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Between the Commas

Sentence Instruction That Builds Confident Writers (and Writing Teachers)

Activities, exercises and lessons for sentence-level instruction your students will actually have fun with.

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For too long, sentence instruction has been heavy on correctness and terminology (as in “mind your grammar”) and light on play and experimentation. Or it has been abandoned altogether. In this lively book, Marty Brandt sets out to change all that.

It is partly the story of a teacher hitting a plateau in mid-career, deeply frustrated by the flatness of his students’ writing, particularly as they struggled with more academic tasks. But it also tells the story of important but neglected research in sentence instruction, which Brandt revives, reinventing his instruction by explicitly teaching the possibilities of sentences.    

In Between the Commas, he identifies three “pillars” of sentence instruction:

  • Sentence Focus: Identifying the true subject of the sentence
  • Sentence Development: Finding ways to expand and modify, “between the commas”
  • Sentence Coherence: Connecting sentences to show the flow of thought.

To help his students understand these concepts, Brandt invents his own terms—the Dime- Dropper, Smack-Talker, ingBomb, Sentence Wannabe, and the Not/But—to describe key moves a writer can make, illustrating them with both student and professional examples. The book is also filled with practical exercises in sentence manipulation that can be used directly in your classroom or modified for your students.

At long last, sentence instruction that can really help young writers—and their teachers.

Additional Resource Information

(click any section below to continue reading)


Foreword by Thomas Newkirk
Three Questions I Could Not Answer
Toward a Deeper Understanding of the Sentence
“Just a Guy”: Independence High School to San Francisco State
The Three Pillars of Sentence Instruction
Part One: Sentence Focus (Get the “Awk” Outta Here)
Positioning Our Students for Growth
Alexis de Tocqueville and the Subject A Test
Sources of Sentence Focus Errors
The Beauty of Understanding Sentence Focus
Part Two: Sentence Development (Writing Between the Commas)
Riding Bicycles into Rosebushes
Understanding Sentence Development
Structures for Leveraging Information: The Adjective Clause and the Noun Phrase Appositive
Structures for Adding Detail and Imagery: The Verbal Phrase and the Absolute
The Correlative Not-But
Toward a Theory of Latency
Some Final Thoughts About These Exercises
Part Three: Sentence Coherence (Making Sentences Work Together)
Writing to Think
What Is Sentence Coherence?
Inward to the Text, Outward to the World
What Is Development in Writing?
Part Four: Sentence Instruction At Work (“Voices They Had Not Heard Before”)
The Three Pillars at Work in the Classroom
Seven Days in May
A Stack of Essays



“Making sentences is a profound human capacity, one that defines us as a species.  Every intellectual move could happen within them.  In this engaging, honest, and innovative book, Marty Brandt makes all that clear. So welcome with me, a new and original voice in writing instruction.”—Thomas Newkirk, from the Foreword

 “What a special pleasure it is to celebrate Martin Brandt’s new book.  He illustrates with great clarity and passion the difference between assigning and teaching writing. Here is a book filled with deep, practical wisdom we can all use to teach the craft of writing in ways that will make a difference.”—Jim Burke, author of The English Teacher's Companion, 4/e and The Six Academic Writing Assignments

“Marty Brandt has captured the tentativeness and problem solving that are inherent in teaching students to write well. He offers new frames for understanding sentence possibilities and new language to use in conferences. The lessons here will empower you to prepare all students well for college writing. You will love Brandt's own playful and interesting writing. I’m certain that this book will make me a better teacher.—Penny Kittle, author of Write Beside Them, Book Love, and 180 Days (coauthored with Kelly Gallagher)

“Frustrated with the pedestrian prose your students produce? Between the Commas describes a fresh approach that focuses on how artfully constructed sentences work both individually and in concert with one another. Brandt’s classroom practices will help your student writers develop both compositional confidence and prowess.”
—Carol Jago, author of numerous books including The Book in Question, and past president of NCTE

“By providing witty and innovative descriptions of how different sentence patterns help shape students’ essays, Marty addresses one of the great difficulties faced by beginning writers (and writing teachers). He guides teachers toward practices that can help students produce essays that are thoughtfully structured and a pleasure to read. And similarly, Marty’s own writing is compelling and high-spirited: a timely reminder that the best writing teachers practice what they preach.” 
—Jonathan Lovell, Director of the San Jose Area Writing Project and Emeritus Professor of English at San Jose State University

“Marty Brandt writes with wry, self-deprecating humor, sharing classroom-tested strategies that help high school kids truly engage with language. This lucid, well-written book is a joy to read and a smart reminder that having fun with language helps prevent school from becoming a Life Sentence—for students and for us.”—Bill Strong, Founding Director of the Utah Writing Project and author of Coaching Writing

“If careful attention is a sign of respect, in this book Marty Brandt shows a deep and loving respect both for sentences and for students learning to write them. Brandt, a National Writing Project teacher consultant, draws on a history of focused writing instruction, his own rich classroom experiences, and his network of NWP teacher colleagues, creating a book that will make you laugh while showing you how to support students toward more mature and complex thinking and writing.”
—Tanya Baker, Director of National Programs, National Writing Project

“I have been struggling for years to find better ways to teach good writing.  Today, I had my 10th graders look at the Krakauer paragraph, and every single student was able to write their own version! They usually groan about writing anything, and it was so wonderful to see them having fun and doing something they didn’t think they could do.  Between the Commas is an innovative and practical way of approaching writing instruction.”—Leisha Cowart, English teacher, Nease High School, Ponte Vedra, Florida