If your students are writing horrible sentences, it doesn’t matter how many times you explain the need for more forethought and care. On the next assignment, without proper instruction and guidance, they will do the same. Combining sentences, which should be one of the basic skills of the English language, is often skipped in earlier grades. When teachers see that their students can read and comprehend more complex syntax, the writing skill is not reinforced. However, this often hampers students in the later grades. Fortunately the process can be reversed—or stopped in its tracks before it starts—with a strong foundation in combining sentences.
A primary teaching of combining sentences should begin with reading and instruction instead of isolated examples on a board. You may, for instance, start out by asking students how they know to end once sentence and begin another. There will be a variety of correct answers to the question, which you can write on the chalk board. Next, take an example from a recent short story covered in class, and have the students notice the choices that the author made when ending sentences and beginning new ones. Explain to your students that, although the author made some excellent choices, there are plenty of other options. Use the text to combine sentences and break them apart. Use different techniques such as breaking two sentences into three, or combining the tail end of a sentence with the sentence following. This project will demonstrate not only the choices of the author, but the skills of the pupils themselves to make reasonable sentence combination decisions.
Oftentimes, teachers will harp on the need for editing and peer-editing without demonstrating to the students what type of editing is needed. When they’ve pored over their work for perhaps hours at a time, it is difficult for them to reckon with their own faults. A great teaching strategy for sentence combination is to introduce an unfamiliar piece of text that is poorly written, and allow them to combine the sentences together for a more coherent whole. Once the students have the basic understanding of how and why sentences are combined in various configurations, you can use their reading to demonstrate examples of bad sentences. Take a paragraph of text from a short story recently covered and re-write it so that the sentences are short, choppy, and entirely without transition. Alternatively, you can write a paragraph of your own. Have them edit the paragraph as a class, and then write their own “bad prose” for a friend to combine sentences as homework.
At this point, you can begin explaining to students the fundamental elements that make for a good sentence. Whereas before they would not have understood the grammatical backbone on which your lessons are built, by now they will be prepared to hear why sentences function the way they do. Focus on grammar and concrete images and build from this. A main part of this unit will be explaining the difference between subordinating and coordinating conjunctions, and then reinforcing how punctuation can make these decisions stronger. While these elements of grammar are sure to be lost of some students, make them extremely simple at first, focusing on the seven coordinating conjunctions and then moving onto the possibilities allowed by the subordinating.
As always, these lessons will become boring and dry without a variety of activities to keep students interested. Get them into the lesson, allowing them to act out the parts of sentences and having one or two students at a time play conjunctions. Puzzles, timed activities, and word searches will all be valuable tools. If all else fails, look for interactive games online that pique the interest of the students. In this age of technology, there is no reason to forego the more colorful and entertaining possibilities of the internet for the more banal workbook activities to which the students are probably accustomed. Combine video (Conjunction Junction is still fun!), audio, written, and oral exercises for the best possible results. Remember, it takes only one particularly memorable activity for the concept to become entrenched in the mind of a student.