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Building Skilled Writers Step-by-Step: The Sentence




For the child who struggles with expressing themself on paper, the barriers to filling the lines on a blank sheet of paper may feel insurmountable. A Google search revealed the lighthearted name for this feeling, Blank-Page-O-Phobia. To the reluctant writer, all those blank lines can signal many opportunities for mistakes rather than opportunities for success. A careful, planned process can teach students at any level to be proficient writers.


The first step is to focus on a single sentence. This focus may last for several weeks, and it is well worth the investment of time and effort.


Beginning the instruction with writing single sentences has multiple purposes:

• It builds confidence.

• It builds writing fluency - the ability to write and think of what to write simultaneously. • It is the building block of all writing.

• It improves with practice.

• Students who spend time on one single sentence as a skill are less likely to produce run-ons and fragments once they begin writing paragraphs and compositions.


You can teach students to self-edit their work by writing the acronym COPS in the margin of their work and focusing on one common error per letter of COPS.


C - capital letters - have the student check for capital letters

O - order and organization - have the student check for correct word order and spacing P - punctuation - have the student check for end punctuation

S - spelling - if an adult is working with the child, the adult can underline incorrectly

spelled words and guide the child toward the correct spelling.


Here are some exercises to launch you on sentence teaching.


Exercise 1


Goal: to get a cohesive thought onto paper and use the writing conventions of beginning with a capital letter and ending with a punctuation mark.


Start with asking for a five-word sentence, and prime the pump with a short list of words to draw from. These might be words that use a spelling pattern you are studying or a few words from the student’s personal spelling list. With time and success, stretch

the five word length to ten or eventually fifteen words. Specific parts of speech may be required in the sentence.


Exercise 2


Goal: to improve the quality of the student’s sentences through sentence variety. Provide a list of sentence starter words in various categories as a reference tool.


Sentence starters are words such as anyone, always, quickly, sometimes, near, or under. Teaching the use of sentence starters avoids the pitfall of repetitive sentences. Start with oral sentences, then move to written sentences. Funny sentences lighten the mood and get the creative thoughts flowing.


Use the “I do, we do, you do” method, like this. First, you model a couple of sentences drawing from the sentence starters word list. Next, you write one of your sentences, pointing out the capital letter at the beginning and punctuation at the end. Then you and the student make up a couple of oral sentences, and each of you writes one down, the adult giving support as needed. After that, the student makes up a couple of oral sentences, with support as needed. Finally, the student writes one of his sentences, with support as needed. This process could easily be a daily exercise, taking one additional step toward independent writing each day. Overcoming a history of writing failures takes an investment of time.


Exercise 3


Goal: to teach the student to use part of a question in a complete answer sentence.


This is a very useful skill for answering homework questions from textbooks. Start by providing a list of question words: who, what, where, when, why, how much, how many, etc. This will help the students realize they are reading a question. Ask a series of questions that the student probably know the answer to, and allow funny answers. After all, writing is hard for these students, so some humor can lighten the mood.


Short answer questions

Who is our country’s president?

What did you eat for breakfast?

Where is the nearest place to buy ice?

What is the weather like today?

Why does our school need a principal?

How much is it possible to help clean up our environment?

How much butter goes into chocolate chip cookies?

How many dimes are in a dollar?


Once again, use the “I do, we do, you do” method as you teach this skill. It is helpful if you write a few starter questions on the board or use a document camera so the students can follow your thought process exactly.


• Read the question orally.

• Formulate the answer to the question orally.

• Underline the words you may reuse in the statement/answer.

• Write out the statement/answer.

• Run the sentence through COPS to check for errors, and fix any mistakes.


Teach students to write on alternate lines of the paper because it gives more room to be neat and also gives space to make spelling and grammar corrections.

Work on sentence writing skills with your reluctant writers this month. Next month a method for paragraph writing will be covered.


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