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Teach Grammar: Declarative Sentences

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to present these instruction tips from Teaching Grammar: What Really Works by Amy Benjamin and Joan Berger. Learn about four alternative ways of getting students to recognize a complete (declarative) sentence beyond the traditional "complete thought" definition.

While it is true that a sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought, the concept of “complete thought” is abstract. Because the back-and-forth of conversation does not require that complete sentences be uttered, students, especially those who are not habitual readers, do not feel the cadence of written sentences.

When students who are habitual readers do become accustomed to the drop in the voice that ends a declarative sentence, they don’t really need a teacher’s definitions of what a sentence is. For them, the “group of words that expresses a complete thought” definition might seem to work, when in fact they have developed, through reading, an auditory intuition that tells them when a sentence ends. So, of course, the best way to have students get the feel of what a complete (declarative) sentence is would be to promote a lifestyle that includes substantial amounts of reading. Until then, and while teachers are working to make that happen in their communities, they do need explicit strategies that help students recognize unintentional fragments and run-on sentences in their own writing

Here we give you four alternative ways of getting students to recognize a complete (declarative) sentence beyond the traditional “complete thought” definition.

The "Guess what?" Test
If you say “Guess what?” and a group of words makes sense after that, then that group of words is a complete (declarative) sentence. The “Guess what?” test should be used as your default technique for determining whether a group of words is a complete (declarative) sentence. The reason it works is that saying “Guess what?” sets up the expectation that a complete sentence is about to be spoken or read. Use the other three tests only if the “Guess what?” test does not work for a particular student or group of students.

The "Sentence Thud"
What we are calling the "sentence thud" does have a fancier name: Linguists call it the terminal fall, the drop in pitch and halt in pace that English speakers use at the end of a sentence. We’re using the inelegant term sentence thud rather than terminal fall because we think an accessible, memorable, descriptive term is more likely to work with students than a term they would probably never again hear outside the field of linguistics.

From a very early age (infancy, some think), children begin perceiving the relationship between the rhythm and pitch of language and the units of meaning. The fall of the voice at the end of a (declarative) sentence is a feature of English. Adults exaggerate this feature when they read aloud to children, another reason that children who have been read to from an early age are advantaged when it comes to literacy.

Some students may be able to become more sensitized to the terminal fall. To practice, set up partnerships of students and have them read aloud to each other. You will have to model how the voice drops in pitch at the end of a declarative sentence. The reader’s job is to exaggerate the sound of the spoken sentence, emphasizing its terminal fall. The listener’s job is to count how many sentences she has heard.

Note that the terminal fall applies only to declarative sentences. Questions that call for a yes-or-no answer usually end with a rise in pitch. (Wh questions and how questions typically have a falling pitch.) Commands begin with verbs (or the word please), and the speaker usually emphasizes the verb in a command.

The Yes-or-No Question Test
A complete (declarative) sentence can be expressed, or translated, into a yes-or-no question with the help of a helping verb. This is just how the structure of the English language works. So students can test whether a group of words is, or is not, a complete sentence by seeing if they can turn it into a yes-or-no question. Like the “Guess what?” test, the yes-or-no question test relies on a student’s intuitive knowledge about English sentences.

Who or What? What About It?
The previous tests for sentence completeness rely on a student’s having enough experience with the English language to have developed intuition. But some students may not have sufficient experience in the English language to use these methods. They may need to use their analytical skills to grasp the notion of a complete sentence. A complete (declarative) sentence gives two kinds of information: Who or what is the sentence about? (the subject) and What are we saying about it? (where it represents the subject).


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