Word by Word: 5 Fun and Easy Strategies for Helping Students Build Better Sentences

Word by Word
5 Fun and Easy Strategies for Helping Students Build Better Sentences

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 8,317 views |

Whether your students are just beginning their English studies or have been students of the language for several years, chances are they can improve their spoken and written language.

Sometimes we think the harder strategies are the more effective they are, but strong sentence improvements don’t have to be complicated. Just some simple strategies can turn boring, bland sentences into interesting and appealing vehicles for information, and they don’t require any advanced knowledge of English grammar. Here are five simple strategies you can teach your students for making their sentences more interesting, and you won’t even have to do any prep work to teach them. Teaching and using these tools are as easy as pie.

Make Your Sentences Livelier Using These Ideas

  1. 1

    Descriptive Words

    There is no easier way to make a sentence more interesting than by adding descriptive words. These words, otherwise known as adjectives and adverbs, give readers and listeners a better picture of a given scene that a writer or speaker is trying to convey. Depending on the level of your students, you may be simply introducing the idea of adjectives and adverbs. If your students are comfortable with using these essential parts of speech, encourage your class to choose as many sensory words as they can within the realms of adjectives and adverbs – words that covey sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. The more sensory words your students can use in their writing and speaking, the easier their listeners will be able to imagine themselves in the world being described.

    Practice: Ask students to share a story about a memorable experience in their lives, either orally with a partner or in writing. Then as a class, brainstorm several adjectives and adverbs they might use to make their stories more interesting, particularly words that covey information about the five senses. Have students retell or rewrite their stories using as many sensory words as possible. Ask their partners to point out the better version (choosing between the original and the sensory heavy one) and explain why they thought their choice was better.

  2. 2

    The Rule of Three

    The rule of three in writing is simple. Lists of three items have power in the written word. Once your students are comfortable adding adjectives and adverbs to their sentences, challenge them to go beyond the one-word additions by adding a list of three. Instead of saying this: the bear was big. Say this: the bear was big, bad, and hungry. Instead of saying this: we slaved over our homework. Say this: we slaved, sweated, and sobbed over our homework. It’s not hard to add three adjectives to a sentence when you are already adding one. Just point out the punctuation pattern for lists like these. Students should include a comma after every item in a list of three or more with the exception of the last one. (The comma before the and in such lists is optional, and you can teach your students to either include or omit it.)

    Practice: Give students a list of sentences that contain one adjective and/or adverb. Challenge students to transform that one descriptive word into a list of three. Have students compare their revised sentences to see how different lists of three can convey different ideas to the reader.

  3. 3

    Strong Verbs

    Choosing strong verbs over simple ones is a writing strategy even professional writers use. The more specific your verb, the stronger it is considered and the more effective it is in your sentence. You can even find entire books dedicated to banishing boring words from written English. Using strong verbs, however, has double value for ESL students. It increases their receptive and productive vocabularies in addition to producing more interesting sentences. If you haven’t made a point of teaching word families with vocabulary instruction, encourage your students to use a thesaurus to find more powerful verbs to use in their writing. Encourage your students to start their strong verb by replacing any occurrence of these boring verbs: be, eat, hear, find, make, see, and say.

    Practice: Have your students take out a piece of writing they have done for a previous assignment and look for and highlight any occurrence of the boring verbs listed above as well as any other bland verbs. Then have them use a thesaurus to replace these verbs with more specific synonyms that they find in the reference book.

  4. 4

    A Prepositional Proposition

    Prepositional phrases are another easy way to make sentences more interesting for ESL students. Many English students have, at one point or another in their language studies, memorized a partial or complete list of prepositions in English. They probably already know what meaning most prepositions are trying to convey. By adding one of these short but sweet words along with the noun phrase that completes it will make even the simplest of sentences more interesting. I bought a sandwich becomes I bought a sandwich with juicy chicken at the deli next to our campus. With these simple phrases you know more about what the sandwich was like and where it came from. The sentences is still (grammatically) considered a simple sentence, but it conveys so much more meaning than the one without prepositional phrases.

    Practice: Write a simple sentence on the board and challenge your students to add one or more prepositional phrases to make it more interesting. If you really want to challenge your students, have them draw a preposition out of a hat and see if they can add a phrase using that specific preposition and still have the sentence make sense.

  5. 5

    A Simple Simile

    He was as hungry as a bear. He was quick like a gazelle. These sentences contain one of the simplest literary devices you can use in English – similes. A simile is nothing more than a comparison between two things using the word like or as, and your ESL students can use them to make their English more interesting and colorful. Start by giving your students some examples of sentences that use similes, such as the two above. Then see if your students can spot the formula for these simple phrases. To form a simile using as, follow this pattern: …as ADJ as NOUN. Similes using like follow this pattern: …ADJ like NOUN. It’s as simple as that. Similes can be realistic or full of imagination. Either way, they will add information and interest to the sentences your students are writing and saying.

    Practice: Give your students examples of some simple sentences with basic descriptive words such as “He was hungry.” Then have students use the given adjective to create a simile following the patterns listed above. Ask volunteers to share their similes with the rest of the class.

Interesting English sentences don’t have to be complicated. These simple strategies, adding descriptive words, following the rule of three, adding prepositional phrases, choosing strong verbs, and using similes for descriptions, are easy and straightforward. They don’t require advanced grammar from your students, and even the most basic level students can begin incorporating them in their writing and speech. Best of all, you don’t have to do any special preparation to teach these strategies to your students. All it takes is a small investment of time on your part for a big payoff in interesting sentences for your students.

Which of these strategies do you most like teaching your students?

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