Quick Tip Tuesday: Two-word sentence smack down

December 29th, 2009

In this week’s Quick Tip, Jeff Anderson demonstrates how his two-word sentence smack down activity helps students identify what is a sentence and what isn’t. This tip comes from Jeff’s book Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop.

In Plain English: A sentence must contain at least one subject and one verb, and it must form a complete thought. A fragment is missing a subject or verb, and/or it doesn’t contain a complete thought.

AKA:  Incomplete sentence, non-sentence, intentional fragment.

A fragment is not a sentence. It may have a capital letter. It may even have a period, but it’s missing an important element, such as a subject or a verb. Fragments may add rhythm, emphasis, and variety to writing—when they’re intentional—and sometimes even when they’re not. However, students need the ability to fix sentence fragments. They must be able to identify them and avoid writing them in high-stakes situations such as testing. Sentence fragments may also make writing appear sloppy and incorrect. Students need to distinguish between the effective use of fragments, which is purposeful and rare, and the ineffective use, which looks careless and choppy.

To identify and correct fragments, writers must understand the simple sentence. They don’t need to mark all the parts of speech or make a diagram. Students do need to know that a group of words starting with a capital letter and ending with a period is not necessarily a complete sentence. When I ask students what makes a sentence a sentence, they respond: “Letters,” “A capital at the beginning,” and “Periods.” But what do they really know about the sentence?

Do they know that a minimal simple sentence must have a subject and a verb? Sean laughs. That’s a simple sentence. We could add a few prepositional phrases such as at The Real World blaring from his plasma screen TV. While those prepositional phrases add detail, they are not needed to form a simple sentence. Everything students learn about sentences, from compound to complex, rides on this essential understanding: Simple sentences are made up of a subject and verb. Sean laughs. Who or what laughs? Sean, the subject. What does he do? Laughs, the verb.

The ability to pare a sentence down to its essential core is the first tool students need in order to uncover the craft of all sentences.

Student Error:  “When I was five. I had a Chuckie doll. I would scare everybody with Chuckie. Chuckie was about two feet, had orange hair, little red and white shoes, overalls, and plastic knife. I replaced the plastic knife with a real knife. To make Chuckie look more like the real thing. From the kitchen Drawer. Like a mini-butcher knife. I super glued it into Chuckie’s hand. Ready for business.”

Behind the Error: This is a typical student attempt at adding sophistication to sentences. Randy doesn’t want to use only simple sentences. He wants to add some life and complexity to his sentences, but in taking this risk, he creates fragments with his punctuation. Have you ever wondered why kids in fourth grade start writing fragments? Their skills aren’t keeping up with their growing intellect and their ability to express ever-more-complex thoughts. Randy writes: When I was five. I had a Chuckie doll. We should celebrate that he’s stumbled on the complex sentence. His thinking needs this more sophisticated sentence form. On the surface, we see a fragment, and if we were bean counting, we might see that he’s writing more fragments now than he did a year ago, but a lot of these fragments are fragments because Randy is punctuating the dependent clause with a period instead of a comma. When students hit this stage, they are ready for more tools to express themselves.

Mentor Text:
 They race. (p. 5)

—Jerry Spinelli, Loser

Matt winces. (p. 364)

Maria flinched. (p. 366)

Matt froze. (p. 370)

Matt nodded. (p. 372)

—Nancy Farmer, House of the Scorpion

Tad watched. (p. 6)

Blood flew. (p. 111)

He sprung. (p. 128)

—Stephen King, Cujo

Two-Word Sentence Smack Down

I ask students to write a sentence in their writer’s notebooks—just one sentence. After a minute, I ask, “What’d you do?” After they share, I ask, “How did you know that was a sentence? What makes a sentence a sentence?” We discuss the fact that most of us know how to write a sentence, even if we can’t explain why. I emphasize that the point of grammar is to help us write. Though we need not know every single definition, we should know a few. Competent, confident writers know that an underlying structure holds some thoughts together and separates others. So, students need to be able to break down a sentence. This knowledge is the foundation for taking writing from choppy to flowing, from run-on to controlled. Understanding this pattern is essential, for every craft move is built on it.

“You know sentences. Everyone wrote a sentence. Even those who said, I don’t know what to write were saying a sentence. It’s basic to our human nature to speak in sentences.”

“So, why is it so difficult to figure them out on tests?” I ask. We discuss an oversimplified formula for the sentence: subject + verb = a simple sentence. It’s easy to lose students’ attention when we talk in abstractions, so I get their eyes on a sentence from a book as soon as possible. Using a sentence from Spinelli’s Loser, I explain the sentence test, which will allow us to strip any sentence down to its core, subject and verb. I write They race on the board. “Is that a sentence? How do you know?” I explain that it’s a sentence if it provides answers to the following two questions:

• Who or what did something? (The subject is They.)

• What did they do? (The verb is race.)

“The core of any sentence is a subject and a verb,” I say. I preselect a few longer sentences from Loser that students can shave down to two words: a subject and a verb.

We pare down a few together first, such as this one: The lights cluster brilliantly up the street at Claudia’s house (p. 174). Using the test, we determine that the subject is lights and the verb is cluster.

“Now we’re ready to do a sentence smack down!” I say. Before class, I have made a wall mat like the one in the visual scaffold, with the categories “subject” and “verb.” To make this activity more exciting, I play some snippets of music from a sports mix. The music adds a feeling of joy to the room, taking the dread out of grammar instruction. I play the music and yell, “Are you ready to grammar?” The music continues to play while students work with their sentences and during each transition.

I put a kid in charge of the music, so I am free to emcee. First, I divide students into groups of three and give each group a sentence (see the Appendix for the “Sentence Smack Down!” handout). Each group then follows the handout directions. After paring down their sentence, they use construction paper to record the subject on one sheet and the verb on the other. After the kids finish with the construction paper, I explain that one member of each group must assume the role of the reader, and the other two will play the parts of “subject” and “verb.” Then I describe how each performance will go:

• The reader will read the whole sentence.

• The “subject” will “smack,” or slap, the wall mat under the word “subject” and yell the subject of the group’s sentence.

• The “verb” will follow, “smacking” the wall mat under the word “verb” and yelling the verb of the sentence.

• The reader will read the whole sentence again.

To illustrate, a group takes a sentence: He reaches back to touch the door. The group pares the sentence down to the subject (He) and verb (reaches). After choosing roles, the “subject” writes He large enough for the class to see on one piece of construction paper.

The “verb” writes reaches and surrounds it with exploding marks to connote action. When called to the front, the reader reads, “He reaches back to touch the door.” Next, the “subject” runs and smacks the subject side of the wall mat, yelling out “he” as well as holding up the piece of construction paper. After that, the “verb” smacks the verb side of the wall mat, yelling out “reaches.” These two hold their positions at the wall mat, while the reader reads the entire sentence again.

Two-Word Sentence Search—Powerful Words, Powerful Verbs

As a follow-up, I challenge students to collect two-word sentences from their reading; this will become a yearlong collection. We post the collection on a wall chart—it’s the skinniest wall chart ever. It is fun to watch students find out how rare two-word sentences are and to witness everything else they discover along the way. When students bring what they think is a two-word sentence to me, such as Or not, I ask the sentence-test questions: Who or what did something? What did they do? Students have no answer. “Is it a sentence then?” A light goes on in their eyes, and they know it’s a fragment. Of course, we exclude dialogue from this collection, but we do have valuable conversations about dialogue tags as parts of sentences.

My favorite craft spillover is that most two-word sentences have powerful verbs, so we have mentor sentences that we can either expand or allow to remain elegant and simple. Students will finally own the core sentence. A great mentor text for two-word sentences is the pop-up picture book Worms Wiggle by David Pelham and Michael Foreman (1989), which is ripe for imitation if one has the inclination.

Entry Filed under: Exploring Words,Quick Tip Tuesday

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. PJVermont  |  November 16th, 2010 at 8:35 am


    This looks great. My 6th graders would benefit from this. Where’s the appendix (handout) you mention?


  • 2. Noun-Verbs | Education &a&hellip  |  August 30th, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    […] We discussed the power and importance of sentences at their core essence, subject + verb. I gave examples of 2-word sentences in a fictional prosecutor’s opening argument (He fired. She died.) and a short story that I wrote about a couple’s break-up (She cheated. He yelled. She apologized. He left. etc.). Yes, I know. Not very uplifting topics. Finally, I shared observations from The Stenhouse Blog about continued uses of the 2-word sentence in a classroom. […]

  • 3. Brenda  |  September 7th, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    What do you do with sentences that students choose that have linking verbs?

  • 4. Icantteach  |  September 18th, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    This was great

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