Sentence-Phrase-Word: Capturing the essence of a text

In this post I will describe the Sentence-Phrase-Word thinking routine. It is a routine that helps learners engage meaningfully with a text with a focus on capturing “what speaks to them”. It also calls for them to justify their choices which makes it a useful springboard into a speaking activity.

Step 1
After reading a text ask students to identify:

    • a sentence that was important, meaningful to them
    • a phrase that moved them
    • a word that struck them as powerful

Students can work individually, in pairs or in groups. It depends on how many ideas you want to generate. They can first take notes of their selections and the reason behind them before sharing them with the rest of the class. There are actually no right or wrong answers since their choices of sentences, phrases, and words will reflect their own experience.

Step 2
Students can present and share their selections of sentences/phrases/words. Sharing can be done a) in pairs or small groups and/or b) in the form of a plenary discussion. Use the board to record their choices so that everyone can see and comment on them. Encouraging the rest of the class to take notes of their classmates’ selections is also an add-on.

Step 3
After sharing invite students to reflect on the discussion. They can a) identify common themes that have emerged from their responses and b) the implications that lie behind.

Step 4
If possible, post all answers in the classroom and provide some time for students to think again on their classmates’ sentences/phrases/words. This will contribute to a better personal and collective understanding of the text.

Classroom experience
I have tried this routine on two occasions so far. The first was with the topic of friendship where I used a short extract from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling.  After reading aloud the extract to the children, they silent read it in small groups while I provided groups with some help on vocabulary where necessary. Groups then worked on the routine. The ideas shared in class were:

The second time was with Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree while working on the topic of deforestation. We first watched a video rendering and went through a ppt slide presentation of the book. Then, students worked in pairs, with a story hand-out and chose their sentences/phrases/words. Their responses:

Things to consider: An issue I had to deal with was how to explain to my 12 year old students, 2 multi-level (pre-intermediate/intermediate) groups the difference between sentence and phrase. I gave them an example showing the difference between sentence and phrase like so:

Sentence (begins with a capital, ends in a full stop, period, question mark or exclamation mark, expresses a complete thought): This is a sentence as you can see.

Phrase (part of a sentence, does not express a complete thought): as you can see

The routine can also work nicely with just two of the three stems (sentence/word).

The Ugly Duckling, Art in the English Class project

The Giving Tree, Art in the English Class project

Ritchhart, R, Church, M and Morrison, K (2011) Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp. 207-213.

23 thoughts on “Sentence-Phrase-Word: Capturing the essence of a text”

    1. Naing, thank you for your comment. Sentence, phrase, word can be seen as elements of the grammar of language. I was not asking students, however, to identify them as elements of grammar. That would be a grammatical exercise, similar to identifying nouns, adjectives etc. What I was asking for here was meaningfulness, emotional affect, appreciation of the power of language. It is a routine that has a personal, subjective focus. They will of course differentiate between a sentence, a phrase, a word as they’re engaged with the activity.


  1. I find this lesson quite interesting.The learners can get motivated to skim and scan through the text and keep interest and eager ness throughout the class.Thank you inna for the post.


  2. This can work for learners who are familiar with English and I think it requires the native or nativelike speakers of English as a teacher. Thanks


    1. Hi Fidèle, it works well with intermediate+ students. I’m not sure what you mean by “nativelike” teachers. I would suggest you have a look at the TEFL equity advocates ( about the discrimination between native and non-native English speaker teachers. They do some great work against that discrimination. Thank you for commenting.


    2. I think as long as the teacher is familiar and comfortable with the chosen text, then their background is irrelevant. I promise, even as a native speaker I often say ‘I don’t know, I’m not sure’ in class. We are all human -not electronic dictionaries. I totally agree with Chrysa -check out her link.

      I love the exercise – I’m always looking at ways to get my students more engaged with texts. I also use Hans Christian Andersen texts in class -for my adults 🙂

      Thank you

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have repeatedly used this activity to help students focus on a text and generate discussion in pairs or groups by making it more personal through their preferred sentences – phrases – words as a post reading activity or when we revisited a text.
    I have also asked more advanced students to note down a word-phrase-idea while they were listening to a presentation made by a classmate. I found it quite a successful routine as it helped all participants focus more on content and language. Then I usually asked them to pair up (or form small groups) compare/discuss their findings and explain their preference.
    We also made a poster with their notes to have a visual reminder of the text/ topic presented and/or had a class discussion.
    I think there are quite a few different ways to make use of such an activity to cater for different learners – help weaker students and encourage peer learning – and can be quite successful with pre-intermediate to advanced students.
    Thank you


    1. Hi Marilena, I like the fact that something as simple as one’s choice of a single word, phrase, sentence can prompt students’ thinking about worthy ideas and lead to rich discussions. We also keep visible records of students’ ideas; it’s important in that students feel their individual and collective thinking is valued while it also promotes further thinking. I agree the routine is flexible and can be modificied to cater for different groups of learners and that it helps weaker students and encourages peer learning. Thank you, too, for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

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