Teach a Mini-Lesson on Sentence Variety

Help your developing writers spice up their writing by studying simple, compound, and complex sentences.

By Stef Durr

Girl writing

Have you noticed that your students’ writing isn’t particularly thrilling? That their short, similarly constructed sentences aren’t capturing your attention? Spend a class period conducting a mini-lesson to actively practice adding sentence variety. It is, after all, a teachable skill with some attention and practice.

Step One: Teach Simple, Compound, and Complex Sentences

Middle and high schoolers should be familiar with these three types of sentences and the terms used to define each. However, sometimes a basic review can help one notice patterns in his/her writing. Consider using concept attainment to help writers identify the structure of each sentence type with little guidance from you.

Offer examples of each type of sentence, and ask your class where the subject and verb fall. Personally, I enjoy writing text examples that use information about my life. The students find it interesting, and it’s easy for me to create examples from my own experience. Provided below is a set of sentences I might offer my class when reviewing these three structures. As you read each sentence with your class, ask them to identify the subject and verb.

Example sentences to show your class:

  • I visit our lake house in Door County every summer. (Simple sentence)
  • I swim in Lake Michigan with my sister, and I play Scrabble with my mom. (Compound sentence)
  • Although we only go up for two weeks, it feels like we’re up there all summer long. (Complex sentence)
  • When we visit the town grocery store, we always go to Book World to buy summer reading material. (Complex sentence)
  • My sister usually buys magazines like Time and National Geographic, but I prefer spending lazy summer days reading novels. (Compound sentence)
  • It’s my version of the perfect summer. (Simple sentence)

Your writers will notice a pattern for each type of sentence.

  • A simple sentence, or independent clause, contains a subject and a verb and offers a complete thought.
  • A compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses joined by a conjunction (but, and, so, yet, etc.).
  • A complex sentence contains an independent clause and at least one dependent clause.

Then, after studying the construction of each sentence, have learners separate the sentences into three groups. Can they tell you the term used to identify each of the groups? (You might consider putting students in small groups for this exercise.)

Step Two: Read a Text Excerpt with Your Class

After they know what a simple, compound, and complex sentence is, have them identify the types of sentences in a reading. This can be done is several ways:

First, you could provide your students with a text excerpt from a non-fiction reading (especially if you’re trying to cater to the Common Core), a fiction text (that you might currently be reading), or you could create a quick text example yourself. As they read the text, have them identify each sentence as simple, compound, or complex. I like having kids use three different colored highlighters. Sure, they enjoy the process of coloring each line, but it also allows me to quickly assess whether or not they’re identifying the sentences correctly.

Then, after discussing their findings as a class, have them rewrite the text sample using a different structure. For example, if the text you studied had four simple sentences, three compound sentences, and one complex sentence, challenge them to rewrite the paragraph using one simple sentence, two compound sentences, and five complex sentences. Advanced writers can even repeat this activity, using a different formula of sentence structures.

Step Three: Up the Challenge on Their Next Assignment

Now that they’ve had some practice revising a text, have them focus on their own writing. The best part about this step is that it can be used with any assignment. Whether they’re scheduled to write a response paragraph to a poem you’re reading, a business letter, or an analysis of a historical document, you can add a final challenge: use a certain number of each type of sentence (simple, compound, and complex).

Although it may not come easy at first, the more often you require a varied formula, the more your class considers not just what they write, but how they write it.