Writing Complete Sentences: Helping Students with Incomplete Sentence Structure

Are your students stuck in their writing with basic sentence structure? Address this common grammar error with a variety of tools for fixing run ons, comma splices, and fragments. #WritingLesson #GrammarError

Are your students struggling with writing completing sentences? In this post, I share ideas for supporting young writers.

I truly believe that students possess good ideas. They might not know exactly what they want to say, and sometimes (like all of us) struggle to find the best words.

I never want sentence structure to stump them, though. When I say “sentence structure,” I am normally referencing simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences. Before students can work on those structures, you might need to scaffold back to complete sentences. In this blog post, I’ll use “sentence structure” to reference complete sentences.

If incomplete sentences creep into student writing, I always take a break and work with students. Complete sentences are the foundation of writing. Some of my approaches for helping students in writing complete sentences are below.

Are your students stuck in their writing with basic sentence structure? Address this common grammar error with a variety of tools for fixing run ons, comma splices, and fragments. #WritingLesson #GrammarError

Manipulating sentences

Break sentences down and work on the basics: subjects and verbs. Grab some sticky notes and ask students (or prep beforehand) to label nouns and verbs. Sometimes, I will color code, like using green notes for verbs.

Then, manipulate the sentences. You can do this digitally and drag boxes on a smart board. You can also move the sticky notes on a whiteboard and add direct objects or prepositional phrases. My favorite involves a bit more setup: adding words to blocks and literally building sentences.

Silly sentences work best, but any group of subjects and verbs will work! Manipulate sentences as a refresher for what complete sentences are.

Pull sentences from student work

As a class, correct the sentences together. I pull sentences from student papers. I never show student names and I never choose something too revealing. I copy and paste the incomplete sentences into a Google Slide, and we work through them together. The amount of scaffolding differs for each class.

Sometimes, students are fine to correct the errors. Other times, we must discuss why the sentences are not complete. Other grammar lessons naturally come into play (commas, semicolons, phrases).

Underling each subject and verb

This activity works with individual students. I resort to this when students are frustrated or are not seeing results another way. Ask students to highlight (digitally or with paper) the subject and verb of each sentence. Students should understand that each sentence must have at least one subject and verb for each sentence.

Next is where time comes in: conference with students who are not finding their subjects and verbs. Students might have the components but not be able to find them. Students might not have subjects and verbs. Detailed and thorough conferences help in this situation. Once students get the “subject-verb” pattern, they will naturally add other components.

Targeted practice

Sometimes, students might not realize what complete sentence look like compared to incomplete sentences. Provide direct instruction and then apply those lessons to their writing. What I find helpful is to place side-by-side a completed worksheet and their writing with highlighted problems. Once students rework the sentences on the worksheet, they can then fix their writing.

I want worksheets to matter, and that often means that I give very specific directions:

  • If you have two subjects and verbs with no punctuation, you have a run on and need to add a conjunction and comma or conjunctive adverb (semicolon and comma).
  • If you have two sentences joined by a comma, you have a comma splice. A comma is not strong enough to join two sentences.
  • A fragment won’t make sense. It might be part of a thought, like a phrase. It might be a dependent clause. It must make sense standing alone.

Don’t simply hand students a worksheet, but reference the material and apply it to their writing.

As a final review, students can show their understanding with a self-grading assessment.

Writing together

Ask students to give you a topic so that you can write sentences for them. (If they can’t think of a topic, write about your dog, which is what I do.) Articulate the differences for students. For instance:

  • Augie, a beagle, sleeps in my bed at night. (complete sentence with an appositive phrase)
  • Augie is a beagle, he sleeps in my bed at night. (comma splice)
  • Augie the beagle. (fragment)
  • Augie is a snuggly boy he is adorable. (run on)

(I often use sentences about my life to build relationships, but doing so enables me to control what information I share.) I have found that keeping the material similar helps students articulate what is different between the sentence structure.

Then, review and correct those sentences. Students might be able to recognize an incomplete sentence, but do they have tools to fix it? That’s where the beauty of a foundation of grammar helps: students get to decide how they manipulate each sentence.

I never find the struggle with young writers to be ideas. Students possess interesting ideas, and we normally talk through any dead ends. Where students struggle is with complete sentences and basic sentence structure. Sure, grammar rules are meant to be broken, but first, students must understand the rules. This is never more true than with writing complete sentences.

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