Last month's article focused on developing students' word-building skills by analyzing and adding affixes to words. Now, we will focus on building sentences using similar concepts — the idea being that students can begin by building simple sentences, then work to create more complex sentences.

For English learners, their proficiency level will help to determine what the next steps are in terms of developing more complex sentences, but all students can benefit from learning the essential elements of a sentence as well as how to build more rich and complex sentences.

Students can be explicitly taught to build sentences by teaching them the necessary elements of a sentence. There are five essential components or elements of a sentence:

  • begins with a capital letter
  • ends with punctuation
  • contains a subject (noun)
  • contains a predicate (verb)
  • states a complete thought and/or makes sense

You can demonstrate these concepts by showing students a variety of simple, two-word sentences that show the five elements. For example, show students the following sentences, and point out the essential elements:

  • Dogs bark.
  • People sing.
  • Sheep walk.

Each of these sentences contains the five elements. You can then share some sentences that are missing one or more of the basic elements:

  • cats run. (Does not begin with a capital.)
  • Fish eat (Does not have ending punctuation.)
  • Sleeping. (Does not contain a subject.)
  • Suzy. (Does not contain a predicate.)
  • Grow slowly plants water in. (Does not express a complete thought/make sense.)

Once students understand and have practiced identifying the key elements of a sentence, you can have them begin practicing writing sentences that have the elements in place.

There are multiple ways to help students develop sentences. For example, use pictures and have students build sentences based on what they see in the picture. Using pictures from the content area students are studying will help them to link their speech and writing to the content area.

Begin by distributing pictures to students if you have hard copies or displaying a picture in a way that all students can see it. Then, develop student's vocabulary using the content of the picture. This can be done through explicit instruction on the part of the teacher, as well as through brainstorming by the students.

Consider having the students talk in pairs or small groups to brainstorm nouns and verbs to start. The teacher can then solicit the words that were brainstormed and offer alternative, more academic terms as synonyms to what the students brainstormed in order to help develop deeper academic language.

Once you and the students have developed a bank of words, demonstrate creating two-word sentences using the five requirements of a sentence. This sounds simple, but can be a challenge for students. It is generally easier using plural nouns as an article may not be required.

Consider having students create sentences from a variety of perspectives. For example, if you are viewing a picture of a pride of lions lounging in the sun, you might create a sentence such as "Lions lounge." and another from a different perspective such as "Clouds float."

Once you have demonstrated how to build these simple sentences, have students practice developing sentences, first orally and then in writing. Give students a short time to discuss the picture and the word bank, then have them brainstorm some two-word sentences that meet the five requirements.

After students have brainstormed orally, they should write a variety of sentences from multiple perspectives. This simple exercise is more difficult than would appear, so be sure to model it explicitly with the students.

Once students are able to build some simple sentences, have them brainstorm some adjectives that describe the subject. They can then add those adjectives to their sentences. Again, the teacher can use this opportunity to teach more specific adjectives and enhance students' vocabulary.

Depending on the proficiency level of the student, they might also add two or more adjectives to add adjective-adjective-noun combinations to their sentences. For example, students might add "fluffy" and/or "tired" to the simple sentence "Lions lounge" to develop "Fluffy lions lounge" or "Tired, fluffy lions lounge." This exercise should be fairly simple for most students, as adjectives are an early acquired aspect of language.

The next step is to teach students the concept of adverbials. Adverbials are words or phrases that give more information about the verb. There are several adverbials to brainstorm with the students, including where, when, how and why. Brainstorm these additions to the sentence one at a time and add them to the sentence examples.

You might begin with where, for example. "Tired, fluffy lions lounge on the grass." You might then add when: "Tired, fluffy lions lounge on the grass throughout the afternoon." Then add why: "Tired, fluffy lions lounge on the grass throughout the afternoon because they are sleepy."

Lastly, you can add how: "Tired, fluffy lions lounge lazily on the grass throughout the afternoon because they are sleepy." This sentence is not perfect, but does illustrate to students how they can add to their sentence through the incorporation of adverbials.

Again, depending on the proficiency level of the students, one or more of these adverbials can be focused on at one time. As a scaffold, you might also color code these various adverbials. For example, using our last sentence, you could add the following color coding:

  • subject — black
  • verb — green
  • adjective — red
  • where — orange
  • when — blue
  • why — purple
  • how — pink

After completing the exercise with the pictures, students should be encouraged to go back to a piece of their own writing and adjust the sentences by incorporating one or more adverbials. In addition, students can play around with switching the order of the adverbials by putting one at the beginning of the sentence, such as "Because they are sleepy, tired, fluffy lions lounge lazily on the grass throughout the afternoon."

Students can also learn to combine sentences in a variety of ways. Given the example above, students can look at other sentences to add in these various adverbial phrases. Alternatively, students can look at two sentences and link or combine the two sentences using the connectors and, but or because. Teach students to first recognize compound sentences, and then model how to combine two sentences into one.

Again, students should then be encouraged to practice this with peers orally, then move to practicing combining sentences in writing. If you have students look at previous writing assignments and look for sentences to combine, you also get the added benefit of students re-reading text they had written about the content taught, thus providing an additional review activity.

Writing and creating more complex sentences is not an easy task. With these exercises, though, you can help students practice academic language while learning the content knowledge and skills being taught.

The next article in this series will focus on paragraph building and will share ideas on how students can put sentences together to create rich paragraphs.