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Sentence Combining

“Sentence combining involves teaching student to construct more complex and sophisticated sentences through exercises in which two or more basic sentences are combined into a single sentence. Teaching students how to write increasingly complex sentences in this way enhances the quality of their writing.”

Writing Next
Steve Graham and Dolores Perin

In 1973 Researcher Frank O’Hare hypothesized that exercises in sentence combining would give students experience handling English sentences.  Between 1976 and 1983, forty-nine articles in major journals confirmed O’Hare’s research: sentence combining, without any other grammar instruction, allowed students to write more complex sentences. 

Writing for the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute: Writing Across the Curriculum, William Elder suggests three reasons why sentence combining improves student writing:

1. The exercise is a ‘non-error oriented environment.’  There is usually more than one way to combine the sentences.  For example, consider the sentences:

  1. Ann is sleepy. 
  2. Ann walked the dog. 

These could be combined as: 

  • Ann is sleepy because she walked the dog. 
  • Ann is sleepy, but she walked the dog. 

Both sentences convey a complete thought and a properly constructed sentence; neither sentence is more ‘correct’ than the other. Elder writes, “Exercises like these eliminate fear of failure for the student making the student the author and user of language.”

2. Sentence combining allows for slow growth in handling more complex sentences. By completing sentence-combining activities with increased difficulty, students’ writing skills are stretched. Take the following sentences:           

  1. The sky darkened. 
  2. The boys left the field. 
  3. The umpire called the game. 

These sentences could be combined multiple ways, including, but not limited to:

  •  When the sky darkened, the umpire called the game, and the boys left the field.
  • The boys left the field because the sky darkened, and the umpire called the game.

Again, there is no one correct answer.  Engaging a student in such exercises daily builds their confidence in handling words. Sentence Combining exposes the student to a variety of sentence structure options.

3. The teacher does not need a thorough knowledge of traditional grammar to lead her students in sentence-combining activities. 

In the homeschool setting, this extends the freedom of fear to include the parent. The entire exercise can be one of mutual learning and discovery while parent and child play with words. They can work side by side, each combining sentences, then comparing their work.  By noting similarities and differences in their final sentences, parent and child can enjoy the endless possibilities available when we put words together.


Some homeschool language arts curriculums include occasional sentence combining activities, but few embrace this learning tool to its full power.

Parents of middle school and older students should consider William Strong’s Sentence Combining: A Composing Book.  Working through one unit per year, Strong’s book provides enough sentence combining exercises for five years. I reccomend this book be started in 8th grade. Note: This book is expensive, but used copies are available.

Each unit consists of twenty-two exercises. Homeschool students should complete one exercise over the course of a week.  Each exercise offers eight clusters of sentences to be combined into eight sentences. These could be completed Monday through Thursday, working on two sentences per day. When combined, the eight sentences compose a paragraph on one topic, helping writers understand the structure of paragraphs. In Strong’s words, “…the way sentences “hang together.”

Strong offers a free writing prompt at the conclusion of each exercise that ties into the theme or topic of the paragraph.  Parents and students could use this free writing prompt on Fridays to round out this component of their writing activities.