This guide is one in a series of practice guides on evidence-based writing instruction in the classroom. It is intended for use across year levels and discipline areas.
For this guide, AERO has synthesised the most rigorous and relevant evidence-based practices and is informed by our literature review. AERO has rated these sources of information against its Standards of evidence, focusing on evidence generated in an Australian context where possible.
Our focus on sentence combining, and more broadly teaching writing, aligns with the Australian Curriculum Content Descriptions and the National Literacy Learning Progressions. This guide also aligns with the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.
Sentence combining is an instructional technique used to improve sentence quality, complexity and variety. Students are taught how to combine two or more basic sentences to create more interesting, sophisticated and varied sentences. When sentence combining is taught explicitly and in a sustained way, it becomes one component of successful writing instruction.
More than 85 studies on sentence combining have been conducted over the past 50 years. Most have demonstrated that sentence combining improves students’ sentence-level writing across years and ability levels. Some studies have also demonstrated improvement in students’ overall writing quality and revision abilities. The research also indicates that sentence combining has a more positive impact than traditional grammar instruction on sentence construction, writing accuracy and writing quality1.
Further research is required to test whether students can focus on higher-order writing abilities better once sentence-level writing is mastered and whether improved sentence-level writing translates to students’ compositional writing2. It is also worth noting that many of the more recent studies have been conducted with small sample sizes and often with students with learning disabilities, rather than the more general student population. The evidence-base would benefit from more studies with larger sample sizes to further understand the impact of sentence combining on students’ writing outcomes.
Sentence combining was developed as an alternative to traditional grammar instruction (for example, labelling parts of speech or ‘diagramming’ sentences). Unlike traditional grammar instruction, sentence combining can be used with sentences drawn from students' own writing or from texts used in any unit of study.
Sentence combining builds students’ ability to write a range of compound and complex sentences. It can be used to improve sentence construction by targeting incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, overly simple or repetitive sentences, or the overuse of ‘and’. A focus on capitalisation or punctuation can also be easily embedded in sentence combining instruction.
Sentence combining is a suitable instructional technique for students across year and ability levels. It can be particularly beneficial in supporting students who write as much as they speak, rather than using the more formal, or academic style of language required for writing.
What does it look like in practice?
Present students with basic sentences (either taken from their own writing or content materials) and give explicit instruction in how to combine these sentences into more complex and varied sentence forms. Sentences can be combined by:
- using conjunctions to combine two or more sentences into one, or
- isolating essential information from an otherwise redundant sentence and embedding that key information into the base sentence (see examples in table on the next page).
Steps to teach sentence combining
- Explain the purpose of sentence combining to students (to improve sentence quality, complexity and variety).
- Explain that there is often more than one acceptable sentence combination.
- Model how and why combinations are made using several worked examples. Start with simple sentences, narrate your thinking and justify your combination selections.
- Explain that students can move words, add or delete words, or modify words to create optimal combinations.
- Guide practice, supporting students to develop a range of solutions.
- Students complete independent practice, followed by supportive whole-class discussion to evaluate different combinations. This helps students understand other possible options for revising their own writing.
Given there are often a range of sentence combinations available to students, it can be helpful to provide feedback on effectiveness of sentence combining. Effectiveness involves:
- clarity of meaning
- audience suitability.
Which combination has the most clarity, which has the best rhythm, and which captures both author intent and audience suitability? Through modelling and guided practice, students can be taught how to improve sentence clarity, rhythm and audience suitability.
Examples of sentence combining3
Role of scaffolds
Initially, cues should be provided as a scaffold. There are two types of cues: providing a word or underlining a key word to prompt a particular word sequence.
- I will be late for school.
- I pack my bag quickly. (unless)
- I will be late for school unless I pack my bag quickly.
- The baby cried.
- The baby was hungry.
- The hungry baby cried.
Once students demonstrate a degree of skill with cues, begin to fade them. Once cues are removed, sentence combining tasks are considered ‘open’ rather than ‘cued’. Open tasks shift the responsibility on to the student. They are required to weigh up what they consider important versus redundant information, to combine an optimal sentence. Students can then transition to reviewing and reworking sentences in their own writing, initially with support.
Ways to increase scaffolding:
- Provide additional worked examples.
- Provide additional guided practice.
- Circle or highlight the words that are the same in each sentence and model removing redundant information.
- Oral rehearsal with a peer or teacher before written construction.
Ways to decrease scaffolding:
- Move from ‘cued’ to ‘open’ tasks.
- Increase the number of sentences to combine.
- Increase the complexity of the sentences or ideas.
- Provide a category cue rather than a single word cue (for example, use a cause-and-effect conjunction; use a time conjunction).
- Provide a conjunction word list, and get students to generate a range of solutions, before discussing the responses in pairs or as a class.
- When there are a range of possible solutions, ask students to generate more than one combined sentence.
Create short imaginative and informative texts that show emerging use of appropriate text structure, sentence-level grammar, word choice, spelling, punctuation and appropriate multimodal elements, for example illustrations and diagrams (ACELY1661 - Scootle)
- Create short imaginative, informative and persuasive texts using growing knowledge of text structures and language features for familiar and some less familiar audiences, selecting print and multimodal elements appropriate to the audience and purpose (ACELY1671 - Scootle)
- Re-read and edit text for spelling, sentence-boundary punctuation, and text structure (ACELY1672 - Scootle)
- Plan, draft and publish imaginative, informative and persuasive texts demonstrating increasing control over text structures and language features and selecting print, and multimodal elements appropriate to the audience and purpose (ACELY1682 - Scootle)
- Re-read and edit texts for meaning, appropriate structure, grammatical choices, and punctuation (ACELY1683 - Scootle)
- Plan, draft and publish imaginative, informative and persuasive texts containing key information and supporting details for a widening range of audiences, demonstrating increasing control over text structures and language features (ACELY1694 - Scootle)
- Re-read and edit for meaning by adding, deleting, or moving words or word groups to improve content and structure (ACELY1695 - Scootle)
- Re-read and edit student’s own and others’ work using agreed criteria for text structures and language features (ACELY1705 - Scootle)
- Plan, draft and publish imaginative, informative and persuasive print and multimodal texts, choosing text structures, language features, images and sound appropriate to purpose and audience (ACELY1704 - Scootle)
- Plan, draft and publish imaginative, informative and persuasive texts, choosing and experimenting with text structures, language features, images and digital resources appropriate to purpose and audience (ACELY1714 - Scootle)
- Re-read and edit students’ own and others’ work using agreed criteria and explaining editing choices (ACELY1715 - Scootle)
Edit for meaning by removing repetition, refining ideas, reordering sentences, and adding or substituting words for impact (ACELY1726 - Scootle)
Experiment with text structures and language features to refine and clarify ideas to improve the effectiveness of students’ own texts (ACELY1810 - Scootle)
Review and edit students’ own and others’ texts to improve clarity and control over content, organisation, paragraphing, sentence structure, vocabulary and audio/visual features (ACELY1747 - Scootle)
Review, edit and refine students’ own and others’ texts for control of content, organisation, sentence structure, vocabulary, and/or visual features to achieve particular purposes and effects (ACELY1757 - Scootle)
- sequences sentences to reflect a logical flow of ideas
- uses common cohesive devices such as simple pronoun reference when the referent is close to the pronoun (I have a bird and it can talk.)
- uses basic text connectives repetitively (and, then)
- writes coherent simple sentences to express an idea or event
- uses a small range of adjectives to build description in basic noun groups (the little dog)
- writes simple sentences correctly
- writes compound sentences to make connections between ideas using coordinating conjunctions (and, but, so)
- uses simple adverbials to give details such as time, place, and manner (in the afternoon, nearby, quickly)
- uses simple present, past and future tenses accurately to represent processes
- uses adjectives in noun groups to build more accurate descriptions of participants (the spotted dog)
- writes simple and compound sentences correctly
- writes complex sentences using conjunctions (when, because)
- uses a wide range of verbs and verb groups (uses thinking, feeling and perceiving verbs to represent inner processes; uses saying verbs to represent interaction)
- employs a range of tenses to represent processes
- uses adjectives in noun groups to include details of participants (‘that crazy, little cattle dog’)
- uses adverbials to present more surrounding details for time, place, manner, and reason
- writes generally accurate simple, compound, and complex sentences with few run-on sentences and dangling clauses (Because he was afraid.)
- selects simple, compound, and complex sentences to express and connect ideas, occasionally manipulating the structure for emphasis, clarity, or effect
- uses at least one subordinate clause in a complex sentence
- uses subordinating conjunctions ('even though' in 'Even though a storm was predicted, the search and rescue mission still went ahead.)
- uses an extended range of verbs and verb groups for a particular effect (characterisation - howls, was trembling and expressing causality – results in)
- adjusts tense in a text if required (uses simple present tense to represent ‘timeless’ happenings (bears hibernate in winter) and uses continuous present tense when referring to an ongoing event (bears are becoming extinct))
- creates elaborated noun groups to build richer description by extending the noun group (that crazy, little cattle dog with the crooked tail that ran away last week)
- uses adverbials to represent a greater range of circumstances (time – subsequently; place – in their environment; manner – excitedly; reason – due to several factors)
- makes few grammatical errors, such as inappropriate tense selections or lack of agreement between subject and verb
- crafts both compact and lengthy sentences with challenging structures, such as embedded/relative clauses, nonfinite clauses, interrupting clauses, nominalisations, passive voice
- makes more sophisticated connections between ideas by creating complex sentences expressing relationships of cause, reason, concession
- presents elaborated verb groups that capture nuances and complex expressions of time and probability (he was thought to have been arriving late; the errors could be attributed to faulty equipment)
- selects from succinct noun groups through to highly elaborated noun groups for effect, clarity or complexity of description
- uses nominalisations to create concise noun groups
- intentionally uses a wide array of adverbials to represent a greater variety of circumstances (with whom? to what extent? how much? in what role? by what means? in what manner? compared to what?)
- writes well-structured sentences, rarely making grammatical errors
1 Andrews et al. 2006
2 Saddler et al. 2018, Nemans 1995, Saddler and Asaro-Saddler 2009, Graham et al. 2019
3 Cooper 1973, Strong 1986, Saddler 2012
Keywords: teaching grammar, practice implementation