linguistic development in sentence mastery debra myhill n.
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Linguistic Development in Sentence Mastery Debra Myhill. Every line, every phrase, may pass the ordeal of deliberation and deliberate choice . Samuel Taylor Coleridge Conscious manipulation of syntax deepens engagement and releases invention. Ted Hughes.

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Every line, every phrase, may pass the ordeal of deliberation and deliberate choice.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  • Conscious manipulation of syntax deepens engagement and releases invention.

Ted Hughes

theoretical framework
Theoretical Framework

A multidisciplinary framework for researching writing:

  • Writing as cognitive process (psychological)
  • Writing as social practice (socio-cultural)
  • Writing as linguistic mastery (linguistic)
theoretical framework1
Theoretical Framework

What can linguistics offer to writing pedagogy?

  • Linguistics has not offered ‘the theoretical and

methodological tools either for the analysis of writing … or

for the analysis and understanding of the developmental

processes and stages in the learning of writing’ (Kress 1994)

  • ‘We think it is possible to develop a linguistic theory of good

structures for sentences, paragraphs, and texts, but it

requires a new kind of linguistic analysis. Such a theory

would have direct implications for the teaching of writing’.

(Collins and Gentner 1980)

theoretical framework2
Theoretical Framework

The written sentence is different from the spoken utterance:

  • more integrated than speech;
  • more complex structures;
  • more subordination;
  • more premodification;
  • more participial subordination;
  • greater lexical density.

Czerniewska 1992

  • ‘the sentence belongs to writing’ (Kress 1994)
theoretical framework3
Theoretical Framework

Sentence variety:

‘lack of variety in sentence patterns is not necessarily evident in oral language because the speaker is able to vary the rhythm, speed and volume of delivery and to place the intonation nucleus anywhere in the clause. In writing, however, these paralinguistic and prosodic features are absent, so monotony of grammatical structure is thrown into prominence’.

Perera 1984

theoretical framework4
Theoretical Framework
  • From knowledge telling to knowledge transforming

(Bereiter and Scardamalia 1987)

  • From writing for self to writing for others

(Perera 1984)

  • The development of the monitor

(Hayes and Flower 1980)

  • Seeing writing as creative design

(Sharples 1999)

  • Sample: 720 complete pieces of writing
  • Stratified by gender, and quality of writing
  • Detailed analysis of 100 words at sentence level
  • Detailed analysis of whole piece at paragraph and text level
  • Quantitative and qualitative data
  • Focus on making connections between linguistic structures and construction of meaning

Coding frame for sentence analysis:

Sentence length: shortest sentence; minor sentences

Clause structure: co-ordination; subordination; non-finite clauses

Sentence openings: Subject; Adverbial; non-finite clause; finite subordinate clause; fronting; clefting

Syntactical structures: inversions; subject clauses; number and length of noun phrases

sentence length
Sentence Length
  • Average sentence length increased with age, but not with


  • The longest sentence of able writers was longer than

average and weak writers

  • The longest sentence of weak writers was often confused
  • Able writers used sentence length/brevity as a way of

enhancing meaning

sentence length brevity
Sentence length: brevity

Good writers: use short sentences for effect or emphasis

  • How unfair is that?
  • No preparation had gone into this.
  • It wasn’t a pleasant image.
  • But we don’t.
sentence length juxtaposition
Sentence length: juxtaposition

Ignorance is bliss. Apparently. Not so when you are sat staring out of a window at a gorgeous spring day, but with no clue as to the conversations going on around you, and no indication that anyone wants you included at all.

To be honest, I hated Kenya! The clothes we wore became sodden with sweat after a matter of minutes; the sun cream was falling dismally (scarlet patches were erupting on my shoulders and I couldn’t resist scratching the back of my neck) and also the fruit my mum had packed into my bag was crushed into the sort of mush commonly found in a pig’s trough.

sentence length staccato
Sentence length: staccato

 Good writers: use short staccato sentences for tension

What would happen if I did rest? Surely a quick gasp of refreshing air couldn’t hurt, could it? No, I didn’t dare stop. They were behind me, and rapidly gaining distance.

sentence length control
Sentence length: control?

A few years ago my brother, mum, dad and I went on a family holiday to Ibiza in July. We were on a beach. Everyone was tired and frustrated in the sweltering heat. The sea was warm and the sand hot. My brother had just bought some new trainers in a local shop so he was happy, running around. Later on, after we had been on the beach for approximately one hour, hunger started to strike.

The fear about euthanasia is that some people may be persuaded into euthanasia through bad advice or by fealing that they are a burden to the family or society, with that many doctors, nurses and other people believe that every life has hope and that any life is better than no life at all.

clause patterns
Clause Patterns
  • number of finite verbs decreases with increasing ability
  • subordination and co-ordination decrease with increasing


  • use of subordinators differs with ability
clause patterns1
Clause Patterns:

Is it because she makes music that truly touches millions of people? No. Is it because she writes beautiful, thought-provoking novels? No. Is it because she paints stunning pictures? No. It is purely the fact that she has huge breasts.

clause patterns2
Clause Patterns:

Then I ran, and ran back to jane and she was sat crying on the grass. we took her to first Aid. they gave her a plaster, then finally we made some sand castles and after a while I heard a noise. it sounded like the ringing of the school bells so jane and I ran to our teacher and she took us back to the class room to do some colouring. I remember colouring a picture of a bird and I gave it to jane and she coloured a picture of a rabbit and gave it to me. Time pasted and it was nearly time to go home so jane and I helped our teacher Mrs. butler to put the colouring crayons away then sat at our places and waited for our mums to pick us up.

clause patterns expansion
Clause Patterns: expansion

Elaboration of the finite verbs:

However this was an adventure and I stepped off the coach, anxious to explore the house, which stood so tall, like a king proudly viewing his territory.

Simple sentences with complex sentences:

I stood directly in front of two gaping giants; the elaborate designs on the doors were statements of authority in themselves. The intricate details in the patterns were absolutely amazing.

clause patterns subordinators
Clause Patterns: Subordinators
  • good writing uses that more than weak writes who conversely use zero that more than good writers;
  • as and how are used more frequently in good writing;
  • when, because, and if are used more frequently in weak writing than in good writing;
  • the non-standard use of like as a subordinator is a clear feature of weaker writing but is not used at all in good writing;
  • before; although; while; how much; and therefore more common in good writing.
sentence openings
Sentence Openings

Weak writers: strong habit of using Subject Verb syntactical structures; often includes repetition of a pronoun

Harriet and I were in Salcombe , on south sands beach. Mum checked all our camping equipment and we were ready to go. We went on the beach. Dad was getting our boat ready and filling up the engine with petrol. We….

sentence openings1
Sentence Openings

The use of adverbial openings appears to be a development marker:

  • Middle ability writers use more adverbials than weak writers;
  • Year 8 able writers use more adverbials than other groups;
  • Year 10 average writers use more adverbials than others.
sentence openings2
Sentence Openings

Good writers use a wider range of openings, including non-finite clauses and subject verb inversions:

After looking at all the possibilities, I will then make my own mind up on whom or what I think he really is.

How easy, though, are catering companies making it to get a decent meal of nutritional value in to school age children?

Over one of the bedknobs hung a school tie, a hat and a fluorescent orange scarf.

  • Linguistic analysis may be able to provide a coherent explanation of progression in teenage writers
  • Understanding how meaning is constructed through linguistic structures may strengthen effective instruction
  • Crafting the sentence is as important as crafting the text
  • The curriculum and literacy policy initiatives need to address meaningful connections between sentence shaping and effects
  • We need more and better research into effectiveness of teaching about sentence design
What I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.

Joan Didion, cited in Murray 1990