This sponsored blog post was written by Geraldine Woods.
Take a sentence. Dig into it to discover nuances the author placed there. Deconstruct its syntax and diction to see how style emphasizes or undermines content. Use it to spackle over a crack in the school day.
Surprised by that last one? I’m no less lofty in my goals than any other English teacher. Like you, I want students to emerge from my class with strong reading and writing skills and a love of literature. But sometimes—maybe the last ten minutes of a rainy Friday or the first ten of a Monday morning—I want a lesson that doesn’t require much effort, something educational and achievable. To be specific, I want a lesson based on a single sentence, the smallest unit of expression that differentiates one writer’s style from another’s.
I discovered the power of sentence lessons by accident. Early in my career, I tossed big questions at the class. When students were reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, for example, I asked them to describe their ideal society. I thought I’d receive point/counterpoint analyses of the tension between individual rights and communal responsibility. Instead I got “everyone will be happy,” “no one will have homework,” and similar responses. So I narrowed my focus. My hope was that a question about a single sentence would ripple outward to larger themes. To my delight, it did.
Here’s an example of the sentence method, based on the first line of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
I point out the more common way to express the same idea: “A hobbit lived there in a hole in the ground.” Why change? Class discussion quickly reveals that Tolkien’s word order prioritizes location, which he further emphasizes with the word “there.”
If I want to extend the lesson, I ask students why setting matters; they immediately see that Tolkien has created a world and invited the reader into it. I may also pivot to a writing lesson, perhaps having students form a question and then change its word order, adding context to each version:
“When are you coming home?” she asked as she glanced at her calendar, making a note to see whether her sister would babysit if her business trip overlapped with his.
“You are coming home when?” she asked, her pen ready to inscribe the latest example of his thoughtlessness on her calendar. Did he think Mary Poppins was going to float in on an umbrella and take care of the kids?
I may base a lesson on a sentence from a work the class is reading or supply a one-off from another source. The lesson may focus on structure, as the Tolkien example does, or diction, sound, figurative language, length, and a host of other elements. Nor is the sentence method confined to literature. You can teach the value of simplicity with a line from a television show:
“Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.” (Friday Night Lights)
or the impact of a negative statement with a song lyric:
“Don’t ask questions you don’t wanna know.” (Billie Eilish’s “My Strange Addiction”)
or the role of sound via an advertisement:
“Click it or ticket.” (public service announcement about seat belts)
Poems, plays, news articles, political speeches, even internet memes—all are good sources for sentence-based reading and writing lessons.
To be clear, I am not recommending that sentence study replace the reading and writing of full-length works.
In a single sentence you can’t grasp the rhythm of a paragraph or a poem, nor can you see the arc of a plot or the logic of an argument. But I do suggest an occasional, in-depth examination of a single sentence, which may expand outward, if you like, to the entire text, to other works by the same author or on the same theme, or to interdisciplinary study.
You can also fashion a unit on sentences, presenting an array with the same element of style, drawn from multiple genres. That’s the beauty of this approach: endlessly adaptable in lesson length, reading level, and purpose, it builds better readers and writers, one sentence at a time.
Geraldine Woods has taught English at every level from fifth grade through Advanced Placement, most recently at the Horace Mann School. She is the author of numerous nonfiction books for adults and children, including Sentence: A Period-to-Period Guide to Building Better Readers and Writers and 25 Great Sentences. She is an NCTE member.
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.