TERSE POETRY for Simple Sentence Smarts

Grammar. The word along can send shivers down the spines of teachers and students alike. Endless rules. Endless worksheets. Minimal transfer to student writing.

Poetry to the Rescue!

Poetry can help bridge the gap between memorizing grammar rules and putting them into “action.”   

The goal is that “action,” the moment students apply grammar concepts to improve their own writing. This functional approach to grammar, explained in Teaching Grammar in Context by Constance Weaver, focuses on how language works in real-world contexts. It maximizes the use of examples from mentor texts and encourages students to explore concepts in their own writing.  Poetry, with its concise but rich format, provides great grammar mentor texts. 

One grammar concept that pairs well with poetry is simple sentence construction.

What Makes a Sentence?

This is the mother of all grammar questions. Every stylistic move a writer makes is built upon understanding the answer. As Jeff Anderson writes in Mechanically Inclined, “this knowledge is the foundation for taking writing from choppy to flowing, from run-on to controlled.” Good writers know how use sentences to build fantastic images and stories. That knowledge starts with understanding that a sentence:

*contains at least one subject
*one verb (performed by the subject)
*forms a complete thought

Jeff Anderson provides some great lessons in his book EverydayEditing to help you teach simple sentences.

Enter Terse Poetry

Once students have a basic understanding of “What makes a sentence,” you can reinforce their knowledge by having them read and write terse poetry. While there are different definitions, for my purposes, I define terse poetry as:

*a poem with very short lines
*most of the lines consist of just a subject and a verb
*lines may or may not rhyme

In Everyday Editing, Jeff Anderson suggests using the picture book An Island Grows, by Lola M. Schaefer as a simple sentence mentor text.   The book is one long terse poem that begins…

Deep, deep
beneath the sea…
Stone breaks.
Water quakes.
Magma glows.
Volcano blows.

… and goes on to tell the story of an island forming from a volcano. You can test students’ understanding of simple sentences by having them peruse the poem, deciding whether or not each line forms its own simple sentence.

Another great terse poem to reinforce simple sentences is "Impala Explosion" by Irene Latham from her collection Dear Wandering Wildebeest, And Other Poems from the Watering Hole. Irene has graciously given me permission to reprint her poem here. Find out more about Irene and her amazing children's books here. 

Leslie Bulion's “Ocean Engine from The PoetryFriday Anthology for Science is another terse poem I've used to reinforce simple sentences. The poem begins...

...and goes on to explain how greenhouse gases increase the Earth's temperature. Thank you, Leslie, for allowing me to share your poem for classroom use. You can get Leslie's complete poem and a list of ways to help the Earth's engine run smooth here.  Find out more about Leslie’s fabulous science-themed children’s poetry collections here.

Using "Impala Explosion" and "Ocean Engine" as a mentor text, students can study the poems line-by-line to determine which word combinations form simple sentences and which ones do not. (For a highly structured introductory lesson on reinforcing simple sentence smarts with terse poetry, click here. For a more advanced lesson, click here.)

Once you've investigated these mentor terse poems with students, it's time to have them put their simple sentence smarts into action by writing their own terse poems. Discover fun ways to make that happen in my next post. 

About Michelle Schaub

Michelle Schaub is a language arts teacher and award-winning children's poet. She is the author of the picture book poetry collections Fresh-Picked Poetry: A Day at the Farmers’ Market, (which won the 2018 Growing Good Kids Award and 2019 Northern Lights Book Award,) and Finding Treasure: A Collection of Collections. She also wrote the bedtime STEM book in verse, Dream Big, Little Scientists. Her poems appear in several anthologies, including The Poetry Anthology for Celebrations and Great Morning! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud.  Michelle speaks at conferences on the power of poetry to boost literacy.