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!
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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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?