Essential sentence structure
- and how to teach it


While the basic question of sentence structure may be blindingly obvious for some students, experience shows that many students do not automatically "acquire" this skill, and can well do with a bit of help

by Maria Hirschi

Page index : The independent clause Complex sentence starters

1. The essentials of Sentence Structure in English - a lesson plan

What every student and teacher should know - and some tips on how to teach it.

A Question for teachers: If you could only teach your students one thing about the sentence, about one vital ingredient that is common to almost all grammatically correct sentences in English, what would it be?

Hopefully the answer will be:   The independent clause

Here is a lesson plan to help teach students about the independent clause in English.

Stage 1. Students copy the following rules:

  1. Every independent clause, or 'main clause', requires one subject +  a verb (so be sure you can identify these);
  2. Along with subject and verb, an independent clause may require an object or complement to complete the sentence;
  3. Independent clauses can stand alone as a complete sentence;
  4. A complete sentence starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop;
  5. An independent clause is also known as a simple sentence;
  6. You can join 2 or more independent clauses with a conjunction (but, so, or, because) to form a compound sentence;
  7. Independent clauses are one part needed to form a complex sentence.

Stage 2: Examples and Practice

Begin with independent clauses that use active verbs (with or without an object). Students underline the subject and highlight the verb in each of the following examples:

Note: The above examples contain an object of the verb (answers 'what').

✦ Stage 3: Reinforcement and further practice

Students use the above examples to create 3 more compound sentences.   
For example:  I eat pizza and I drink a bottle of water every Friday night.

Stage 4: Play a game: Create funny compound sentences - a variation on the traditional English party game of "consequences"

Here is an example of the kind of sentence that your students may write:
    The dog was sitting on the chair but my  mother was driving the car  so we all had some very difficult homework to do.

In a class with some imaginative students, you may get some very amusing results.  
You may also  like to encourage certain types of result by giving your students some recommended words to use.

 2. Complex Sentence Starters - a follow-on activity to get your students talking

If you want to get your students to use complex sentences, start with a speaking exercise.

1. Recap previous learning: What is a complex sentence?

2. Speaking practice using sentence starters

Here are 7 complex sentence starters, with examples of use. Take turns making sentences and sharing them with your partner:

    Although pizza is bad for me, I still eat it every week.

Rather than...
. Rather than eating salty, deep-fried junk food, you could eat fresh salad.

Despite the fact that...
 Despite the fact that pizza contains many calories, it tastes delicious.

As long as
As long as pizza is on the menu, I will order it.

 Unless every pizza restaurant burns down, I will still buy pizza every week.

Because it is a family tradition, I will continue to eat pizza once a week.

As soon as...
As soon as I smell pizza, my mouth starts watering

 3. Deeper engagement: What's the function?

Share the above example sentences with your students.
All of the sentences deal with the same topic, pizza, but each sentence serves a different function:
  • Which sentences express condition or probability
  • Which sentence  indicates the time when something happens
  • Which sentences show contrast
  • Which sentence shows cause and effect ?

Ask students to write down each function as a subheading and write the sentence starter under each one.

  • Express condition/ probability: Unless; As long as;
  • Indicates time: As soon as;
  • Indicates contrast: Although; Despite the fact that; Rather than;
  • Implies cause and effect: Because

4. Further practice

1. Take the seven sample sentences above,  make one column containing the seven main clauses, and another - in a different order - containing the seven dependent clauses, and have students match them logically.

2. Students practice more freely using the 7 sentence starters above to make their own complex sentences. Provide them with a fun topic to get started (dogs, cats, rats...). Share any funny or good ones.
Maria Hirschi is a TESOL qualified high school English teacher from New Zealand
If you liked these lesson plans, you can find more at:   Twitter: @MariaHirschiNZ

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