Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Monday, March 12, 2007

How to unstuff a sentence

Student-writers often believe that the secret of good writing is a reliance upon bigger and “better” words. Thus the haphazard thesaurus use that I wrote about last month. Another danger for student-writers involves the assumption that good writing is a matter of stuffy, ponderous sentences. Stuffy sentences might be explained by the need to make a required word-count, but I see such sentences even in writing assignments of only modest length. Most often, I think, these sentences originate in the mistaken idea that stuffiness is the mark of serious, mature writing.

A writer can begin to unstuff a sentence by looking closely at each of its elements and asking if it is needed. Here is an extreme example:

To begin, it is important to note that the theme of regret is an important theme in “The Road Not Taken,” which was written by Robert Frost, and that evidence for it can be found throughout the entire poem.

“To begin”: Like “to conclude,” this phrase is an unnecessary, empty transition. If a point is coming early (or late) in an essay, trust that a reader can see that. Removing “To begin” involves no loss of meaning.

“It is important to note”: Focusing on a point implies that the point is worth writing about, doesn’t it? Removing these words too involves no loss of meaning. (As an undergraduate, I often wrote “It is interesting to note,” until a professor drew a line through the words each time they appeared in an essay.)

“The theme of regret is an important theme”: It’s redundant to say that the theme is a theme. And is there any difference between “the theme of regret” and regret?

“‘The Road Not Taken,’ which was written by Robert Frost”: Sentences with “which was written by” tend toward stuffiness. Here, the writer can refer to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a savings of four words.

“Evidence for it can be found”: It’s often smart to avoid the passive voice (“can be found”). But changing the verb form (to “the reader can find evidence”) leaves a larger problem. If this theme is an important one in the poem, is it necessary to say that the poem contains evidence of it?

“Throughout the entire poem”: There’s no difference between “the entire poem” and “the poem,” especially when the word “throughout” is already in play.

A writer might rethink this 39-word sentence in various ways:

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is, above all, about regret. Evidence that the speaker second-guesses his decision is abundant. (20 words)

A careful reading of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” shows that regret runs through the poem. (17 words)

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is a poem about regret. (11 words)

Regret colors every line of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” (11 words)

The point of unstuffing a sentence is not to simplify thought or eliminate nuances of meaning. The point is to express a thought, whatever its complexity, with clarity and concision — the real marks of good writing.

Related reading
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Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Students can really stretch out their sentences by adding detail (Where? When? How? Why?) to simple sentences through the process of sentence expanding.

Jennifer Knight, Ph.D.

As an elementary school student, I vividly remember learning to diagram sentences. I remember marking up all the verbs, nouns, prepositional phrases and thinking to myself, “How will this help me be a better writer?” I never completely connected the dots because this activity was just that—an activity, a test of my skills of identifying sentence structure that I would never apply to my own writing. It did not make me a stronger writer. In fact, it made me dread the task of writing. If my teachers had modeled how to incorporate ideas and details into writing, using real writing instead of the drill-and-kill approach, I would have been much more motivated and engaged to try it on my own.

As a literacy consultant and teacher educator, I have visited many classrooms over the years to watch both pre-service and in-service teachers. After observing and talking with teachers about ways to teach writing, the questions that continue to come up are:

  • How do I develop my students into writers who expand on their ideas and develop strong sentences their readers will devour?
  • What does it look like in the classroom to have students write grammatically correct sentences that paint a clear picture for the reader?

For many teachers, moving away from the drill-and-kill approach means leaving behind isolated grammar instruction with worksheets and, instead, pushing students to use their own original writing to make simple sentences more complex and interesting. However, teachers need to provide explicit instruction for their students, demonstrating how sentence construction and mechanics interact to form strong sentences. This can and should start early for students.

Constructing Clear and Meaningful Sentences

In the primary grades, young writers are learning what a sentence is and how capitalization and punctuation help readers understand the sentence. This knowledge will allow students to apply simple sentence construction skills to their own writing. As students become more familiar with simple sentence construction, teachers can begin to teach students to identify areas where they can expand their sentence by adding details that can paint a vivid picture for the reader. Using a variety of sentence types and sources, teachers first model how to identify well-written, elaborated sentences during reading and then demonstrate how to add similar kinds of elaboration to sentences during a shared writing time with students.

In the intermediate grades, teachers can devote more time to sentence-construction skills using a variety of sentence types and sources. For example, the books students are reading in the classroom, school newsletters, newspaper or magazine articles, and the students’ own writing can all be used to demonstrate sentence expanding and ways students can incorporate it into their own writing. For example, the teacher could take a few simple sentences from a common book the students are reading to demonstrate how to expand them for the reader. She also could take the class newsletter and demonstrate through a think aloud how to take a classroom moment and create a clear and memorable picture in the minds of the reader by adding explanatory details.

At all grades, teachers can help students develop strong sentence-construction skills by modeling how to expand and refine their writing throughout the writing process. Below are a few simple steps teachers can take to incorporate sentence expanding into their writing instruction.

Step 1: Identify What is Included in a Simple Sentence

Help students realize that a simple sentence includes one subject-verb combination, correct capitalization, and punctuation. The subject describes who or what the sentence is about, and the verb describes the action. The following is an example of a simple sentence:

Step 2: Expand the Sentence

Once you have identified a simple sentence, help students understand that we can add details by answering the following questions:

  • Where?
  • When?
  • How?
  • Why?

From the example sentence above, we know the subject is the dog and the verb is “ran,” but we are missing details that can provide a better understanding for our readers about the dog. Where was the dog? When and how did it run? Why was the dog running? These are questions you can ask students to elicit ideas and phrases that could be incorporated into your simple sentence to expand or stretch it into a more complex and detailed one.

Step 3: Practice Writing Expanded Sentences

After teaching students what you should include in a more complex and detailed sentence, they can practice revising their own work, or practice revising simple sentences from meaningful writing examples (see sample lesson plans below). Remember, you don’t want your students to spend all of their time on a worksheet. The goal is to help them develop the skill and apply it to their own writing so they can develop into effective writers.

Time spent daily on writing instruction that encourages students to ponder what their sentences are saying to the reader and how to stretch them out to paint a clear picture can be very valuable. Teachers and students alike will move from task writing to more fulfilling and enjoyable writing when they put these simple steps into place.

Sample Lesson Plans

Now that you are familiar with instructional methods and ways to practice sentence expanding, you may wish to utilize the following sample lesson plans with your class, or review them to get a better sense of how to implement these instructional strategies in the classroom.

Sentence Expanding Elementary School Example Lesson Plan Contains a lesson plan that reviews simple sentences, offers guided practice expanding simple sentences by answering four key questions, suggests a practice activity for expanding sentences with a partner, scaffolds students’ work with a checklist containing the steps of expanding sentences, and provides information on assessment. The lesson plan also includes a downloadable sentence expanding notes page, words and phrases bank, and practice page.

Sentence Expanding Middle School Example Lesson Plan Contains lesson plan that reviews simple sentences, offers guided practice expanding simple sentences by answering four key questions, suggests a practicing activity for expanding sentences with a partner, scaffolds students’ work with a checklist containing the steps of expanding sentences, and provides information on assessment including a rubric to assess student work. The lesson plan also includes a downloadable sentence expanding notes page, words and phrases bank, and practice page.

This post was written by NCTE member Michael Laser.

What do you think of these sentences?

  • A large part of him quitting was to try and impress Queenie and the girls.
  • Life for the woman in 1894, when this story was written, was nothing desirable.

Now look at these revised versions. How do they compare?

  • Sammy had complex reasons for quitting. One important motive was his desire to impress Queenie and her friends.
  • Life for women in 1894, when this story was written, was full of limitations and frustrations.

This is how I introduce my students to the idea that some sentences are awkward and others are graceful and clear. (The original versions come from student essays on John Updike’s “A & P” and Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”; the revisions include information that wasn’t present in the originals, but I tell my students that it’s important to explain what you mean, patiently and fully.)

When I started teaching freshman composition in 2014, I expected that my students would absorb everything I taught them and finish the semester as capable stylists. When that didn’t happen, I went searching for mentors: instructors who had figured out how to help weak writers learn to compose competent sentences. I found many good ideas, but no magic bullets.

Since then, I’ve been experimenting with different strategies, and have put together a method that helps most of my students write more clearly and gracefully. (I describe the method on my website,, and in detail in my book, The College Writing Clinic.)

Here’s a brief summary of my approach:

  • First, motivate students. Show them why they should care—because you can’t write skillfully if you don’t care enough to work at it.
  • Teach them to see that some sentences have problems, by showing them Before and After examples like the ones above.
  • Teach a few strategies for improving problem sentences, and some simple ways to write more clearly and gracefully. (I keep an ever-growing collection of awkward sentences by former students, with names removed, to give current students editing practice. You can see examples at the bottom of this page.)
  • Explain the most common mistakes in grammar and punctuation, and train students to avoid making these mistakes.
  • Have them practice each new skill as they learn it: writing sentences that use the concept, in class and for homework.

And here’s how I integrate these lessons into a typical class session:

  • We discuss the text they read for homework.
  • The students write for five minutes in response to a question about the text. (This frequent, low-stakes practice trains them to write without paralyzing anxiety.)
  • I teach a lesson on a sentence skill, such as subject-verb agreement, deleting unnecessary words, or where to place commas.
  • I ask them to express the main idea of their in-class writing in one polished, grammatically correct sentence. (This activity, recommended by Doug Lemov in his books Teach Like a Champion and Reading Reconsidered, forces students to pay close attention to their word choice and syntax. Revising a whole essay can intimidate and overwhelm struggling students, but here I’m only asking them to create and improve a single sentence.)
  • Once they’re satisfied with their sentences, students post them on Padlet, a website that lets the whole class see what each student has written (anonymously, if they prefer). I point out sentences that I think are especially good, and explain why.

I also teach a lesson on a key essay-writing skill in every class—for example, refining a thesis, or addressing opposing arguments.

(To give credit where credit is due: most of my teaching strategies come from books written for K–12 teachers. Jeff Anderson, Doug Lemov, and Kelly Gallagher were important sources of ideas.)

I’m aware that most specialists in college composition/rhetoric consider a focus on sentence-level problems misguided, or even destructive. Abundant research shows that isolated grammar lessons accomplish little, and can have a negative effect; but more recent research indicates that creative, complex approaches can improve the quality of student writing. (See Myhill, Jones, and Bailey, “Grammar for Writing?”)

Helping students write better sentences doesn’t have to preempt critical thinking. We really should be teaching both.

Sentence writing is an essential skill for students during their early school years. So let’s discuss my trustworthy sentence practice routines.

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Complete Sentences

The first step in mastering sentence writing is to identify a complete sentence. At this point, students should understand that a sentence has two parts, the subject, and the predicate.

The easiest and most simplified way of explaining the two parts are as follows;

  • The subject of the sentence tells who or what the sentence is about.
  • The predicate will tell what has or is happening to the subject in the sentence.


To help bring this concept to life and add a little engagement, I like to write sentences on sentence strips. I then cut the sentence in half between the subject and the predicate. I then distribute the pieces of paper among the students. Their goal is to find another student to match up with, to form a complete sentence.

Challenge Activity- Pairs of students create the sentences, have the sentences checked by another pair. Then yet another partner set cuts the sentence strip between the subject and predicate. Upon completion, the class has a second round of the game to play. (Students love the opportunity to create sentences and fun for everyone!)

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Three-part Sentences

Once students are comfortable writing basic sentences, they can start using the Three-Part Sentence Structure to write more advanced sentences.


The Three-Part Sentence Structure begins with identifying a who or what. Then they determine an action. To give a little more detail, the student proceeds by deciding on a who, what, where, or when.

Students use the structure to expand their sentences within return, provide the needed details.

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Compound Sentences

Now that students can write more advanced sentences, students will need to learn about compound sentences. Not only does this lesson provide students with a higher level of skill, but it also helps students correct the never-ending run-on sentences from occurring. (Yah, you know what I mean.)

For this skill, I rely heavily on the prepositions for, and, nor, by, or, yet, and so. In short, the acronym is FANBOYS.


To engage students, I read an informational piece of writing to the students. We then take notes on our learning from the text. I then ask for sentences that I might be able to write about the reading. At this point, I exaggerate the run-on sentences or the choppy basic sentences. As a class, we determine we can use FANBOYS to develop more sophisticated sentences.

Once the whole class has had the opportunity to write compound sentences, they are ready for a little practice. Often I provide a literature center of puzzle pieces in which groups of students may form compound sentences with the pieces.

As a challenging activity, students can see how many variations of sentences they can create. (Students love the friendly competition!)

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Descriptive Writing in Sentences

Adding details and descriptive language is always a fun lesson. I most definitely expose my students to using adverbs and adjectives to start. I then move into my student’s favorite activity is learning about figurative language. They especially love learning about onomatopoeia.


So to hook the students, we create mini figurative language books. Of course, I start with the big hook of teaching onomatopoeia. Right away, students are sucked into figurative language and want to learn more.

Also, my figurative langue mini-book continues by teaching analogies, similes, and metaphors.

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Daily Sentence Writing Practice

Now that the students have been taught and given time to apply their knowledge, I expect them to write sentences for practice independently.


Each week I provide my students with one worksheet paper with an assignment for each day of the week. Each of the days builds upon one another in complexity. Here’s an outline of the week’s assignments.

  • Monday- Students complete a Three-Part Sentence outline and write a simple sentence about a provided image.
  • Tuesday- Students then write a compound sentence about the same image.
  • Wednesday- Students “spice” up their writing by adding adjectives, adverbs, and/or figurative language to their sentences.
  • Thursday- Students read their sentences to a buddy and listen to feedback.
  • Friday- Students revise, edit, and publish their final sentence(s).

I use the above daily sentence writing structure as a literacy center activity. Students become familiar with the routine and never feel overwhelmed with the assignment since it is a small task.

To keep students interest, each week’s image is a small picture that relates to the month. Students are always eager to see the new picture.

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentenceThe BUNDLE

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

While we are on the subject of writing, make sure your students have a solid grasp of paragraph writing. Check out my FREE Structured Paragraph Handbook, which will guide you and your students through the steps needed to create the perfect paragraph.

Done for You

If you are interested in my Monthly Sentence Writing resources, you can take a closer look at the BUNDLE here or click on the resource link provided below.

I also have the same resource in a digital format in Google Slides. I feel that students need opportunities to write with a paper-pencil and with the computer as well. So, I usually alternate between two versions each month.

You might like that approach too. Please note, though, it is the same resource in two formats. Below are the digital resource titles linked.

After your students have had adequate exposure to sentence writing, you may want to check out my post on Paragraph Writing here.

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Summarizing means identifying the main idea and most important facts, then writing a brief overview that includes only those key ideas and details. Summarizing is a vital skill for students to learn, but many students find it difficult to pick out the important facts without providing too much detail.

A good summary is short and to the point. The following easy summarizing strategies will help your students choose the correct details from the text and write about them clearly and concisely.

Somebody Wanted But So Then

“Somebody Wanted But So Then” is an excellent summarizing strategy for stories. Each word represents a key question related to the story’s essential elements:

  • Somebody: Who is the story about?
  • Wanted: What does the main charter want?
  • But: Identify a problem that the main character encountered.
  • So: How does the main character solve the problem?
  • Then: Tell how the story ends.

Here is an example of this strategy in action:

  • Somebody: Little Red Riding Hood
  • Wanted: She wanted to take cookies to her sick grandmother.
  • But: She encountered a wolf pretending to be her grandmother.
  • So: She ran away, crying for help.
  • Then: A woodsman heard her and saved her from the wolf.

After answering the questions, combine the answers to form a summary:

Little Red Riding Hood wanted to take cookies to her sick grandmother, but she encountered a wolf. He got to her grandmother’s house first and pretended to be the old woman. He was going to eat Little Red Riding Hood, but she realized what he was doing and ran away, crying for help. A woodsman heard the girl’s cries and saved her from the wolf.

SAAC Method

The SAAC method is another useful technique for summarizing any kind of text (such as a story, an article, or a speech). SAAC is an acronym for “State, Assign, Action, Complete.” Each word in the acronym refers to a specific element that should be included in the summary.

  • State: the name of the article, book, or story
  • Assign: the name of the author
  • Action: what the author is doing (example: tells, explains)
  • Complete: complete the sentence or summary with keywords and important details

This method is particularly helpful for students who are learning the format of a summary and need reminders to include the title and author’s name. However, SAAC does not include clear guidance about what details to include, which some students might find tricky. If you use SAAC with your students, remind them of the types of details that belong in a summary before instructing them to work independently.

Here is an example of SAAC in action:

  • State: “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”
  • Assign: Aesop (a Greek storyteller)
  • Action: tells
  • Complete: what happens when a shepherd boy repeatedly lies to the villagers about seeing a wolf

Use the four SAAC cues to write out a summary of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” in complete sentences:

“The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” by Aesop (a Greek storyteller), tells what happens when a shepherd boy repeatedly lies to the villagers about seeing a wolf. After a while, they ignore his false cries. Then, when a wolf really does attack, they don’t come to help him.

5 W’s, 1 H

The Five W’s, One H strategy relies on six crucial questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. These questions make it easy to identify the main character, important details, and main idea.

  • Who is the story about?
  • What did they do?
  • When did the action take place?
  • Where did the story happen?
  • Why did the main character do what s/he did?
  • How did the main character do what s/he did?

Try this technique with a familiar fable such as “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

  • Who? The tortoise
  • What? He raced a quick, boastful hare and won.
  • When? When isn’t specified in this story, so it’s not important in this case.
  • Where? An old country road
  • Why? The tortoise was tired of hearing the hare boast about his speed.
  • How? The tortoise kept up his slow but steady pace.

Then, use the answers to the Five W’s and One H to write a summary of in complete sentences.

Tortoise got tired of listening to Hare boast about how fast he was, so he challenged Hare to a race. Even though he was slower than Hare, Tortoise won by keeping up his slow and steady pace when Hare stopped to take a nap.

First Then Finally

The “First Then Finally” technique helps students summarize events in chronological order. The three words represent the beginning, main action, and conclusion of a story, respectively:

  • First: What happened first? Include the main character and main event/action.
  • Then: What key details took place during the event/action?
  • Finally: What were the results of the event/action?

Here is an example using “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”

First, Goldilocks entered the bears’ home while they were gone. Then, she ate their food, sat in their chairs, and slept in their beds. Finally, she woke up to find the bears watching her, so she jumped up and ran away.

Give Me the Gist

When someone asks for “the gist” of a story, they want to know what the story is about. In other words, they want a summary—not a retelling of every detail. To introduce the gist method, explain that summarizing is just like giving a friend the gist of a story, and have your students tell each other about their favorite books or movies in 15 seconds or less. You can use the gist method as a fun, quick way to practice summarizing on a regular basis.

Advice to my students – scroll down for each of these topics

  • What do I do when my paper is late?
  • What do I do when nothing is going right?
  • I’m really nervous about writing, and I’m not a good writer.
  • Asking professors for letters of recommendation

What do I do when my paper is late?
Success in college (and life) is not just about staying on top of everything and being perfect. That’s always nice if you can pull it off, but it’s important to know how to handle things when your life falls apart. Here are a few tips.

First, know what the late policy is for each class. Does your professor accept late work? Is there a penalty? If you don’t know – ASK! Don’t assume that it’s not worth doing late work.

If you fail to complete an assignment altogether, it can wreak havoc on your grade. Here’s an example: A writing assignment is worth 10% of your class grade, and 5% of the assignment grade is deducted for every day it is late. You are having a tough semester, so your average on all other assignments is 80% for that class (i.e, for the other 90% of the class you have 72 points). The assignment due date sneaks up on you, and you just can’t pull it together. You are so overwhelmed with other things, you decide to just ignore the assignment completely, and you get a 0. Your final course grade is 72, or a C-.

Alternatively: You anticipate having trouble with the assignment, and you ask your professor for an extension before the assignment due date. You achieve an 80 for this assignment (in keeping with your overall performance), and you get a B- for the class.

Alternatively: You don’t manage to get an extension, either because you didn’t ask or because your professor wouldn’t give it to you. You miss the original due-date, but you pull something together for the next day. It’s not your best work, but it earns you a 70 for that assignment, which gets knocked down to 65 for being one day late. Your course grade is 78.5 and you earn a C+. Sure, that’s not great – but a lot better than a C-.

The moral of the story is: Always turn your work in, even if it’s late. Even better is to anticipate problems and deal with them before it’s too late.

What do I do when nothing is going right?

UNC has great resources for students. Take advantage of them! If you are having any trouble at all, for whatever reason, a great place to start is the Office of the Dean of Students.

You can contact them here: (919) 966-4042 or email [email protected]

They help coordinate a variety of personal, health and academic services, and can point you in the right direction.

I’m really nervous about writing, and I’m not a good writer.

Writing is a skill, it’s not part of your personality. You have good ideas, but you may not have practice with the skills of putting them down on paper. Learning to be a good writer is worth your time. These things will help:
* Read a lot
* Work at your writing — think about how to say things in the best way, and revise
* Get input from other people — ask friends to read your work and give you feedback
* Take advantage of the Writing Center while you are at UNC, it’s a fantastic resource
* Read the handouts from the writing center on-line for good tips

Asking for letters of recommendation

Students apply for all sorts of things that require letters of recommendation from professors. Before you ask a professor, think about what they might be able to say about you. If it is a large class and you’ve never had a conversation with the professor, all they can comment on is your grade, which may not help you that much. Try to get involved in projects, such as lab research, so your professors will see how you work and can make specific comments in their letters.

After your professor agrees to write a letter, make sure to do the following:

Students first need to recognize that they need help, and then they need to know that they’ll be supported when they ask for it.

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Why do students struggle to ask teachers for extra help? Why do they sit in silence or confusion when raising their hand could bring help? Failure to ask for help can affect students’ academic performance, self-esteem, and potentially their access to learning in the future. There are several reasons why students struggle to ask for help, but the good news is that there are many strategies that can help them become stronger self-advocates for their learning.

Students must first recognize that they’re struggling. This requires honesty and self-awareness—some students don’t think they need help even when formal or informal assessments indicate otherwise.

Once students acknowledge that they’re struggling, they may feel shame or embarrassment. Many students have told me, “I want to be independent and try it on my own. I don’t need help.” They fear that asking for help signals weakness or failure in their character, though adults could tell them that asking for help is instead a sign of maturity and strength.

Teachers can help students understand how they learn best and empower them to be advocates for their own learning by teaching them how to ask for help.

5 Strategies for Improving Students’ Self-Advocacy Skills

1. Strengthen students’ metacognition: One strategy to help students acknowledge that they need help is to strengthen their self-reflection and metacognitive skills. Teachers and parents often act as external monitors of student progress, but they can begin to shift the responsibility of self-monitoring to children as early as elementary school.

Teachers can encourage and guide students with explicit metacognitive teaching to think about their learning. After a test, for example, have students answer questions about how they studied, how much time they spent studying, their test grade, and what they’ll do differently for the next test.

Asking open-ended questions about their learning helps students learn to gauge their progress and identify areas where they’re strong and ones where they need support. Teachers can incorporate metacognitive prompts such as:

  • This project required a lot of hard work. How did you prepare for it?
  • How do you think you’re doing in this class? How do you know? How does this compare with graded work you’ve received so far?
  • Can you identify one strategy you’ve been using that has helped you to be successful? Can you identify one strategy you want to try using more often?

2. Help students understand that teachers want to help: Asking students of any age why an adult would choose teaching as a career can be an eye-opening—and often humorous—activity.

Have students pause and reflect in small groups about why they think Teacher X became a teacher. This is extra fun if Teacher X can visit your classroom to hear the brainstormed ideas. Guide students to the final answer: “Teachers become teachers because they like to help.”

I’ve used this exercise at the beginning of a year for relationship-building and to show students that I care about them and want to help them. This allows me to talk to my students in a lighthearted way about asking for help.

3. Brainstorm conversation starters: Students who are introverted or shy may feel overwhelmed or anxious about initiating a conversation with their teacher. Practicing or role-playing this kind of conversation can help shy students build confidence. Teachers can also suggest that students use just two words to signal that they need help: “I’m struggling.”

Evidence shows that having students brainstorm increases their mental flexibility and creative problem-solving. After they think of ways to initiate a conversation, have them role-play talking with a teacher. This can be done as a small group activity in the classroom or one-on-one with a trusted teacher, social worker, parent, etc.

Students can approach teachers with conversation starters like:

  • I’m struggling with _____. Can we talk about it later?
  • I’m working hard, but I’m still not understanding _____. Can you help me?
  • I’m not sure what I need. Can you please talk with me?
  • Can you give me advice about _____?

4. Create a secure environment: Students need to feel safe in order to be vulnerable and honest enough to ask for help. Would you speak up and admit you needed help if you thought your peers would laugh at you?

Teachers should encourage a climate of curiosity, risk taking, and openness. You can use team-building activities to increase the sense of community in the classroom, create posters that reiterate your classroom rules and values, or hang inspiring quotes on the walls.

Another great strategy is for teachers to model self-talk when doing something that requires risk taking. When I make mistakes as a teacher, I use them as opportunities to talk about imperfection and how to be resilient. Students enjoy catching their teacher making mistakes, and I love it when they catch me too because I get to remind them that everyone is imperfect.

5. Help students see themselves as capable of success: In order to ask for help, students need to believe in their own capacity to be successful. If students feel defeated or helpless, they’ll be less likely to seek assistance.

Create opportunities and activities in your classroom for students to identify and highlight their strengths. One activity for elementary classrooms is creating an “I Am” bulletin board: Ask each student to create five or 10 “I Am” statements: “I am strong,” “I am good at basketball.” Next, have students find images online or in magazines that illustrate their statements and create a collage of words and pictures.

For secondary classrooms, I recommend an “Expertise” bulletin board: Students (and teachers) can identify two or three expert-level skills they have—“I’m an expert at spelling,” “I’m an expert at geography—I can name all the state capitals.” Display these on a classroom bulletin board, and when students need help they can check the board to find a classmate—or teacher—who can help.

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Fluency is defined as the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression. In order to understand what they read, children must be able to read fluently whether they are reading aloud or silently. When reading aloud, fluent readers read in phrases and add intonation appropriately. Their reading is smooth and has expression.

Children who do not read with fluency sound choppy and awkward. Those students may have difficulty with decoding skills or they may just need more practice with speed and smoothness in reading. Fluency is also important for motivation; children who find reading laborious tend not to want read! As readers head into upper elementary grades, fluency becomes increasingly important. The volume of reading required in the upper elementary years escalates dramatically. Students whose reading is slow or labored will have trouble meeting the reading demands of their grade level.

What the problem looks like

A kid’s perspective: What this feels like to me

Children will usually express their frustration and difficulties in a general way, with statements like “I hate reading!” or “This is stupid!”. But if they could, this is how kids might describe how fluency difficulties in particular affect their reading:

  • I just seem to get stuck when I try to read a lot of the words in this chapter.
  • It takes me so long to read something.
  • Reading through this book takes so much of my energy, I can’t even think about what it means.
  • Click here to find out what kids can do to help themselves.

A parent’s perspective: What I see at home

Here are some clues for parents that a child may have problems with fluency:

  • He knows how to read words but seems to take a long time to read a short book or passage silently.
  • She reads a book with no expression.
  • He stumbles a lot and loses his place when reading something aloud.
  • She reads aloud very slowly.
  • She moves her mouth when reading silently (subvocalizing).
  • Click here to find out what parents can do to help a child at home.

A teacher’s perspective: What I see in the classroom

Here are some clues for teachers that a student may have problems with fluency:

  • Her results on words-correct-per-minute assessments are below grade level or targeted benchmark.
  • She has difficulty and grows frustrated when reading aloud, either because of speed or accuracy.
  • He does not read aloud with expression; that is, he does not change his tone where appropriate.
  • She does not “chunk” words into meaningful units.
  • When reading, he doesn’t pause at meaningful breaks within sentences or paragraphs.
  • Click here to find out what teachers can do to help a student at school.

How to help

With the help of parents and teachers, kids can learn strategies to cope with fluency issues that affect his or her reading. Below are some tips and specific things to do.

What kids can do to help themselves

  • Track the words with your finger as a parent or teacher reads a passage aloud. Then you read it.
  • Have a parent or teacher read aloud to you. Then, match your voice to theirs.
  • Read your favorite books and poems over and over again. Practice getting smoother and reading with expression.

What parents can do to help at home

  • Support and encourage your child. Realize that he or she is likely frustrated by reading.
  • Check with your child’s teachers to find out their assessment of your child’s word decoding skills.
  • If your child can decode words well, help him or her build speed and accuracy by:
    • Reading aloud and having your child match his voice to yours
    • Having your child practice reading the same list of words, phrase, or short passages several times
    • Reminding your child to pause between sentences and phrases
  • Read aloud to your child to provide an example of how fluent reading sounds.
  • Give your child books with predictable vocabulary and clear rhythmic patterns so the child can “hear” the sound of fluent reading as he or she reads the book aloud.
  • Use books on tapes; have the child follow along in the print copy.

What teachers can do to help at school

  • Assess the student to make sure that word decoding or word recognition is not the source of the difficulty (if decoding is the source of the problem, decoding will need to be addressed in addition to reading speed and phrasing).
  • Give the student independent level texts that he or she can practice again and again. Time the student and calculate words-correct-per-minute regularly. The student can chart his or her own improvement.
  • Ask the student to match his or her voice to yours when reading aloud or to a tape recorded reading.
  • Read a short passage and then have the student immediately read it back to you.
  • Have the student practice reading a passage with a certain emotion, such as sadness or excitement, to emphasize expression and intonation.
  • Incorporate timed repeated readings into your instructional repertoire.
  • Plan lessons that explicitly teach students how to pay attention to clues in the text (for example, punctuation marks) that provide information about how that text should be read.

For more information about fluency, browse the articles, multimedia, and other resources in this special section: Topics A-Z: Fluency.

More information

Find out more about fluency issues with these resources:

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Giving advice refers to when we tell other people what we think could help them. The most common way to give advice is by using the modal verb ‘should’. There are also other forms including, ‘ought to’ and ‘had better’ which are more formal. You can also use the second conditional to give advice.

There are a number of formulas used when giving advice in English. Here are some of the most common:

  • You should see a doctor.
  • I don’t think you should work so hard.
  • You ought to work less.
  • You ought not to work so hard.
  • If I were you, I’d work less.
  • If I were in your position, I’d work less.
  • If I were in your shoes, I’d work less.
  • You had better work less.
  • You shouldn’t work so hard.
  • Whatever you do, don’t work so hard.

Advice Construction

I don’t think you should work so hard.

Use ‘I don’t think you should’ the base form of the verb in a statement.

You ought to work less.

Use ‘You ought to’ the base form of the verb in a statement.

You ought not to work so hard.

Use ‘You ought not to’ the base form of the verb in a statement.

If I were you,
If I were in your position,
If I were in your shoes,
I wouldn’t work so hard.

Use ‘If I were’ ‘you’ OR ‘in your position’ OR ‘your shoes’ ‘I wouldn’t’ OR ‘I would’ base form of the verb in a statement (A form of the conditional 2).

You had better work less.

Use ‘You had better’ (you’d better) the base form of the verb in a statement.

You shouldn’t OR You should work less.

Use ‘You should’ OR ‘You shouldn’t’ the base form of the verb in a statement.

Whatever you do, don’t work so hard.

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

Shrugs and confusion can often be avoided with better instructions.

Teachers are sometimes surprised to discover just how much giving clear instructions to students can affect students’ success in the classroom. When given effective directions, students can engage with the material more effectively and ultimately have more productive experiences.

There are several steps teachers can take to ensure that their students understand instructions and are able to complete assignments with ease.

1. Use Clear and Precise Language

Thirty-three years ago, Chilcoat and Stahl wrote the definitive framework for giving clear directions. They advised using short, complete sentences and precise, concrete terms so that students will be able to understand what’s expected of them. They also suggested using nouns instead of pronouns—especially when teaching younger students—and avoiding vague terms such as “some,” “a few,” or “a couple.”

Teachers should also clearly articulate the expectations of the assignment or task. Explaining what students have to do, how they have to do it, and when they have to complete it by can help them understand—and follow—your directions. Providing a strong, detailed rubric with the assignment can also make both the teacher’s and the student’s job clearer and easier.

2. Repeat Your Directions

We assume that our students listen when we speak—but anyone who has been teaching for more than five minutes knows this isn’t always the case. A teacher might give directions and find that their students haven’t been paying attention, or that the students only half-grasped the instructions. A quick look around the room, some redirection, and some repetition can ensure that every student is focused and understands what they need to do. I often write assignment directions on the board, on the assignment sheet, and in our computer platform so that students can refer to them as they work.

Advice for students how to unstuff a sentence

3. Explain the Purpose of the Task

When you explain to students why they’re being asked to complete an assignment, they’re more able to appreciate the experience. Connecting the task to existing student knowledge, previous lessons, or covered material will help students feel more confident about tackling the task.

4. Make Sure Your Students Understand

After giving them directions, ask your students to repeat or rephrase what’s expected of them. Ask them specific questions about the requirements. Clarify any confusing points. Provide students with feedback that can help them comprehend and complete the task.

5. Use an Appropriate Tone

It’s not just what you say; it’s also how you say it. Don’t yell, mumble, or castigate. Ensure the pace of information is appropriate for grade level and ability. Don’t rush or move too slowly. Pause frequently to give students time to digest the information.

6. Describe the Specifics

If the assignment requires specific materials or a particular format, be sure to let students know. In my class, for example, every question must be answered in a complete sentence, and one-sentence responses are usually not sufficient to answer a question. Creating and clearly explaining such specifics sets your students up for success.

7. Provide Examples

In 1965 (but I remember it like it was yesterday), my first grade teacher had us create an alphabet booklet. I was excited about the assignment and worked hard on it every day for a week. After I handed it in, I realized that many of the students had created clever covers for their booklets. Because I didn’t have an example to mirror, I didn’t include a cover, and my pride in my work quickly faded.

That I remember this lesson nearly 55 years later underscores the importance of using examples when giving instructions. As a teacher today, I almost always provide my students with examples of outstanding work from previous years, and as a result, students clearly understand my expectations. Doing so has also helped me build better relationships with my students.

8. Break Tasks into Manageable Chunks

If an assignment is large or multifaceted, section it into smaller tasks, especially if you teach younger students who can’t handle a long list of directions. Breaking assignments into manageable tasks can help students feel more confident in their work.

Giving clear instructions to students can ensure that they fully comprehend what they need to do to achieve in your classroom. It will ease students’ nerves, assuage their insecurities, and help them confirm your expectations so that they can be happy and successful in school.