Participial Phrases and the Goldilocks Effect


Explaining participial phrases, it is exhausting. The problem with the sentence I just wrote is that I needed a gerund phrase, but I got confused. This is a common occurrence when students are first introduced to participial phrases.

When students are asked to complete sentence stems such as Learning to drive,…/Seeing my family,…/Living in the city,…, that “it” often appears when it shouldn’t.

The difference between gerunds and participials may be obvious to native speakers, who understand that gerunds function as nouns and participial phrases as modifiers. In contrast, students need help making that distinction.

The following recognition activity is designed to help students to see that the participial phrase is separate from the subject. In the follow up, they use sentence stems to write guided sentences that ensure that what they produce will be correct.

Read the sentences. Underline the participial phrase or the gerund phrase at the beginning of the sentence. Then write G for a gerund subject or P for a participial phrase.

_____ 1. Writing an essay is not as exciting as I thought it would be.
_____ 2. Crying for an hour, the boy went to sleep.
_____ 3. Walking to the park, I saw my friend.
_____ 4. Cooking at home is the best way to save money.
_____ 5. Jumping up and down, the children were excited to play.
_____ 6. Being on vacation has made me not want to go back to work.

Next, they can use stems to create sentences that are related to a specific writing assignment, such as a narrative. Adding the subject to the stem improves accuracy, as the student examples on the right illustrate:

Complete the sentences in your own words. Think about which participial phrases you could use for your narrative essay.

  1. Looking up at the night sky, I….
Looking up at the night sky, I saw stars.
  1. Waiting for my friends, I…
Waiting for my friends, I listened to music.
  1. Driving in Houston, we…
Driving in Houston, we were nervous.
  1. Staring at the man, the angry dog…
Staring at the man, the angry dog showed his teeth.
  1. Walking cautiously, the little boy…
Walking cautiously, the little boy crossed the river.  

It seems that when it comes to using sentence stems to teach grammar, there is a Goldilocks effect. Too much scaffolding doesn’t allow students to express their own ideas. Too little can result in errors. The stems work when they give students just the right amount, handing off meaning to students at a point when they are clear about what is to come next.

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