Teaching Sentence Variety

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This web page discusses how to teach sentence variety to students in a laboratory or design course. Sentence variety is important, particularly in longer documents, for a couple of reasons. One is that a lack of sentence variety will exhaust the audience and prevent the audience from finishing the document. For instance, many beginning writers rely on a subject-verb opener, which quickly becomes tiresome in a ten-page document. Another reason that sentence variety is important is that the more variety a writer has, the better equipped he or she is to make transitions between one sentence and a next. If a writer has only the subject-verb opener in his or her arsenal, then he or she is handicapped to make transitions between sentences when something other than the subject links the two sentences.

The method discussed here to teach sentence variety focuses on having the students learn and practice different ways to begin sentences. To begin this discussion in class, the teacher reveals a long paragraph in which the sentences begin the same way (for example, see page 129 in The Craft of Scientific Writing). Then the teacher asks the students to name other types of openers. With prodding and perhaps a couple of hints, the students will come up with several: prepositional phrase, adverb, dependent clause, infinitive phrase, participial phrase, verb-subject (question), appositive, gerundial phrase, introductory series, and so forth (a discussion of these with examples appears on pages 130-135 in The Craft of Scientific Writing). As students identify the different types of openers and provide examples, the teacher reveals those openers and examples on a visual such as #17 in the Language Visuals at this site (note that post-it strips work well to hide different openers). Many students can identify examples, but do not know the names of those openers. Others can think of names (for some reason, gerund is frequently named), but cannot state an example. After the students have identified all that they can, the teacher then reveals the entire list.

An interactive exercise that works well even in a large lecture is to have the students then pair up and write a long paragraph in which they vary the sentence openers. Students receive one point for each different opener that they use--a constraint, though, is that the sentences have to connect in a logical fashion. To help the students write quickly, the teacher should toss out an easy topic such as visiting a zoo or swimming across a lake. After ten minutes or so, the teacher calls time and asks one pair of students to read their paragraph out loud. After each sentence, the teacher calls on the entire class to name the type of sentence opener. The teacher tallies the paragraph's score (no point for a repeated opener). Then, once the students have a feel for the scoring, the teacher has the pairs exchange and score papers. The pairs with the highest scores are announced, and the winning paragraphs are posted or emailed for the entire class to read. The time for the discussion and exercise is about 30 minutes.

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