Tag Archives: counting words in a sentence

Identify the range of the sentence lengths to increase the variety of sentence lengths and reader interest

The range of sentences means the sentence with the largest number of words minus the sentence with the smallest number of words. That number is the range.

Knowing this number can be useful.

• If the range is in the single digits, that means most of the sentences in a piece of writing are about the same length. The reader will find the writing boring, though the reader might not know why.

• If the range is in the high teens or twenties, that means there are some longer sentences and some shorter sentences. This range shows the writer has used a variety of sentence lengths. The reader will find this kind of writing interesting, though again, the reader might not know why.

Most students need to increase the range of their writing. To do that, students need to be aware of sentence range and to force themselves to write sentences of varying lengths.

When elementary school-aged children write, most of their sentences are ten words or less unless they are writing a sentence that includes a series or they are compounding sentences. So the range for such children usually is a low number—maybe nine or less. Older students write longer sentences, but again, usually their range is a low number—maybe twelve. Experienced writers might have a range in the twenties. But in order to get such a high range, writers must have a sentence with 26, 27, or 28 words, and another sentence with just a handful of words.

Notice the following introduction to an essay written by a fifth grader:

Have you ever played Monopoly? If you have,
then you know all about it. If you have not,
then let me describe Monopoly to you.

The first sentence has 5 words, the second sentence has 9 words, and the third sentence has 11 words. 11 minus 5 gives a range of 6. If the rest of the sentences in this essay are about 5 to 10 words long, the range would be small and the essay would be stylistically unappealing.

Compare that to the beginning of a narrative written by a rising second grader:

Once when I woke up I found a baby unicorn in
my tiny bed. It looked as tall as me with a tail
and wings, a purple and pink horn, and a white
and yellow body. Right away I jumped on the
unicorn and flew to a castle that is made out of
glass. She said I owned the castle.

The first sentence has 14 words; the second has 22 words; the third has 18 words; and the fourth has 6 words. 22 minus 6 gives a range of 16, an excellent range for such a young writer. Notice also that all four sentences vary in length by 4 words or more. Analyzing only sentence lengths, the second selection is stylistically more interesting than the first.

By combining sentences or adding more detail, students usually bump up the number of words per sentence. For some students, increasing the number of words per sentence and eliminating all short sentences can become an obsession. This is a mistake. Including short sentences is essential to good writing.

Did you notice in the last paragraph that a nineteen-word sentence was followed by a four word sentence? Often, a really short sentence after a long sentence can add style to writing. Students need to see examples of this kind of writing to know that it is not only okay, but desirable. Below is an example of a 36-word sentence followed by a 9-word sentence (a range of 27) from Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Me and Winn-Dixie got into a daily routine
where we would leave the trailer early in
the morning and get down to Gertrude’s
Pets in time to hear Otis play his guitar
music for the animals. Sometimes Sweetie
Pie snuck in for the concert, too.

When a student uses dialog, the number of words per sentence plummets since most characters, like most real people, speak in short sentences, phrases or single words. Dialog should sound natural. But students fixated on the number of words per sentence might want to eliminate dialog in order to maintain a high number of words per sentence. Again, this is a mistake. To counter this tendency, when I ask students to calculate the number of words per sentence, I allow them to eliminate any sentence with dialog in them. On the other hand, when students calculate the range, they should include short sentences with dialog.

In the next blog we will talk about the mess all this revising creates in a student’s draft.

Find the number of words per sentence, and then increase that number

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.

Word count before and after revising the 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.