Writing: Sentence Fluency

Hi! It's Melissa again from Don't Let the Teacher Stay Up Late here to talk about...

I know in Virginia, our 5th grade students are working hard to prepare for their big writing assessment at the very beginning of April, and all the snow we've had is just causing more stress for the poor teachers. However, we had a ray of hope last week at our school in the form of professional development...no joke! Our school system began implementing Six Traits this year, and we had Fred Wolff of Six Traits Live come to our school and do LESSONS with actual classes for teachers to understand how to implement his ideas in the room.

I was able to sit in on the 5th grade lesson for sentence fluency, and there were two simple yet powerful tips that he taught. If you read my blog on Wednesday, you will just want to skip to step 2, but that's where the meat is anyway! Step one is pretty simple.

He began the lesson by reading an excerpt from Gary Paulsen's Harris and Me and then having a student write the first word of each sentence. We circled words that we didn't typically use to begin sentences (basically anything other than a pronoun, person's name, or "the") and talked about how most of the sentences started with a different word. This helped make it sound more interesting. He gave the students 5 "Power Starters" and encouraged them to try and use these words to make stronger sentences and add variety.

His suggestion to teachers later was to have a "When Week", etc, where students practiced making sentences with each specific starter.

But there's more to sentence fluency than just having different beginnings. You also need a variety of lengths, and I think this was my students' favorite part!

I actually implemented this part of the lesson with one of my 4th grade groups on Friday to help prepare them already. They complained at first that we weren't doing games, but by the end they were hooked!

First, I gave them a recording sheet you can download here to find the first word and number of words in the first 10 sentences. As you can see below, we crossed out the final category (part of speech) because my kids just aren't ready for that yet. I still included it because I hope to get there soon. Then I gave each of them Abe Lincoln's Dream, which we read earlier in the week. We did the first two sentences together, and I had to help them a little to make sure they didn't skip little sentences and stopped in the right place (there was a tricky sentence that had a quote with a question mark at the end and then two more words after, so they needed guidance there).

After they finished with the first ten sentences, I gave them the second sheet and helped them make a line graph using the data they collected (Math in reading? What?!).

We discussed how the line graph reminded us of a heart monitor, and it looked like a "life line". I asked them what happens if the line stays the same or barely moves ("You're dead!"), and then we talked about how it's the same with our writing. We need to have a variety of sentence lengths to keep things interesting and make our writing more lively.

After going through the process once, they were ready to try it on their own. I gave them a nonfiction book that we had been working through, and they were SO engaged!

I was so proud of them because they quickly noticed that the first 6 sentences in this book are about the same length, but that the book started to pick up the pace at sentence 7. They could point to their graph and show me exactly when it started to get interesting.

Later, we will do one of these on their own writing (which is what 5th grade is already doing), and we will discuss ways to improve the fluency by making sentences longer or shorter. However, this first step of making them aware was VERY important and well worth the time it took!

What other struggles do your students have with writing? How many of you are preparing for a big writing assessment right now?


  1. This is so timely, Melissa. We're getting ready to give the SOL in three weeks. I can't wait to use this with my students, and I've passed along the information on Fred Wolff to my principal.

    1. Glad you can use it! We have our SOL the beginning of April, and the 5th graders have been busy preparing! I hope you can get the chance to have Fred at your school. He's amazing!!

  2. What a great professional development opportunity! I'm impressed that Fred modeled lessons in classrooms with REAL students. That's amazing...and so valuable! I love the idea of having a designated week to focus on each power starter. Thanks for the great information!
    :) Wendy

    1. You're welcome! I love simple, easy ideas that I can implement in my classroom. Everything he said and modeled was engaging, fun, and easy!