Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Discovering Strategies for Strong Sentence Fluency

I love using mentor texts in my writing mini-lessons. When we're working on the trait of sentence fluency, using some excerpts from our favorite read-alouds can be just the vehicle we need to dig into what makes a writer's sentence fluency really strong.   

Just recently, I used an excerpt from Shiloh and one from Charlotte's Web. (Copying small excerpts from a text to use within your classroom of students is widely thought of as falling into the "fair use" guidelines of using copyrighted work.) I gave a copy to each student, and after reading them out loud, I asked students to underline the first word in each sentence.

Underlining the first words got students ready to begin analyzing each sentence using the chart you see below.

(Click on the chart for a free clean copy.)

In the chart, students recorded the first word of each sentence, as well as how many words each sentence contained.

Then we used our charts to try to draw some conclusions about strong sentence fluency.  First we looked at the "first words." We noticed that most sentences began differently. In both passages, there were a couple of sentences that began the same, which was frankly, a bit of a relief to many students when they thought about their own writing. But for the most part, it seemed like the authors tried to vary how they began their sentences.

Second, we looked at the length of sentences. The number of words in each sentence differed greatly, that's for sure. But we took it a step further here. We decided to categorize sentences into three groups: short (1-7 words), medium (8-14 words), and long (15+ words). After coding our sentences as short, medium, or long, we could really see just how varied these authors' sentence lengths were. Many students assumed that strong sentence fluency means you need to have all long sentences, so it surprised them to see that both excerpts included short sentences.

For this lesson, my students came to two main conclusions about strengthening sentence fluency: use a mix of sentence beginnings, and use a mix of sentence lengths. By using the chart and having similar sentence "data" to look at, they were able to begin to see patterns and connections between the texts as well as between the sentences within the texts.

Depending on the grade level, a chart like this can lead to more in-depth discoveries and discussions, too. For example, what kinds of words do authors tend to begin with?... proper nouns? pronouns? adjectives? And why might an author use the same word to begin several sentences in a row, because that does happen every now and then? I also like to delve deeper into those very short sentences, and help students discover how sometimes the shortest sentences are the most powerful sentences.

Once students discover some of these sentence fluency strategies from mentor texts, they can start to analyze some of their own writing! It always amazes me how reflective students can be with their own writing when they have a tool, like the sentence fluency chart, that guides them.

If you're looking for some fantastic examples of sentence fluency, I encourage you to first look at stories, especially novels, that you love to read aloud to your students. These texts most likely have really strong sentence fluency; that's one reason why they lend themselves so nicely to a read aloud. Some of my favorite authors to use are: Gary Paulsen (try an excerpt from Hatchet), Kate DiCamillo (try an excerpt from The Tale of Despereaux), and Jerry Spinelli (try an excerpt from Loser).



  1. Love this - going to use it with 3rd graders! I always challenge my students to go beyond the obvious beginnings. Also, it's a fact in our classroom that if your face only gets 2 "eyes," your paragraph probably doesn't need more than 2 "I" sentences.
    Thank you!

    1. Ha! That's a great little saying! I'm going to have to start using that one!

  2. What a fantastic post! Using a chart like this so students can see their sentence "data" is just genius. We will be focusing on sentence fluency this quarter (I like to use Owl Moon as one of my mentor texts) with my second graders and I am already imagining the good rich discussions this little tool will help us to have!

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

    1. Thanks so much Linda! Oh my, Owl Moon is one of those books you can use for so many things--love it.