Help primary school students learn to write with sentence-combining practice

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Sentence-combining requires students to combine multiple sentences into a single – usually more complex – sentence. There’s good evidence that doing it improves students’ writing skills at sentence and text levels.

Why it matters

One of the main reasons students go to primary school is to learn to write. If you can’t put your ideas into complex sentences, you’ll have big problems in high school and beyond. Not being able to write can have big, negative effects on students’ learning and earning outcomes. If you can’t write, it’s hard to do well at school or in further education; to get and hold a good job – or even to write a job application.  

Tell me more   

  • Curricula in many countries (including Australia and England) and many standardised tests (e.g. NAPLAN) require teachers to teach students traditional grammar. This usually includes a strong focus on the names of the different parts of a sentence (like subject and object), and different types of words (like articles, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions). 
  • Teaching grammar the traditional way seems like a good idea – and it can be useful for doing well in grammar tests and NAPLAN. But there’s no robust evidence that this kind of teaching actually improves students’ writing skills (e.g. Wyse, 2001, and Andrews et al., 2004). 
  • On the other hand, there’s good quality, peer-reviewed evidence that sentence combining practice can help primary students to improve their writing (e.g. Koster, et al., 2015, and Graham et al., 2012).  

What does this all mean? 

Consider this example: 

Combine these two sentences:

  • The boy was hungry. 
  • The boy ate a hotdog. 

As an adult, I can think of many ways to combine these sentences, including:

  • The boy was hungry so he ate a hotdog. 
  • The boy ate a hotdog, for he was hungry. 
  • The boy ate a hotdog because he was hungry. 
  • The boy was hungry until he ate a hotdog.

In all four examples, I combined two simple sentences to:

  • make a single, more interesting sentence with two ideas; and
  • express a cause-effect relationship – a skill that’s very useful across the curriculum. 

So how should we teach sentence-combining?

We have two main options:

First, we could use up precious teaching and therapy time to tell the student that:

  • in the first two examples, we’ve taken two simple sentences (a subject verb complement sentence structure composed of a definite article, noun, copula verb and adjective; and a subject verb object sentence composed of a definite article, noun, indefinite article, and another noun) and made a single compound sentence with a conjoining conjunction (“so” and ”for”); and
  • in the last two examples, we’ve made a complex sentence with the subordinating conjunctions (“because” and “until”).

This approach would require us to motivate and focus students on developing their meta-linguistic knowledge about grammatical terms, rules and structures – something researchers have concluded does not improve writing (e.g. Troia, 2014; Wyse, 2022). 

Or we could just do lots of actual sentence combining practice, with examples, models and scaffolds to help students combine sentences until they can do it for themselves. 

The weight of current evidence tells us that this second option is the way if we want to improve primary students’ writing.

Check out our new no-prep resource – Compound Sentence Combining Workouts – designed to help students understand and write compound sentences using the FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) conjoining conjunctions:

Inspiration: @TheReadingApe’s excellent Twitter Thread 02.05.2023:

Key source:  Wyse, D., Anders, J., Aarts, B., & Dockrell, J. (2022). Grammar and Writing in England’s National Curriculum: A Randomised Controlled Trial and Implementation and Process Evaluation of Englicious. Link.

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Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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