Knowing how to start improving sentences can be the hardest part. There are different ways to form a sentence... so where do you begin?
Not all sentences can be structured in the same way or it will make for very boring reading. Some children do not find structuring better sentences easy at all. I always imagine it like a rhythm - and usually you either get the rhythm naturally or you have to learn its ins and outs.
It can really help to know word types to help in the quest for better sentences. In case you've forgotten or, like me, never had much emphasis on word types when you were at school, here are the main ones for making better sentences:
Adjective - describing word (blue, happy, dreadful, robust)
Adverb - ('ly' word - we say this because many of them end in 'ly') describes how something happened (beautifully, wonderfully, terribly, gently, drastically)
Verbs - doing words (These are in most boring sentences too, so the challenge is to change them to more specific, interesting ones) (vaulted, meandered, concluded, devoured, reclined)
For the younger ones:
Think of a sentence. It should be simple, here are some examples:
The boy walked.
The dog jumped.
The lady fell.
Let's use The boy walked. (This is not a writing exercise. It can be carried out verbally whilst on a walk, at the park, in the car, at the dinner table etc.)
Say something like: I've got a sentence in my head and I need to make it more interesting. Can you help? (When you first start doing the exercise - give clues to what kind of word should go where. Improve the sentence together using these steps. I always say the sentence and use the word 'something' where I want a word inserting.
1. The something boy walked. (If you need to, explain that 'something' is a word to describe the boy.) Hopefully, you'll get something brilliant, like - The smart boy walked. (They'll probably try to use 'fat' or something similar most of the time, so it's a good idea to suggest examples. I usually say, 'I've got some ideas - The thin boy, the intelligent boy, the scruffy boy - which should we use? You choose.)
2. Now you have the adjective, improve the sentence again (remember not to be the only one saying the sentence - as it gets longer, it will be hard to remember - and for many children, that is half of the battle). The smart boy walked something. In this step, you are adding extra information to the end of the sentence. Where did he walk? Hopefully, you'll get something like - The smart boy walked down the lane.
3. How did he walk? The smart boy walked somethingly down the lane. (Using the 'ly' on the end will point out the fact that you are looking for an adverb. Don't forget to suggest three or so ideas if they are struggling and have them choose one.) You could end up with something like - The smart boy walked sensibly down the lane.
4. Now it's time to change the boring verb. How do you imagine him walking? Slowly? Quickly? You could even demonstrate some walks (shuffling, strolling, meandering - if you feel so inclined). The smart boy strolled sensibly down the lane.
5. This is a good sentence and you could leave it there. As you progress, you could then extend and add extra detail. Why was the boy walking down the lane? Put the connective (and, so, but, because) at the end of the sentence for them to complete it. The smart boy strolled sensibly down the lane because... You should end up with something that makes sense - The smart boy strolled sensibly down the lane because he was meeting his friend at the park.
For the older ones:
The older children can try different kinds of sentences. You should still help them to edit them by using the words 'something' or 'somethingly', but it needs playing by ear a little more.
1. Try the suggestion for the younger ones.
2. Use an introductory word to start sentences. Think of an adverb that could be used to start a sentence. Let's use Eventually. The idea is to think of an extended sentence starting with that word. You may need to prompt for ideas for the rest of the sentence. Encourage your child to imagine a scenario in their head that the sentence will be based on. Don't be afraid to give them several options off the top of your head if they don't give you a quick answer. You might say, 'Where is the situation? A doctors surgery? The supermarket? A car park? The school gate?' Let them choose one. Imagine we've chosen the school gate. Who are the characters? Who is at the school gate? Is it a mum, dad, grandma? Who are they waiting for? The scenario I've chosen is a grandma at the school gate waiting for a boy. To start with, you might get a sentence like this, based on the scenario you have just agreed. Eventually, the boy came out to his grandma. This is where you will need to use the ideas above to help them edit the sentence. First of all, 'came out' doesn't sound very good and you should tell them. Is it possible to change it to an interesting verb? Choosing a specific word will help you shape the sentence and give the reader a better idea about what is happening. It can also give us clues about the feelings of the character. Eventually, the boy hobbled to his grandma. Now you can start with the basics from above.
Eventually, the boy hobbled dramatically to his grandma.
Eventually, the little boy hobbled dramatically to his grandma.
Eventually, the terrified, little boy hobbled dramatically to his grandma.
Eventually, the terrified, little boy hobbled dramatically to his grandma, who was waiting at the gate.
Eventually, the terrified, little boy, dragging his rucksack behind him, hobbled dramatically to his grandma, who was waiting at the gate.
3. Sentences with a drop-in clause - This is where we put extra information in the middle of the sentence. Think of a simple sentence. You could make it even more simple than this example and then add the other bits as before. The black cat slept on the rug. Now the task is to add the drop-in clause - called this because we 'drop' it in the middle of the sentence. The black cat, who was very lazy, slept on the rug. Go ahead and and extra detail to improve the sentence further as above. The words who, which and that are very important in this kind of sentence. Here are some more examples:
The abandoned house, which had stood on the hillside for over two hundred years, had a light flickering in the upper bedroom.
The old, tattered book, that had been sitting on the same shelf for many years, was suddenly thrust onto the floor by a strong gust of wind.
4. Using an introductory phrases to start sentences. This works in the same way as the introductory word, but instead of starting with an adverb, you start with a little phrase, like Late that morning or After a while or At last.
5. Play around with moving phrases around. Excitedly, James vaulted over the kitchen worktop to see the new, brown-eyed puppy that had just trotted into the room, not knowing that his mother was watching him.
James vaulted over the kitchen worktop excitedly, to see the new, brown-eyed puppy that had just trotted into the room, not knowing that his mother was watching him.
Not knowing that his mother was watching him, James vaulted over the kitchen worktop excitedly, to see the new, brown-eyed puppy that had just trotted into the room.
It's okay to give suggestions - otherwise you could feel like you're pulling teeth and it will be difficult for you both. To steer in the right direction, offer three or four suggestions and let them choose. This way, they will hopefully steal your ideas and offer them as their own next time around or in the future.
Make sure you are both verbal. You say it, they say it. One sentence could take 5-10 minutes but that's okay, you're taking your time to learn a craft.
Guidance is a big thing in this. They will come up with sentences that do not make perfect sense in their quest to construct better sentences. Try your best to go with their ideas and re-word them so that they do make sense. You are teaching them how to edit their own sentences and they are still learning the rhythm I mentioned earlier.
Stress the importance of editing. If you are writing the sentences down, children like to start doing it half way through - but at that stage, there may be so much more to add and you may even change the order of the words and phrases to make it fit. I ask my students to live by a few rules.
1. Think of the sentence.
2. Make it better.
3. Write it down.
Why not try our building a brilliant sentence resource? It takes you through each step in detail and can be repeated with different sentences as many times as you like. You can find it here.
Have a question? Could you share your experiences to help others? Please comment below.