Killgallon, Don & Killgallon, Jenny (2008). Story Grammar for Elementary School: A Sentence-Composing Approach, a Student Worktext. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Pages: 120 Price: $12.00 ISBN: 978-0-325-01246-9
Reviewed by Thomas A. Caron, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, East Carolina University
Story Grammar for Elementary School is an extremely useful and welcome work designed to teach some of the most elusive aspects of writing, such as the very structure of our language itself. This text is an informative, supportive and interactive book valuable for any student in upper elementary school. The language used in the teaching components is clear, directive and humorous. It could also be used in middle school settings where there is student need.
The process of a sentence-composing approach drew my attention immediately. If there is one area of English and writing which provides blocks and hurdles for students and teachers alike, it is grammar. The familiar didactic teaching approaches are often so unhelpful, turning the attention of writers to narrower and narrower aspects of language. They lead to little more than tedious and taxing enterprises for all. These approaches rarely address the concerns of students most in need. This book solves many such problems and opens the way for important learning.
The Killgallons have created a text in the likeness of William Strong’s (1973) sentence-combining approach to teaching grammar, but with welcome and needed additional features. Students are led to create complex sentences in a manner similar to Strong’s method of providing models and then short sentences to combine. In this case, there is greater guidance and more interesting pieces with which to work. Story Grammar for Elementary School uses complicated sentences from the very best works of children’s literature as model sentences and in the exercises. The reference list at the back of the text provides several pages of the best children’s and young adult reading which seems to emphasize J.K. Rowling’s advice to aspiring writers, “Read as much as you can, I think that there is nothing as important, because that will really show you what makes good writing in your opinion…” (2005, ¶28).
Chapter 1, “Story Grammar,” introduces the importance of grammar as the structure which holds together the language of a story. Next “Imitating Story Sentences” provides models of excellently written sentences broken into meaningful chunks and practice for students in making the divisions. Then, instead of providing three short sentences to reconstruct into a composite one, as the sentence-combining approach typically demands, the Killgallons separate pieces of excellent sentences and ask the student to reconstruct them by putting the pieces in the correct order.
For example, after a model such as “Tobias, the remaining member of our group, was about a hundred feet above us, floating on a nice warm current of air”(p. 5). The student is asked to re-order sentences such as the following, “a. was a step behind us, b. Vera, c. the shortest girl in the class, d. struggling with her loose, new pair of shoes”(p. 5). The student would then write a sentence in the manner of the model, “Vera, the shortest girl in the class, was a step behind us, struggling with her loose, new pair of shoes.” Thus the student is led to observe the model closely and recreate similar sentences based on that model, without having to generate those sentences from scratch. The book models an excellent approach to providing gradually increasing difficulty in learning and creative responsibility for the student.
The “Sentence Parts” chapter begins with a simple explanation and a set of practices with subjects and predicates, moving on to “tools”—a word, phrase, or clause qualifying something to make the sentence “more interesting and stylish” (p. 18). The authors demonstrate the power of tools with sentences from well-known works compared to what the same sentence would be, stripped of the tools. For example, compare these two:
4a. Stanley thought about his great-grandfather.
4b. Walking across the desolate wasteland, Stanley thought about his great-grandfather, the guy who was robbed by Kissin’ Kate Barlow. (p. 18)
The practice activities which follow use matching, unscrambling, and adding tools to lead the student-reader towards progressively more complex identification and creation of well-written sentences. Next, the Killgallons identify increasingly challenging tools to add; from word, to phrase, to clause. This is followed by practice identifying sentence types and imitating authors’ use of these, adding tools to base sentences. A review ends this chapter and every other, reiterating the ideas demonstrated and practiced and transitioning nicely into the next chapter.
“Sentence Positions” demonstrates the next important aspect of adding tools to sentences: their placement as an opener, subject-verb split in the middle of a sentence, or as a closer at the end. Again, practice develops steadily from identification of which sentence model is being used, to matching, and finally creating new sentences modeled on the use of similar tools. Integration is achieved with the previous chapter by demonstrating and providing practice using word, phrase, and clause tools in varying positions. This leads students neatly from modeling and imitating well-constructed sentences to experimenting with creating their own.
The work is summarized and put together in “Writing Story Sentences,” where overall planning including setting, character and plot, is demonstrated. With the requirement to use some of these new writing tools, students are directed to create their own story paragraph to practice the skills of writing learned through working with this text.
Story Grammar for Elementary School is a highly useful text providing powerful tools for learning some of the most complex aspects of good writing in a comfortable and interesting manner. The Killgallons are to be commended on their excellent student worktext. I am sure this text will be put to excellent use in many classrooms where the ending list of books in “Your Invisible Teachers” will also be read and re-read many times.
Rowling, J.K (2005) BBC interview July 18. Retrieved September 19, 2008 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/newsid_4690000/newsid_4690800/4690885.stm
Strong, W. (1973). Sentence combining: A composing book. New York: Random House.