We know grammar matters. It matters because, without it, your reader has no clue what your message is. Like a grandma reading a teenager's text messages, they will be lost and confused. And this is often what I am when I look at fourth graders' writing. Unfortunately, they've been 'learning' about nouns, verbs, periods, and capitals for five years of their lives with basically no evidence to support this claim.
So we needed to take some drastic measures. Enter: Mentor Sentences.
To help my kids learn about a complete sentence, I wrote a simple sentence with lots of parts of speech. I wanted them to really understand what the subject was (who or what the sentence is about) and what the predicate was (what the subject does or is).
Day OneThe first mentor sentence I introduced was "The terrifying tornado spun ferociously through the tiny town."
I read the sentence aloud, slowly, and asked the kids to visualize it. Why was it a great sentence? What did the author do to make it a great sentence? We recorded our noticings on the chart. We noticed things like how descriptive the sentence was and how the writer used some strong word choice.
Then we dissected it: We identified the subject and the predicate and marked them in red and green.
In their notebooks, the kids glued the sentence and marked up the subject and predicate, and the questions that would help them find those parts of a sentence.
Day TwoI gave each student a little table to glue into their notebooks. Each column was labeled with a different part of speech and there was a little space above it. A strategy that has helped my students identify parts of speech is questioning. Each part of speech answers a question in a simple sentence.
Nouns: who, what?
Adjectives: What kind, how many?
Verbs: Did what, is what?
Prepositional Phrases: Where?
These questions aren't foolproof, but they are a great place to start!
To help kids apply what they were learning about parts of speech and subjects and predicates, we practiced dividing up some run-on sentences. We marked the subject of each sentence in red and the predicate in green. Noticing when the new subject was introduced helped kids realize when sentence were run-ons.
I don't love workbooks, but we used a workbook page and colored pencils to practice identifying subjects, predicates, and complete sentences, and we continued to build a common language for talking about writing.
The fourth day was super fun. I gave a little baggie to each pair of kids. I'd recorded the sentence on a sentence strip and cut it into individual words. Holding my timer aloft, I said, "You have thirty seconds to build our mentor sentence!"
Their hands flew and the cards were shuffled like mad. They did it, every last kid!
Then I asked them to separate the subject from the predicate. They separated "The terrifying tornado" from "spun ferociously through the tiny town."
We spent a minute or two reviewing parts of speech: Point to the noun in the subject. Point to the adjective that describes the noun. What word shows the action the noun did? The verb! Find the verb. Point to the adverb that explains how the verb was done. Point to the prepositional phrase that answers the question, "where?"
And then we manipulated the sentence. This was tricky. The first thing that the kids did to make a new sentence was that they switched "ferociously" and "terrifying". This resulted in: "The ferociously tornado spun terrifying through the tiny town." This, of course, brought about a conversation about the difference between adjectives and adverbs and which words they can describe or modify.
Then they tried, "The tiny tornado spun ferociously through the terrifying town," which was pretty funny. At first, many of them seemed to think it was ok. I had them close their eyes and visualize as I read the sentence. When the giggles began, I knew they got it. We discussed how simply flipping words wasn't a great way to revise a sentence. You need to flip phrases.
Because this was the first time, I suggested trying, "Through the tiny town," at the beginning of the sentence. Then I asked them to try, "Ferociously," at the beginning of the sentence, too. They started to realize that adverbs can go in various places around the sentence, and prepositional phrases can, too. This creates more interesting sentences.
We charted our revised sentences on our anchor chart.
Day FiveThe last day, we used the mentor sentence to write a modeled sentence. We chose a noun: volcano (by popular consent). I asked the questions to build a sentence around the word volcano. As the kids came up with words, I challenged them to replace ordinary words (big) with specific and interesting word choice, and this is what we came up with:
Who or what? (Noun) Volcano.
What kind? (Adjective) Dangerous.
Did what? (Verb) Rumbled.
How? (Adverb) Violently.
Where? (Prepositional Phrase) In the middle of the town.
Whole sentence: The dangerous volcano rumbled violently in the middle of the town.
It was awesome! The kids were excited to try their own, so I asked the questions slowly so they could choose their own noun and craft their own sentence. It was so much fun.
Have you used mentor sentences in the classroom? How has it worked for you?
Want to get started? Grab my Mentor Sentences Grammar Notebook for the first nine weeks (or whenever you're ready to start!) on TPT!