Grammar and the Gertie Ball ™. “Grammar and the Gertie Ball ™ ” gets you going on rhetorical grammar, the kind of thinking about sentence structure that allows us to make informed choices about how we craft sentences.
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“Grammar and the Gertie Ball™” gets you going on rhetorical grammar, the kind of thinking about
sentence structure that allows us to make informed choices about how we craft sentences.
“Grammar and the Gertie Ball™” is played only when the students have their rough drafts in hand.
The idea is to have the students toss the ball to determine which of the eight sentence-crafting
techniques to put into play on one of the sentences in their drafts.
To set up Grammar and the Gertie Ball™, use a
permanent marker to write the techniques, one in
each of the sections delineated on the ball.
In the beginning stages, have one student toss the
ball on behalf of the class to determine the technique
to be practiced.
You will then deliver a brief lesson on the designated
technique. Students are expected to demonstrate knowledge
of the technique by transforming at least one of the sentences
in their draft. They need to hi-light this sentence on their
Eventually, students will be able to work in groups to
accomplish their revisions.
Presented by Amy Benjamin. www.amybenjamin.com
Purpose: When you teach students to use prepositional phrases to begin some of their sentences, you’ve
taught them two important skills in the sentence-crafting:
1. Varying sentence structure
Most novices begin sentence after sentence with the subject word.
This gives their style a blunt, plodding rhythm. By beginning some
sentences with prepositional phrases, the writer achieves a softer,
more professional variety in sentence rhythms.
2. Setting the stage for the action of the sentence
Prepositional phrases often give information about time and place.
So by beginning sentences with prepositional phrases, we set the
reader up with a visual that clarifies the sentence.
Mini-Lesson on prepositions and prepositional phrases: You can easily teach prepositional phrases via
the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Any word that can replace “over” is likely to be a
preposition. To teach what we mean by the term “object of a preposition,” replace the word
“rainbow” with any other word.
Variation: Start with the sentence: “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s
house we go.” Substitute other words for “over” and “through” and you’ll generate a list
of prepositions that show placement.
Remember: Not all prepositions give information about placement. Some (“At night,” “after lunch”) give
information about time. The word “of” is also a preposition, although sentences beginning it
Build awareness of the concept by looking for sentences in literature that open with prepositional phrases.
Purpose: Students often lack an awareness of the power of strong action verbs, as opposed to
linking verbs. When you get them to consciously employ strong action verbs instead
of overused verbs (have, get) or linking verbs, you enliven their language. The verb
acts as the engine of the sentence: teach students to install a strong, pepp
Mini-lesson: Teach that the verb is the word that changes when we transform the sentence from present
to past tense, or vice versa. Ask: When does the sentence happen? Does it happen now, or
did it happen yesterday?” This question will cue them in to the tensed verb of the sentence.
Another teaching technique is that if you make a positive sentence negative (or, a negative
sentence positive), you will find that the word “not” or “no” settles right in beside the verb.
The positive-negative test will help you locate the tensed verb.
Build awareness of the concept by finding sentences in literature that employ strong action verbs.
Purpose: Noun phrase appositives are nouns or noun phrases that sidle up right next to nouns that
they re-name, like this: “My mother, a famous opera singer, never eats garlic before a performance.”
When you teach your students to use noun phrase appositives, you teach them to enrich the meaning
of their key nouns. You also teach them to make their writing more concise since noun phrase appositives
are one way of combining sentences.
Mini-lesson: Define noun phrase appositives as “re-namers” and help students locate them in
authentic text. They are rather easy to find because they are set off by a pair of commas.
Because they are noun phrases, they are often introduced by an article (a, an, the).
Remember: Noun phrase appositives are set off by a pair of commas.
1. Write a sentence.
An appositive is a “renamer” that
follows a noun. The “renamer” is
set off by commas on both sides.
Ex: Strawberry cheesecake, my favorite dessert,
tastes best when refrigerated.
3. Repeat your sentence,
reversing the appositive and
the noun that it renames.
4. Repeat your sentence, giving it a new
Purpose: Appositve adjective pairs are two adjectives joined by “and” that appear immediately after
the noun or noun phrase that they modify. Appositive adjective pairs are set off by a pair
Ex: Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travels homeward.
When you teach your students to use appositive adjective pairs, you’ve taught them to
write in an elevated, poetic style that emphasizes adjectives by placing them in the
post-noun, rather than the usual pre-noun, position.
Mini-lesson: Help students understand what an adjective is by telling them that an adjective is
a word that you can put “more” or “most” in front of. (For short adjectives, you can
add –er and –est endings.) Another way is to tell them that an adjective is a word
that will fit into this frame: “The ____________ truck.” Show students how adjectives,
when they are doing the average, expected job, appear before the noun as in
“The red truck.” We can also use an adjective after a form of the verb TO BE, as in
“The truck IS red.” However, if we want the adjective to receive special attention, we
can pair it up with another adjective and place it on the OTHER side of the noun that
it modifies, setting it off with a pair of commas.
Build awareness of the concept by looking for post-noun adjectives in literature, which often employs
post-noun adjective pairs, as in the example above, from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Purpose: Good writers make deliberate decisions about when to use active voice and when to
use passive voice. Novice writers tend to overuse passive voice. You can tell that a
sentence is in passive voice because there is no agent doing the action.
Ex: Active voice: The first baseman threw the ball to second.
Passive voice: The ball was thrown to second. OR
The ball was thrown to second by the first baseman.
When you teach students to recognize passive voice and question whether the sentence
would be better in active voice, you are teaching them a critical thinking and language
management skill that will make them more effective communicators.
Mini-lesson: Have students transform messages from active to passive voice and vice versa. Have them
evaluate which form is more effective for the purpose and audience. You will find good
examples of sentences written in active voice in sports writing. You will find good examples
of sentences written in passive voice in math writing (“The numerator is divided by the
denominator.”) and often in businesslike writing (“Shoes and shirts are required.”)
Every sentence is written in either active or passive voice. Build awareness of voice when reading
authentic text. Get students accustomed to switching from one to the other and evaluating the
effect that either active or passive voice has upon the reader.
Purpose: When you teach your students to include adverbial clauses in their sentences,
you are enabling them to create sentences that deliver information beyond the
basics. Adverbial clauses are clauses (subject + verb units) that answer any one
of the questions that adverbs answer: When? Where? Why? To what extent?
In what manner?
Mini-Lesson: Because adverbial clauses are introduced by subordinating conjunctions, you can
teach your students to include subordinating conjunctions in their sentences. The
most common subordinating conjunctions are as follows:
As, Although, After
Note that adverbial clauses create complex sentences.: A complex sentence is a sentence having
a main clause plus a subordinate clause. We can recognize the subordinate clause because it is the
clause that begins with one of the subordinating conjunctions above. When the main clause comes
first, we do not need a comma to separate the two clauses. However, when the clauses are reversed,
with the subordinate clause coming first, then we do need a comma after the subordinate clause.
Purpose: When you teach your students to use a semicolon to create a compound sentence, you
are teaching them to create parallel sentences. Ideally, a “semicolon sentence” signals
that there are two independent clauses that are similar in both meaning and structure:
they could each be separate, but they want to be together.,
Mini-lesson: Explain the relationship between the two independent clauses in a compound
sentence that is joined by a semicolon as a marriage: The semicolon is “licensed” to
create a “legal” tie between two independent entities (clauses) that have so much in
common that they wish to be united.
Build awareness of how semicolons work in compound sentences by noticing them in
authentic text. Editorials are great places in which to find semicolon sentences. Encourage critical thinking by having students evaluate other choices that the writer could have made to join or separate clauses. (Note: A semicolon can also be used to
separate items in a series when the items themselves contain commas.)
Purpose: When you teach students to write sentences containing parallel structure, you
are teaching them to expand their ideas and present them in a way that the reader
will find smooth and well-crafted. A sentence with parallel structure is “in tune” with
its own parts.
Mini-lesson: There are all kinds of parallel structure: adjective-noun phrases, participials,
correlative clauses, infinitives, etc. The key to finding parallel structure (for a novice)
is to look for the word and. When we find parallel structure, we need to name them
for the students so that the students can see why they are parallel.
Build awareness of parallel structure by finding examples of it in authentic text. Realize that
parallel structure can be subtle. Often, the more we examine well-written text, the more
instances of parallel structure we will find. Parallel structure can exist within single sentences.
But we can also find parallel structure in sentences that “live” within the same paragraph.
Oratory is the best kind of discourse in which to find parallel structure. Skillful speakers know that
parallel structure creates orderliness and memorability in their language. Find examples of
parallel structure in Presidential Inaugural addresses.