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Learn How to Use the Sentence Combining Strategy to Help a Child with Writing Difficulties Improve Their Skills

help a child with writing difficulties

What is the ‘sentence combining’ strategy and how does it help a child with writing difficulties improve?

The ‘sentence combining’ strategy (often used to help a child with writing in grade 3+), teaches students to combine two simple sentences, into one, more sophisticated, complex sentence.

Simple Sentences: The girl lost her doll. The girl is crying
Complex Sentence: The girl is crying because she lost her doll.

Research studies demonstrate that ‘sentence combining’ practice can help young students improve their ability to write accurate, complex sentences.

For instance, in a study conducted by Saddler and Graham (2005), 42 students in the fourth grade received either sentence combining instruction or grammar instruction.

Students were paired with a peer for instruction and received 30 lessons, each lasting 25 minutes, three times a week for a total of ten weeks.

The results indicated that students who received sentence combining instruction became more skilled at creating complex sentences from simpler ones, than students who received the grammar instruction.

In addition, the students who learned the sentence combining skills demonstrated improved writing on a story writing task, and improved ability to revise their own work.

Students who struggle to write complex sentences, generally write short, basic sentences known as kernel sentences in their writing assignments.

A writing assignment made up of kernel sentences would look something like this:

“My dog is brown. His fur is soft. I like to pet him. He loves bones. He loves to play fetch with me. His name is Buster. I love him.” A more sophisticated writing piece, capturing the same information would sound something like this: “I love my dog, Buster. His soft, brown fur is so nice to pet. He loves bones and playing fetch with me.”

The goal of sentence combining is to improve a student’s ability to write a more complex, cohesive piece, rather than a few kernel sentences or several kernel sentences in a row.

When teaching sentence combining, each example should contain a base sentence and then a sentence to be embedded or combined.

If the sentence is to be combined, a combining word such as but, and, or because should be provided in parentheses next to the sentence to be combined.

For example:
Base Clause: Michael was freezing in the schoolyard on Monday morning.
Sentence to be Combined: Michael lost his coat. (because)

The combined sentence would be: Michael was freezing in the schoolyard on Monday morning because he lost his coat.

child with writing difficulties

How can you use the sentence combining strategy during instruction?

When teaching sentence combining, encourage students to take risks when combining their sentences.

It is important to explain that using varied sentence structure helps writers to create better meaning and that there are often multiple correct ways to combine two sentences together.

It is helpful if the instructor completes several sentence-combining examples in front of the student(s), while going through their thought process out loud.

In an ideal situation, students would complete their own examples in groups or pairs, while the instructor goes around the class checking for understanding of how to combine sentences.

In a one-on-one situation, the student would be given a chance to work on an example independently, with the instructor (parent, teacher, tutor) checking how the student is doing and providing assistance as needed.

Once students start to get the hang of how to combine sentences, you can ask them to look back in old written work they have done, for sentences to combine. 

You can also ask them to write a new writing piece, using the sentence combining strategy.

Some children may benefit from a verbal explanation of how to combine sentences. For others, it may be too confusing, so just going through the examples might be best for those students.

See more examples below for how to create combined sentences:

sentence combining strategy
sentence combining strategy

Pictures can also be used to help your child visualize what the sentence is saying and can also help bring the words to life, making them more meaningful.

You can use Google images or take your own pictures. Real objects can be used as well such as toys, kitchenware, etc.

Here is an example of how to use images to assist a student with understanding sentence combining.

The frog is green.

sentence combining strategy

The frog jumped.

help a child with writing difficulties

The green frog jumped.

Below is a downloadable worksheet to practice combining the sentences above. The format is Microsoft Word so you can modify the sentences and images as you wish.

Additional Information Tips When Working with Students to Improve Their Writing

Remember to always stay calm when working with a child or student, even if you think they should be getting something that they are not getting. If you get frustrated with them, they may start to feel anxious, angry, inferior, stupid, etc. which will lead to a less productive learning session.

Keep practice sessions short (2 to 10 minutes for younger children or children who get easily frustrated and 10 to 15 minutes for older children or children who can work for longer periods without frustration), unless the child is eager to keep going.

For suggestions on ways to encourage children to complete tasks or activities they do not want to do, see:

If you are not seeing improvements in your child’s writing after consistent and frequent practice, talk to your child’s school to determine what additional strategies/support might be helpful.

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