I began reading If You Give a Dog a Donut by Laura Numeroff and noticed the "if "clause on the first page. On the third page, I saw the "when" clause. Hmmm, I thought, this series might be a good one to teach adverb clauses.

Yeah, I know, "adverb clause" sounds too technical. I prefer calling them AAAWWUBBIS clauses, like Jeff Anderson does in Mechanically Inclined.

What do you need to know about them?

1. They begin with the following words:
although      after      as      when      while      until      before      because      if      since
2. They can occur anywhere in the sentence: beginning, middle, or end.

3. Where there is an adverb clause, there is a comma nearby (two commas if the clause is in the middle of the sentence).

4. They depend on complete sentences. If you write an adverb clause without one, you will end up with a fragment.

Here are examples from two of Numeroff's books:
"If you give a dog a donut, he'll ask for some apple juice to go with it."

"When you give him the juice, he'll drink it all up."

"It will go higher and higher, until it gets tangled in the apple tree."

"While he's waiting, he'll play a quick game of soccer."

To give your students practice with writing and punctuating AAAWWUBBIS clauses, have them write their own series of sentences, each one including a word from the AAAWWUBBIS list. 

Make the task more challenging by having students write their own If You Give... story, mimicking Numeroff's pattern by starting and ending the story at the same place.

Example (Numeroff's writing with my revisions to fit the assignment):
  • If you give a dog a donut, he'll ask for some apple juice to go with it.
  • When you give him the juice, he'll drink it all up.
  • Because he likes it so much, he'll ask for more.
  • Since there won't be any left, he'll want to make his own.
  • He'll go outside to pick apples, after leaving behind a mess.
  • When he's up in the tree, he'll toss you one.

If all of the rules are followed correctly, the goal of the lesson is accomplished.


...if your students want to have their own versions of an If You Give... book, invite them to revise their sentences to make the story flow naturally, since it sounds clumsy to have every sentence structured the same way.
When students are learning to write, we tell them that fragments--partial sentences that are missing either a subject or a verb--are no-no's. We don't want them writing grammatical horrors, such as "David bought a gopher ranch. Hoping to strike it rich." or "David bought a gopher ranch. Although he knew nothing about rodents." These examples show that the writer lacks sentence sense.

Rules are sometimes made to be broken, though, right?  Writers break the complete sentence rule all of the time, using fragments to their advantage.

When I began reading Eileen Spinelli's The Best Story, I noticed fragments. Plenty of them. (Whoops. There's one of my own.) 

Use Spinelli's book with your students, giving them a closer look at fragments. Start by reading the story together, being reminded that the best stories we write come from our hearts.

Okay, now for some grammar in context. Look at page 2.

I ran home.
Went to my room.
Shut the door.
I sharpened five pencils.
Opened my notebook to a brand-new page.
And thought.
And thought.
And thought.
And all I could think was this writing stuff was hard and lonely.
Maybe I needed help.
How many sentences do we have here? If your students think sentences start with a capital letter and end with a period, we have ten.  In that case, maybe Mr. Morton of Schoolhouse Rock can teach them about the essential parts of a sentence.

Test Mr. Morton's lesson with two-word sentences here, finding the subjects and predicates.

Now return to Spinelli's text. Look at the first line. Is there a subject?  Yes.  Is there a verb?  Yes.  It passes the test.

How about the second line. Is there a subject?  No. What subject can we add to make it a sentence?

Continue through each line, writing the revised sentences line by line as Spinelli does.

When you are finished, compare the two lists. What do your students think?  Why do they think Spinelli chose to use fragments instead of complete sentences?

Now revise the first eight lines, linking them with commas, so they are all part of one longer sentence. How does it compare to the other two lists? Which one do they prefer?

Read the story a second time, pausing at fragments and discussing how to "fix" them.

Bonus: Look at page one, where it says "Write the best story. Win first prize."  Discuss with your student whether these are fragments or sentences.

A Second Bonus: Do you remember teachers telling you never to begin sentences with and, but, or so?  Maybe Spinelli is rebelling against language arts teachers or something because most of her sentences start with one of these three conjunctions. Again, discuss why she may have chosen to do this. How would the text sound if these words were eliminated?

A Little More Practice: If your student tends to use fragments unintentionally, pull out some of her pieces to analyze and revise. If your student has sentence sense, ask him to sprinkle a couple of fragments in an assignment to see if he likes the effect.

Gopher sentences come from Steps to Writing Well by Jean Wyrick.
Take a published sentence and break it into simple sentences. Instruct your student to combine the sentences into one complete sentence. Compare his sentence with the original one. Which one does he prefer? Better yet, do this with several students to compare the different results.

We'll start with an easy one and work our way to more difficult ones.

The original sentence:
"The path was rough and covered with small stones" (Island of the Blue Dolphins 89).

Simple sentences:
The path was rough.
The path was covered with small stones.


The original sentence:
"When a week had gone by and still no results from my traps, I gave up" (Where the Red Fern Grows 60).

Simple sentences:
A week had gone by.
There were still no results from my traps.
I gave up.


The original sentence:
Johnny had always thought her a shy girl, but she stood up straight before the Judge, speaking in her clear, low voice" (Johnny Tremain 83).

Simple sentences:
Johnny had always thought her a shy girl.
She stood up straight.
She stood before the Judge.
She spoke in her clear voice.
Her voice was low.


The original sentence:
"High in a tree, at the swampy edge of the pond they had called Loon Pond, the bees were buzzing in and out of an old woodpecker hole" (Sign of the Beaver 22).

Simple sentences:
The bees were high in a tree.
They were at the edge of the pond.
The edge of the pond was swampy.
The pond was called Loon Pond.
The bees were buzzing.
They were buzzing in and out of a hole.
The hole was an old woodpecker hole.

When you make your own exercises, browse a favorite book for a sentence you like. Break it into as few or as many sentences as you like, depending on the ability of your student. Ask her to do the same thing, giving you simple sentences to combine.

Benefits of this activity:
  • Students must play with language, putting all of the pieces into a puzzle.
  • As the sentences become more difficult, students won't immediately see a solution. They will have to try different possibilities--aka revising--always an excellent skill to develop.
  • Students will strengthen their understanding of what makes a sentence. It will be tempting to use comma splices and run-ons to incorporate all of the information from the simple sentences. If this happens, they will have to revise until they have a legitimate sentence.

In the comments, share your list of simple sentences for us to manipulate. How close to the original can we come?