Grammar: Teaching Phrases

In Practice Perfect, the writers posit that “The skills you see in your top performers are the very skills you then work to develop in everyone on your team.” (p.58) and that a “disciplined approach to identifying top performers and analyzing top performance provides you with the curriculum.” (p.58). If these ideas are applied to the field of writing instruction, then we are forced to ask the question: what are the elements of good writing? ‘Good Writing’ is an amorphous and nebulous term. Clearly, there is not one definitive style, approach or list of constituent elements that results in good writing and if there was, that would only serve to remove the wonder, the beauty and the personal, potentially resulting in the sterile and the functional, creating a tick-box approach that is both bland and formulaic. However, the fact that the ingredients of good writing are varied and wide-ranging should not preclude attempting to teach some of them. Although excellence comes in myriad forms and styles, there are some sentence styles that you would closely and maybe even exclusively associate with sophisticated writing and, while many examples of excellence may avoid these constructions, the ability to use them would go some way towards improving the technicality and proficiency of a student’s written output.

So what constructions should we teach and practice?

We decided to focus our efforts on teaching the aspects of sentence construction that go beyond functional, everyday communication and usage-the kind of sentences that people rarely use in everyday oral communication, even in formalised, academic speech, yet are regularly found in high quality writing.

Instead of merely focussing on generic longer sentences-length being a poor proxy for expertise-we wanted them to practice and master constructions that allowed them to combine complex ideas into succinct, sophisticated sentences that are accurate, detailed, effective and clear.

We also wanted to teach high-utility sentence constructions that could be used across different genres, particularly the big three that our curriculum focusses on:

1) Analysis/Responding to Texts

2) Descriptive/Narrative

3) Rhetoric

I agree entirely with this statement ‘I believe that great writing is characterised by the ability to control and manipulate clauses’ ( and we have been working on deliberate practice of multi-clause sentences across all three of our broad writing genres. In addition to the focus on clause manipulation, I would add the manipulation of phrases as well.

These are the three phrases that we have chosen to teach, complete with a few examples that demonstrate how the constructions can be used across our three broad writing genres. The next few posts will look at each in far more detail.

1) Noun Appositives

  • A woman who considers herself superior to others, Mrs Birling is condescending towards the working class.
  • The man clutched his satchel, a tattered bag which contained his meagre possessions.
  • A shame, a tragedy, an embarrassment, their defeat sent shockwaves across the sporting community.


2) Participle Phrases

  • Lady Macbeth begins the scene in a surprising manner: she seems troubled and uncertain, lacking the resolve, confidence and composure of her previous self.
  • Howling manically, a pack of wolves ran through the forest.
  • Convinced that she has had a part to play in causing Eva Smith’s death and that she would ‘never do it again to anybody,’ Sheila displays remorse, guilt and the potential for change.


3) Absolute Phrases

  • The trees, their branches creaking in the wind, surrounded the building.
  • His ‘fire and blood and anguish’ imagery verging on the prophetic, the Inspector’s final speech is a dire warning about the consequences of an atomised society.
  • The crowd looked desperate, their faces haggard, their clothes all ripped and torn.
  • The sun setting behind the sandstone mountains, Clara began to shiver as the temperature rapidly decreased.


Although I want my students to be able to name these particular parts of a sentence, most importantly I want them to use them. While there may be disagreement about the ‘correct’ name to give these (absolute phrases seem to be known as ‘nominative absolutes’ as well as ‘noun phrases . . . combined with participles’), we still need a name to give them if we are to discuss, analyse and practice them, creating what Lemov refers to as ‘a shared language for your team’ p.66. If we have this shared language, we are able to minimise confusion and be precise, allowing us to create focussed practice activities. Asking a student to write 4 noun appositive sentences about Bayonet Charge allows precise feedback to be given as the success criteria are explicit and clear. In such an activity, both teacher and student understand the precise styles of sentence that is being asked for.

Many of our students do not read widely and, in the absence of deliberate and focussed practice, would be extremely unlikely to be able to use and manipulate these constructions. Those that do read widely may have developed a partial understanding or at least a vague familiarity with them. When teaching these constructions for the first time-particularly the appositive and the absolute phrases-it is common to hear assertions that the examples don’t make sense, or that they are grammatically incorrect, evidence of just how unfamiliar some students are with these type of sentences. Thankfully, this initial confusion soon disappears and, given the right amount of explicit instruction and practice, students are quickly able to produce their own examples, dramatically broadening the range of sentences that they can use and increasing the sophistication and complexity of their writing.

Next post: Teaching Appositives.


5 thoughts on “Grammar: Teaching Phrases”

  1. Thank you for this insight into your approach. This is exactly the territory into which we are wading. Your ideas are helpful.


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