Over the past few years I’ve come to believe more and more strongly in the power of the sentence as a tool for developing proficiency in reading and writing. The fundamental problem, for students who don’t write or read as well as they could, is often that they aren’t good enough at creating sentences that capture the nuances of a complex idea or the relationships of complex ideas and they similarly fail to successfully untangle the nuances and interrelations in such sentences when written by others.
Consider, for example, the sentence I just wrote. Here it is again:
The fundamental problem, for students who don’t write or read as well as they could, is often that they aren’t good enough at creating sentences that capture the nuances of a complex idea or the relationships of complex ideas and they similarly fail to successfully untangle the nuances and interrelations in such sentences when written by others.
To read a sentence like this—and students will come across thousands of them in and on the way to college, often strung together in chains like party decorations—you have to make sense of a dizzying array of clauses and ideas- the parenthetical explanation of who the fundamental problem belongs to in the first line, or the notion, described in the subsequent lines, that sentences could describe singular nuanced ideas or else multiple ideas with complex interactions and that the sentences in question could be either written or read by students.
A sentence is a complex and powerful thing, the mastery of which is often overlooked. We teach reading by looking past the sentence itself– studying stories or texts or paragraphs or the conventions of text forms or “strategies” for thinking about a narrative. Or we dive into thorny challenge of vocabulary. But maybe we are missing the bulls-eye. To make our students powerful at reading and writing we must intentionally teach them to unlock the mysteries of the sentence and to master its art.
In our new 2.0 materials at our Reading and Engaging Academics workshops we’ve been talking about intentional teaching and regular practice in the Art of the Sentence as a key element in an effective classroom. But explaining how that might be implemented takes some time and detail… often more than we have in a workshop. So with that in mind I am going to share the following… which I think comprises some of the most useful and powerful guidance I’ve had the pleasure of sharing. The following is a description of how one great teacher, Troy Prep 7th grade Reading teacher David Javsicas, took his school’s goal of rolling out what they call “The Golden Sentence”—ensuring that students write one complex well-crafted sentence per session and that the ability to do so is built up over time in more and more complex and challenging exercises.
What follows are a sequences series of examples of how David taught the Art of the Sentence (aka The Golden Sentence) in his 7th Grade Reading class with discussion from David following each example.
The first few examples come from Lord of the Flies. In them, David is concentrating on building up students’ conception of what a good sentence looks like and how it works incrementally.
January 3 Golden Sentence
How did Ralph’s actions lead to a “violent swing”? What did he do, and what was the effect of his actions? Use the following format:
Because Ralph ______________________________, _______________________________________.
Ralph’s action(s) – cause main effect(s) of Ralph’s action(s)
Comments: One of my concerns with GS was that it took a lot of instructional time to essentially teach a sentence structure in reading class. In this one, I experimented with giving prompts that had part of the sentence built in. It worked really well, and was far less time-consuming. This version works well if you have a fairly narrow sense of what you want, and want to do a fairly direct check for understanding (almost like a Don’t Wait question; something you ask b/c students HAVE to understand that in order to grasp the bigger picture). It also worked nicely to get more reps in with a high probability of successful practice reps. That was a down-side of the less structured ones.
January 11 Golden Sentence
What did Ralph do to make Jack’s taunt “powerless?” Start your sentence with “Despite Jack’s…”
Comments: This one is still scaffolded though less than the first. The idea there is that the hardest part of “despite” is the subtlety of how to use it correctly. I didn’t see it as a good use of Reading instructional time to get into the nitty-gritty on that, but even by using that little nudge there, it made it very likely that students would use the structure correctly. Also, that nudge (“Despite Jack’s…”) essentially serves as part of the question. It’s like a puzzle: what ideas fit into the rest of that sentence? At that point, I had students briefly review when/why we use “despite” (to show something that you would think would make the second idea less likely), and then they were able to do the rest pretty independently.
January 24 Golden Sentence
in one beautiful sentence, explain the most important development in this section of the text.
Comments: This is an example of one that I pulled back the scaffolding. I didn’t even call it a Golden Sentence; I wanted to challenge students to use complex sentence formats with less prompting, and they stepped up. In the S&J, it asks about Simon’s most important discovery. If a student just says “he discovered that the ‘beast’ is just a dead pilot,” they have not adequately described his discovery. Sure enough—perhaps because of frequent haranguing—a lot of students independently showed the critical relationship here: that Simon’s discovery blows up the boys’ basis for fear. While students wrote, I was able to circulate and nudge them if they started down too simple a path.
The last example occurs about six weeks later and in the lesson on a different book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It shows the progression from capturing one idea to relating multiple ideas in a single sentence.
March 12 Golden Sentence
Describe how Christopher’s father was feeling, and how Christopher’s response to the situation is different than his father’s.
Comments: You can see the later evolution here. I ask a multi-part question and ask that they fit the answer into one sentence. At this point in the year, they have a pretty deep Golden Sentence tool bag, so they are able to identify the difference and highlight the significance of the contrast all in one sentence.
Stepping Back: General wisdom from David on the Art of the Sentence:
- When a particular structure is relatively new (like despite, above), I found it helped enormously to use it at first along with scaffolded sentences. That way, rather than having to spend so much time just teaching the structure, I was able to give students several practice reps that didn’t require a huge time investment but gave them practice doing it right. It was easy to use these as comprehension checks.
- As students get more comfortable, give more open-ended prompts.
- In order to use it at the most high-leverage moments, look for times when the relationship between ideas is more important than just the ideas themselves. That’s really when a good writer/speaker would naturally use a “golden sentence,” so that’s when they’ll fit naturally into the plan.
- It is also best used when I basically want a thesis statement from them. Writing a full-on OE question takes a long time to do well. If I have them write a Golden Sentence and then tell them I will ask for them to identify and analyze supporting evidence during the review (or in some cases it’s more of a EBQ structure and I have given the evidence), I am able to get the big idea I want in one efficient sentence.
Finally I think it helps to see David’s Golden Sentences in the context of his full lessons—you can get a sense for how rigorous and writing-intensive they are as well as how much close reading kids do. So here (Lord of the Flies) and here (Curious Incident) are links to two of David’s packets.
Thanks to David, by the way, for his incredibe work as a teacher and for sharing his insights!