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#7. Sentence Strips Lesson - exercises in paragraph writing

English/Grammar/Reading, level: elementary
Posted by Rick Morris (
Tools and Toys
Sequoia Elementary, USA
Materials Required: pencil & print outs (see websites for template)
Activity Time: 1 week unit
Concepts Taught: grammar, writing, critical reading

So, anyway, there we were working away on our paragraphs about last Friday's whale watching field trip. Our ultimate goal was to produce a class book about our adventure at sea. Having already engaged in various pre-writing activities, e.g., verbalizing, retelling favorite parts of the trip, sharing sketches we had done the day before, creating a word bank, etc., the students were now desperately groping their way through The Land of the Rough Drafts.

Twenty minutes into it and the first rough draftee appeared on the horizon. It was CalvinÝ. He placed his paragraph on my desk with what can only be described as something less than a flourish of pride.

A quick scan of his woefully malnourished collection of sentences had me reaching for my red correcting pen and a couple of Tylenol.

"Okay, Calvin. Not bad for a start. How about if you check the spelling of these words [circle, circle, circle, circle, long circle, circle, circle]; check for punctuation here [check mark], here [check mark] and here [check mark]; move this sentence up here [long curving arrow]; maybe get rid of this sentence [slash] and this sentence [slash]; make these letters capital letters [underline, underline, underline] and, uh, rewrite it as neatly as you can."

And then, with my best Large Encouraging Smile, I handed back his paragraph which now looked as if it had undergone open heart surgery. Unsuccessful open heart surgery.

"Write it over?" he whined. "I thought I was done." Long face, slumping shoulders.

"You don't want your paragraph to look like this do you? You've got some good ideas here. They just need a bit of work. Rewrite it, and you will be done. Okay?"

Well, apparently it wasn't okay. Calvin, academic dilettante that he was, dragged his sad self back to his seat, slammed his paragraph down on his desk and proceeded to cry. Cry? This kid's crying about his whale watching paragraph? Hey, if anyone should have been crying over that piece of work it should have been me. Nonetheless, there he was, wailing and gnashing his teeth because Mr. Morris was asking him to do a quality job. What was a dedicated professional to do?

I suppose I could have done what I had sometimes done in the past: self-righteously laid Calvin's frustration and failure at his feet. After all, hadn't I made a serious effort to get him started in the right direction? I sure had. And wasn't I merely looking out for Calvin's best interests by maintaining high, albeit attainable, expectations of language achievement? I sure was. If he was going to just wimp out after all of my well-intentioned effort and good will, well, too bad. He was going to have to deal with his rather anemic writing skills sometime in his life. What better sometime than third grade? Come on, Calvin, be a man. Rewrite that paragraph.

But this was where I chose to zag instead of zig. Instead of following the conventional path of "it's his problem, not mine," I decided against bulldozing my way through his difficulties. After all, maybe there was some validity to Calvin's point of view. Maybe this time-honored method of creative writing just wasn't going to meet his needs no matter how hard he tried. And just what, exactly, had brought Calvin to his literary knees? I didn't know at the moment but I sure wanted to find out. Why not put off the writing for a day until I could give it some deep thought?

"Tell you what, guys. Why don't we put away our paragraphs for right now. We'll work on them again tomorrow."

At the end of the day I went home, put on my rollerskates, plugged in my headphones and headed for the boardwalk. I've found this to be one of my favorite problem solving modes. The music and movement seem to get me more right-brained than normal, and experience has shown me that using both halves of my brain has produced some real break-through thinking.

As I skated along, I focused on Calvin, his frustration and his 98-pound weakling of a paragraph. I got to looking at the underlying structure of what he had been facing. I could picture Calvin sitting at his desk staring miserably at his slashed and burned bit of writing, not to mention his feelings thirty minutes prior as he stared miserably at his blank piece of paper. I could almost feel his sense of being overwhelmed by the prospect of having to rewrite so much of what he had already written. It was just too much for a poorly skilled little third grader to face. If only I could have gotten my hands on his thoughts before he committed them to paper. If only I could help him to realize how fundamentally simple a paragraph can be when written thoughts are successfully dealt with one at a time.

And then it hit me. A vision. My right brain, in its wonderfully non-verbal way, enabled me see that a writing road block was being created by the mere format of Calvin's paragraph. Having all eight sentences crammed together on one piece of paper was trapping him into a global view of his work. And the global view was not pretty. There were oceans of red: red circles, slashes, arrows, check marks, and underlines with very few land masses of coherent meaning and grammatical convention. What was needed, I realized, was a simple technique which would reinforce the One Sentence At A Time Awareness and maybe, just maybe, his sense of being overwhelmed by the demands of the entire piece would become reduced and thus manageable. This new procedure would also have to be manageable for me since Calvin wasn't the only Calvin I had that year.

How about using different paper? We could replace the standard sheet of paper with narrow strips large enough for just one sentence. And then, instead of writing his entire paragraph in one shot, he'd write just one sentence at a time. I could review and edit this sentence, he could make revisions as necessary and then move on to the next sentence. Having the sentences on separate pieces of paper would also allow him to play around with the sequencing or even make room for additional sentences. The possibilities for building success and confidence as an author seemed enormous. Well, it seemed worth a try, at least.

Suitably armed with the glimmerings of a new approach to the fundamental writing process, I returned to class the next day with an equally new attitude.

To keep myself from overwhelming the students with both my own excitement and this new approach, I decided to present the "Sentence Strip" concept over the next five days, forty minutes per day.

Day One: An Idea List

Using their previously written thoughts about the whale watching trip as a starting point, I asked them to compile a list of ideas they would like to include in their paragraph. The emphasis here was on ideas, not sentences. I wanted notes--just a word or two--which would encapsulate the idea. Writing just one word would also prevent anyone from getting bogged down in unnecessary detail.
"Just make a simple list of what you want to include in your paragraph. Don't worry about what order it's in. Don't worry about spelling. Just let your thoughts flow. Close your eyes, and visualize our whale watching trip. Make a list of ideas about what you are seeing."

To help get them started, we took a few suggestions for ideas and wrote them on the board.


Each idea was accompanied by an explanation about what the word meant. For example, the idea behind "lunch" was that someone wanted to write about the lunch we had had at the park after the whale watching trip.
After fifteen minutes of idea generation, we stopped for an Author Talk. Several volunteers No limit or minimum had been set: "Whatever it takes to tell your story," was the answer given to anyone who asked, "How many ideas do I have to have?"

During this Author Talk, students were allowed, encouraged actually, to add to their Idea Lists if they heard an idea they would like to include. Also, due to the synergism of idea sharing, students added ideas which came to them as they listened to other Idea Lists. This brief period of active listening helped to reinforce the philosophy that there is more to writing than putting a pencil to a piece of paper. After the Author Talk, everyone was allowed to work on his Idea List for the remainder of our forty minute writing period.

Day Two: Sentence Strips

The first order of business was to prepare a supply of what would soon be referred to as Sentence Strips. I took some 8.5" X 11" lined newsprint and chopped it on the paper cutter like this:

Since each piece of newsprint could be cut into four strips, it didn't take long to produce what I felt was the right amount: about five hundred of them.

The second order of business was to prepare an editing sheet. This simple chart would explain the proofreading marks we'd be using throughout this writing activity. The chart looked like this:

It was then time to introduce the basic Sentence Strip process.

"Today you will be turning your ideas into sentences. For each idea on your Idea List you'll write one sentence. These sentences will be written on this special paper [holding up a sentence strip] which can be found in this box [holding up box which contains the 400-500 pre-cut sentence strips]. Take a look at your first idea. Think about what you wanted to say about that idea. After you've thought for a bit, write your thought on a sentence strip. Share this sentence with a friend or two and then bring it to me for checking. If it's okay the way it's written, I'll initial it and you'll have your first sentence. If it needs some rewriting, you'll get another sentence strip and redo your sentence."

After a bit of Q & A, we were ready to begin. Setting our class timer for twenty minutes, we began writing.

It was, from the beginning, an unqualified success. Freed from the overwhelming stress of having to produce a complete paragraph, the students were able to devote their energies to writing just one sentence. This one simple step made the entire writing process manageable for everyone in our class. Writing one sentence was something anyone could do.

Within a few minutes I had my first sentence to check.

Last friday our class went on a feild trip

"Well, let's see what you have here. [Marking two lines under the f in friday] Capitalize Friday, [circling feild] check the spelling on field and [drawing a triangle at the end of the sentence] think about your punctuation. Rewrite this on another strip, and I'll sign it for you. By the way, did you happen to share this sentence with a friend?"
Sheepish look.
"Please make sure you share your sentence with another student before coming to see me. Thanks."

Elapsed time: 21 seconds.

Ah, here comes another one.

We went whale watching.

In this type of situation, there were two ways to go:
  1. Initial it, and return with a smile. Since it started with a capital letter, ended with the proper punctuation, contained no spelling mistakes, and made sense, this sentence was acceptable as written. And for the poorly skilled writer, that's probably what I would do. Initialing this first attempt would build confidence and encourage him to tackle his next idea. As much as I might like to develop this sentence into something more expressive or comprehensive, it was equally important to maintain realistic expectations.

  2. Suggest some changes. Underline "we" and ask this student "Who went?" Plant a few carets (V V ) after the word "watching" and encourage him to add a time reference. This second procedure, of course, would be used to stimulate and develop the writing skills of the more confident writer. And now, having received his prompts, this student would pick up another sentence strip and rewrite the same sentence so that it included the necessary detail. When completed, it would again be shared and then rechecked. After initialing, this sentence will become the first in a growing collection of edited sentences.

    It wasn't long before I had a line of students waiting to have their sentences checked. This meant there had been lots of writing and reviewing effort. It also meant that they were going to have to wait awhile before they got to see me. Was this line going to create a problem?

    As it turned out, this line of waiting students became an additional step in the writing process. Instead of trying to impose some type of artificial calm and quiet on this waiting queue, we turned it into a forum of sorts. We decided upon a simple line procedure: When you get in line, switch sentences with the person in front of you. Read his sentence, and check it for corrections. Give it back and switch with someone else. Some students ended up leaving the line when simple errors were pointed out to them. After all, I certainly wasn't the only one who could see that Calvin's sentence needed some kind of punctuation at the end. More importantly, though, many students were able to take back a detail, a phrase, or an idea to add to their own paragraphs. The line provided the kind of focused interaction that really stimulated these young writers.

    Twenty minutes later, when the timer went off, we stopped for an Author Talk. This time several students were able to share their initialled sentences. After a pause for student commentary and a review of the three step writing procedure--write, share, get it checked--we attempted another twenty minute writing period. At the end of this second period, I passed out letter-sized envelopes. Students wrote their names on the front and then inserted their idea lists and sentence strips. (I've found that using envelopes not only keeps writing materials organized but also reduces desk clutter.)

Day Three: Sentence Strips II

The third day found us heavily involved in the basic Sentence Strip process. What a refreshing change. Instead of having students staring at a half-filled sheet of paper, I was seeing them eagerly grabbing a new sentence strip to pen their next thought. So many of them got caught up in the writing process that they cured themselves of the How Many Sentences Do I Have To Write syndrome.

And now, on the third day of writing using this new technique, we began to experience one of the powerful aspects of Sentence Strips: the freedom to manipulate a paragraph without having to rewrite the whole thing. It went like this:

"I'm done Mr. Morris."
"Well, Calvin, let's see what you have."

Calvin laid his six initialed sentence strips on my desk.

Last Friday my class went whale watching.
We went on a big boat.
We saw lots of whales.
It was fun.
We had lunch at the park.
I got to play on the slide.

"This is great, Calvin. You've got some really good ideas here."

Big smile from Calvin.

"Let's change a few things, though. How about if we save your feelings about the trip for the end of your paragraph? (I reached out and moved sentence #4 to the bottom of the group of sentences. Painless.)
"And you know, you kind of jump from 'seeing whales' to 'eating lunch at the park.' Maybe you could write one more sentence about what happened after we saw whales or how we got to the park."

Zoom! He was off. The success and confidence he had gained from writing his other six sentences encouraged him to expand his paragraph while the flexibility of the Sentence Strip procedure made the revision remarkably simple. Just move this sentence here, add one sentence here, and Bingo! You've got youself a well written paragraph.

Day Four: Rough Drafts

We started with an Author Talk. This would provide an opportunity to share our thoughts and opinions about what had been written during the past two days.

As paragraphs were read, students offered their comments about the writing. And with the flexibility of the sentence strips, suggestions could be implemented immediately.
Student 1 read.

Student 2 said, "Maybe you should put the two sentences about the boat together."

A quick shuffle. Student 1 read again.

Student 3 said, "Yes, that sounds better."

Student 4 read.

Student 5 said, "You wrote that we saw some whales. How about one more sentence telling about what they looked like?"

Student 4 thought: One more sentence? I can do that.

After hearing from everyone who wished to read, I explained the procedure for writing a Rough Draft. This step was nothing more than checking to see that sentence strips were in the proper order and then copying them one at a time onto a piece of 9" X 12" lined newsprint. The only stipulations were that the sentences needed to be numbered and that a space was left between each sentence.

Seeing all of the sentences in order on one sheet would enable me to make a final review of each paragraph. And, since each of the sentences had already been edited, this final review was a much simpler task than I normally would have faced. Spelling, punctuation, missing words were at a minimum; therefore, I was able to focus on content and continuity. Duplicate thoughts could get deleted, and order could be established by renumbering the necessary sentences.

Day Five: The Final Draft

After introducing the basic paragraph format, the Rough Drafts were passed back and discussed. A supply of foolscap was made available. I popped in a cassette tape of some soothing music and set the timer.

To help reinforce the learning of the paragraph format, I asked all of them to bring me their Final Drafts after they had written their name, date, title, and first word. I wanted to establish where the second line should begin since it's a combination of the first word and the second line which creates the indentation. After seeing them for this initial contact, they were then free to complete their Final Drafts.


At the end of that week, I was able to harvest thirty-one well written paragraphs which we later compiled into a class book. And the students, for their part, had learned a simple writing process that would help them to become more effective writers. After all, writing a paragraph about a field trip wasn't going to be very helpful in life; however, knowing how to write a paragraph would prove to be quite useful indeed.

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