Research School Network: Breaking Down Complex Writing Tasks Part 2: Sentence Construction We unpick the complexities of writing one piece at a time

Breaking Down Complex Writing Tasks Part 2: Sentence Construction

We unpick the complexities of writing one piece at a time

Recommendation 4 of the EEF’s Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools is Break down complex writing tasks,’ and it acknowledges that even seemingly simple writing tasks can be more complex than we at first imagine. Because writing is central to so many subjects, we must try to understand just what makes writing so hard. The Simple View of Writing, developed by Berninger et al identifies three essential components: Transcription; Executive Function and Composition. Over a series of blogs, we are explore how to address each of these elements, starting with transcription. Last time we explored the importance of spelling. This time we look at sentence transcription.

Remember that as pupils are beginning to write, much of the attention is given to transcription skills. They will concentrate on spelling individual words and forming letters. As these processes become more automatic, they will also begin to organise writing into more complex sentences and begin to compose larger texts. However, the ability to compose these texts will largely depend on pupils’ writing fluency, which will be affected if they are paying too much attention to any of these aspects. When trying to support pupils’ writing development, we should consider whether transcription is one of the issues. And one problem with transcription is the ability to combine ideas into sentences.


In the Literacy Development Evidence Review (Breadwell et al, 2019) which accompanies the guidance report, they note the following on the development of writing fluency: Andrews et al. (2006), in their meta-analysis of grammar-based interventions for writing, found significant benefits of an approach known as sentence combining, where children are taught to create more complex sentences by combining simple (‘kernel’) sentences.”

It’s a topic we have written extensively about before, including this article for SecEd. A kernel, sometimes called a proposition is a unit of meaning and can be written as a sentence of its own. Take these two:

  • It was raining.
  • It was windy.

Novice writers might write those sentences one after another. Some would combine using and – It was raining and it was windy. Most would write – It was raining and windy. When writers become increasingly sophisticated, it is an ability to combine all of the kernels that have occurred to them into complex, purposeful sentences that ensures writing fluency. The more difficult it becomes to turn these ideas into sentences, the less fluent writing can become.

The power of modelling

One of the most effective ways to teach the complexities of sentence combining is by modelling. The seven-step model in the EEF’s Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning guidance report is a helpful way to think about how to approach this:

  1. Activating prior knowledge
  2. Explicit strategy instruction
  3. Modelling of learned strategy
  4. Memorisation of strategy
  5. Guided practice
  6. Independent practice
  7. Structured reflection

If we return to the weather example earlier, a teacher could share the following propositions:

  • It was raining.
  • Charlotte was soaked.

They could articulate the process. I am going to combine these ideas into one sentence. What is the relationship between the two propositions? Ok, Charlotte is soaked because of the rain. I can combine those using the word because. Because it was raining, Charlotte was soaked. Are there other ways that I can combine them. Yes, I can rearrange the clauses. Charlotte was soaked because it was raining.” As we saw in last week’s blog post, the structured reflection part is important to model: Which one of these is the most effective?”

Depending on what you want to highlight, you could increase the number of propositions:

  • It was raining.
  • Charlotte didn’t have an umbrella.
  • Charlotte didn’t have a coat.
  • Charlotte went outside.
  • Charlotte was soaked.

Without a coat or umbrella, Charlotte went outside in the rain and ended up soaked.

Jeff 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. Therefore, we should be looking to emphasise ways of sentence combining within subjects that helps to facilitate particular ways of thinking in that subject. Our job is to remove some of the attention placed on having to think of how to present sentences. 


Pupils often only practise these skills when they actually sit down to write. But it’s useful to build fluency before all the additional complexities of writing composition are added on top. William Strong (1986) recommends a number of drills to practise.

Drill 1: Underline what to keep

In this drill, we focus on keeping the main ideas and eliminating superfluous words:

  • He was scared.
  • He was hungry.
  • He was lost.

He was scared, hungry and lost.

The monster dropped dead.

  • It was twitching.
  • It was gasping.
  • It was bleeding.

Twitching, gasping, bleeding, the monster dropped dead.

Drill 2: Prompt

  • Buzz gets ten points.
  • He combines these sentences. (IF)
  • His combining will be correct. (LY)

Buzz gets ten points if he combines these sentences correctly.

Or these can be combined:

  • Eggs are versatile.
  • You can fry them. (BECAUSE)
  • You can boil them.
  • You can poach them.

Eggs are versatile because you can fry, boil and poach them.

  • The monster dropped dead.
  • It twitched. (ING)
  • It gasped. (ING)
  • It bled. (ING)

Twitching, gasping, bleeding, the monster dropped dead.

So, in order to improve writing fluency, why not spend more time practising sentence combining?

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Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond, Jeff Anderson & Deborah Dean, Stenhouse Publishers, 2014.

Creative Approaches to Sentence Combining, William Strong, ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and the National Council of Teachers of English, 1986:

Breadmore, H. et al. (2019). Literacy Development: A Review of the Evidence. Available at:

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