If your students’ sentences could use a little life, here’s one technique that can yield some quick results: teach parallel structure.
Parallel structure is a tool that can absolutely transform predictable writing into something beautiful, powerful, and memorable. See what I did there? I used parallel structure.
What’s more, it’s a skill that you can teach once your students understand the basic parts of speech.
Let me show you a few ways to get started teaching parallel structure without overwhelming your students.
What is parallel structure?
Parallel structure is when words, phrases, and clauses are written in the same form or tense.
This means a few different things. Let’s take the first part of our definition: words must be in the same tense to be parallel in structure. For instance, if you have multiple verbs in a sentence, and one is in past tense, they should all be in past tense. Like this sentence:
"It cut, dazed, and dazzled you." --Eric Walrond, "The Palm Porch"
In this sentence you have three verbs, and they are all in past tense, so the sentence is written in parallel structure.
Or, if you’re using verbs in the infinitive form, they should all be in the same form, like this sentence from George Orwell's 1984:
“To dissemble your feelings, to control your face, to do what everyone else was doing, was an instinctive reaction.”
Notice how those 3 infinitive phrases in a row create a cool rhythm to the sentence? It wouldn't be achieved if we used multiple verbs in different tenses.
Parallel structure can also be applied to more than just verbs or single words. Consider clauses. If you use two or three clauses in a sentence they should all be in the same form. That means the sentence needs to have the same word order such as subject/verb/direct object or subject/linking verb/predicate adjective.
Here’s an example of a sentence with multiple clauses written in parallel structure:
Now, you don’t have to get into the nitty gritty of all parts of speech for students to understand the basic concept of parallel structure, but an understanding of subjects and verbs is important. The more they understand about parts of speech, phrases, and clauses, the easier this concept will be to grasp.
If you haven’t found a great way to teach the concepts of parts of speech, clauses, and phrases, try my method: use mentor sentences as examples followed by scaffolded writing practice.
I’ve put together some straightforward lessons that walk you through the process of teaching grammar concepts such as parts of speech, phrases, and clauses. You can read more about how to use mentor sentences in your classroom HERE, and you can grab a free lesson by clicking below to get started.
Why Should You Teach Parallel Structure?
Your students will be better writers if they employ parallel structure in their writing. That’s by far the most important reason.
If you think about great speeches and great writing, these folks used parallel structure at some point in their work. Consider the following:
"With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day."
Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have A Dream"
“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”
Parallel structure creates a rhythm in a person’s writing, and it separates it from bland writing. A writer can be more concise and clear when using parallel structure, and it allows for more fluent writing.
Another reason that students need to know the concept is because it shows up on standardized tests pretty frequently including the ACT, SAT, and AP Exams.
How To Teach Parallel Structure
So, let’s get to it. How do you teach it? Here are my 3 tips.
1.) Teach parallel structure in the context of writing
As I mentioned above, parallel structure matters because writing well matters. When students have tools at their disposal to write well, they will have more paths to success--there’s no doubt about this in my mind. If you’d like to read more on my thoughts about why writing and grammar matter, check out this blog post "Why Teaching Grammar Matters."
So, let’s give students the tools to be writers who make a difference.
Parallel structure should not be taught as another “grammar rule” or something you need to know to get through that AP exam. First, parallel structure isn’t really a grammar rule. It’s a stylistic option that you can use in your writing. You are not necessarily breaking a grammar rule if you’re not writing in parallel structure, but it can bring rhythm and clarity to your writing if you do use it.
Now, it may be true that this is something that’ll pop up on standardized tests, but if you show your students how a bland sentence is transformed to a cool sentence when using parallel structure and it’s more likely to stick because they can see it actually matters.
What’s more is that if students see how parallel structure can transform their own writing, then they can really start getting the point of the whole thing. I’ll show you a few ways to do this in part 3.
Here’s an example of how a bland sentence becomes better by writing it in parallel structure.
You can show students an example like this and then see if they can tell you why the sentence in parallel structure is written better. If they grapple with the concept on their own instead of you giving them notes about why parallel structure is better, then the concept will sink in more deeply.
2.) Use mentor sentences to showcase how awesome parallel structure is
Great writers use parallel structure. Find some breathtaking sentences that use parallel structure and show them to your students. Open up the discussion about what makes these well-crafted sentences. Ask them guiding questions like "What makes this sentence cool?" or "How might it have been different if it weren’t written in this form?" or "What makes this sentence memorable?"
Take this sentence for example from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart:"
This sentence has a LOT of clauses, and it's a story your students are likely familiar with, so it's a good one to look at. You can ask students what the clauses are in this sentence and why the author may have used so many in a single sentence. You can then move on to the concept of how all of these clauses are parallel in structure. I've got an entire lesson on teaching parallel structure with sentences that have multiple clauses that uses this exact sentence. Click HERE to check it out.
Once students have observed some cool mentor sentences, give them a sentence frame and have them write their own sentence within the confines of the sentence frame. This gives a layer of scaffolding to a tricky concept. I go into detail about how to use sentence frames in this blog post "How To Use Sentence Frames."
3.) Have students rewrite with parallel structure in mind
Most students do not naturally write using parallel structure because they don’t use multiple adjectives in a row or several clauses in a single sentence. So take some class time and have students go back through a specific freewrite/journal or essay and rewrite a few sentences using parallel structure.
It may take some real time because this is hard. It’s a brand new muscle they have to work out.
Another way to practice within the context of writing, is to give students an engaging short clip to watch and have them write freely about the the clip for several minutes. I love using clips of people that students are already interested in: interviews with celebrities, athletes, musicians, poets, authors, and so on. After students have written for several minutes, have them rewrite one or two of their sentences so that it includes multiple clauses in parallel structure or several of the same parts of speech in a row (like verbs or adjectives).
If you’re ready to get started with teaching parallel structure, I’ve made the process easy for you. I’ve put together 3 lessons that walk you through how to break these concepts down for your students. I have pulled several mentor sentences that you can use and even written sentence frames for your students to use for practice. I also included some engaging short clips and guided notes! Click here to take a look.
Teaching parallel structure to teens is critical for them to have more control over their writing and better tools at their disposal to write in a way that gets the attention of others; it’s absolutely worth the time you take with it in your classroom!
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