I have recently been talking to teachers who are exasperated at the fact their children don't seem to know how to write a sentence. In particular, they don't know where to put capital letters and full stops. It doesn't seem to be a KS1 phenomenon, I have witnessed it in KS2 also, talking to frustrated teachers in Y3 led me to ask the following question on twitter and facebook:
How do you teach what a sentence is?
I received a huge amount of responses. Many people were just clicking follow so that they could see what other people came up with. The responses ranged from ‘I tell them to read the writing and when they breathe that is the end of a sentence’ to ‘the children say a sentence and when they listen to it back they know it is a sentence so they put in a capital letter and a full stop.’ I thought that responses like these didn’t really tell me how sentences were taught.
Not really satisfactory answers. It took quite a while until someone actually came up with a technical response such as ‘I teach the subject + predicate’ there were also a smattering of ‘subject + verb’ responses. Some teachers said they taught it by having a zero tolerance response, which is difficult agree with. Punishing children for something they obviously don’t understand and many teachers seem to have a problem with.
The problem is that there is no simple answer or rule. How do we explain to pupils that a short utterance like ‘Stop!’ is a sentence as this slightly longer example: ‘Labradors, Golden retrievers, spaniels and beagles are all dogs who can be trained to retrieve the spoils of game hunting.’
Traditionally we have taught children rules about sentences:
· Sentences always contain a verb,
· It always starts with a capital letter and ends in a full stop, (or either ! ?)
· It ‘sounds’ complete or ‘finished’
There are problems with all these. “How about bacon and egg?” doesn’t have a verb does it? The complete or finished rule is rather vague, the answers ‘Manchester United,’ ‘Sometimes’ etc would be seen as fragments by many and not sentences.
So should we teach these rules? Yes, probably, but make sure that they can explain why certain sentences don’t fit into the pattern. Sometimes it will actually be for grammatical effect.
As teachers we need to make sure we use the technical language needed to explain this, for example Phrase, sentence and verb.
Perhaps the definition of a sentence is: A word string that includes one or more clauses which expresses a statement, question or exclamation. It may or may not include a verb but it usually will. We need to ensure that this is not just left to chance. Yes children do speak in sentences and use them often from the time they learn to speak coherently, however, we still need to point out exactly what they contain and how they can be formed in different ways.
We can’t expect that because sentences are the basic building blocks of writing, that they are taught early on and then forgotten about. This seems to happen in some schools. It seems to be expected that children can write sentences by Christmas in Y2 and those that can’t are labelled lazy and are punished accordingly. Perhaps they have not understood exactly what constitutes a sentence, perhaps they have not been taught it rigorously enough.
We need to ensure that we are teaching sentence construction from the point that we begin to teach children to write, but then don’t stop. Carry on! Keep on teaching them how to construct sentences effectively and accurately until they become masters of it.
I have included some activities that may help. Those which were contributed by members of the Literacy Shed Facebook community (www.facebook.com/litshed) or the followers of my twitter @redgierob have been credited accordingly.
Teaching activities and aids.
I have seen a golden punctuation pen used, for children who ‘forget’ where punctuation should go, they change to gold pens in order to remember with a physical prompt. This is similar to traffic light punctuation. Green capital letter to start and a red full stop to stop.
Alana Mead contributed the following ‘I teach that one sentence=one idea. Then when the comma splice, etc, I talk about "Is this a new idea?" etc. I then move on to show how two similar ideas can be joined with a connective instead of using a full stop. This has worked so far!’
Kyla Casey says An oldy but a goody...read something out and get them to listen for the short breaths (a comma) or longer breaths (a full stop) and clap on the full stops. Then get them to do it with each other’s work in pairs.
Deborah Jane recommends ‘Lots of practise at 'does this string of words make sense?' If so, give it a capital letter and full stop, if not then make it make sense then give it a capital and full stop. Perhaps use as a daily warm up till they get it?’
You can view the rest of the FACEBOOK THREAD here
@ThisisLiamM Go back to only writing simplest sentences. Each one on a new line. Subject, verb, full stop. Then build back up…
@kvnmcl I start in EYFS. The dog barks. Who is barking? What is it doing? Mixed up, barks dog the . rearrange to make a sentence.
@teacherstaples reminded us that it ‘Must be taught alongside reading too. Draw attentions to FS in reading. Exaggerated pauses at full stops when reading aloud helps too.
Hope blog proves useful, comments are welcome!
Apologies for grammatical and spelling errors!