Instantly elevate your students’ writing: teach them to write cumulative sentences

Thanks to the National Writing Project’s Sherry Swain, I had a great lesson to use as a resource

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Above are two examples of cumulative sentences students wrote during this lesson. I provided three sentence starters from which students could choose. That part of the lesson is explained below.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a workshop I had attended at the Write to Learn Conference in late February at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. I had attended Sherry Swain‘s workshop on teaching kids to write the cumulative sentence. Since I wrote that post, I have worked with my students to help them learn how to write this literary-quality sentence structure.

Here’s what I did:

  1. I asked them to get out a sheet of paper and something to write with.
  2. I asked them to think of someone they knew well that they could write a good description of because we were going to write a cumulative sentence.
  3. At this point, someone usually asked, “What’s a cumulative sentence?” To this, I answered, “It’s a sentence that accumulates details about a person or whatever we’re writing about.” It seemed they could usually associate the word “accumulate” with “cumulative” and then we were good to go. There’s no need to get more technical than that.
  4. I wrote a sentence starter on the whiteboard, which would form the basis for my own cumulative sentence. I wrote “I thought of Aaron,” on the board. I pointed out that their sentence starter, “which is actually a complete sentence—and is otherwise known as an independent clause, right?”—needed to end with a comma since our sentence was just getting started.
  5. Then I told them we were going to watch a short video of my niece’s husband—the Aaron in my sentence starter—so we can describe him well.
  6. I showed a minute-and-a-half video on YouTube of Aaron doing his athletic-yoga-movement exercises. Here’s a link: Local athletic trainer develops naturaletics workout by Kansas City Star
  7. After watching the video (which really impressed the kids, by the way), I added a verb cluster that began with a participial verb (an -ing verb). I added this to my sentence: “extending his legs,”
  8. Then I asked the kids to write a similar phrase that began with an -ing verb. I reminded them to end the phrase with a comma.
  9. Next, I added this to my sentence: “sprawling across the wall-to-wall mat,”
  10. The kids added another descriptive phrase to their sentence. I again reminded them to start it with an -ing verb and end with a comma.
  11. Finally, we added one more. I added “shifting his weight gracefully throughout his routine.” Notice that I ended this final verb cluster with a period since the sentence was now completed. The kids did the same.
  12. We went around the room and everyone shared their sentence (if they wanted).
  13. I encouraged them to try this sentence structure in their writing that day. Seventh-graders were starting a final month of Writer’s Workshop and were able to work on any number of writing projects, including memoirs and narratives. I made sure to stress to them that cumulative sentences would instantly elevate the quality of their writing because it would help them vary the length of their sentences.
  14. In fact, I said, the average 7th-grader’s sentence contains ten words. (This statistic was included in Swain’s materials I received at the workshop.)
  15. Then I asked them, just for fun, to count the words in their sentences. Everyone had more than ten. Several had more than twenty words. One had 28!
I showed this video so kids could see who I was describing as I wrote my own cumulative sentence. I wanted to encourage them to use strong, descriptive verbs such as “extending,” “sprawling” and “shifting.”

The next day I put three sentence starters on the whiteboard and asked them to choose one and write a cumulative sentence just like we did the day before. These were the sentence starters I wrote on the board:

  • I watched the baby sloth,
  • The firefighter worked courageously,
  • The photographer roamed the crowd,
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Here are more examples of cumulative sentences students wrote during my second mini-lesson. Students were given three sentence starters from which to choose.

Here are two questions that I received from various students throughout the day (I taught this same mini-lesson to 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders; all grades did well with it):

Question 1: Do we always have to start the verb clusters with -ing verbs?

My answer: No, you don’t, but for today, let’s do, since we’re learning something new.

Question 2: Can we use “and” in between the verb clusters?

My answer: Yes, you can, but try it without and see if you like the way it sounds. I like to make sure that kids realize writing is also about rhythm and sound and that writers make their own creative choices. A few kids added “and” to their sentences and then took them back out. Some kids explained that using “and” made the sentences sound more like a list, causing the sentences to sound less “in the moment” and more formal. I agreed and was impressed that kids picked up on the nuance of the cumulative sentence.

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Students could use the sentence starters I provided or not. The student who wrote the top example in this photo wanted to write about her sister.

Tomorrow, I’ve got a short mini-lesson planned for when kids enter the room. On the Smartboard, I’ll have a Powerpoint slide that has a cumulative sentence that uses absolute phrases in the description. Here’s a screenshot of the slide I’ll use:

I know it’s a sad sentence, but I also know it will get their attention! I actually tried this part of the lesson today in class. It was definitely more difficult for them to grasp until I helped them write it one verb cluster at a time. I thought they would need less help, but I was wrong.

The sentence in the photo above generated some interesting conversations with my 8th-graders. We noticed that when -ing verb clusters are used instead of absolute phrases, the reader can actually see (as in a “mind movie”) the action in the descriptors. The sentence is much more visual.

In contrast, when absolute phrases are used, that may not always be the case. Students preferred using -ing verb clusters for the imagery they provided to the sentence. Our preferences also veered toward using a mix of absolutes and -ing verb clusters. While a string of absolutes may feature repetition, the writer may not provide the “mind movie” effect as strongly.

And mind you, these discussions were short and not as technical as it might sound. We are starting end-of-year testing tomorrow, and the kids were definitely NOT in the mood for this, but since I’ve never formally taught the cumulative sentence before, it ended up being a good day to experiment with words and phrases. Just talking about how words and sentences sound always leaves the impression that “This is what writers do,”… i.e. they experiment, try styles on for size, and otherwise get creative with their writing. As I always say, “It’s language arts, not language science.”

One last note about the day: I did some quick online research (as in “I googled it”) on the cumulative sentence to make sure I was understanding the various forms it can take. In doing so, I learned about periodic sentences. Periodic sentences have their independent clauses (the sentence portion or the independent chunk) at the end, similar to a period. I think I’ll introduce this to my students next. Stay tuned!

Thanks for reading! Grammar has always been my weakness when it comes to teaching ELA; however, I do like Sherry Swain’s way of teaching the cumulative sentence. It seems to be a practical thing for students to know. Follow my blog for more articles.

Write To Learn Conference Highlight: Sherry Swain’s Cumulative Sentence Workshop

I learned a ton from this session and walked away with a ready-to-use lesson plan and handouts.

Photo by Kim Gorga on Unsplash

I attended Write to Learn 2019, a writing and teaching conference, held at Osage Beach, Mo. at Tan-Tar-A Resort and Conference Center. Write to Learn is sponsored by the Missouri State Council of ILA, the Missouri Reading Initiative, The Missouri Writing Projects Network, and the Missouri Council of Teachers of English.

This conference is chock full of sessions all day Thursday, Friday and through early afternoon on Saturday. Due to icy road conditions, I wasn’t able to arrive until Friday morning. That afternoon, I attended an especially beneficial and practice session called Teaching the Cumulative Sentence as a Positive Feature for Improving Writing. I thought it sounded very technical, but it also sounded practical, so I signed up.

Swain is a National Writing Project teacher and researcher who studied the effects of the cumulative sentence in tested written responses. She discovered that student writing that used the cumulative sentence earned higher scores than writing that did not. The cumulative sentence adds a richness to writing, and most readers are familiar with its use in their favorite books and articles. According to the session’s description, “…young people can experience growth in sentence variety, voice, coordination and subordination, diction, and rhythm while writing with evidence and passion.”

According to ThoughtCo., “A cumulative sentence is an independent clause followed by a series of subordinate constructions (phrases or clauses) that gather details about a person, place, event, or idea.” Swain explained these sentences as containing a base clause, followed by verb clusters that begin with  -ing verbs. Cumulative sentences can also contain verb clusters that begin with absolute phrases (-ed verbs).

In her session, Swain first passed out a handout that contained several excerpts of student writing. She asked us to underline the most effective sentence in each paragraph. Nearly without exception, our group selected the cumulative sentences as most effective. Cumulative sentences have a certain cadence, overwhelmingly contain sensory language, and add rich detail and tone. Here’s the first handout she passed out:

You could pass this out and have students underline the sentences that strike them as the most effective or most interesting. More often than not, they will choose the cumulative sentences.

Swain also passed out a lesson plan that prompts students to list details about a person they remember. These details are accumulated and placed into sentences using -ing verbs. First, the teacher asks students to think of a person whom you know well. Then the teacher asks the students to tell something that the students remember seeing the person doing.

Eventually, the students are asked to write a base clause, such as “This morning, I remember my grandmother (or whomever the student wants to write about).” Then they add the verb clusters. As the students put this information together, the teacher models her own on the board and also helps the students add commas where needed, and then ending with a period. Here’s the lesson plan sheet:

This is an incredible lesson plan. I plan to try it after spring break.

This was a really beneficial and helpful session and I plan to try this with my students after spring break. I’ll let you know how that goes in a later post! By the way, here’s an excerpt that Swain gave us to read with students, which illustrates an especially effective use of cumulative sentences. Here’s that excerpt:

This text excerpt is probably best to be used with older students.

Thanks for reading again this week! Let me know your thoughts about this lesson plan. Do you already try something similar to this with your students?



New mini-lesson resource: 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

This “new to me” book will be fun to try this fall

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A year or two ago, I found an effective paragraph that explained sentence variety perfectly. Read the post about it here.  I dug a little deeper about the author and eventually made my way to this book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost.  Gary Provost was an author and writing instructor who died in 1995 right in the middle of his career.  In addition to his own books and articles, he produced a series of how-to writing books and seminars.

I ordered 100 Ways from Amazon last week and, after skimming through it, know I’ll be able to use several chapters in my language arts classes next year. I hope these short readings and the discussions they spark will make great mini-lessons to kick off a writing work day.

The book is divided into eleven chapters. Here are a few of them followed by one or two points discussed within each:

  • Five Ways to Write a Strong Beginning (Find a Slant, Set a Tone and Maintain It)
  • Twelve Ways to Give Your Words Power (Use Active Verbs, Be Specific, Use Statistics)
  • Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors (Do Not Change Tenses, Avoid Dangling Modifiers)
  • Six Ways to Avoid Punctuation Errors (How to Use Colons, Semicolons, Quotation Marks)
  • Twelve Ways to Avoid Making Your Reader Hate You (Avoid Clichés, Avoid Parentheses)
  • Seven Ways to Edit Yourself (Read Your Work Out Loud, Use Common Sense)
  • Nine Ways to Save Time and Energy (Use Transitions, Avoid Wordiness)

While the 158-page book deals with more technical topics, such as punctuation and grammar, the author also discusses the finer, more esoteric qualities of good writing. For example, in “Stop Writing When You Get to the End,” Provost writes,

When you have done what you came to do, stop. Do not linger at the door saying good-bye sixteen times.

How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, “What does the reader lose if I cross it out?” If the answer is “nothing” or “I don’t know,” then cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth. When you get to the sentence  that you  must have, read it out loud. Is it a good closing sentence? Does it sound final? Is it pleasant to the ear? Does it leave the reader in the mood you intended? If so, you are done. If not, rewrite it so that it does. Then stop writing.

I like the tone of Provost’s writing. Concise. Clear. Practical. Warm. It’s an easy, friendly read, and has its share of funny writing snippets.

In addition, many chapters contain side-by-side examples of ineffective and effective writing. For instance, in the chapter entitled “Be Specific,” several examples of general and vague writing appear on the left-hand side across from their more specific counterpart on the right-hand side. Here’s one: The general “Various ethnic groups have settled in Worcester,” is shown alongside its more specific “Greeks, Italians, and Puerto Ricans have settled in Worcester.”

The book has a copyright date of 1972, so some of the examples used are outdated. I’ll just explain this to the kids, or pause while we read to explain obsolete terms. One I noticed was “word processing.” That term just isn’t used much anymore.

Some of the chapters overlap with existing lessons I already use; however, it never hurts to review the same concepts in different ways. This book will enable me to do that.

Check out this book by buying a single copy. I purchased a used copy on Amazon for about five dollars. That’s an inexpensive price for a potentially valuable new resource. Maybe a class set will be in my future.

Thanks for reading! Click like to help other readers find this post. Follow me for more similar articles on teaching middle school language arts.



It’s hard to teach middle schoolers this: grammar rules exist to bring readers on your journey

Part 4 of 4

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash


In my classroom, I stress that writing is so much more than just knowing a bunch of grammar and punctuation rules.

Writing is really about expressing oneself, your dreams, your beliefs, your hopes, your imagination.  Writers don’t write to show off to readers that they know how to avoid vague pronouns; instead, writers use the rules to capture readers and take them on their journey through, as examples, the logic of their argument against homework, the plot of their sci-fi fantasy, or their description of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system.

When students understand that they have a vested interest in learning the rules — to keep the reader engaged — their desire to get the rules right increases.

So how does a teacher help middle schoolers understand that all these rules they hear in my class mini-lessons are there solely to help the reader stay on their journey?  I’ve tried my hand at  having small discussions that go something like this:

“When you forget about the rules and goof up — like if you misspell a word, leave out an important comma, write a run-on, or use a vague pronoun  —  you distract your reader.  If you spell a word wrong, they’ll lose their concentration and think stuff like That word looks funny. I think it’s wrong… or is it?  At this point, you know what? You’ve lost your reader. Now they’re thinking about that word you misspelled, and not about your ideas.”

“Or say you have a run-on sentence in your writing. Your reader stumbles through your sentence or paragraph and then they stop. They think, Wait. What?? That didn’t make sense. Then they re-read it, trying to figure out your sentence. At this point, guess what? You’ve lost ’em. Now they’re trying to piece together what you wrote to figure out what you really meant to write. Basically, your run-on sentence pulled your reader’s mind away from your once-riveting story, and now you just have to hope they have the patience to keep reading.”

Sometimes, I give them an example from the movies:

“Have you ever been absorbed in a really good movie and notice that an actor’s once-rumpled hair suddenly appears perfectly in place? Or you notice a glass perched on a tabletop that wasn’t there before? What happened when you noticed that glass? You were pulled out of the movie. You missed some dialogue. You got lost for a bit. You missed out on something, maybe something important.”

“If the editors had noticed and fixed that mistake, they wouldn’t have caused you to become distracted. It’s the same with writing. We have to keep our readers interested in our ideas, not distract them with our mistakes.”

“This is the reason we learn capitalization, how to use commas, how to spell, how to link our sentences correctly… to keep the reader thinking about your story or article, and not the silly comma you forgot to include.”

So that’s how the discussion goes when I help my middle schoolers learn that there are real reasons to understand grammar and conventions. Sometimes they get it; sometimes they don’t. Either way, we keep working on it when we conference. How do you help your students care about editing? Leave a comment. I really want to know.