To help write better—not just correctly—students dissect the sentences of famous authors, then use word games to augment sentences of their own.
Adjunct Professor of English, Montreat College–Charlotte campus
MA in English with a focus on American Literature
One of the courses taught by Adjunct English Professor Elisa Affanato, MA, is comprised of about seven nontraditional students who spend their days at work and their nights on coursework. Affanato knows her students’ calendars are beyond full, but she does not expect any less of them because of it. In fact, quite the opposite. She believes that her task—in addition to fulfilling the other requirements of the Masterpieces of Literature course—is to show these adults that they have more writing talent than they might imagine. And she has just five weeks to prove it to them.
Challenge: Adult students underestimating their abilities
Students come to Affanato’s course knowing how to write correctly, thanks to a prerequisite composition course. Their weekly response essays demonstrate an understanding of composition, basic grammar, and the rules of standard usage. However, Affanato knows they can do more and views her responsibility as one of helping them to see that, too.
“I want to challenge my students to develop style and structure in their sentences,” she says. “What their essays need are those sentences that evoke images and propel readers to their final paragraph—the brilliant sentences that run through the literary works we study [such as The Scarlet Letter; Cry, the Beloved Country; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream].”
To propel students toward the next level of writing, Affanato knows she needs a compelling approach, particularly since her class is made up of nontraditional adult students. “They come to class after a full day of work demands and family responsibilities,” says Affanato. “I am challenged to hold their full attention, so I [decided to] introduce a physical element to a technique that works well for sentence instruction.”
Innovation: Model their sentences after the masters
Sentence structure can be complex, so Affanato developed a specific, scaffolded approach to help students gradually build style and structure into their sentences—beginning with hands-on activities and culminating in palpable improvements to their writing.
Affanato’s methods are influenced by Francis Christensen’s generative sentence theory, also called generative rhetoric theory, introduced at the University of Southern California in the 1960s. She explains it this way: “Christensen’s work suggests the efficiency of studying how writers craft their sentences and then using these sentences as models in student exercises. Christensen’s method proposes the advantage of students imitating the authors’ structures in their own sentences. The modeling works to increase student confidence and, as they develop their writing skills through practice, they begin the process of clarifying ideas in their own sentences. Coming to understand how the rhetorical method works in the writers’ masterful sentences they are imitating, while thinking about how style and structure work to create meaning, students begin to see that they have options and can make stylistic choices to effectively craft their own sentences.”
The theory behind the scaffolded approach is not new. What is: the way Affanato makes sentence wrangling into a fun, hands-on activity using a series of activities, beginning with a playful take on refrigerator-magnet poetry and ending with one reminiscent of Trivial Pursuit.
Overview: Cumulative Sentences and Free Modifiers
Affanato shares these details from worksheets she uses in class:
Cumulative sentences are effective in expressing a main point directly. They present a major point in the main clause (in bold), then modify this point with subordinate phrases and clauses.
Example (from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address): “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.”
Note that the main point (base clause) is in bold, and each modifying phrase begins with a gerund (underlined) and ends with a noun (italicized). This parallel structure within the phrases creates balance, while bringing life and detail to the main idea.
Free modifiers add details to a base sentence to provide descriptive detail. They can occur in different places within a sentence and are usually separated from the base clause with a comma. Below, the main point is bold, and modifiers are shown in italics.
Up until a few years ago, the Christmases I have known have been in lands of the fir tree and pine.
Love and large-hearted giving, when added together, can leave deep marks.
They toiled up the ill-lit narrow staircase, the teacher trailing them.
“For the majority of my class time, I must concentrate on literary analysis and discussion of the required reading, so sentence instruction has to have a razor-thin focus to be effective for my pedagogical goal.”— Elisa Affanato, MA
Course: EN211 Masterpieces of Literature
Frequency: One 4-hour class meeting per week for 5 weeks
Class size: 7
Course description: Students read and discuss selections from world literature, focusing on themes such as the human relationship to nature, God, others, and self. The course emphasizes the way in which reading, discussing, and writing about literature are foundational to understanding the human condition.
EN211 Masterpieces of LiteratureSee materials
Lesson: Build better sentences through sentence modeling games
Who Wrote It?
Do you know who wrote these famous sentences? (Note: The main clause is in bold.)
- “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
- “He chased us silently over picket fences, through thorny hedges, between houses, around garbage cans, and across streets.”
- It is Sunday, mid-morning—Sunday in the living room, Sunday in the kitchen, Sunday in the woodshed, Sunday down the road in the village: I hear the bells, calling me to share God’s grace.”
- Annie Dillard, An American Childhood
- E.B. White, “Sunday Morning”
- William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Answer key: 1. C; 2. A; 3. B.
Affanato admits that she does not have a great deal of time to devote to enhanced writing. “For the majority of my class time, I concentrate on literary analysis and discussion of the required reading, so sentence instruction has to have a razor-thin focus to be effective for my pedagogical goal,” she says. As a result, she sets aside the first 20 minutes of every class for a sentence structure lesson, in which she does not merely lecture but provides engaging, hands-on activities.
Just as important: There is a progression to the activities, with each week’s sentence activity, building on the lesson from the week before. Here’s a look at how Affanato’s scaffolding approach plays out:
Activity #1: The “magnetic poetry” activity
Refrigerator-magnet poetry involves tiny magnets, each with a word or sometimes a whole clause or phrase, which are used to build poetic thoughts or sentences. During the first class meeting, Affanato introduces an exercise that relies on a similar activity using paper strips.
First, Affanato hands each student a sheet of paper with an envelope attached. The handout lists five simple base clauses (independent clauses). The envelope holds five strips of paper with descriptive phrases (dependent clauses) that students will use to modify these base clauses.
Simple base (independent) causes
These appear on the handout:
- The cat stretched out on the carpet
- She finished her essay
- The tree colored well in the fall
- The rabbit raced ahead of me
- The landscape is beautiful in winter
Modifying phrases (dependent clauses)
These are on the five separate strips:
- absorbing the afternoon sun streaming through the window
- demonstrating both a close reading and well-supported analysis
- crimson leaves contrasting a gray sky
- disappearing into the daffodils
- draped in a blanket of snow
Affanato asks students to pair a modifying phrase from the envelope with a base clause on the handout, so that each sentence is “enhanced.” Next, she tells them to add the correct punctuation.
When all students have assembled their word puzzles, Affanato uses an overhead projector to show the correctly assembled sentences:
- The cat stretched out on the carpet, absorbing the afternoon sun streaming through the window.
- She finished her essay, demonstrating both a close reading and well-supported analysis.
- The tree colored well in the fall, crimson leaves contrasting a gray sky.
- The rabbit raced ahead of me, disappearing into the daffodils.
- The landscape is beautiful in winter, draped in a blanket of snow.
The activity works well as a warm-up, says Affanato: It is easy, quick, and the students find it enjoyable.
Activity #2: The “sentences I wish I had written” exercise
During the first 20 minutes of the next class, Affanato builds on the first lesson by using slightly more complex sentences selected from a novel by one of her favorite American authors. She introduces these sentences by telling students, “These are the sentences I wish I had written.”
Here are two examples she provides from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
- “I walked back along the border of the lawn, traversed the gravel softly, and tiptoed up the veranda steps.”
- “I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines give to the restless eye.”
Affanato breaks down the syntax of Fitzgerald’s sentences, showing how the base clause (in bold) provides the main idea, and that the idea is clarified and developed by the addition of modifiers.
In each subsequent class meeting, she uses the first 20 minutes to present other masterful sentences from other masterful writers. In time, students begin to amass a collection of quotes that they can imitate when working to enhance their own writing.
An Inspiration in Her Own Right
After undergoing brain surgery for craniosynostosis, Elisa Affanato became a runner. It began as a labor of love for her son, an autistic young man who is now 21.
“He looks to me for everything,” she says. “I started running to try to impress him. Every time there was a race, I was determined to finish the darn thing. I said to him, ‘If I can do this, you can do many things.’”
Her son now swims in the Special Olympics, and she has increased her mileage so much that she enjoys participating in marathons.
As an adjunct professor of English at Montreat College in Charlotte, North Carolina, Affanato brings this same drive and dedication to her students: She tells them that she believes that they, too, can do many things—much more than they can even imagine.
Activity #3: The “sentence detective” extra-credit assignment
After the students grasp the enhanced sentence structure, Affanato challenges them again—this time to seek their own favorite sentences from the works of authors they admire.
At this point, students have opportunities to earn extra credit with a sentence presentation. First, they share a model sentence from a literary work of their choice and explain its structure. Next, they post their own original sentence, composed of a simple base clause. Last, they post a revision of the sentence, adding rich details through the use of using free modifiers and dependent clauses.
Activity #4: The “Who Wrote It?” trivia game
Affanato continues presenting the sentence models throughout the semester, but she begins to omit the authors’ names, creating a trivia game. (See “Who Wrote It?”) “Identifying authors of the sentences can eventually lead students to begin recognizing familiar sentence structural patterns and style,” she notes. This also shows how powerful language can be: Not only do enhanced sentences make a literary work more interesting but they also can make a writer’s voice immediately identifiable. Like a fingerprint or DNA, each writer is unique—and once Affanato completes her instruction, this can also be said for the student-writers themselves.
A final thought: Keep the language friendly
Affanato recommends that instructors who try these activities do not use much grammatical terminology, as it can muddy the waters. The idea is to help students divert their attention from grammar to sentence structure. “Use limited terms: independent and dependent clauses and modifiers. This is our working vocabulary,” she says. In fact, she has a poster in the room that defines the few terms students need to know.
The jargon-light approach also takes the pressure off of students who never really got the hang of sentence diagramming. She wants them to realize that they do not have to know the definition of subjunctive mood or a conjunctive adverb to be capable of crafting beautiful sentences.
Affanato has found that the students have a great deal of fun with the activities. “They laugh, and some of the sentences that they make up are brilliant,” she says.
The process resembles a sort of math problem in which student writers are literally plugging words and phrases into their sentences to see what works. At one point, in the middle of assembling some creative sentences, the laughter was so loud that a teacher from another class came over and asked what they were doing. She found it hard to believe that Affanato’s students were having that much fun studying grammar.
The feedback Affanato has received has been uniformly positive. Students tell her they love the activities. “I have received incredible student evaluations and they were really, really good because they were really specific,” she says. Some of the comments students have written about Affanato:
- “Elisa loves learning and is dedicated to her academic career.”
- “Ms. Affanato is passionate about her field; she creates a supportive environment, and she is able to teach in a way that every student is able to learn.”
- “[Ms. Affanato] has empathy for all individuals, especially those, like myself, who learn and process information in unconventional ways.”
But her favorite comment is this: “Professor Affanato is cool.”
“I especially enjoy the irony of that,” she says, “because cool is not usually an adjective used to describe a grammar teacher.”