Possible Sentences

“Slowly, she unraveled each word of the sentence: ” ‘There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.’ “
“Oh,” she said. “Oh.”
“You can read, Kya. There will never be a time again when you can’t read.”
“It ain’t just that.” She spoke almost in a whisper. “I wadn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.”
He smiled. “That’s a veery good sentence. Not all words hold that much.”
― Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing

Overview and Background
Possible Sentences is a prereading strategy that is appropriate for preparing students to read either narrative or expository material. Students are given several words from the material and are asked to create plausible sentences with them, which they then share and discuss with one another. The sentences are their predictions about how the words will be used in the selection they are about to read, predictions that they confirm or refute by reading. After reading, students think critically about the accuracy of their sentences in light of the material they read.

Possible Sentences helps students set a purpose for reading, motivates them by arousing their curiosity about the content of the reading material, and encourages them to think about the way the words might relate to each other. Students must draw upon their background of experience, their vocabulary, and their linguistic knowledge to generate sentences. Stahl and Kapinus (1991) found that this strategy improved students’ vocabulary and comprehension of the material from which the words were selected. They noted that it was the discussion that made this strategy more effective than other vocabulary strategies, including semantic mapping.

Lenski and Ehlers-Zavala (2004) point out that English language learners benefit from experience with this strategy. They advise that these students should have heard most, if not all, of the words before and have a good idea about the word meanings so that they create plausible sentences. Through discussion, students learning English have an opportunity to use the words and gain meaningful repetition with various sentence patterns.

Possible Sentences can be used across all grade levels and in all content areas. For early discussions of the strategy as well as recent commentaries and applications, see the following selected readings: Moore and Moore (1986, 1992) and Tierney and Readence (2005).

Benefits of Possible Sentences

•activates prior knowledge before reading
• builds vocabulary
• encourages students to read with purpose and interest
• enhances comprehension of the material
• keeps students actively involved before, during, and after reading

Nessel, Denise D.; Graham, Joyce M.. Thinking Strategies for Student Achievement (p. 146). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Step by Step

1.   Select several important words from the material that could be used in different ways in one or more sentences. Choose at least five or six words, including some that are probably new to the students and some that are probably familiar to them. Increase the number of words if students know the strategy and you want to give them a greater challenge. Display the words on the board along with the topic.

2.   Tell students that all the words come from material they are about to read and that they are to create sentences that show how they think the author used the words in the material. Each sentence should contain at least two of the words in the display. Show them one or two examples, being sure not to give them sentences that actually appear in the text. For example, here are several words from a text about the manufacture of chocolate and two possible sentences the teacher might use to illustrate what students are to do:

Making Chocolate


Example 1: Chocolate comes from beans that grow in pods.
Example 2: The flavor of the chocolate depends on time and temperature.

3.   Because collaborative efforts are likely to generate a greater number of sentences, organize students into pairs or small groups. Explain that they should aim for a variety of responses, even if some seem odd, that they should write as many sentences as they can, and that they need to use each word at least once in a sentence. Remind them that the name of the activity includes the word “possible” because the words can be used in sentences in several possible ways. You may want to have one student in each group act as the recorder for the group. This will facilitate sharing in the next step.

4.   Have the groups share their sentences with the whole class. You may want to write as students dictate to you, or you may have students print their sentences on sheets of chart paper that can be posted for all to see. Underline or highlight the provided words in the possible sentences. Accept all responses without commenting on the quality of the sentences or the accuracy of the statements.

5.   Have students read the material to find out how the author used the words and compare the author’s sentences with their own. Here, for example, is part of the text about chocolate manufacture that contains the words used above in the example: Chocolate processing involves many steps. First, the beans must be picked at just the right moment of ripeness. Then they are taken out of their pods and fermented. (The fermentation develops the flavor.) Next, the beans are dried, and then they are ready for processing into chocolate. The dried cocoa beans are cleaned and then roasted. The length of roasting time and the temperature both affect the final taste of the chocolate.

6.   After reading, have students return to their original sentences and critically evaluate them in light of the information in the text. They should have the text in front of them for reference as they engage in this discussion. In evaluating their sentences, they may choose to keep the sentence, cross the sentence out because it is completely inaccurate, or revise the sentence to make it a true statement. The focus at this point should be on the students’ sentences, not on the sentences in the original. Students should use the text only as a resource in critically analyzing their sentences.

7.   When students have finished evaluating their sentences, engage them in a discussion of any words that were new to them or that were used in a new way in the text. Give further explanations about the meaning of any words about which students are still uncertain. 8.   Have students write new sentences, using the words from the original list and any other interesting words the class discussed after reading. They can return to their work groups to do this, or they can write sentences individually. This step can be used as a summative assessment of students’ understanding of the material.

Nessel, Denise D.; Graham, Joyce M.. Thinking Strategies for Student Achievement (p. 146). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.