For older students (usually fifth grade, but sometimes third or fourth grade for better skilled students), I analyze the parts of speech of first words of sentences. If the student doesn’t understand nouns, pronouns, etc., there is no point in doing this, but if the student does or should understand parts of speech, this can be a useful way to explain why his repetitive patterns seem boring to readers.
After the student has circled the first word of each sentence, I ask her to tally the parts of speech she has used for each first word of a sentence. These parts of speech include nouns, pronouns, articles, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositional phrases, conjunctions, gerunds and infinitives.
Students usually notice that they rely on the same parts of speech to open sentences. Meanwhile, other parts of speech are rarely used.
Next, we go back over the essay and look at the overused parts of speech and try to vary the openings by using underused parts of speech.
- Prepositional phrases are sometimes used by students only later in sentences. If the phrases are adverbial, they can be moved almost anywhere in the sentence, including to the front. The student encircles the phrase and draws an arrow to move it to the front of the sentence.
- Adverbs are often overused as first words, especially the words “also” and “then.” Most of the time these words can be eliminated without any loss of meaning. But sometimes a synonym can replace those words so long as it does not draw attention to itself. “And” is usually less conspicuous than “additionally.”
- Verbs are rarely used as sentence openers because to start a sentence with a verb is to ask a question. Yet a rhetorical question not only varies the sentence opening, it varies the sentence type from a declarative to an interrogative. Plus, like using a semicolon, it can seem elegant.
- Most underused are gerunds and infinitives. Younger children rarely think of these words as sentence openers. Modeling how to change sentences using these parts of speech can be an eye-opener for students who want their writing to sparkle.
- Many students use complex sentences, but few put the subordinate clause first. Doing so adds a subordinate conjunction to the front of a sentence and changes the sentence structure.
Another kind of sentence opening that students don’t use often enough is dialog. More on that in the next blog.