Finding the Happy Medium: Teaching students to use variety in sentence length

As a content creator, I was long overdue to provide some materials for writing practice. This morning I posted the first of a new series of lessons on EnglishCafe. Improve Your Writing: Lesson 1 focuses on sentence length. The goal is to raise students’ awareness of the need for variety. Too many short sentences make a composition choppy. Too many long sentences become too much to digest. By showing two models of weaker writing, a third model with a variety in sentence length clearly illustrates a better flow.

How could students focus on this aspect of their own writing? Try the following activity.

Step 1 – Have students write a set of 8-10 sentences about an object they once lost. Instead of being written in paragraph form, each sentence should be written on a new line. Also, the sentences are to be simple and short. Provide a model:

  • I once had a lucky coin.
  • My grandfather gave me this coin.
  • It was old.
  • Maybe it wasn’t very valuable.
  • It was special to me.
  • I always carried it with me.
  • I lost it when I went camping one year.
  • I was 13.
  • I tried not to cry.
  • I was so sad.

Step 2 – Have students exchange papers. They must then put the author’s sentences in paragraph form and decide which ones to combine, and which to leave short. Small changes, such as making a noun a pronoun, are allowed. You might choose to work with one model as a whole class before this stage of solo writing/ revising. A possible model based on the list of sentences from Step 1 is given below.

     I once had a lucky coin that my grandfather gave me.  It was old. Maybe it wasn’t very valuable, but it was special to me. I always carried it with me.  When I was 13, I lost it when I went camping. I tried not to cry, but I was so sad.

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