Don't forget your full stops!

    Published: 06 March 2018

    I am ashamed to say that I have offered this futile advice to many children in many classes across many schools during my time in the classroom. On reflection, those words had very little impact. In reality, those who knew where the full stops should go, for the most part did not forget them; and those who had a shaky understanding of sentence structure and demarcation, continued to have a shaky understanding despite my timely advice. For those children, it was not so much a case of having forgotten where the full stop should go: the reality was that they did not really know where it should go in the first place.

    Now as an English adviser, it is the barrier to age-expected writing that I encounter most frequently during my school visits. I often work with teachers who lament the children’s seemingly laissez faire approach to sentence demarcation. For KS2 teachers, the panic is often palpable: ‘How on earth will I get them to showcase their use of dashes, colons and semi-colons when they don’t seem to be able to master the full stop?’

    The reasons for a child entering KS2 with insecure knowledge in this area can be manifold and although worth unpicking in order to prevent the situation from occurring, this exploration may be best left for another blog. Instead, I would like to focus on some proven strategies for getting children in lower KS2 back on track.

    Having recently worked with a school who have seen a dramatic improvement in basic sentence demarcation of Year 3 pupils in a short space of time, I believe that the use of a number of basic techniques, accompanied by one underlying principle can help put a full stop to sentence demarcation confusion for many children. Some of the activities are not new (original descriptions can be found in Developing Early Writing): what seemed to work was not the novelty of the activity, but the way in which the teachers planned for each of the activities to constitute a distinct and significant stage within their unit plan.

    To support my explanation, I have organised the different techniques under headings, however, in truth, each of the strategies probably sits between and across several headings. Furthermore, the headings are not meant to draw teachers towards a preferred technique based on a notion of preferred learning style. Instead, they are to signify that the ability to understand sentence structure no doubt relies on an amalgamation of many input processes, and by tapping into as many of these as possible, we may have greater success at securing this tricky bit of learning for as many children as possible. In the experience of the school where I supported, a combination of the techniques, planned over a unit of work and repeated little and often, seemed to work best.

    ‘Hearing the Sentence’ Techniques:

    Alien Sentences

    Much like alien word games in KS1, where children are asked to spot alien words amongst a collection of real and made-up words, the Year 3 pupils were presented with sentences and non-sentences derived from the model text. The children had to first listen to the sentences/non-sentences and then sort them into the correct category whilst discussing their decision. This activity allowed the teachers to judge the children’s ability to succinctly express their understanding of what a sentence actually was, and to offer any additional technical language to help clarify their understanding.

    Sentence Match-up

    After whole class reading, the teachers took key single-clause sentences from the model text and cut them into two. The children then had to match up the beginning of the sentence with the correct ending reading them aloud to check that they sounded complete. This then lead to a discussion about how they knew which parts to put together, and whether they had spotted any patterns in the sentence structure. The beauty of this simple technique was that the children were having opportunities to re-read sentences may times over, all the while helping them to attune their ear to the sound of a sentence and draw their eye to the repetitive structure.

    Sentence Re-build

    Much like the Sentence Match-Up activity above, but in this version, the teachers took several sentences and cut them up into individual words (having removed the obvious clue of the capital letter at the start) and invited the children to re-build the words into the original sentences. This lead to much discussion and debate, and all the while the children were having yet more opportunities to express their understanding of sentence structure.

    ‘Seeing the Sentence’ Techniques:

    Rainbow Sentences

    In advance of the children beginning independent writing, the teachers modelled writing using the rainbow sentence technique, whereby the teacher changed the colour of their marker pen between writing each sentence. The children then mimicked this technique in their own writing. Interestingly, after the 3-week unit, they noted that most of the children who originally presented problems with sentence demarcation could sustain correct use of the full stop for about 5 or 6 sentences. In light of this, the teachers decided to adapt this technique by only asking children to start writing in rainbow sentences after about 10 minutes of independent writing when they judged fatigue to be setting in; the time when a focus on correct use of the full stop started to wane. The rainbow sentences would then act as a quick visual reminder to focus once again on sentence demarcation.

    Colour POP Punctuation

    For children who do not appear to need the support of writing each sentence in a different colour, they could be encouraged to use a different colour to indicate just the capital letter and full stop. This ‘colour POP’ visual reminder might just be enough to keep some children on the right track.

    ‘Feeling the Sentence’ Techniques:

    Stepping Stone Sentences

    Probably the most powerful of the techniques used. In this activity, the children were asked to plan their sentences in advance of writing, but were scaffolded in doing so by physically stepping from one sentence to the next. Using visual ‘stepping stones’, the children were invited to rehearse their first sentence when stepping on the first stepping stone. When this sentence was shaped and secure, the child was invited to step onto the next stepping stone and relay the next sentence that they intended to write, and so on. This worked well modelled as a whole class activity and then as a small group activity for those children who needed a bit more securing. The children were then invited to write and were instructed to use a full stop to represent the ’stepping stone’ from one sentence to the next. This activity proved powerful as the children had a visceral memory of ‘moving’ from one sentence to the next. Having engaged in the physical movement from one sentence to the next, they were less likely to allow the sentences that they had rehearsed to merge into one another.

    Walk the Sentence

    This is, in principle, a reading technique rather than a writing technique, where we ask the children to read a text aloud whilst walking; when they encounter a full stop, the children are instructed to change their direction. The technique aims to attune the child’s ear to the sound of a sentence whilst reinforcing the demarcation by linking it with a physical movement. The children can repeat the activity following writing of their own independent piece. When they take their sentences ‘for a walk’ do they notice the same directional changes and pace as they experienced during the reading of the original text, or are they left going on one looonnng walk (if this is the case, they are more likely to spot their missing punctuation themselves without the need for you to interject)?

    Self-Regulation Strategies:

    Count and Check

    For some children who proved persistent in their neglect of full stops and who often found themselves missing out key words within their sentences, the teachers found this technique to be most effective. Before writing, the children voiced their sentence to the teacher who then helped to shape/refine it as necessary. When the sentence was perfected, the child recorded the sentence using a sound button and replayed it, counting the number of words within it. They recorded this number in the margin before writing. After writing, they counted to check that they had recorded the number of words in their original sentence, putting a tick above each word and ending with a full stop. It was time consuming, but it worked.

    Underlying Principle:

    Transparent Sentence Structures

    Underpinning all of the sentence-level work described above, the teachers ensured that when the lesson objective related to developing understanding of sentence structure, they adhered closely to the structures specified in their year group’s Programme of Study. This decision stemmed from a reflection that perhaps the children who were struggling most with sentence structure had been pushed too hard, too fast to write ever-increasingly long and complicated sentences, and by doing so, they may not have had enough opportunities to see the regular and predictable pattern of single and multi-clause sentences. In light of this revelation, the teachers stripped back the complexity of the sentences that they were modelling in front of the children and made sure that the children’s attention was drawn to the predictable and repetitive way in which the sentences began. When the children had been alerted to the common sentence starters, they were much more likely to be able to spot the boundaries between independent sentences.

    With thanks to Reedings Junior School, Sawbridgeworth, Herts.

    Look out for HfL’s new training to be launched in autumn 2018. The training will offer an opportunity to explore each technique in more detail, with practical examples, and consider how the techniques can be incorporated effectively into exciting units of work:

    ‘Sentence SOS – putting a full stop to sentence demarcation issues in year 3’

    If you would like to register an expression of interest for this training course, please contact course lead: Penny Slater We will then contact you when this course is available for booking so that you can secure yourself a place.

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