Lesson: Sentence and Context


This activity asks students to look closely at sentences and challenges them to create and change meaning through a variety of techniques. The goal is to get students thinking carefully about how they construct meaning, at a sentence level. It’s also FUN – there’s lots of room here to play around. I’ve never gotten through all the prompts below in one class period, so you can pick and choose 🙂

To start, I like to get the class to create a sentence together. Someone will volunteer to start the first word and, going around our circle, each of us will add a word.

Possible sentence outcomes:
Alaskan landscapes are beautiful like a baker’s best meringue and you will always enjoy visiting Alaska because there is so much to do in this great place.
*Note — it will likely be a run-on sentence, packed with more than one idea.

Break into 4 small groups (5-6 people/group). Each group gets a dry-erase marker and a section of the board on which to work. For the remainder of class, we’ll be working in these groups to milk this sentence for everything it’s worth.

(With each of the following prompts, students have three minutes to work in their groups, then we will take a few minutes to discuss how each group worked the prompt. We were not able to get all the way through these prompts, so you’ll have to decide which are the most important to you …)

1. Make these words make sense! Try to make the sentence as easy to read as possible without changing any words. Use any punctuation you want — including additional periods!

  • Discussion questions: Why did you make the choices you did? What makes your sentence(s) easy to read? Do the various sentences have different meanings?

2. Rewrite this sentence with at least 5 fewer words. The meaning must not change.

  • Discussion questions: Are these shorter sentences “better’ than the first ones? Why/not? What is gained in being succinct and what is lost?

3. Write this sentence so that it is “incomplete’

  • Discussion questions: What makes your sentence “incomplete’ — what’s missing? Does this make it a “bad’ sentence? Where would it be appropriate and where would it be inappropriate?

4. Write this sentence using as many of the words as you want but completely change the meaning. You must keep the existing word order. You can do this with punctuation!

  • Discussion questions: What happened in your sentence that allowed it to change meaning? Do all the sentences have the same new meaning? Why/not? (Maybe: Did the first sentence express an opinion on the issue at hand, and if so, how can we as writers communicate and/or change that stance?)

5. Write this sentence so that the focus is on (word that has not been focused on yet)

  • Discussion questions: How do you add emphasis to a word in a sentence? Are there special places in the sentence that a word can sit?

6. Write this sentence as a Facebook post. You can use as many or few words as you want, and can focus the meaning in whatever way you deem appropriate for a Facebook audience

  • Discussion questions: Is this sentence correct? Are there different standards for a Facebook post? Why?

7. Write this sentence as if it is going in a formal academic paper. You can switch out words and fiddle with the meaning.

  • Discussion questions: What makes a sentence academic? (Is it just big complicated words? Is it straightforward-ness?)

8. Build these words into an “artistic’ sentence. Something that might belong in a poem or work of fiction.

  • Discussion questions: What makes a sentence artistic? Are there different rules for creative vs. formal academic sentences?

9. (I will change all but one or two verbs to gerundives (ending in “—ing’). Make THIS sentence make sense.

  • Discussion questions: What in all the world is a gerundive? How does it act in a sentence (i.e., as verb, adjective, etc)?

10. Put at least two commas in this sentence. Use as many or few words as you like.

  • Discussion questions: What is the role of a comma in a sentence? When do you need them and when don’t you? (commas connect dependent clauses and often qualify a subject)

11. Write this sentence without any commas.

  • Discussion questions: How did you avoid commas? What other pieces of punctuation or sentence structures can replace a comma?

12. Put a semi-colon in this sentence. Keep or discard words at will.

  • Discussion questions: What the heck is a semi-colon? How do I use one? (stands in place of and but because to connect two independent clauses)

13.Put a colon in this sentence (I keep giggling at this one because of the ways you can read “colon’ …)

  • What is a colon and how are we supposed to use it? (used for listing, is a very clear indicator)

14.Write a funny sentence.

  • Discussion questions: What makes us laugh? Where would you use a sentence like this?

When we have 10 minutes left in class:
15. Choose any of the sentences you’ve written, your favorite, and hand it to the group next to you. In your groups, analyze this sentence. What is the sentence saying? What is the tone of the sentence? What is the writer’s stance on the ideas presented? How is punctuation being used? Where is emphasis placed in the sentence? How is the syntax (word order) affecting the meaning of the sentence?



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