Sunday, July 21, 2013

'Singing the Structure' - Using Simple Melodies to Teach Sentence Construction

I haven't visited this blog for ages and I think it's time for me to clear the cobwebs. :) After my presentation at the 22nd MELTA conference in Johor Bahru last May, some friends have been asking me to put up my presentation materials on this blog because they want to know more about how I use songs to teach sentence constructions to 'weaker' students. I'm glad I receive the request because it gives me an excuse to start writing again. 

Actually they're not songs that I use, I wouldn't call them songs. They are just some simple tune or melodies that I came up with in order to help my students remember some simple sentence structures. I use it to help my students answer Question 1 of the Paper 2 for UPSR English. Below is an example of a question from an actual UPSR examination paper:

For those unfamiliar with the UPSR English paper, the task for Question 1, Paper 2 is for the students to write five sentences based on the picture given. There are ten words provided and the students can use them in their sentences. It is however not compulsory to use the words, students wouldn't lose marks if they don't use any of them. Many Year 6 teachers who are preparing their students for the examination would normally train their 'weaker' students to write sentences in Present Continuous Tense to answer this question. At first I thought it's because that is what is required by the UPSR examiners, but a friend explained to me that it's because sentences in Present Continuous has a simpler structure, and are easier for students to remember and understand. Students don't have to be confused by subject-verb agreement as in Simple Present, or remember the correct past tense forms for verbs as in Simple Past. They just have to remember to use the correct verb to-be, and this is as simple as remembering when to use 'is' and when to use 'are.' It would minimise mistakes made by the students, and help them get better marks for the question.

Hmm. Okay.

The Structure

It started last year. When I was trying to think of the most effective way to teach my students who were struggling with basic sentence construction, I remembered what my friend told me about structure. So I tried to get my students to remember the structure. I experimented with several variations of structures and my method included getting the students to use a table like this to help them construct grammatically correct sentences:

It didn't work very well. My students were still confused. They were not able to remember the structure and couldn't construct sentences without the table. Many of them thought the table was too complicated and wasn't very useful.

So I had to make it simpler. After several experiments, I finally managed to come up with something that my students really liked:

'Singing the Structure'

The students thought the new table was less complicated, and easier to understand. They still had trouble remembering the structure, though. So, in order to aid memorisation, we tried chanting it: 'How many, Subject, Be, Verb i-n-g, What or Where or Who.' The students thought it was funny and they loved it. After a while, a melody began to emerge. From chanting we moved on to singing. Here's how it sounds like:

So our writing lesson always began with us 'singing the structure' first, before moving on to constructing the sentences. My students loved it.

There is.../ There are...

Another 'easy' structure is the 'There is / There are' structure. To teach them the structure, I used another simple table:

And yeah, we have the melody for that, too. Here it is:

Did it work?

The melodies helped my students remember the structure, and after a week of 'singing the structure' they were able to draw both tables from memory. And it improved their sentence construction skills. The students were able to write grammatically and structurally correct simple sentences.

Their sentences went from this (in January):

...and this (also in January):

to this (in March):

...and this (also in March):

Some students did very well, that by the month of June they were already able to construct compound and complex sentences. Some were even able to add in a few adjectives in their sentences:



Some of the sentences look funny, I know. Especially the ones with the adjectives. :) But the students had progressed so much, in January they didn't even expect that they would be able to construct such sentences. Their confidence in writing soared, and that made me extremely proud.

Scaffolded Writing

I used the scaffolding strategy to help my weaker learners improved their writing skill. I started with modelled writing, where I demonstrated step-by-step how I construct sentences based on the picture, using the sentence structure as my guide.

Then, we moved on to shared writing, where we write together. I would write the first part of the sentence, and then I would let my students continue. Or I would list down all the verbs or the subjects, and let the students construct sentences based on the list.

We also did group activity where my students would collaborate with one another to construct sentences. I would divide the students into smaller groups and give each group a set of word cards. Then I would show a picture and the students would work in their groups to arrange the word cards and form sentences based on the picture.

When the students had gained some confidence, I would let them write individually, but with guidance. Normally I would give them worksheets where they would have to rearrange words to form sentences, or fill in the blanks with the correct words.

I would reduce the control gradually, until my students were able to write independently with little or no guidance from me.

Modelled Writing

Shared Writing

Group Activity

Guided Writing

Independent Writing

Pre-Writing Module

In order to be able to use the 'formulas' or the structures effectively, I need to supply the students with the vocabulary. The students would need to know the vocabulary for people, such as 'man', 'woman', 'boy', 'girl' and etc. And of course the students would need to know a lot of verbs. And nouns. I have compiled a module to help my students acquire the vocabulary that they need, and to help them practice the skills of basic sentence construction and also some grammar. The module is available for download here: 

Future Project

I don't believe that writing should be confined to 'formulas' or structures. I want my students to be able to use writing to express ideas and feelings, but I also realised that in order for them to do that they would have to have the vocabulary, the grammar and the skills first. So I think perhaps giving them the basic skill of sentence construction is the right first step. 

I also want my students to be able to write in other tenses, and explore other sentence types. Since most of my students respond very well to music, I think I'm going to explore more ideas on how music can be used to improve my students' writing skills. 

I also hope to focus on expanding the potential of guided and scaffolded writing strategies to help my weaker learners write sentences in other structures or tenses, in paragraph level or higher.

Some References for Scaffolded Strategy and Scaffolded Writing

Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (1998). Scaffolding Emergent Writing in the   Zone of Proximal Development. Literacy Teaching and  Learning, 1-18.
Clabaugh, G. K. (2010). The Educational Theory of Lev Vygotsky: A   Multi-  Dimensional Analysis. New Foundations, pp. 1-18.
Feden, P., & Vogel, R. (2006). Education. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Leong, D. J., & Bodrova, E. (2001). Pioneers in Our Field: Lev Vygotsky - Playing to Learn.             Retrieved April 2013, from   Scholastic   Early Childhood Today:               
Oczkus, L. D. (2007). Guided Writing: Practical Lessons, Powerful   Results.   Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge: Harvard University   Press.


  1. I am really impressed with your ideas and ways to assist students in their writing. I need your opinion on how I can carry out the same task with my secondary school students. They have to write compound and complex sentences for a broader topic.Thank you for the sharing and I hope I don't miss any part of your presentation during MELTA after reading this post..I was a bit late that day, so I missed your session..^^

    1. Hi Saidatul, thanks for dropping by my blog. I hope you would be coming to MELTA-AsiaTefl conference in Kuching. That would be in August this year. I'll be doing a paper presentation, as well as a poster presentation. Here's the link:

      Looking forward to meeting you! :-)

  2. Wow..what a brilliant idea!You really help me much in dealing with my own weaker students.Thanks cyn.

    1. Thanks, Caca. I'm glad you find the idea useful. :-)

  3. Hi. I'm very interested in your ways of teaching writing to pupils. My year 5 pupils also faced the same problem in writing and they are going to sit the UPSR examination next year. I would like to ask for your permission to use your song as my intervention in my action research. I would love to hear from you soon.

  4. hi Cindy. A superb idea indeed to use songs. Yes kids love to sing. I could not get the link 4 the songs cos of copyright I guess. Is there any other way I can get the links to the songs. tq again.

  5. Hello! I like the way how you teach your students on the simple sentence construction. May I have your permission to use your songs and technique for my action research please?

  6. Wooww..thank you..I really love your ideas and motivate me to encourage them to like English. Thank you, thank you and thank you..I will try your method to help my 'weak students' to pass this subject in coming exam.


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