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?