Sentence combining presents teachers with an alternative to traditional grammar instruction and holds greater promise for students to produce quality writing. Instruction in sentence combining teaches students to construct more complex and sophisticated sentences by combining two or more simple sentences. This approach has been shown to be effective in helping students write sentences that are:
- More complex and interesting.
- Clear, tight, and focused.
- Varied in form and sequence.
Sentence-combining activities alert students to different kinds of sentence structures they might use to express their ideas. Often, students’ writing is monotonous because they use the same structure repeatedly. Help them become more creative and write in more interesting ways. This section has ideas on how to use sentence combining with various levels of writers and types of texts.
- Teach the exercise in whole or small groups. Group students by the types of errors they make so you can focus your feedback and modeling.
- Go for fluency and multiple options—there are no right answers, just better ones. Make this fun and generative.
- Focus on meaning and effectiveness—don’t get distracted by spelling or technical issues.
- Stay focused. If students get distracted or frustrated when you do not give them the correct spelling, just supply it and move on.
Align your teaching sequence to the Gradual Release sequence, as follows:
- Introduce and define the sentence-combining strategy in a focus lesson, either in whole or small groups. Keep in mind that it is critical to provide explicit instruction in this and all writing strategies.
- Model it. Put sentences on the board, overhead, or projector, and show students how to identify the key phrases in each sentence as well as the repeated terms or ideas that can be condensed.
- Provide guided practice as you team up students in pairs or triads to do it together and to talk about their thinking.
- Have students do the activity independently.
Repeat this sequence when you introduce different variations of the sentence-combining activity. You may be able to work through it more quickly as learners get more familiar, but it will help call their attention to the salient features of the new variation if you introduce and model the exercise.
“I had my students use checklists this year at the end of each new vocabulary unit we had, and I used a checklist for paragraph writing. Some items on the checklist refer to mechanics— punctuation, spelling, and other items refer to paragraph organization like indenting, topic sentence, examples of support, concluding sentence. Students said they found the checklists useful, and after a while, many of these items became automatic for them and they didn’t even need the checklists by the end of the year for their paragraphs. They said they could remember what they had to look for when they checked their writings and didn’t need the checklists anymore.”
Chris Bourret, Rhode Island TEAL Team
Selecting Sample Text for Sentence Combining: Practice
Keep this activity fun and low stakes so that learners are comfortable sharing their work. Using sentences created in the sentence-combining activity described previously, choose a few sentences from each learner. Use learners’ own writing or something you are reading in class. Another good idea is to pick up some text from what the learners are reading. Is it too simple? Make it more interesting! Is it too complex? Make it more straightforward.
Identify the following common areas of difficulty:
- Simple sentences
- Too frequent use of the word and
- Repeated sentence types
- Run-on sentences
- Overly complex structures
Group learners to focus on a single problem. You may have various groups all doing sentence combining but addressing different problems.
Figure 3 includes an example exercise for combining simple sentences into more complex, interesting ones.
Use the following guidelines for this type of exercise:
- Find a few simple sentences to link.
- Put the base clause first.
- Discuss the combined meaning.
- Identify the key words from the second sentence to bring to the first.
- Rewrite into one sentence.
- Dig in! Move things around and be creative.
Encourage learners to do more than the obvious. Be creative and make this a generative activity. For learners who struggle with this activity, you might want to scaffold it a bit by first underlining the key words in the second sentence to draw their attention to the new ideas. After guided practice sessions, they should move to identifying and underlining those words themselves before suggesting a combined sentence.
Too often, our efforts to get learners to improve their writing results in frustration. They aren’t sure what to revise, and we don’t want to be overly prescriptive. Try assigning a sentence-combining pass through their writing; have them find two or three sentences to rewrite. This process helps them focus on a concrete improvement.
Show them how this is done. Start at the top of the instructional sequence (focus lesson) again, and model this strategy. Put a paragraph or essay on the board or overhead, and discuss how to find a sentence or two to focus on for combining.
When learners are ready to revise their written work, remind them of the sentence-combining exercises. Have them identify two or more sentences that they can improve. Ask learner pairs to identify two or more sentences in each other’s writing to work on together to combine or clarify.
Sentence combining is also a great assignment for peer editors. Ask learners to identify sentences in each others’ work that could be improved. If time permits, have them work together to improve the sentences; otherwise, this can be a productive homework activity.
“I think of acronyms as a way of condensing something into an easy to remember code. I recently had an adult student who had trouble remembering what to do next in long division. He could do problems like 84/2 in his head with no problem, but 147/3 was a big struggle. We resorted to using the acronym DMSB (Divide, Multiply, Subtract, Bring down), and the student’s response was almost instantaneous. He loved it, and his division skills have become pretty solid. This is a flexible strategy that can work to remember a wide variety of things.
Victor Richardson, Mississippi TEAL Team
Is It Better?
What does “quality writing” mean? Help learners focus on three aspects of “better” when evaluating combined sentences:
- Clarity and directness of meaning
- Rhythmic appeal (i.e., varied forms)
- Fit for intended audience
Take It Further
The following ideas may extend the activity of sentence combining and help you work it into other areas of your writing instruction:
- Provide learners a set of unimproved sentences for combining and constructing into a paragraph.
- Use sentences from texts the learners are reading.
- Find particularly complex and difficult sentences for a “detangle” challenge. Newspaper articles, appliance instructional manuals, and some college textbooks offer this type of material.
- Use the activity to support higher-order thinking goals such as cause and effect, if/then reasoning, why and how explanations, and so on. Discuss how some sentences can be combined to demonstrate these relationships; supply the transition and key words to help learners link the ideas.
- Take the strategy to writing. Provide a paragraph. Have learners identify sentences that could be combined. Revise the paragraph by using the sentence-combining strategy.
- Apply these sentence-combining strategies to their own writing (as a team process or individually).
Saddler, B., & Asaro-Saddler, K. (2010). Writing better sentences: Sentence-combining instruction in the classroom. Preventing School Failure, 54(3), 159–163.