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.
Out of 20 sentences in a student’s essay, the sentence openers were frequently adverbs and articles, but verbs, subordinate conjunctions, gerunds and infinitives were not used at all. Knowing this, a student can improve his writing style by including the other parts of speech as sentence openings.
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.
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.
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.