You tell yourself, “This year will be different.”

You have a high-interest, data-driven teaching strategy in place.


…hand out your favorite list of subordinate conjunctions.
…plan a great mini-lesson on independent and dependent clauses.
…provide stimulating practice sessions until your students can write award-worthy sentences on demand.

“This group of students will include masterful complex sentences in future assignments effortlessly,” you convince yourself.
“This group of students will achieve more advanced-proficient writing scores than any students I’ve ever taught.”

You then sit down with a cup of coffee and slide the paper clip off the stack of Period 1 writing assignments, eager to read pieces that will confirm that your hard work has paid off. Instead, you find paper after paper littered with fragments!

Arrgh!  Where did you go wrong?

The answer – more often than not – is that you are giving students too many choices. That’s right. Too many choices.

Luckily, the remedy for this is simple: just limit student choices and skill mastery will follow.

The fact is, teaching students to use complex sentences fluently can be easy.  All you have to do is try a technique I call Sharpening the SAW for two weeks and when the next set of assignments roll in, you will get the results you deserve…guaranteed.

Sharpening the SAW

Step 1 (Monday)
Select one of the following SAW (Since – Although – When) story starters and to write for 10 minutes.

  • Since I was the last one to see Carlo before he disappeared, I knew the police would have to question me.
  • Although everything about Lily Devereaux seemed normal, she was actually the farthest thing from it.
  • When I noticed Max Savage heading to the hardware store again, I knew exactly what I had to do.

Step 2 (Tuesday – Friday)
Click on the 50 Story Starters: Simplifying Complex Sentences picture link:

Have students select a photograph with an opening line that intrigues them and write for 10 minutes. Each of the openings for each picture begins with Since, Although or When. For instance, the opening line for the featured picture showcased above is: “When he opened the tiny letter postmarked December 18, 2025,________ finally understood the meaning of his recurring dream.” This exercise will be repeated for four days.

Step 3 (Monday – Tuesday)
Provide students with choices of three dependent clauses and have each student add an independent clause to one of them. Then get everyone to write for 10 minutes, using one newly-crafted complex sentence.

Monday choices:
Since Mr. Hackney is the toughest teacher in our school,________.
Although I am generally not a fan of reality TV, _______________.
When the school board voted to adopt a four-day school week,_______.

Tuesday choices:
ince today is my birthday,______________________________.
Although I promised never to disclose Tom’s secret , __________.
When I found out that I had won the lottery, ________________.

Step 4 (Wednesday)
Click on the Living Punctuation picture link and download four free lessons and a set of punctuation cards:

Students will “perform” the sentences they designed on Monday and Tuesday, using the punctuation poster cards.

Step 5 (Thursday – Friday)
Students design as many original complex sentences – beginning with Since, Although and When – as possible within a 10 minute time frame. When time is called, each class member will select one to share. As each sentence is shared, the reader will say the word COMMA out loud when it appears in the sentence.  Have everyone share one original complex sentence in this manner. At the end of the exercise, explain that Since, Although and When are subordinate conjunctions used to introduce dependent clauses. These dependent clauses will be followed by commas. Be sure to remind students that there must be a complete sentence (an independent clause) after the comma.

Note: Here is the trick that will make grading the next set of essays or narratives more satisfying. First, have students write SAW (Since – Although – When) at the top of their sloppy copies to remind them to include complex sentences in all writing assignments. Next, have students highlight one or more complex sentence(s) on their final drafts. Then, continue to require at least one highlighted, complex sentence in future assignments in order to ensure skill mastery.

When can you expect to see magical changes in your students’ writings?

Right away.

But the best part is that next time you close your eyes, wave your hand over a stack of Period 1 papers, and whisper, “Fragments be gone,” they will be.

If you would like more lessons on Simplifying Complex Sentences, check out the PowerPoint in my TPT store:

Fill-in-the-Blanks Share Point: The acronym or mnemonic device that helps my students remember important concepts is______________. It stands for__________________.

Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.

About the author: Janice Malone is a teacher and owner of ELA Seminars. For more of her story, go here

I don’t remember many English rules from my early years in school (who does?), but I do remember that I wasn’t allowed to put any periods on my paper until I was absolutely certain I had included a noun and a verb in every sentence.

When I landed in middle school, I discovered that the elementary school teachers had been withholding the “you understood” exception to that rule. So from that moment on, I sheepishly included single verbs in all my assignments, punctuated them with periods, and prayed that readers (especially adult readers) would try to correct my “mistakes” so I could share my superior knowledge with them.

I also remember spending hours crafting descriptive paragraphs about people and places in order to put my advanced vocabulary (which was actually my obsession with the thesaurus) on display.

Surprisingly, nobody ever expressed admiration for my knowledge of punctuation rules or for my stellar use of multisyllabic adjectives.

And now, it seems, it is too late.

Today, many rules have become negotiable. So many, that it is risky to challenge one without being labeled a “dinosaur.”

But for those willing to toss out Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition Handbook, here are two writing techniques that might be worth adding to your writer’s toolbox:


Emphatic words and phrases are regularly used in contemporary literature. These artful fragments add melodrama to narrative writing.

Mini-Lesson: Post the examples below, tell students to select one to use in a free write, and listen to the results.



No response.

Gone. Skipped out. Didn’t leave a note.

Slow-moving fans. Wooden tables. Wicker chairs.

No light. No sound. No movement.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      .Note: NOTE: Emphatic words and phrases are the “bad boys” of the literary world. They deliberately break rules and defiantly draw attention to themselves. That’s what makes them so irresistible.     


Brand-name proper nouns instantly conjure up sensory connections for readers. Instead of having to work to make audiences inhale, observe and salivate, writers can simply drop one into a writing piece and voila…c’est manifique! It’s almost too easy.

Mini-Lesson: Post the following brand names, ask students to incorporate one into a piece of writing, and ask them to share.




Olive Garden


Forever 21

NOTE: Invoking brand-name nouns may feel like cheating on a test or trespassing on private property. But since those nouns are always hanging around – begging to be exploited – take advantage of them guilt-free.

So there you have it: Two ways to grab the attention of readers that would never have received the approval of John E. Warriner in 1969.

About the author: Janice Malone is a teacher and owner of ELA Seminars. For more of her story, go here

Share Point:

Okay, now here are two questions for you:

1.What unconventional writing techniques have you tried that have improved your own or your students’ writings?  and/or  2. What are your biggest pet peeves when you are reading professional writings or grading student writings?

Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.

5 Hands

I know. It sounds devious to write a “How To” piece designed to equip young writers with tools that play mind games with their readers. So I am going to backpedal a bit and call this a “Readers Beware” piece instead. Either way you look at it, it’s always fun to explore the impact of words.

 1. Regrettably

The job of this drama queen is to convince an audience that you are emotionally involved with your topic or story. Direct this empathy-builder to enter on cue whenever you feel the desire to connect more deeply with your readers. After all, who can resist the sight of a spontaneous tear rolling down a cheek or the disquieting sound of mournful sigh?

 2. For Instance

As the sophisticated alternative to its generic counterpart “for example,” this transitional phrase is comfortable just about anywhere. While she is capable of confidently introducing a sentence, she is equally comfortable quietly slipping into the middle of  (or resting at the end of)  one. This versatile transition phrase is your own personal lady-in-waiting.

 3. Fortunately

Before you even share your valuable insights, understand that this word choice promises to flood readers with a sunny perspective. And they expect you to deliver. So make sure that you pack a ton of “feel good” information into the sentences that follow it so you can maintain the trust of your audience.

 4. Perhaps

Welcome this reader-friendly word into your writings as if you were bringing an old friend into your home. This likable fellow is happiest when it is given the chance to air its opinions as well as its musings. As an open-minded companion, he has perfected the simple art of conversation.

5. Ultimately

Put this prizefighter in your closing paragraph and it will fight for you. The moment this word is read or uttered it will either empower readers to take a firm stand on an issue or it will elevate you (the writer) to a position of authority. Either way, this transition packs a powerful punch.


Note: Don’t be fooled. Transitions are manipulative companions who are obsessed with controlling readers’ minds and actions. Use them intelligently.

Janice Malone

 Share Point: Now, here’s a question for you: What is your pet transition or transition phrase, and what is its special power? (Click on the comment icon at the top of this post.)

Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.

I’m hoping to connect with fellow English Language Arts teachers and bloggers who are looking to share high-interest, low-prep writing exercises that engage middle and secondary students.

Janice Malone

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