Andrews, R., Torgerson, C., Beverton, S., Locke, T., Low, G., Robinson, A., and Zhu, D. (2006) The effect of grammar teaching on writing development, British Educational Research Journal, 32(1), 39–55 [LINK]

This article reports on the results of two international systematic research reviews which focus on different aspects of teaching grammar to improve the quality and accuracy of 5-16-year-olds’ writing in English. The results show that there is little evidence to indicate that the teaching of formal grammar is effective; and that teaching sentence-combining has a more positive effect. In both cases, however, despite over a hundred years of research and debate on the topic, there is insufficient quality of research to prove the case with either approach. More research is needed, as well as a review of policy and practice in England with regard to the teaching of sentence structure in writing.

📝 Keen, J. (2004) Sentence-combining and redrafting processes in the writing of secondary school students in the UK, Linguistics & Education, 15(1-2) pp.81-97 [£ – LINK}

This article builds on the established research on sentence combining with respect to students’ writing development. The findings are discussed in relation to the use of coordinating conjunctions, the subordinating conjunctions ‘as’ and ‘because’ and subordination other than explanatory ‘as’ and ‘because’. They suggest that aspects of grammatical development in students’ writing are integrally related to propositional meaning, cohesion and rhetorical effects, and in particular that redrafting can enable students to explore forms of expression in their own writing, that coordination and use of explanatory ‘as’ and ‘because’ can enable students to explore relationships between clauses in writing, and that a complex process of rank shift of clause types, including subordinate clauses, can enable students to enhance their clause planning and their ability to elaborate.

📝 Kolln, M. (1996) Rhetorical grammar: A modification lesson, English Journal, 85(7), 25–31 [LINK]

This article explores what “grammar” means and suggests that grammar has a place in the writing classroom. Kolln suggests that by modifying “grammar” with adjectives such as “functional” and “rhetorical” teachers can contribute to positive, meaningful changes in the language arts curriculum.

📝 Myhill, D. (2018) Grammar as a meaning-making resource for improving writing, L1-Educational Studies Language and Literature, 18, 1–21 [LINK]

This article reviews recent research which demonstrates that explicit grammar teaching can support learner outcomes in reading and writing. Drawing on a framework for grammar, which emphasises grammar as a resource for meaning-making, the article will offer a rationale for the inclusion of grammar in the curriculum. This argument will be evidenced with data from a series of related studies and will discuss:

  • Linking grammar and the learning of writing in a meaningful way
  • The role of talk in supporting the development of students’ metalinguistic knowledge students’ understanding of grammatical terms
  • The place of teachers’ grammatical subject knowledge in supporting a meaning-rich approach to the teaching of grammar

📝 Berninger, V., Nagy, W., Beers, S. (2011) Child writers’ construction and reconstruction of single sentences and construction of multi-sentence texts: Contributions of syntax and transcription to translation, Reading and Writing, 24, 151–182 [LINK]

For this study, children in grades one to four were asked to complete two sentence construction tasks: (1) Write one complete sentence about a topic prompt (2) Integrate two sentences into one complete sentence without changing meaning.

Most, but not all, children in first through fourth grade could write just one sentence. Many beginning writers have syntactic knowledge of what constitutes a complete sentence, but not until fourth grade do both syntax and transcription contribute uniquely to flexible translation of ideas into the syntax of a written sentence. For multi-sentence texts, more single, independent clauses were produced by pen than keyboard in grades 3 to 7. The most frequent category of complex clauses in multi-sentence texts varied with genre (relative for essays and subordinate for narratives). This means that in addition to sentence construction and word-level transcription, number of sentences, writing by pen or keyboard, and genre influence children’s translation of ideas into written language.

📝 Myhill, D. (2008) Towards a linguistic model of sentence development in writing, Language & Education, 22(5), 271–288 [LINK]

Drawing on the findings of a research study which included a detailed linguistic analysis of a large corpus of writing from secondary English classrooms, this article describes patterns of linguistic deployment at the level of the sentence. 

Given the limited number of applied linguistic studies which consider writing development in older writers, as opposed to primary aged writers, the paper aims to investigate developmental differences in mastery of the sentence in this older age group. It describes similarities and differences in linguistic characteristics of writing at sentence level according to age and writing ability, and makes connections between the linguistic patterns and effectiveness in writing. 

The paper illustrates that clear developmental trajectories in writing can be determined which have implications for appropriate pedagogical or instructional designs. Finally, the paper offers a linguistic model of sentence development in writing, and signals the potential significance of linguistic models within a multi-disciplinary approach to writing pedagogy.

I can also recommend our eBook:

Young, R., Ferguson, F. (2023) Sentence-Level Instruction: Lessons That Help Children Find Their Style & Voice For 3-11 Year Olds Brighton: The Writing For Pleasure Centre [LINK]

I can also recommend the following literature:

  • Saddler, B. (2019) Sentence combining, In Best Practices in Writing Instruction, Graham, S., MacArthur, C., and Hebert, M. (3rd Ed.) (pp. 240–261). New York: Guildford Press
  • Hudson, R. (2017) Grammar instruction, In Handbook of Writing Research, MacArthur, C., Graham, S., Fitzgerald, J. (Eds.) (pp. 288–300) (2nd Ed.). New York: Guildford Press

Good luck and happy writing!

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