Sentence beginnings should vary

Here is how many younger children write:

Today I woke up and ate breakfast.  Then I got on the school bus with my friend, Anya.  I sat near the window.  I put my backpack on a hook and I sat down.  I did my morning work first, and then I said the pledge.  I did math until it was time to go to specials. 

Do you notice that almost every sentence begins with “I,” and the two sentences that begin with another word use “I” as the second word?  What is the effect?  Boring.

Yet this is how beginning writers start their sentences.  Their world is “I” focused, and so is their writing.  As they grow older, this tendency wanes, but repeating the same word at the beginnings of many sentences continues.

Revising general wording to more expressive wording.

An excerpt of a third grader’s essay with his revisions.

Here’s how I break students of this habit.  First, I ask the students to circle the first word of every sentence, using a color quite different from the color they used to encircle verbs.  That is so the first words stand out.

Next, the students read the words aloud and listen for repetition.  Almost always they find it.

For new students, I offer suggestions on how to vary sentence openings.  This is a skill older students learn quickly, so after the first few lessons, they can work independently on future writing.  What are some easy yet effective ways to improve sentence openings?

  • Many sentences begin with a pronoun like “he” or “she.” I suggest using the person’s name if it hasn’t been used, or repeating the person’s name.  If it has been used as a sentence opening in a nearby sentence, I suggest using a relationship, such as “My mother” or “My music teacher.”
  • Sometimes there is a prepositional phrase later in the sentence which could easily be moved to the front of the sentence. “I went to school in the morning” could be changed to “In the morning I went to school.”
  • An adverb can often be added to the front of a sentence unless this technique is overused by the student. I help students find a less common adverb, such as “later” rather than “next” or “then.”
  • Sometimes consecutive sentences can be combined to eliminate a repetitive opening word. “I did my morning work first, and then I said the pledge.  I did math until it was time to go to specials” can be replaced with “I did my morning work, said the pledge, did math and then went to specials.”
  • Sometimes writing a new sentence beginning is what works best.

Next we will talk about changing parts of speech at the beginnings of sentences.

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