My Favorite Grammar Hack

My last post was about how if we want grammar to stick, we need to do two things:

  1. Teach it in the context of student writing
  2. Approach it as a study of opportunities that enhance our writing, not errors we need to avoid

When it comes to doing this, I have found no tool more useful than the sentence. While on the surface the definition of a sentence is rather dull…

…in practice, sentences can be gorgeous laboratories of nearly infinite variety. They can be extended, cut down, puffed-up, moved around, mixed-and-matched, and generally treated like Playdough. And in the process one can teach nearly any grammatical rule and tool imaginable. Here are the top three ways that I use the humble sentence to help my students learn and learn to love grammar:

Purposeful run-ons and fragments

There was a point in my teaching career where I was tempted to tattoo the following on my forehead, just to make sure it stuck with the students:

Whether a sentence is a fragment or run-on is not about length!!!

I felt that no matter how often I said this, the students would inevitably identify the shortest sentences as fragments and the longest as run-ons.

I now understand that a big part of what was going on was that I made my study of run-ons and fragments all about rules. Rules that likely had minimal value to many students. I now approach run-ons and fragments in a different fashion–as tools that can be used to enhance their writing–by having students engage in their own purposeful run-ons and fragments. While seemingly heretical on the surface, when students create their own purposeful run-ons and fragments, they are actually engaging in something with a long and rich literary tradition. In fact, a great many intellectual giant types–Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison (thank you for all you brought to the world; rest in peace), David Foster Wallace, etc.–used purposeful fragments and run-ons with regularity and are widely celebrated for it.

My teaching of these purposeful run-ons and fragments is pretty simple. I show examples like the ones below, we discuss what run-ons/fragments are and how they might affect the readers, and then the students then practice and play by adding some to their own writing.

Favorite Run-On: “She said I’m tired of begging God to overthrow my son, because all this business of living in the presidential palace is like having the lights on all the time, sir, and she had said it with the same naturalness with which on one national holiday she had made her way through the guard of honor with a basket of empty bottles and reached the presidential limousine that was leading the parade of celebration in an uproar of ovations and martial music and storms of flowers and she shoved the basket through the window and shouted to her son that since you’ll be passing right by take advantage and return these bottles to the store on the corner, poor mother.” Gabriel García Márquez

Favorite Fragment: “Ticket-sellers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form. Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of insects. Grocery-clerks trying to make assignations with soapy servant girls.” -H.L. Mencken

Of course, not all writing calls for purposeful run-ons or fragments. I probably wouldn’t use them in a cover letter or on the SAT, and my students and I do have a conversation about when they are acceptable. But the little secret that I don’t tell my students when we play with purposeful fragments and run-ons is that after we lear how to commit them on purpose, I find the accidental occurrences of them nearly disappear in a way they never did when my run-on and fragment instruction came mostly in me repeating over and over that fragments and run-ons aren’t about length.

Accordion Write

When I did the Oregon Writing Project with Linda Christensen, I fell in love with what she calls an “accordion write.” This is where she has students take a paper or a section of a paper that they are working on and lengthen it dramatically (for example, take a one-pager and make it two), only to ask them the then cut it back down to size. It is such a great exercise for helping students learn all sorts of things, from how to generate additional detail and description to how to cut out the parts that aren’t working as well.

I love the accordion write and use it quite often, but I also regularly have students engage in accordion writes at the sentence level. I wrote about elements of this in an Edutopia post last year, but it is worth repeating, as getting students lengthening and shortening sentences is a wonderful way to teach them about the rhythm of language, voice, and all sorts of grammatical concepts–from dashes to commas to appositives.

Often times this takes the form of something like this:

  1. A student tosses the class a sentence from something they are writing: My friend and I went to the movies.
  2. We start adding details: My friend and I went to see the new Spiderman movie on the IMAX.
  3. And more details: My oldest, most consistent friend and I went to see the Spiderman matinee at the IMAX down the street from my house.
  4. Then we add in some grammatical moves, maybe an appositive and colon: Max, my oldest and most consistent friend, and I went to see the matinee at the IMAX down the street from my house, and we saw what is now my favorite movie of all-time: Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse.
  5. After playing with growing it, we might cut it down to the most important details: Last weekend, my oldest friend and I saw what became our all-time favorite movie: Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse.
  6. Finally, the students take these ideas and apply them to their own writing.

Sentence Mentorship

My final favorite way to have my students learn grammar through sentences is for them to learn from interrogating and imitating mentor sentences. For example, I might give students a sentence like this Dylan Thomas one…

It was an ugly, lovely town (or so it was, and is, to me), crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore where truant boys and sandfield boys and old men from nowhere, beachcombed, idled, and paddled, watched the dock-bound ships or the ships steaming away to wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions; threw stones into the sea for the barking, outcast dogs; made castles and forts and harbours and race tracks in the sand; and on Saturday summer afternoons listened to the brass band, watched the Punch and Judy, or hung about on the fringes of the crowd to hear the fierce religious speakers who shouted at the sea, as though it were wicked and wrong to roll in and out like that, whitehorsed and full of fishes.

-Dylan Thomas in Quite Early One Morning

…and then maybe have them examine why he uses the commas, semicolons, and clauses where he does. After we discuss his usage, I might then have the students try their hand at writing a description with the same punctuation, style, and structures.

Some fun next steps after that are for them to search their own choice books for mentor sentences that use specific grammar and structural elements in interesting ways or to take some element from the mentor sentence and apply it to their own writing.

The research around studying sentences is a bit murky. Some research points to it being a game-changing tool, while other research points to it having limited effectiveness. I actually think both are right. I have found that when sentences are studied in sporadic bursts and detached from student writing (as I used to do it), studying them indeed has little effect. But when that study follows three simple guidelines, it can be one of the most impactful tools we have:

  1. Sentences need to be studied on a regular basis (we play with them at least once a week), with lessons learned regularly revisited.
  2. The sentences should nearly always be drawn from/connect to what the class is reading or writing.
  3. After examining the sentences, students need a chance to play with what they’ve learned in their own writing. This helps them to learn it better and see the value of the lesson.

Since I started following those three guidelines, sentence studies have lived up to the positive research and become, for both me and my students, one of the most effective, efficient, and fun grammar and rhetoric teaching tools I know of!

Thanks as always for reading.

Yours in teaching,


Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and get a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on how to give feedback faster and better.

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