Tag Archives: ABC’s of Language Lady

Teaching Students That “A Paragraph Is a Unit of Thought”

How to Teach a Paragraph - Character Ink Blog


Once I talked on the Language Lady Facebook page about how many times I had said “A paragraph is a unit of thought” in three days of teaching. (Too many to count!) And promised a post about designing paragraphs, paragraph breaks, and general paragraph help. Here you go!

Dividing paragraphs is one of the most challenging aspects of writing for young writers and adults alike (along with many other challenging aspects!). That is why when people who do not write a lot write a full page with no paragraph breaks. That is also why middle school writers start writing and have no idea when to indent–so they randomly pick a spot (“Hmmm….looks like I’ve written enough to change paragraphs now…”) and indent.

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U is for UNUSUAL SPELLINGS: Wednesday

So many of my students have trouble spelling today’s day of the week! Wednesday is definitely not phonetic, so students (and adults!) get stuck on the spelling of it. Most people say Wednesday without the sound of the d at all.
We teach our students to spell difficult words in many ways, giving them as many tools as we possibly can.
1.    Syllable by syllable—longer words that are phonetic in nature can often be syllabicated and spelled syllable by syllable by a student who is fairly phonetically-savvy: con/se/quence.

2.    Tricks and mnemonics—we call these “Tricky Tricks to Help It Stick” and use them often with our “Wacky Words”—words that have a wacky counterpart that can be confusing, such as the homophones their, there, and they’re. I had an elementary student this year who told the class that they could easily spell Nebuchadnezzar if they just divided it up and pronounced the ch as choo (not kuh): Neb/U/Chad/Nez/Zar! Of course, any tricks that help a person are handy tools to have (though the trick must help that person in order to be effective).

3.    Visual tricks—many visual people spell by “seeing” the word—its shape, its sequence of letters (and the shapes those letters make), etc.

4.    Memorization—some people  are just naturally good spellers (it is now thought to be a specific skill set separate from intelligence) and can memorize a word’s spelling once it is seen.

How do YOU spell Wednesday. Many of my students say it just like it looks to spelll it: WED/NES/DAY!
Does that help you?


Image from linguisticsgirl.com

When you start a sentence with a subordinate clause,
Put the comma in when you hear the pause!

That is a cute rhyme (don’t you think?)….but unless you know what a subordinate clause is (and prior to that, what a subordinator is), it will not do you much good to recite it. So this post will go back to what subordinators are first. 

Maybe you were taught that subordinators (words that make the part of the sentence that they are in be “subordinate” to the rest of the sentence) are called other things, like conjunctives or subordinate conjunctions. Some grammar handbooks do not even classify subordinators at all but call them whatever other class they fall under (i.e. the preposition before might always be called a preposition, even though it is a subordinator when it has a subject and verb following it).

Regardless of what you were taught about subordinators, they are extremely important to good writing. Why? 

A subordinator is a word that falls at the beginning of a subordinate clause.

A subordinate clause has the following characteristics:

1. It is a group of words that begins with a subordinator and has a subject and verb following it.

2. It is subordinate to the rest of the sentence–that is, it is “less than” the real sentence.

3. It may not stand alone as it is not a real sentence.

4. It sounds as though something is missing when it is read--because something is (the real sentence!).

5. It may be joined with a complete sentence to create a complex sentence, but the subordinate clause may never stand alone.

So….what are subordinators?

Let’s start with the first six that we teach our youngest language arts students in our books:

Since, when, though
Because, if, although.

Yeah, it’s a rhyme! Cute, huh? (I love teaching!)

Anyway, for you older folks, we have a Subordinator-Check Sentence that most subordinators fit into. 

In a nutshell, if a word fits in the check sentence and the word is not an adverb, it is likely a subordinator:

________________________ the submarine went down, we could no longer see it.

Since the submarine went down, we could no longer see it.

When the submarine went down, we could no longer see it.

Though the submarine went down, we could STILL  see it.

Because the submarine went down, we could no longer see it.

If the submarine went down, we could no longer see it.

Although the submarine went down, we could STILL see it.

Okay, those are the first six.

 Here is a lengthy, but not exhaustive list of subordinators:

-after (also a preposition when it just has an object following it)
-as (also a preposition when it just has an object following it)
-as if
-as long as
-as soon as
-as though
-because of (also a preposition when it just has an object following it)
-before (also a preposition when it just has an object following it)
-even if
-even though
-inasmuch as
-in order that
-now (more commonly used as an adverb)
-now since
-now that
-now when
-rather than
-than (also a preposition when it just has an object following it)
-til (also a preposition when it just has an object following it)
-until (also a preposition when it just has an object following it)
-where ever
-where as
-which ever

In as much as the submarine went down, we could no longer see it.

Until the submarine went down, we could STILL see it.

While the submarine went down, we could no longer see it.

 We will stop here and give you time to memorize these before we go on in a day or two working on punctuating sentences that begin with subordinate clauses. Just looking at the Subordinator-Check Sentence, though, you can probably deduce that the first rhyme in this post is accurate: a subordinate clause opener is followed by a comma. More later!


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In our books, we group being/helping/linking verbs together since they often serve the same purpose, and they all have the same modifiers (i.e. adjectives modifying noun before BHL verb as opposed to adverbs modifying the verb), etc. 

To help you remember the Be, a Helper, Link verbs, there is a little rhyme that you can sing to the tune of ABC’s (or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”):

Be, a Helper, Link verbs,

Is, Are, Am, Was, & Were.

Be, & Being, Been, Become,

Has, & Had, & Have are ones.

(Now I said my ABC’s)
Can, Could, Shall, Should—they are fun.

(Next time won’t you sing with me?)
Will, Would, Do, Did, Does, & Done.

May, Might, Must—they are some as well,

Appear, Look, Seem, Remain, Taste, Feel, & Smell.

B is for BHL VERBS!

There are a number of reasons to memorize being, helping, and linking verbs:

(1) When one stands alone as a linking verb or is used before a base verb as a helping verb, it is the verb that you match with the subject: He IS happy…is must match with He; they ARE going (are must match with they.

(2) They tell WHEN something happened (present, past, etc.).

(3) When one stands alone, it may have an adjective following it–which is going back to the noun or pronoun before it, describing that noun or pronoun. (You do not use an adverb with a single BHL verb.)

(4) When one stands alone, it should have the subjective form of a pronoun following it (if it has a pronoun following it), not the objective: This is SHE (not this is HER).

(5) When a base verb follows has, had, or have (and oftentimes was and were), it should be in its past participle tense:

a. has written
b. had gone
c. have done
d. had lain
e. has risen
f. have come


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We teach the appositive extensively in our writing and language arts books because it is an amazing conciseness technique–and it shows a student’s skill in handling difficult grammar concepts and punctuation challenges. Plus, it truly does help a student write more concisely!

Here is the basic of this grammar item:

1. Is a phrase that restates something else.

2. Is usually used to restate (or elaborate on) the subject (though it can be used to restate anything really.

3. Is set off with commas if it falls in the middle of the sentence. (Remember: Anything that is set off with commas should be “removable” and a complete sentence remains without it!)

4. Can be used to combine two sentences into one in short, choppy sentences.


Donna writes language arts and composition books every day.

Donna has written over fifty curriculum texts.

Donna, WHO HAS WRITTEN OVER FIFTY CURRICULUM TEXTS, writes language arts and composition books every day.

Cool, huh?


Did you know that last week’s PUNCTUATION PUZZLE had an appositive in it?

I had barely noticed her mood, HER TEMPERAMENT, when she suddenly blew up, and she began shouting and throwing things at me, which was something I was not accustomed to seeing.

Notice the following:

1. Her temperament renames the noun mood.
2. It is set off with commas surrounding it (her temperament).
3. It (along with the commas) can be removed from the sentence, and a complete sentence remains.