First, why is having more words in a sentence important?
- Little children write little sentences. Their writing sounds childish in part because each sentence is so short and contains only one idea. (I have a dog. His name is Rex. Rex barks.) By writing longer sentences, children increase the sophistication of their writing. (My dog, a tan boxer, barks at other dogs.)
- Tiny sentences are almost always simple sentences. As children grow, they are taught in school to add conjunctions to form compound sentences. Unfortunately, these string-along sentences continue to sound childish. (I have a dog and his name is Rex and Rex barks.) Children need practice in forming longer sentences without relying on “and,” “but” and “so.”
- When children write longer sentences, the sentence grammar changes from short simple sentences and string-along compound sentences to more adult-like sentence structures—complicated simple sentences and complex sentences. This change is the real reason I have students count words in sentences and is more important than the actual number of words per sentence. But children need proof that change is necessary, and counting the number of words offers that. By their own calculations, children see that they are writing too many short sentences.
I begin by offering students a calculator. Using a calculator in a writing lesson surprises students, yet they relish using it. (However, because revising verbs and sentence openings often changes the number of words per sentence, this activity should wait until early revising activities are done. Many students will want to do this as soon as they finish their first draft. Restrain them until they have done the harder revising of verbs and sentence openings.)
Next, I ask students to count the number of words in each sentence and to record the number in the margin near the sentence (not within the copy itself or the number will become lost in a well revised essay). I encourage students to write the number with a colored pencil so the number will be easy to find later. Some students think I mean the number of words per line, so I usually count the number of words in the first few sentences with them, watching, so they get the idea. Even then, I point out that I am counting sentences, not the number of words on a line.
After all the words are counted, I ask students to add up the total number of words (that is, to add up all the margin numbers they have just written down). Then they add up the total number of sentences, either by counting the number of first words circled (not such a good idea since those words often change) or by counting the number of numbers in the margin (easy if the numbers are in colored ink).
Now the student uses a calculator to divide the total number of words by the total number of sentences, to find the average (mean) number of words per sentence.
Because little children tend to write little sentences, and adults tend to write longer sentences, I give every student a target number of words per sentence based on grade level. For third graders it is 13; for fourth graders, 14; for fifth graders, 15. I set a target of more than 15 for middle schoolers, and the high teens for high school students and older.
Granted, these numbers are arbitrary. But they are easy for students to remember and they serve the purpose of making students work to increase the number of words per sentence. Rarely do I teach a beginning student who matches the target number in his writing without revising. But with revising, the number always increases.
A few exceptions:
- Students who use dialog will have shorter sentences because people usually speak in shorter sentences. Try calculating just the sentences without dialog. I have had some students try to eliminate dialog to increase the number of words per sentence. No! The dialog sparkles the writing and needs to stay.
- What if children use interjections like “Wow!” or “Holy cow!” Should they be counted as a sentence? Ignore them.
How do children increase the number of words per sentence? We will look at that in the next blog.