No matter what you call them—grammar mentor sentences, practice sentences, master sentences—using sentences from literature is a powerful tool. Using mentor sentences to teach grammar is an engaging practice.
The majority of my time as a student, I found grammar boring. The assignments held little meaning to me. I completed them and forgot them.
I think my desire to teach my students grammar in a non-boring fashion drove me to create grammar mentor sentences: taking grammar from literature. My third year of teaching, I began pulling sentences from Night to analyze. I found this to be a natural approach to grammar. Studying sentences from novels, plays, nonfiction, and everyday dialogue was fun.
Using mentor sentences allows students to be invested in grammar because they will be looking at words they’ve already read, and hopefully this gives students a connection.
Students will understand that what they read is what they study in grammar. Plus, this is the suggestion from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).
NCTE includes this idea in their Guidelines about Grammar:
People associate grammar with errors and correctness. But knowing about grammar also helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise. Grammar can be part of literature discussions, when we and our students closely read the sentences in poetry and stories. And knowing about grammar means finding out that all languages and all dialects follow grammatical patterns.
For years I’ve approached grammar from the viewpoint that it is more than practice and review; it is a part of what students normally do in their English classes. (To get to that point, we often have to do practice and review, but I always let students know we are working toward this goal.) Using mentor sentences to teach grammar emphasizes the idea that grammar and language have many levels.
Students appreciate studying grammar and language from what they are already studying.
What are mentor sentences from grammar?
How could you implement mentor sentences in your class? How can you practice grammar in the context of the literature you read? Hopefully, teachers can personalize the idea for all of their classes and for students’ needs. Here are ideas though:
- Sometimes the grammar mentor sentences practice comes in the form of sentences chosen ahead of time from literature. Choose the sentences, present them to the class, and study a specific grammatical concept, such as different types of conjunctions.
- Choose specific words. Looking at published authors’ words shows students that a knowledge of grammar enhances their writing. Writing and speaking with a knowledge of language makes them powerful.
- Ask students to choose sentences! Give them the power. Have students choose a sentence and deconstruct it (look at parts of speech, parts of a sentence, types of sentences, etc.), OR have students choose a sentence knowing in advance the grammar tool they will be analyzing.
Of course, this requires a piece of writing and maybe pencil and paper. If you are wanting organizers specific to grammar mentor sentences, I have a free set ready for you. That set works well for identifying grammatical parts of sentences.
Questions to ask.
Overall, I created a process for looking at sentences from a grammatical standpoint with students. I included the questions below, along with example from The Great Gatsby.
I complete these questions with students to set the expectations for language analysis.
Look at the sentence:
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
It’s a quote that the narrator (Nick) is recalling.
Deconstruct it: (Find grammatical concepts, as well as literary terms used).
This sentence has three dependent clauses, and one independent clause. It has phrases too. It is a longer sentence and a complex sentence.
It is also a quote, so it speaks naturally, as a person would talk to a relative.
Find the message. (It helps to look at the sentence in the context of the book.)
The sentence’s message is fatherly advice. Nick’s father tells him that he has advantages, and that other people may behave a certain way because they lacked advantages.
Tie the meaning to the language.
The sentence construction matches the message. It is a deep message, one that can be applied to numerous aspects of life. Each dependent clause provides emphasis, and the information builds as the sentence continues.
Tie vocabulary or other language concepts to the discussion. Do certain words have a strong connotation? What is the effect of the author using a string of adjectives? The more you discuss language with students, the more grammar will make sense to them.
Where do I find sentences?
You can use sentences from the literature you are reading. I have pulled sentences from literature and asked students to analyze them. Another method is to ask students to pull the sentences after you give them a grammar topic, like parallelism or complex sentences.
I also ask students to explore young adult literature with a one-pager. Students explore adjectives, but they also interact with an assortment of books.
Another option is to use an online book from the public domain. I use Little Women because many of my students are familiar with that story and after looking at the sentences, students read (or reread) the book.
Basically, I have not found a poor choice for mentor sentences from literature. If you are nervous that students will choose sentences that you’re uncomfortable analyzing, choose them ahead of time. Students will understand their reading in new ways from these grammatical discussions.
Students still need a basic knowledge of grammatical terms and their definitions. Students may need practice identifying and recognizing word patterns, sentences, and locations. Hopefully, the practice of using mentor sentences in addition to basic understanding involves students. Higher order thinking skills can especially work with mentor sentences.
As I teach books numerous times, I add to the my grammar mentor collections. Many of my bundles contain too many activities for realistically teaching to one class. This perfectly allows teacher to adjust to students’ needs.
As grammar has returned to the classroom, teachers have a unique opportunity to show students that grammar is not boring, that grammar needn’t be feared. Mentor sentences can help teachers accomplish that; they can show students that when they read, they are naturally studying grammar. Using mentor sentences to teach grammar will increase student understanding and engagement.