Home > Teaching Practice > The Art of Selecting Example Sentences and Practice Sentences

The Art of Selecting Example Sentences and Practice Sentences

When teaching a grammatical concept or editing skill, it’s never sufficient to explain an abstract concept to students and expect them to “get it”. When grammatical issues are illustrated with example sentences, students learn via their innate linguistic competence. An abstract generalization is made concrete through an actual sentence of the English language. When students apply the skill to sentences in practice exercises, it helps the concept sink in deeper.

Selecting good sentences for examples and practice exercises is an art. As a linguist composing research papers, I illustrated my arguments about the structure of language with carefully chosen example sentences. Now as a writing teacher, I’ve adapted this skill into my teaching. In this article, I will discuss the principles for choosing pedagogically effective sentences for examples and practice exercises.

Avoid spontaneous examples. Many teachers generate example sentences on the fly, in the middle of a class discussion to illustrate a particular point about grammar. Generally, this is risky, as the first things that come to mind are rarely the best. When teachers don’t carefully consider which example sentences to use, they easily end up confusing their students. Instead, have example sentences in advance.

With spontaneous examples, teachers risk picking an example that does a poor job illustrating their point. For instance, I once wanted to illustrate the plural possessive construction, and my first example was something like this:

 1. The boys’ houses seem nice.

This example will confuse students with its distracting complexity. Both the possessor (“boys”) and the thing possessed “houses” are pluralized, with the latter being irrelevant to the possessive. A better example would be:

 2. The boys’ house seems nice.

But even #2 can be improved. The ending on the verb “seems,” which closely resembles the plural possessive ending, will confuse some students. An even better example sentence would eliminate this confounding issue:

 3. The boys’ house looked nice.

Spontaneous examples don’t appeal much to students. It’s hard to spontaneously generate an example that avoids confounding complexity and that contains the relevant grammatical structure and interesting content. Spontaneous examples tend to hew closely to a short, prototypical grammatical structure, and the content is bland or stereotypical. For instance, you get sentences like:

4. John gave Mary a gift.

These examples don’t connect to topics students might find interesting or to topics the class is covering. In practice exercises, they leave students bored, and as illustrative examples, students find them unmemorable. Illustrative examples that students tend to remember (for their humor or relevance) work better.

Alternatively, some teachers pick example sentences on a topic relevant to students. These sorts of examples are commonly chosen for published workbooks. For instance, in Susan Fawcett’s Evergreen: A Guide to Writing With Readings, many of the sentences in a given exercise focus on a particular topic, such as student financial aid, academic success skills like note-taking, or biographies of role models for students. These examples can educate students on student success skills and teach them something new, which makes them less boring. However, some students might feel patronized by examples that seem to talk down to them.

For another possibility, the teacher can excerpt sentences from an assigned reading, and present them to the class. These examples show students how successful, published writers deal with the grammatical issues under discussion, they build a reading-writing connection, and they help students do grammar in a more contextualized way. Though sentences from published prose typically don’t illustrate grammatical errors, I like doing close readings on them with students to critique their stylistic shortcomings, such as wordiness, convoluted structure, opaque word-choice, etc. These issues are well illustrated in the following sentence, excerpted from Malcolm X’s Learning to Read:

5. “I perceived, as I read, how the collective white man had been actually nothing but a piratical opportunist who used Faustian machinations to make his own Christianity his initial wedge in his criminal conquests.”

Malcolm X’s style in this sentence causes most students to overlook how accusational and controversial the ideas are, at least until they do a close reading on it in class. Students enjoy chopping famous authors down to size, especially if they found the assigned reading difficult.

As a downside, sentences excerpted from difficult assigned readings might contain problematic levels grammatical complexity. If you want to make a point about a particular grammatical feature, a sentence that’s too complex may confuse students or distract them from the relevant issue, as was the case with #1 and #2 above. Also, students may feel that the author writes in a style far too sophisticated compared with student writing, which makes the sentence difficult for students to relate to or to aspire to as a model for their own writing.

For many teachers, it’s appealing to use sentences excerpted from student writing. These examples, of course, most realistically illustrate the types of grammatical issues relevant to students. They can also provide positive encouragement for what students are doing well, and can illustrate grammatical issues that are not traditionally covered in handbooks and other assigned texts.

But in a classroom setting, using students’ writing is fraught with risks, even if it is presented anonymously. Of course, students may object to their writing being shared with the class, especially if it’s being criticized. One impolitic comment from the teacher or another student can wound the author’s ego. This is less of an issue, however, if the class is advertised as a workshop, or when working with more advanced students with higher confidence.

Students should consent to their work being used in class. If a teacher mass-reproduces (part of) a student’s writing, they may be violating a students’ copyright over their work. This issue is avoided, however, if you are making a single copy of a student’s work for pedagogical purposes, such as transcribing a sentence from their essay onto the chalkboard. Whatever the legal issues, few students would sue their teacher for violating their intellectual property rights, though many would feel unhappy at seeing their work reproduced without their consent. Note that the legal departments at many colleges now require that teachers have students sign a consent form before their work is reproduced.

As an elegant solution, a teacher could excerpt a sentence from student writing, and before presenting it to the class, edit the sentences for pedagogical purposes. Such edits can preserve the grammatical structure while trading out a few content words and pruning out segments that are pedagogically irrelevant. For instance, you could start with a student sentence like:

6. “My sister is always on her phone, her kid cries and cries and it is like she doesn’t hear him or don’t even care because she’s to focus on her phone than on her son which I think is bad because her kid is little and he needs more time with her.”

This sentence contains a number of types of errors (underlined), and you might not want to overwhelm students by presenting them all at once. Let’s say you want to just focus on the punctuation errors and not the errors with incorrect word endings. You could start by editing the sentence to remove errors with word endings:

7. “My sister is always on her phone, her kid cries and cries and it is like she doesn’t hear him or doesn’t even care because she’s too focused on her phone than on her son which I think is bad because her kid is little and he needs more time with her.”

Then you could anonymize the sentence by trading out some of the content words:

8. “My cousin is always on his iPod, his daughter cries and cries and it is like he doesn’t notice her or doesn’t even care because he’s too focused on his iPod than on his daughter which I think is bad because his daughter is little and she needs more time with him.”

These changes anonymize the sentence and sidestep the intellectual property issues, while still maintaining the sentence’s student-like feel. (If #8 isn’t anonymous enough, you can keep changing it in similar ways.)

Whatever examples we use, teachers must strike a balance. On one hand, we want to present sentences that are simplified enough to remove confounding issues distractions and to clearly present the grammatical issue under discussion.  On the other hand, we want to present sentences that contain the grammatical complexity that characterizes naturally occurring writing. To negotiate this balance, I structure activities to move from grammatically simple sentences at first to more grammatically complex sentences after students have understood the general concept.

As a final step (one that’s often forgotten), teaching should be scaffolded to move students from working with individual sentences in practice exercises to the more realistic task of working with their own prose. It’s crucial that teachers build this bridge. Too often, teachers give students practice exercises, assume students will transfer the skills into their writing, and then wonder why they didn’t. In my experience, only the most diligent students make this jump on their own. Hence, the common criticism that “traditional grammar instruction is a waste of time.”

To facilitate this transition, students to be given some practice exercises that more closely resemble their own writing, such as exercises where they proofread paragraphs or multi-paragraph excerpts. Finally, many students need to explicitly be reminded throughout the term to apply the concepts when they proofread their own writing assignments. I actually include on essay prompts the grammatical issues students need to be proofreading for. I also allot students class time to do this proofreading on their own, while I’m there to assist.

How do you choose example sentences when you teach? Send me a comment!

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