Guess What?

Students can learn to recognize sentence fragments using these lesson plans.

By Jo Ann Zimmerman

Sentence Fragments

What's the difference between a sentence and a fragment?

A sentence has a main clause; that is, it contains a subject, a verb, and it expresses a complete thought.

Whereas a fragment doesn't.

If you copy and paste the line above into a word processing program, your grammar checker will tell you it is a fragment. By middle school, most students get the subject-verb requirement, but many continue to struggle with the concept of a main clause. Suppose we write the two clauses in the last sentence this way:

Students often have a lot of difficulty avoiding fragments in their own writing, usually because they struggle with the concept of a main clause.

Again, a grammar checking program will identify the second group of words as a fragment because it does not express a complete thought. We could also say it is a dependent (subordinate) clause, not a main clause. Many students miss this kind of sentence error because they mentally connect the two clauses despite the period between them. Often, even students who can recognize this kind of fragment in a grammar exercise fail to avoid it in their own writing.

Few conventions frustrate English teachers more than sentence errors, and the problem is not likely to go away anytime soon. In my own experience as a middle school language arts teacher, I have sat through many meetings with high school faculty who question what in heaven's name we are all doing down there in eighth grade, sending them writers who can't use complete sentences. Grrr....

OF COURSE we are all teaching our students to write in complete sentences. Yet it is also undeniable that many high school students still use fragments. After many years of frustration over this issue, I have found a surprising degree of success with one simple trick.

In addition to teaching (again!) the rules for avoiding fragments, I now also teach students to apply the "Guess what?" rule. I simply have them ask "Guess what?", then answer that query with the word group in question. Almost always, fragments fail this test. For example:

Guess what? Because I could not stop for death. FAIL

Guess what? He kindly stopped for me. PASS

Guess what? Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. PASS

This example not illustrates the effectiveness of the "Guess what?" test, it offers a clue to fixing fragments. Which we'll explore in the next article. Oops...

In the meantime, here are some lessons to address fragments in the classroom:

Sentence Fragment Lesson Plans:

Fix the Fragments

The Indiana Standards Resources Organization provides this brief introduction to fragments and how to fix them. This lesson is described as one for second grade, but would probably be useful for third through fourth graders as well.

Proofreading: Lesson Three

From the Louisiana Department of Education, here's a lesson for upper elementary grades that introduces the concept of a complete sentence vs. fragments and run-ons.

A Sea of Sentences

This comprehensive lesson from Core Knowledge teaches middle school students not only how to identify sentence fragments, but covers sentence types and run-ons, as well.

The Clause That Refreshes

For the many high school students who continue to struggle with sentence fragments, this lesson reinforces the definitions of main and subordinate clauses.