Grammar Across the Sentence

As language teachers, we often have our students write sentences to practice the grammar they are learning.  This is a sound approach, as it can help students to both internalize the structure and use it to express their own ideas.

Unfortunately, while their sentences are often complete, the meaning can feel incomplete.   Many times students have written a sentence that wants more.  Take this sentence, for example, where a student was writing sentences with the participial adjectives: The children were excited.  While we would mark this sentence as correct, the idea leaves us hanging.   Why were the children excited?   What were they expecting?   What were they about to do?     

Research suggests that students need to understand how writers make patterned “moves” to communicate with readers (Hyland, 2004).   These moves help readers understand how and why writers transition from one idea to another at the sentence and paragraph-level to build an argument, analyze a situation, or provide evidence.

If students are limited to practicing grammar at the sentence-level only, they are missing an opportunity to see how grammatical structures are contextualized within larger moves.   To help students go from isolated sentences to longer stretches of discourse, teachers can provide scaffolding that allows them to internalize grammatical patterns before using them to make moves across sentences.

Below are activities from an upper-level grammar class which illustrate this transition, helping students get a feel for the use of that-clauses as subjects before using them to paraphrase information from a previous sentence.

Step 1:  Students complete sentence stems that embed that-clauses as subjects so they are able to see how the structure works.

A. Complete the sentences with your own ideas.

  1. That Houston is cheap explains why
  2. That she wouldn’t look at me in the eye suggests that
  3. That men are stronger than women is an idea that
  4. That the earth is getting warmer means that
  5. That I’m not a US citizen doesn’t mean that

Step 2: Students use frames with that-clauses and verbs such as means, shows, proves, and suggests to help them notice the pattern of introducing a fact or observation and then making a comment about it.

B. Write your own sentences on a piece of paper. Use the sentence frames.

  1. That I am….means that…
  2. That men are….suggests that….
  3. That women are….clearly shows that
  4. That my friend…..makes me believe that…..
  5. That……proves that….
  6. That…..suggests that…. 

Step 3: Students are introduced to the move of presenting a statistic and then commenting on it.  Using a that-clause, students are paraphrasing the given information and then using reporting verbs to make an inference or conclusion about it.

C. Read the statistic. Paraphrase the statistic using a that-clause and make your own comment or observation about what it suggests. Use the phrases below to help you. 

That….suggests that…   That….proves that…   That…means that…   That…implies that…

That….doesn’t prove that…                 That….doesn’t mean that…

  1. Seventy percent of Americans describe themselves as “dog people.”  That more people like dogs implies that dogs make better pets.
  1. Thirty-nine percent of American homeowners don’t know their neighbor’s names.
  2. Twenty-percent of Americans speak another language at home.
  3. Ten percent of Americans have thrown away a dish because they didn’t want to wash it.
  4. Studies show that American women earn about 80% of what men are paid.

This third activity attempts to help students see how grammar structures can be used to make moves across sentences.   Rather than just using grammar, students need to be given the opportunity to do something with it.  By getting students to think across sentences, we can help them better understand the moves that writers make to communicate their ideas, giving students greater opportunities to use their grammar to think critically.

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