Quick. What’s wrong with the paragraph below:
It was nearly midnight. He was lying on his stomach in bed. The blankets were drawn right over his head like a tent. He had a flashlight in one hand. A large leather-bound book (A History of Magic by Bathilda Bagshot) was propped open against the pillow. Harry moved the tip of his eagle-feather quill down the page. He frowned. He looked for something that would help him write his essay, “Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century was Completely Pointless” – discuss.
As you’ve probably figured out, I’ve rewritten this paragraph from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban using just simple sentences and creating a choppy, awkward passage that’s tedious to read. Compare it to the original:
It was nearly midnight and he was lying on his stomach in bed, the blankets drawn right over his head like a tent, a flashlight in one hand and a large leather-bound book (A History of Magic by Bathilda Bagshot) propped open against the pillow. Harry moved the tip of his eagle-feather quill down the page, frowning as he looked for something that would help him write his essay, “Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless” – discuss.
Much better, right? This is a great way to illustrate the importance of sentence variety to your students. Good writing requires a combination of simple, complex, compound sentences — something beginning writers often struggle with and teachers may find hard to explain.
Here’s a suggestion to help you teach this writing fundamental to your upper elementary students.
Begin by defining the three types of sentences:
#1. Simple Sentences express one completed thought with one subject and one verb.
For example: We went to the store.
#2. Complex Sentences express two thoughts but they both refer to the same subject and they are joined by a semi-colon or a word such as for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.
(Those words are called coordinating conjunctions or, as Diana Hadbury King, founder of one of the first schools for dyslexic students in the U.S., taught me FANBOYS words. This mnemonic makes it easy to remember the most frequent used of the coordinating conjunctions: ForAndNorButOrYetSo)
For example: We went to the store, but it was closed.
Notice the subject of the first (We went to the store) and the second (but it was closed) part of the sentence is the store.
#3. Compound Sentences consist of two or more simple sentences joined by a comma or a semicolon or a FANBOYS word.
For example: We went to the store but we didn’t find the racing gear we needed.
The subject of the first part of the sentence is “the store” while the subject of the second part of the sentence is “racing gear”.
Remind students that another option is using the semicolon to replace a FANBOYS word like this: We went to the store; it was closed.
Once you’ve defined these three types of sentences, seat your students in a circle and give them a subject for a sentence and an action verb, such as “Frog” and “Leapt”. Ask them to first write a simple sentence using this subject and verb, such as “The frog leapt off the lily pad”.
Have them pass their simple sentence along to the person seated next to them and ask them to edit their neighbor’s sentence into a complex sentence and add a descriptive word or two. The result might be something like “The green frog leapt off the lily pad and caught a fly in mid-air”.
Do the same and ask them to edit the sentence into a compound sentence. You might get something like this: “The green frog leapt off the lily pad, caught a fly in mid-air and landed with a splash in the murky pond”.
This is a fun, cooperative activity that not only teaches the differences between three types of sentences, but clearly illustrates how effective elaboration evolves.