Sentence Expanding: Helping Students Build Stronger Sentences

Cat stretching

Students can really stretch out their sentences by adding detail (Where? When? How? Why?) to simple sentences through the process of sentence expanding.

By:  

Posted on: April 25, 2017

As an elementary school student, I vividly remember learning to diagram sentences. I remember marking up all the verbs, nouns, prepositional phrases and thinking to myself, “How will this help me be a better writer?” I never completely connected the dots because this activity was just that—an activity, a test of my skills of identifying sentence structure that I would never apply to my own writing. It did not make me a stronger writer. In fact, it made me dread the task of writing. If my teachers had modeled how to incorporate ideas and details into writing, using real writing instead of the drill-and-kill approach, I would have been much more motivated and engaged to try it on my own.

As a literacy consultant and teacher educator, I have visited many classrooms over the years to watch both pre-service and in-service teachers. After observing and talking with teachers about ways to teach writing, the questions that continue to come up are:

  • How do I develop my students into writers who expand on their ideas and develop strong sentences their readers will devour?
  • What does it look like in the classroom to have students write grammatically correct sentences that paint a clear picture for the reader?

For many teachers, moving away from the drill-and-kill approach means leaving behind isolated grammar instruction with worksheets and, instead, pushing students to use their own original writing to make simple sentences more complex and interesting. However, teachers need to provide explicit instruction for their students, demonstrating how sentence construction and mechanics interact to form strong sentences. This can and should start early for students.

Constructing Clear and Meaningful Sentences

In the primary grades, young writers are learning what a sentence is and how capitalization and punctuation help readers understand the sentence. This knowledge will allow students to apply simple sentence construction skills to their own writing. As students become more familiar with simple sentence construction, teachers can begin to teach students to identify areas where they can expand their sentence by adding details that can paint a vivid picture for the reader. Using a variety of sentence types and sources, teachers first model how to identify well-written, elaborated sentences during reading and then demonstrate how to add similar kinds of elaboration to sentences during a shared writing time with students.

In the intermediate grades, teachers can devote more time to sentence-construction skills using a variety of sentence types and sources. For example, the books students are reading in the classroom, school newsletters, newspaper or magazine articles, and the students’ own writing can all be used to demonstrate sentence expanding and ways students can incorporate it into their own writing. For example, the teacher could take a few simple sentences from a common book the students are reading to demonstrate how to expand them for the reader. She also could take the class newsletter and demonstrate through a think aloud how to take a classroom moment and create a clear and memorable picture in the minds of the reader by adding explanatory details.

At all grades, teachers can help students develop strong sentence-construction skills by modeling how to expand and refine their writing throughout the writing process. Below are a few simple steps teachers can take to incorporate sentence expanding into their writing instruction.

Step 1: Identify What is Included in a Simple Sentence

Help students realize that a simple sentence includes one subject-verb combination, correct capitalization, and punctuation. The subject describes who or what the sentence is about, and the verb describes the action. The following is an example of a simple sentence:

“The dog ran.”

Step 2: Expand the Sentence

Once you have identified a simple sentence, help students understand that we can add details by answering the following questions:

  • Where?
  • When?
  • How?
  • Why?

From the example sentence above, we know the subject is the dog and the verb is "ran," but we are missing details that can provide a better understanding for our readers about the dog. Where was the dog? When and how did it run? Why was the dog running? These are questions you can ask students to elicit ideas and phrases that could be incorporated into your simple sentence to expand or stretch it into a more complex and detailed one.

Step 3: Practice Writing Expanded Sentences

After teaching students what you should include in a more complex and detailed sentence, they can practice revising their own work, or practice revising simple sentences from meaningful writing examples (see sample lesson plans below). Remember, you don’t want your students to spend all of their time on a worksheet. The goal is to help them develop the skill and apply it to their own writing so they can develop into effective writers.

Time spent daily on writing instruction that encourages students to ponder what their sentences are saying to the reader and how to stretch them out to paint a clear picture can be very valuable. Teachers and students alike will move from task writing to more fulfilling and enjoyable writing when they put these simple steps into place.

Sample Lesson Plans

Now that you are familiar with instructional methods and ways to practice sentence expanding, you may wish to utilize the following sample lesson plans with your class, or review them to get a better sense of how to implement these instructional strategies in the classroom.

PDF iconSentence Expanding Elementary School Example Lesson Plan Contains a lesson plan that reviews simple sentences, offers guided practice expanding simple sentences by answering four key questions, suggests a practice activity for expanding sentences with a partner, scaffolds students’ work with a checklist containing the steps of expanding sentences, and provides information on assessment. The lesson plan also includes a downloadable sentence expanding notes page, words and phrases bank, and practice page.

PDF iconSentence Expanding Middle School Example Lesson Plan Contains lesson plan that reviews simple sentences, offers guided practice expanding simple sentences by answering four key questions, suggests a practicing activity for expanding sentences with a partner, scaffolds students’ work with a checklist containing the steps of expanding sentences, and provides information on assessment including a rubric to assess student work. The lesson plan also includes a downloadable sentence expanding notes page, words and phrases bank, and practice page.


Grade: 
Skills: 
Core Standard: