Making Writing Fun and Easy: Using Generative Sentences

By Cathy Gassenheimer

During a Zoom chat on their book This Is Balanced Literacy, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey suggested the use of generative sentences as a strategy to improve writing instruction across the curriculum.

I had never heard of generative sentences and my interest was piqued.

In short, the generative sentences strategy invites students to write sentences with specific parameters.

For example, students might be told to write a sentence where the word “volcano” appears as the fourth word in the sentence. Fisher showed examples generated by students.

“In the Pacific, volcanoes are known as the “Ring of Fire.”

“I don’t like volcanoes.”

Or, the prompt could be more challenging by asking students to write a sentence ending with the word “constitution” with fewer than ten words in the sentence.

“For guidance about our rights, look to the Constitution.”

They noted that if students have difficulty composing a sentence, their writing will appear fragmented, incomplete, and amateurish. This strategy lets them focus on writing at the sentence level.

Meaningful fun

During the online book talk, you could sense the enthusiasm as many of the participants started “playing the game,” creating these sentences. It was fun AND consequential. Nancy Frey noted that they use this strategy daily at their school, where students are expected to respond to at least five prompts daily across the curriculum.

She said the learning could be extended by asking students to select one of the sentences they create and expand it into a paragraph (or longer, depending on the grade-level). Frey also pointed to the value of using this strategy as a quick and easy formative assessment.

The strategy is flexible and stretchable ( think ‘silly putty’) and can be used from first grade through high school. And its deceptive simplicity makes it a useful tool for teaching writing face-to-face AND online.

Have I piqued your interest is this short post? If so, check out this piece by literacy specialist and teaching coach Fran McVeigh. It has some good how-to ideas and draws on Fisher and Frey’s work.

A Few Other Resources

Using Generative Sentences to Apply Academic Vocabulary (at Read, Write, Think)

A Science Example with Student Responses (from Fisher & Frey’s Wordwise & Content-Rich, 2008)

Writing Ideas That Work. (An ERIC article written by Fisher & Frey that includes a section on generative sentences, with social studies examples. Lots of other good ideas too!)