Sentence openers. Non-essential information. Dress up openers. Introductory material. Or my personal definition: “A word or group of words that is put at the beginning of a REAL (complete sentence) to add more detail, different sentence rhythm, interest, and variety.”

Regardless of what you call them, they can be tricky to teach for sure. And the biggest obstacle I have seen to teaching them is the simple problem of students not knowing whether a sentence is a real sentence to begin with. Students will never get a good handle on sentence openers (also called introductory material or non-essential information at the beginning of a sentence) UNTIL they have a handle on what a sentence contains.

In other words, they have to be able to tell the five parts of a sentence (CAVES–Capital; All Makes Sense; Verb; End Mark; Subject) before they can truly find and punctuate their sentence openers properly.

Here are some tips on working with students concerning base sentences and sentence openers:


1) Use a trick or mnemonic device to teach students the five things a sentence must contain in order to be a sentence.

I use my mnemonic CAVES

Capital letter

All makes sense


End mark


(See more CAVES info HERE and find my Think Fast Grammar Quiz and Answer Key HERE {that we use to practice writing CAVES each week}.)


2) Cover up all sentence openers with fingers.

Say the “sentence” that remains aloud. Talk through the parts of a sentence. How can they know that a real sentence remains? It has to have a subject and verb. It has to make sense when it stands all alone.


3) Read sentence openers aloud with inflection where the comma goes.

Teach students that the comma goes where the voice goes up. Teach that the “real” sentence begins when the sentence opener ends. Walking through these orally with emphasis REALLY helps students hear the “correctness” of a sentence.


4) Work extensively on sentences that do not have sentence openers, helping students get a handle on what a real sentence (without an opener) looks like.

It’s important not to jump ahead too quickly. Internal sentence punctuation is way easier to teach after ample practice without sentence openers, ending which and who clauses, compound sentences, and other complex/compound sentence complications mudding the waters too early. Those will be SO much easier once a student can look at any group of words and quickly correctly say, “Yes, that is a sentence” and “No, that is not a sentence.”


5) Make it a habit of isolating sentence openers when dissecting sentences.

I use the following protocol:
a. Place parentheses around all prepositional phrases anywhere in a sentence.
b. Place brackets around all subordinate clause openers.
c. Place “less than/greater than” (<>) around all other openers

We are just placing parentheses around prepositional phrases anywhere in sentences for quite a while. This is okay. It gives us the opportunity to find the “realness” of sentences by locating main subjects and main verbs and by “hearing” what a real sentence sounds like.


6) Use verb practice extensively.

Every paper that students write for me has its verbs circled via my Checklist Challenge. Working with sentences in this manner helps students to see that a sentence must contain at least one verb in order to be a sentence.

(See my Checklist Challenge packet and video HERE.)

In emphasizing what a sentence must sound like in order to be a real, complete sentence, we also must emphasize that in order to have a chance to be a real sentence (and sound like a real sentence), it must have a main subject and a main verb. Continuous verb practice helps greatly with this.

To learn more about teaching verbs click HERE.



7) Have your students memorize being, helping, and linking verbs.

Teaching students that a verb is something you do, an action, and having them find those action verbs will definitely fall short as soon as a being verb is encountered. For this reason, I use my BHL Verb song to teach Being, Helping, and Linking verbs starting in elementary school. In order to tell that a group of words is a sentence, a student must be able to spot that sentence’s main verb. If they are only looking for action verbs, they will often think that a group of words is not a sentence when it really is.

(These are in my Think Fast Grammar Quiz and Answer Key packet. You can also learn more about them by clicking HERE.)


8) Practice orally with the “Sentence/No Sentence” game.

You say groups of words and have the tell you whether they are sentences or not and why. Again, oral practice is so important. And…so is telling you why a group of words is not a sentence.


9) Read the sentence opener and discuss how it is NOT a real sentence.

A sentence opener is added to a real sentence to give more information, change sentence rhythm, and provide conciseness. However, it is not a sentence itself. Again, add emphasis by bringing your voice up at the end of an opener. (Remember, grammar and usage are for speaking and writing—be sure you are teaching them orally when applicable)


10) Teach sentence openers one at a time, starting with the most familiar to them (usually prepositional phrase openers).

(Check out my Preposition Practice Packet here or my Beauty and the Beast Preposition Practice Download HERE!)

I like to start working on prepositions almost immediately when students begin language arts studies (after reading fluency is reached). We can learn 100 of them quickly. Then we can spot prepositional phrases quickly together. (Again, use oral instruction for this “to the what?” “from whom?” “down the what?” to help students find where a prepositional phrase ends.) All of this can take place while you are still working on sentences—before you even begin discussing prepositional phrases as sentence openers.

We often want to rush things. We want to add all of the “extras” to sentences. I understand this. My entire Checklist Challenge is based on adding material to make sentences, paragraphs, and reports/essays/stories sing. However, just like everything else, when we put the “cart before the horse” and teach the “fancy shmancy” before the “ordinary,” our students get confused and true learning does not take place.

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