Literacy: Combining sentences across subjects

Written by: Mark Miller | Published:
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Encouraging active use of sentence combining across different subjects can help to improve writing fluency. Mark Miller explains

An ability to write fluently is a prerequisite for success in most subjects, but there are lots of reasons why our students cannot achieve this. Fluency happens when attention is placed on writing composition without the need to focus on some other elements which require additional cognitive resources.

This means that to free up cognitive resources, we need to ensure that automaticity is achieved in handwriting, spelling and sentence construction.

The Education Endowment Foundation, in its guidance report Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2, states: “Pupils need to learn to construct increasingly sophisticated sentences, for meaning and effect, with speed.”

Don’t let the key stage mislead you – there are some clear implications for secondary teachers too. One of them is to extensively practise sentence combining. The notion of sentence combining is straightforward. Let’s take the following two sentences:

  • The golfer hit a shot.
  • The shot was perfect.

A simple way of combining these sentences is: “The golfer hit a shot and the shot was perfect.” While grammatically sound, this is not how we write, so the most appropriate way of combining these ideas is: “The golfer hit a perfect shot.’’

As writing gets more complex, we no longer simply have to combine two sentences. We often have multiple sentences to combine and these sentences have many different ideas contained within them. We move from simple sentence combining to the combination of many points, what Jeff Anderson calls “propositions”.

Anderson writes in Revision Decisions (2014) that “the point of combining is not simply to put two sentences together (one sentence ... and ... another sentence) to make a long sentence. The point of sentence combining is for young writers to see relationships among ideas and to discover more effective ways to show these relationships.”

He continues: “Sentence combining is about playing with ideas and shaping them into effective syntactical patterns that make sense for individual writing situations.”

The good news is we have billions of examples of writers combining these propositions into sentences. Take this one, from Il Duro by DH Lawrence: “He suddenly began to speak, leaning forward, hot and feverish and yellow, upon the iron rail of the balcony.”

We can break this up into the various propositions. I suggest these eight:

  • He began to speak.
  • He spoke suddenly.
  • He leant forward.
  • He leant on the balcony.
  • The balcony had an iron rail.
  • He was hot.
  • He was feverish.
  • He was yellow.

By my calculations, there are 40,320 different ways to organise these eight propositions. While I would never wish to improve the work of Lawrence, we can certainly explore different ways of putting these together with students. For example, what happens when we move the main clause to the end of the sentence? What happens when we rearrange the order of the list of adjectives? Can we change the main clause to “he leant forward”?

In these discussions, we look at the ways ideas can be combined – through coordination, subordination, through causal relationships, right branches, left branches, colons, commas, appositives, prepositions and present participles.

Generally, certain decisions will come up again and again – deleting of superfluous words; rearranging words; changing word endings; using connecting words, e.g. conjunctions and prepositions.

Here are the propositions from another sentence in Il Duro:

  • Her head was tied in a kerchief.
  • The kerchief was red.
  • Pieces of hair stuck out over her ears.
  • The hair was short.
  • The hair looked like dirty snow.

Why not have a go at reconstructing Lawrence’s original sentence? As you do so, consider what choices you make and how you might explain these choices to students (you can find the actual sentence at the end of this article).

Students can be given prompts/support for combining these propositions and set up “drills” to practise. One way is to highlight the words from the propositions to keep.

  • He was hot.
  • He was feverish.
  • He was yellow.

We can also add cues:

  • I eat oranges.
  • They are very tasty. (BECAUSE)

We can prompt to rearrange sentences in different ways. Returning to the Lawrence example above:

  1. Begin with leaning.
  2. Begin with hot.
  3. Begin with he.
  4. Begin with as.

When students are comfortable with the various ways to combine sentences, their sentences become precision tools. We go from the sentence being a result of a series of disparate thoughts, to a way of supporting new thoughts and better ideas.

These examples are from fiction, which might suggest that sentence combining is just the domain of the English teacher. To an extent, this will be the place where students discuss the mechanics of sentence construction, but we must remember that most subjects have written components, and there is a need for writing fluency in those subjects too. Often, the control our students have of their sentences can be a vital factor in conveying information fluently, precisely and concisely.

In this example from history, a student needs to convey several ideas about the rise of the Nazis:

  • The treaty of Versailles was signed.
  • Hyper-inflation in Germany occurred.
  • There was a rise of far-right groups.
  • The Nazis became a prominent political power.

Yes, they can list four separate sentences as above. Or, they can rearrange to show a causal relationship:

“As a consequence of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, hyper-inflation occurred, which led to the emergence of far-right groups and the rise of the Nazis as a prominent political power.

“Ultimately, the rise of far-right groups such as the Nazis can be attributed to the signing of the treaty of Versailles and the subsequent hyper-inflation.”

The history teacher can model the way that these propositions are put together, drawing attention to some common features of “historical” sentences, e.g. “as a consequence” and “which led to” in the first sentence or “ultimately”, “can be attributed to” and “subsequent” in the second.

In the next example, a science teacher has practised combining various propositions using a prompt:

  • Calcium Carbonate chips are placed into a test-tube.
  • Hydrochloric acid is added.
  • The Hydrochloric acid reacts with the Calcium Carbonate.
  • The reaction produces Carbon Dioxide (AS A RESULT OF).

“As a result of the reaction between Calcium Carbonate and Hydrochloric acid, Carbon Dioxide is produced.”

With sufficient practice, this way of combining propositions into cause and effect becomes natural. So when they are encountering a new experiment, the mindset of combining ideas into cause and effect helps students to anticipate this set of circumstances. The sentence drives the thinking. Each subject has its own range of typical sentences to demonstrate/prompt certain ways of thinking.

Sentence combining is not the same as real writing. It’s an artificial way of practising some of the decisions that the best writers don’t realise they are making. Often, sentences arrive seemingly fully formed in the writer’s brain. It’s the deliberate focus of sentence combining exercises along with metacognitive teacher modelling which will help to make writing more automatic.

Where next?

  • Ask students to unpick sentences into propositions before putting back together in alternative ways.
  • Compare sentences and discuss differences in meaning and effect.
  • Model how to put propositions together, explicitly narrating the specific choices made.
  • Start with main clauses and explore how sentences change when the information precedes (left-branching) or follows (right-branching) the main clause.
  • Use sentence combining as a way to address common problems, e.g. dangling participles.
  • Regularly practise sentence combining drills for common sentences in your subject.
  • Consider using proposition combining as an alternative to writing frames and scaffolds.


  • Mark Miller is head of Bradford Research School at the Dixons Academies Trust, part of the Research Schools Network – a collaboration between the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). Visit https://bradford.researchschool.org.uk & www.the-iee.org.uk

Lawrence’s kerchief

Her head was tied in a dark-red kerchief, but pieces of hair, like dirty snow, quite short, stuck out over her ears.

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