Sentence Combining in Thinking Through Grammar

Writing Nextreport, published by the Alliance for Excellent Education with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, examines elements of effective adolescent writing instruction. Among these elements, the report recommends sentence combining, especially as a means for teaching grammar:

“. . . other instructional methods, such as sentence combining, provide an effective alternative to traditional grammar instruction, as this approach improves students’ writing quality while at the same time enhancing syntactic skills. In addition, a recent study (Fern & Farnan, 2005) found that teaching students to focus on the function and practical application of grammar within the context of writing (versus teaching grammar as an independent activity) produced strong and positive effects on students’ writing. Overall, the findings on grammar instruction suggest that, although teaching grammar is important, alternative procedures, such as sentence combining, are more effective than traditional approaches for improving the quality of students’ writing.”

One of the earliest innovations in the use of sentence combining to teach grammar is Arthur Whimbey’s Analyze, Organize, Write (1987, Lawrence Earlbaum Associates). Since this early publication, Whimbey, along with writing partner Myra J. Linden, has refined the method. The recently published Thinking Through Grammar series (2006, BGF Performance Systems, LLC.) is now the most comprehensive and effective program available that uses sentence combining to teach grammar.

With the introduction of new high school and college entrance exams, emphasis is once again on students’ grammar, proofreading, and editing skills. But the focus on these skills does not stop at school. According to the National Commission on Writing (2004 and 2005), “about half of private employers and more than 60% of state government employers say writing skills impact promotion decisions.”

Here are some examples from Thinking Through Grammar to demonstrate how sentence combining is used to teach grammar effectively. The first is a sample intended to teach students to use adjectives to make their sentences more informative:

In the following exercise, rewrite the first sentence with the adjectives from the other sentences inserted before the nouns they modify.

The aroma of coffee in the morning helps awaken my brain.
The aroma is wonderful.
The coffee is fresh.
My brain is sleepy.

Answer: The wonderful aroma of fresh coffee in the morning helps awaken my sleepy brain.

Notice how the directions use the names of the parts of speech and the language of writing (adjectives, nouns, and modify). By the time students encounter this exercise, they have already learned what these three terms mean. And teachers and students now share a common language to discuss writing.

Unlike the traditional instruction of grammar, students are taught conventional punctuation and capitalization in context, not in isolated chapters. For example, many students have difficulty first in recognizing appositives and then in punctuating them correctly. However, after working through sentence combining exercises on appositives such as the one below, they master the standard conventions for using appositives.

Rewrite the first sentence with the information from the second sentence added as an appositive.

Mark Twain strengthened his writing skills by working as a newspaper reporter for many years.
Mark Twain is the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Answer: Mark Twain, the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, strengthened his writing skills by working as a newspaper reporter for many years.

As another example, some students are not sure of how to punctuate compound sentences. But through sentence combining exercises like the one below, they master this punctuation concept as well.

Create a dependent clause from the first sentence by inserting when at the beginning. Then combine the sentences with the dependent clause first.

The magician began sawing through the box containing his partner.
The audience became completely silent.

Answer: When the magician began sawing through the box containing his partner, the audience became completely silent.

Using such a sentence combining program has a double advantage: it relieves teachers from the extra work of having to invent many hundreds of examples, and it ensures that students will master the skills necessary to become effective writers.

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