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Looking for Quality
in Student Writing

Learning to See the Things Kids Can Do So  We Can
Teach Them to Do the Things They Can't

by Steve Peha

Smooth and Expressive Sentence Fluency

Sometimes ya just gotta go with the flow — at least that's the situation most readers find themselves in.

When we write, we write in sentences. Beginning with a capital letter, we wind our way over words and phrases until we’ve expressed a complete thought, and then we mark the endpoint with a period, question mark, or exclamation mark.

Readers read the same way: they follow the shape of each sentence from beginning to end trying to understand the single complete thought the writer is expressing. In order for readers to do that, your writing needs to flow smoothly from word to word, phrase to phrase, and sentence to sentence. The term “sentence fluency” refers to the way individual words and phrases sound together within a sentence, and how groups of sentences sound when read one after the other.

Variety in Sentence Beginnings

We can’t start every sentence the same way. We can’t expect people to read our writing if we do. We can’t keep using the same words over and over at the beginning. We can’t do this because it drives readers crazy! It also makes the writing hard to understand. Why? Because readers start paying more attention to the repetition of the sounds than they do to the meaning of the words.

In Chores, the writer does a pretty good job of varying the beginnings of her sentences. Almost every sentence begins differently than the one before it.


    Chores! Chores! Chores! Chores are boring! Scrubbing toilets, cleaning sinks, and washing bathtubs take up a lot of my time and are not fun at all.
    Toilets! When you’re scrubbing toilets make sure they are not stinky. I’ve scrubbed one before and I was lucky it didn’t stink. I think toilets are one of the hardest things to scrub in the bathroom because it is hard to get up around the rim.
    Sinks are one of the easiest things to clean in the bathroom because they have no rims and they are small. I have cleaned one before and it was pretty easy.
    Bathtubs, ever washed one? They are big, they are deep, and it is hard to get up around the sides. The bathtub is the hardest, I think, to wash in the bathroom.
    All chores are boring, especially making my bed. Cleaning my room is OK because I have to organize, and I like organizing. Dusting is the worst: dust, set down, pick up, dust, set down. There are so many things to dust, and it’s no fun.
    Chores aren’t the worst but they’re definitely not the best!

Variety in Sentence Length and Structure

Just as using sentences with different beginnings helps make your writing easier to read and understand, using sentences of different lengths and different structures helps, too.

Take a look at the fourth paragraph of Chores: “Bathtubs, ever washed one? They are big, they are deep, and it is hard to get up around the sides. The bathtub is the hardest, I think, to wash in the bathroom.” The first sentence is short. It consists of two tiny parts separated by a comma. The second sentence is longer and is made of three parts that add to the meaning one right after another like a list. The last sentence has three parts, too, but it is constructed differently than the previous sentence because the second part interrupts the first and third parts instead of adding to them; to me, it sounds like a one-part sentence with a break in the middle. So, the writer varies the lengths of her sentences by starting with a short one and finishing with two longer ones. And she uses three different sentence constructions. That’s good sentence fluency.

You can measure the length of a sentence simply by counting the words. Short sentences in student writing tend to have 3-6 words in them. The average sentence has approximately 8-15 words. Long sentences may be as long as 20 words or more. Most of the sentences in Chores are of average length for this age of writer, but occasionally we find a long or a short one, and this is what makes it work.

You can analyze the structure of a sentence by looking at how many parts it contains and what kinds of parts those are (more on this below). Most of the sentences in Chores have two parts but here and there you’ll find a sentence with one part or three. As with sentence length, the writer doesn’t vary her sentence structures very much, but it's just enough to get the job done.

Easy to Read Expressively; Sounds Great When Read Aloud

To understand and enjoy your writing, people need to read it expressively. Expressive reading involves reading a text with the appropriate changes in pitch, rhythm, volume, and tone that we hear in normal speech. Good readers do this because it improves their comprehension. Reading expressively is also fun because it adds to the feelings we have about the text. When writing flows smoothly from word to word, phrase to phrase, and sentence to sentence, we can easily match our expression to the writer’s meaning. This is very satisfying because it makes us feel like we’re understanding things well.

When I read Chores, I find it fairly easy to read expressively. The sentences are relatively smooth and simple, and as I read I feel that I have no problem matching my expression to the writer’s feelings which come through loud and clear.

Rhythm, Rhyme, Alliteration, and Other “Sound” Effects

In certain situations, sequences of similar speech sounds sometimes surprise us. Depending on how you count them, the English language has 40+ sounds, and you can’t help noticing at times how writers put them together in interesting and unusual ways. In the first sentence of this paragraph, I’m using two techniques: (1) Alliteration. This is when several words in a sentence begin with the same sound. (2) Consonance. This involves using the same consonant sound in several words, often at the ends. Used sparingly, these kinds of “sound” effects make writing fun to read. But don’t overdo it — like I did in the first sentence. Sentences with similar sounding words can be hard to understand.

Chores doesn’t really take advantage of any specific sound effects. However, the writer doesn’t make any mistakes in this category either. These types of effects are used quite sparingly in most prose writing. They come up more frequently in poetry and song.

Sentences are Structured so They’re Easy to Understand

One of the interesting properties of sentences in most languages is that their parts can often be rearranged without their meaning being changed. In most languages, one of the interesting properties of sentences is that they can often be rearranged without changing their meaning. Without changing their meaning, sentences, in most languages, can often be rearranged — an interesting property. I’ve just said the same thing three times, three different ways; the only difference was the sentence structure. You can tell that the first and second sentences have a fairly simple structure. The third sentence is especially complicated and, therefore, harder to understand. It’s fine to have long, complex sentences. But they must be structured in ways that make them easy for the reader to deal with.

As I’ve noted before, the sentences in Chores are fairly simple and that makes them easy to understand. If this piece were significantly longer, the simple constructions the writer uses might become tiresome. But in a very short essay, they are not.

A Short Note on Sentence Structure

Sentence structure is incredibly important. But it’s also incredibly hard to understand and analyze. Most of us don’t think about the structure of our sentences when we speak and write; we construct them unconsciously. But if we want to improve our sentence structure and learn from other writers, we have to become conscious of how sentences are put together. Unfortunately, the traditional pedagogy of sentential analysis is fraught with arcane terminology, abstruse constructs, and preternatural techniques. In other words, it’s about as easy to understand as that last sentence.

So, to make it possible for everyone to study sentence structure, I came up with an easy way of describing sentences. This is not an “official” approach; it's just something I made up. But I have found that it is simple enough that it works for just about anyone. (It’s especially good for people like me who never understood traditional grammar in school and still don’t!)

These are the rules of Mr. Peha’s Stunningly Simple Sentence Structure System: (1) Sentences are made of parts. (2) Those can parts have names. (3) We can describe the structure of a sentence by describing the number and types of parts it contains, and the order in which those parts occur.

Take a look at this sentence: “On a bitter cold winter morning, Malcolm Maxwell, a young man of simple means but good intentions, left the quiet country town in which he’d been raised, and set off on the bold errand he’d been preparing for all his life.”

You can see that it is made up of several different parts. There are four kinds of sentence parts to watch for:

(1) Main Parts. These parts usually contain the main action of the sentence: “Malcolm Maxwell,… left the quiet country town in which he’d been raised,….”

(2) Lead-In Parts. These parts lead into other parts, often main parts: “On a bitter cold winter morning,…”

(3) In-Between Parts. As the name implies, these parts go in between other parts. They feel like a slight interruption: “…a young man of simple means but good intentions,…”

(4) Add-On Parts. These are extra parts that convey additional information about any of the other parts and are usually used to make things more specific: “…and set off on the bold errand he’d been preparing for all his life.”

We could describe the structure of this sentence like this:

Part 1 On a bitter cold winter morning, Lead-In
Part 2 Malcolm Maxwell, Main
Part 3 a young man of simple means but good intentions, In-Between
Part 4 left the quiet country town in which he’d been raised, Main
Part 5 and set off on the bold errand he’d been preparing for all his life. Add-On

Or, more efficiently: Lead-In, Main, In-Between, Main, Add-On.

And that’s all there is to it! (Well, actually there is more to it. But we’ll cover that another time.)

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