Subject Tiles: Experiemental Activity to Introduce Sentence Focus

The subject of the sentence is what it is all about. Or at least it should be. Should be? How could it be otherwise? Well, “subject” can mean two things: the topic of the sentence and the grammatical subject placed before the verb. The topic, what the sentence is really about, might be buried deep in a sentence beginning with an expletive, an empty subject, as in, “There are three principal reasons that college freshmen can‘t write effective essays.”  If we put the topic, “college freshmen,” at the beginning of the sentence to function as the grammatical subject–“College freshmen can’t write effective essays for three principal reasons”–we get a shorter, clearer, more dynamic sentence. Also, sentence built on a storng foundation tend to be more logical, more grammatical correct, and less redundant. Ideally then, the topic and the grammatical subject should be one and the same, as suggested by the double meaning of the word “subject.” With this goal in mind, Michelle Okafo and I created an activity which demonstrates to students the importance and power of sentence focus.

Instructions: Teacher hands out illustrated subject tiles with one abstract or empty subject and one concrete or personal subject. The instructor then asks students to write two sentences of at least ten words each, beginning with the subjects provided. (Requiring ten words will increase the chances that a sentence with a weak subject will wander or even have predication problems and ensure that a strong subject like “The zebra” will not be followed by a comment as simple as “is cute.”) The teacher should give an example of possible sentences from a sentence tile, then elicit other examples to make sure students understand the exercise.

After students have finished writing, the teacher asks students to read their sentences aloud twice. Teachers should encourage students to turn towards their classmates, lift up their chins, speak in a loud voice, and annunciate, and then remind each student, when their turn comes to speak up. Next, students vote on which of each pair is stronger. The teacher also keeps track of how many sentences from each group contain grammar errors, illogical elements, or redundancies. Alternatively, students may read their sentences to each other in groups and vote on the sentences.

After the results of the survey are posted on the board, the instructor will facilitate a discussion with the class on the benefits of strong subject focus.  Explain to students that sentences with concrete, personal subjects tend to make clearer, more focused, more active, more grammatically correct, and more logical sentences. Expletives such as there is, there are, it is, and abstract nouns tend to produce unclear, rambling sentences, passive forms, and predication problems. However, the instructor should point out that abstract subjects and expletives can sometimes produce effective sentences, as some classroom examples may have shown, but that they are less likely to produce strong sentences. Now there is also a chance that the first category may win, in which case the teacher can explain that stronger subjects usually lead to stronger sentences. Also, a student may point out that the second group tends to get more votes because it is later and therefore fresher in students’ minds. This observation is partially accurate, but the subjects could be switched around with similar, but less impressive results. (In other words, yes, we are stacking the dice a bit.)

The reason _____________

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Zebra.jpg

The Zebra ______________

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It _____________________

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Lady Gaga.png

Lady Gaga  _____________

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The idea _______________

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The novel ______________

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There is ________________

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Grandma_Moses_NYWTS.jpg

Grandma _______________

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The concern ____________

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Merlin.jpg

Merlin _________________

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Satisfaction _____________

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Theater.jpg

The theater _____________

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Emphasis ______________

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R2D2___________________

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Understanding____________

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The puppy ______________

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Simpleness ______________

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The castle ______________

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A discussion ____________

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England ________________

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The thing _______________

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The orphan ______________

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Disagreement ___________

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The sword ______________

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