Pattern Writing: Combining Words Into Structured Ideas

"Pattern writing" or "sentence transformation" activities are all based on identifying and repeating sentence patterns. They are particularly useful for teaching writing, sentence structure and parts of speech. A

Four things are most important in pattern writing:

    • The patterns should start out simple and focus on a particular element of language, such as nouns or adverbs, so that kids internalize the key concepts without you having to give them names or lecture about their characteristics. Always point out the words as you read them.

    • You supply the patterns, but the kids fill in the blanks. Let the kids call out the word suggestions so that they are the ones who feel ownership of the activity. In this way they stay more engaged and practice does not become "drill and kill."

    • Use, or at least start with, topics or patterns that come from your other class work. For example, take a sentence pattern from a book you just read aloud, or start with words about the Internet if you're working on a Web page.

    • Although these activities are about writing and sentences, they work so well because they involve movement and voice. Keep talking and reading the patterns aloud throughout, with the kids chanting and repeating along with you so there's never any silence. Keep up the repetition of all previous permutations as you add new ones. Keep the energy and activity levels high.

In the example from Pattern Writing from Books and Poems, our pattern was: In the room I see a ____ with a ____. Start writing sentences that follow this pattern, filling in with words that were generated in a mapping or webbing exercise.

In the room I see a door.
In the room I see a door with a knob.
In the room I see a door with a window.
In the room I see a desk.
In the room I see a desk with legs.
In the room I see a book.
In the room I see a book with a cover.

And so on. Keep looking up the list of words the students generated, which should be on the pad or blackboard or taped to the wall close by. That way, kids see that you are looking at their work. Say everything out loud as you write it, and have the students repeat it. Keep your pace and energy up so that there is never any silence in the room. Every time you write a new sentence, start reading from the top of the list over again so that there is constant repetition with the kids reading or repeating each sentence along with you. Try to keep a meter or recognizable sing-song pattern in your voice.

Next, have the kids go back to their places and write some of their own sentences following the pattern on paper and using words of their own. Let them do this for just a few minutes, then call on kids to share some of their sentences.


Pattern Writing Variations

    • As the activity goes on, introduce new words and concepts, but not too many concepts in a single exercise. In the model above, for example, you might shift the indefinite article "a" to "an" for some words, or try changing "a" to "the" to introduce the concept of definite articles. Next session, try patterns that shift the focus to plurals, then to verbs, adverbs and more parts of speech.

    • When you're writing the sentences on paper, make a few mistakes, such as spelling a word wrong and crossing it out. Why? Because kids will make mistakes, and it's important for you to model the proper way to deal with it. Don't worry about using the eraser (it smudges up the paper anyway); just cross out the error and keep moving.

    • As an alternative to writing on paper, try using a pocket chart occasionally, which is a sheet of clear plastic sleeves that can be found in a variety of sizes at most teacher supply stores. Paper can be slipped into each sleeve and then read through the plastic. Once you've completed the mapping stage, copy the words from your map onto individual index cards or strips of paper that will fit into the sleeves of your pocket chart.

      On other cards, write the components of the sentence model (for example, if your model is, "In the room I see a...", have cards with each of those words on them.). Now insert the cards that form the basic pattern into sleeves in the top row of the pocket chart. Leave a space in the appropriate spot for the substitution words from your map. Conduct the sentence reading as above, but instead of writing each sentence, shift the cards in and out of the sleeves in the rows of the pocket chart. If you need more words, just write out new cards as kids call them out.

      Using the pocket chart has the advantage of being faster and letting you stand at the front of the room; in addition, you can shift other words and try new ideas more spontaneously. It's a good way to introduce pattern writing, especially the first few times, but don't eliminate writing on paper from your routine.

    • You don't have to use mapping all the time to generate words for your pattern writing activities. In fact, it will get old if you try them for everything.

    • With older kids and those in the middle ranges, you'll want to mix up the patterns a bit and use more complex patterns to keep their interest. Sometimes, do the activities by simply writing the patterns on the board or on large sheets of paper and having the kids write and follow along with you.

    • With older kids especially, but certainly not exclusively, you'll also want to try more sophisticated writing using patterns from books, songs and poetry, to help them develop storytelling skills. The same basic techniques apply from the simpler pattern exercises, and you'll be able to expand the kids' appreciation for reading, literature and personal expression even further.