Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.13.14At First Glance: A Sentence Starter Adds Unexpected Rigor to Writing

We wrapped up two days of workshops on Ratio on Friday. Ratio is the principle that it’s not whether the teacher gets a mental workout, but whether students do. Our workshops focus on building two types of Ratio, Participation Ratio (who’s engaged in the lesson and how often) and Think Ratio (how rigorous is the cognitive work they do when they’re involved).  Generally you want both, but you sometimes do different things to get them, and sometimes you emphasize one over the other.  One way to maximize both types of Ratio, however, is via more writing. Instead of asking a question that one or two students answer verbally, consider asking all students to answer the question in writing.

On Thursday and Friday we practiced a technique called Art of the Sentence, which asks students to synthesize a complex idea, summarize a reading or distill a discussion in a single, well-crafted sentence.  After all, the definition of a sentence is, often, a “complete thought,” and in asking students to draft and revise a rigorous complete thought we teach them how to have complete and rigorous thoughts.

We think Art of the Sentence has tremendous benefits for students for two reasons: (1) Compressing multiple ideas or complex relationships between ideas into a single sentence is intellectually challenging. (2) It offers the opportunity to teach students how to structure their sentences in new ways, which elevates their syntax and pushes their thinking.

We tried to put this into practice in our workshop and the result was somewhere between epiphany and revelation.   We were working with the idea of intentionally choosing sentence starters for students to use in their written responses.  Doing so sounds like it might make writing less rigorous—you’re starting their sentence for students, after all–but in fact it had the opposite effect because how you start a sentence can change how you think and what syntactical structures you use.

To allow workshop participants to experience Art of the Sentence, we provided a bit of background and then asked each participant to write one sentence summarizing Bruegel’s painting “The Fall of Icarus”

Here’s the background we provided: Icarus, you may recall, is a figure from Greek mythology whose father Daedalus devised an escape for his son and himself by flying from their locked tower on wings made of bird feathers and wax. Before they flew, Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun or the wax in his wings would melt. Icarus ignored his father’s warning and as a result crashed into the sea.

We also pointed out Icarus’ legs landing in the sea in the right foreground of the painting.

We gave participants two minutes to look at the painting and craft a single, well-written sentence that articulated the message of the painting. Their sentences were well crafted and insightful. Here are three examples that workshop participants shared with us:


  • The world is large and you have to take care of your own self because the world will not stop to mourn you if you are lost.
  • After years of being unseen and locked away, life is uninterrupted by Icaus’ plummet from flight.
  • We are all just small pieces of a greater world; we shouldn’t overemphasize our importance in it.


We then asked participants to write a second, single, well-crafted sentence beginning with the phrase “At first glance…” Here are the examples that emerged after we added those three simple words:


  • At first glance, Icarus does not even register to the casual observer; only upon further investigation is his personal tragedy evident among the tranquil scenes of daily life.
  • At first glance, it appears that the scene depicts a peaceful, seaside afternoon, but a closer analysis reveals that Bruegel is actually commenting on how one poor decision can keep a person from enjoying simple pleasures in life.
  • At first glance, you will see life moving on at a normal pace on a normal day, but a closer look will show you the small impact that one man’s demise will cause society.
  • At first glance, Bruegel’s painting appears to be a simple depiction of a beautiful scene by the sea; however upon further inspection, it is clear that the minimization of Icarus’ downfall demonstrates how hastiness can cause your accomplishments to go unnoticed by others.

Not only were the second sentences much more syntactically complex but the diction became more formal and, most important, and how much the complexity of the ideas increased – incorporating a discussion of initial and subsequent perceptions and an analysis of how that  conveyed the painting’s argument.

The sentence starter, ‘at first glance’ caused us as a group to think about what was hidden in the painting and why. And it allowed us to have a much more cohesive dialogue about the painting’s meaning as well. In our debrief Jon Ratheram, chemistry teacher from North Star Academy High School, noted: “Just those three words set the path for where the entire sentence was going to go. ‘At first glance,’ signaled that there was going to be a dichotomy, and I’d have to find that.”

For the next step in the workshop we had teachers, in content groups, identify particular habits of thinking they seek to foster (such as synthesizing evidence, analyzing data etc.) then draft phrases they could ask students to use in starting sentences that would foster that type of thinking. In the science group, participants brainstormed starters such as, “Despite my initial hypothesis..” and History teachers drafted starters such as “In light of all the evidence,”

Later, we heard Nikki Bridges, principal of Leadership Prep Ocean Hill, set her students up to write a single, well-crafted sentence on Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred” beginning with the phrase, “Throughout the poem…” In addition to pushing students to start their sentence with more sophisticated syntax than they might do on their own (in this case, a prepositional phrase), Nikki’s three-word frame ensures that the students will pull and synthesize evidence from throughout the text.

So what do you think? Have you used sentence starters to elevate students’ syntax and push their thinking in new directions?

[Thanks to Dan Cotton and Joaquin Hernandez for collecting, preparing and writing most of this post].


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13 Responses to “At First Glance: A Sentence Starter Adds Unexpected Rigor to Writing”

  1. Mary Thomas
    January 13, 2014 at 2:58 am

    Wow!! What a wonderful idea. Can’t wait to try it in my classroom. Thanks for posting.

  2. Anna Higson
    January 13, 2014 at 7:22 am

    Very interesting…I will try this out in class.

  3. Julia Skinner
    January 13, 2014 at 9:27 am

    I run 100 Word Challenge and the restriction of the wordage has really helped improve many children’s writing as well as encourage those more reluctant to have a go. I provide a prompt of either a pictue or part of a sentence and it is this that gets the children’s imaginations going.

    Julia Skinner @theheadsoofice

  4. Joe Baker
    January 13, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Yes! Ever since Doug and Erica’s workshop a few months ago, I’ve been coaching new teachers to incorporate Art of the Sentence. Providing a seemingly simple sentence starter has not only increased the caliber of student responses, but it has also given “slow starters” in the classroom some necessary support to get their thoughts on paper.

    • Doug_Lemov
      January 13, 2014 at 3:37 pm

      SO glad to hear it, Joe. Thanks for the shout.

  5. Matt Wheeland
    January 14, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    Interesting! I think I can try this right away in my “Do-Now’s”

    • Doug_Lemov
      January 14, 2014 at 9:27 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I just wrote this, in drafting TLAC 2.0, not an hour ago:

      It’s not too far a leap to see the
      potential usefulness of Art of the Sentence as an Exit Ticket or even for a
      sequence of Exit Ticket and next day’s Do Now.
      Imagine: You wrap up the lesson by having everyone distill a key idea in
      writing and the next day, as their Do Now, students get their sentences back with individualized guidance:
      “Revise to use the phrase “in spite of,” or “Rewrite clarifying what the
      pronoun ‘it’ refers to,” or getting a challenge: “Great! Now see if you can use
      the word ‘anabolic.’”

      We’re thinking similarly.

  6. sanjee sivanesan
    March 24, 2018 at 3:53 pm

    great idea. I use these for reflection and evaluation: I used to and Now I…; While I agree/ disagree with…,

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