Teaching: Single Sentence Analysis

Hello again,

The vault is now open, so here’s another tried and tested teaching method. (English teachers, thank me later)  The aim for this one is simple; to use four distinct active reading strategies to engage with a text, focussing on one sentence.

Present students with a sentence (preferably the opening line of a chapter/ novel) to analyse using the following reading skills:

  • Infer – use clues (and prior knowledge) to draw conclusions that you can prove.
  • Assume – use clues to draw conclusions that you cannot prove.
  • Predict – use clues to guess what will happen next.
  • Question – pose questions about the characters, plot or purpose of the text

Note: It is worth spending some time explaining exactly what these words mean and scaffolding with examples, particularly with younger students.

Ok, so the first book I tried this with was ‘Trash’ by Andy Mulligan, which begins with the sentence:

My name is Raphael Fernandez and I am a dumpsite boy.

  1. What do I know? (Infer)
  2. What do I think I know? (Assume)
  3. What do I want to know? (Predict and Question)


You’ll be surprised at how much conversation comes out of just these three questions. The teacher’s job is simply to probe and ask questions for clarification such as, How do you know X? Where is the evidence? Why do you assume X? Etc… 

It is also useful to keep an ear open for prior knowledge and explain when students are drawing from this. For example, I had one Year 7 student state that Raphael is definitely from South America, because of the surname ‘Fernandez’. Another student corrected him, saying that he was assuming this fact. This is the kind of deep analysis that should be encouraged as soon as possible.

Another novel I did this with was ‘Danny the Champion of the World’ by Roald Dahl, this time at an Open Evening. The result was a rather spirited debate involving parents and kids alike over whether the narrator is male or female, and whether or not his/ her father was fit to be a single parent. All from one sentence.

When I was four months old, my mother died suddenly and my father was left to look after me all by himself.

  1. What do I know? (Infer)
  2. What do I think I know? (Assume)
  3. What do I want to know? (Predict and Question)

Note: After defining Inference, Assumption, Prediction, Questioning, you can set up the analysis in various ways:

  • Individually
  • Pairs/ small groups
  • Different groups with different focuses
  • Whole-class discussion

Right then, that’s it for this post. More later. Remember, you can do this with any sentence but I find it works well with opening lines. Let me know how you get on by leaving a comment below or finding me on twitter, where I spend most of my virtual time (@unseenflirt).

All the best,

-Unseen Flirtations

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