A TEACHER’S GUIDE TO SENTENCE STRUCTURE
This article aims to inform teachers and students about writing great sentences for all text types and genres. I would also recommend reading our complete guide to writing a great paragraph here. You will find great advice, teaching ideas, and resources in both articles.
WHAT IS SENTENCE STRUCTURE?
When we talk about ‘sentence structure’, we are discussing the various elements of a sentence and how these elements are organized on the page to convey the desired effect.
Writing well in terms of sentence structure requires our students to become familiar with various elements of grammar and the various types of sentences that exist in English.
In this article, we will explore these areas and discuss various ideas and activities you can use in the classroom to help your students on the road to mastering these different sentence structures. This will help to make their writing more precise and more interesting in the process.
TYPES OF SENTENCE STRUCTURE
In English, there are four types of sentences that students need to get their heads around. They are:
Mastering these four types of sentences will enable students to articulate themselves effectively and with personality and style.
Achieving this necessarily takes plenty of practice, but the process begins with ensuring that each student has a firm grasp on how each type of sentence structure works.
But, before we examine these different types of structures, we must ensure our students understand the difference between independent and dependent clauses. Understanding clauses and how they work will make it much easier for students to grasp the different types of sentences that follow.
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Put simply; clauses are parts of a sentence containing a verb. An independent clause can stand by itself as a complete sentence. It expresses a complete thought or idea and contains a subject and a verb – more on this shortly!
Dependent Clauses / Subordinate Clauses
Dependent clauses, on the other hand, are not complete sentences and cannot stand by themselves. They do not express a complete idea. To become complete, they must be attached to an independent clause. Dependent clauses are also known as subordinate clauses.
An excellent way to illustrate the difference between the two is by providing an example that contains both.
Even though I am tired, I am going to work tonight.
As the non-underlined portion of the sentence doesn’t work as a sentence on its own, it is a dependent clause. The underlined portion of the sentence could operate as a sentence in its own right, and it is, therefore, an independent clause.
Now we’ve got clauses out of the way; we’re ready to take a look at each type of sentence in turn.
Simple sentences are, unsurprisingly, the easiest type of sentence for students to grasp and construct for themselves. Often these types of sentences will be the first sentences that children write by themselves, following the well-known Subject – Verb – Object or SVO pattern.
The subject of the sentence will be the noun that begins the sentence. This may be a person, place, or thing, but, most importantly, it is the doer of the action in the sentence.
The action itself will be encapsulated by the verb, which is the action word that describes what the doer does.
The object of the sentence follows the verb and describes that which receives the action.
This is again best illustrated by an example. Take a look at the simple sentence below:
Tom ate many cookies.
In this easy example, the doer of the action is Tom, the action is ate, and the receiver of the action is the many cookies.
Subject = Tom
Verb = ate
Object = many cookies
After a little practice, students will become adept at recognizing SVO sentences and forming their own. It’s important to point out, too that simple sentences don’t necessarily have to be short.
This research reveals that an active lifestyle can have a great impact for the good on the life expectancy of the average person.
Despite this sentence looking more sophisticated (and longer!), this is still a simple sentence as it follows the SVO structure:
Subject = research
Verb = reveals
Object = that an active lifestyle can have a great impact for the good on the life expectancy of the average person.
Though basic in construction, it is essential to point out that a simple sentence is often the perfect structure to deal with complex ideas. Simple sentences can effectively provide clarity and efficiency of expression, breaking down complex ideas into manageable chunks.
Simple Sentence Reinforcement Activity
To ensure your students grasp the simple sentence structure, have them go through a photocopied text pitched at a language level suited to their age and ability.
On the first run-through, have students identify and highlight simple sentences in the text. Then, students should use various colors of pens to pick out and underline the subject, the verb, and the object in each sentence.
This activity helps ensure a clear understanding of how this structure works, as well as helping to internalize it. This will reap rich rewards for students when they come to the next stage, and it’s time for them to write their own sentences using this basic pattern.
After students have mastered combining subjects, verbs, and objects into both long and short sentences, they will be ready to move on to the other three types of sentences, the next of which is the compound sentence.
COMPOUND SENTENCE STRUCTURE
While simple sentences consist of one clause with a subject and a verb, compound sentences combine at least two independent clauses that are joined together with a coordinating conjunction.
There’s a helpful acronym to help students remember these coordinating conjunctions; FANBOYS.
Some of these conjunctions will be more frequently used than others, with the most commonly used being and, but, or, and so.
Whichever of the conjunctions the student chooses to use, it will connect the two halves of the compound sentence – each of which could stand alone as a complete sentence.
Compound sentences are an important way of bringing variety and rhythm to a piece of writing. The decision to join two sentences together into one longer compound sentence is made because there is a strong relationship between the two, but it is important to remind students that they need not necessarily be joined as they can remain as separate sentences.
The decision to join or not is often a stylistic one.
For example, the two simple sentences:
1. She ran to the school.
2. The school was closed.
It can be easily joined together with a coordinating conjunction that reveals an essential relationship between the two:
She ran to the school, but the school was closed.
As a bonus, while working on compound sentences, a convenient opportunity arises to introduce the correct usage of the semicolon. Often, where two clauses are joined with a conjunction, that conjunction can be replaced with a semicolon when the two parts of the sentence are related, for example:
She ran to the school; the school was closed.
While you may not wish to muddy the waters by introducing the semicolon while dealing with compound sentences, more advanced students may benefit from making the link here.
A good way for students to practice forming compound sentences is to provide them with copies of simple books from early on in a reading scheme. Books for emergent readers are often written in simple sentences that form repetitive patterns that help children internalize various language patterns.
Challenge your students to rewrite some of these texts using compound sentences where appropriate. This will provide valuable practice in spotting such opportunities in their writing and experience in selecting the appropriate conjunction.
There are various ways to construct complex sentences, but essentially any complex sentence will contain at least one independent and one dependent clause. However, these clauses are not joined by coordinating conjunctions. Instead, subordinating conjunctions are used.
Here are some examples of subordinating conjunctions:
● as long as
● even if
● in order to
● in case
Subordinating conjunctions join dependent and independent clauses together. They provide a transition between the two ideas in the sentence. This transition will involve a time, place, or a cause and effect relationship. The more important idea is contained in the sentence’s main clause, while the less important idea is introduced by the subordinating conjunction.
Although Catherine ran to school, she didn’t get there in time.
We can see that the first part of this complex sentence (in bold) is a dependent clause that cannot stand alone. This fragment begins with the subordinating conjunction ‘although’ which joins it to, and expresses the relationship with, the independent clause which follows.
When complex sentences are organized this way (with the dependent clause first), you’ll note the comma separates the dependent clause from the independent clause. If the structure is reorganized to place the independent clause first, with the dependent clause following, then there is no need for this comma.
You will not do well if you refuse to study.
Complex sentences can be great tools for students to not only bring variety to their writing but to explore complex ideas, set up comparisons and contrasts, and convey cause and effect.
A helpful way to practice writing complex sentences is to provide students with a subordinating conjunction and dependent clause and challenge them to provide a suitable independent clause to finish out the sentence.
After returning home for work,…
Although it was late,…
You may also flip this and provide the independent clause first before challenging them to come up with a suitable dependent clause and subordinating conjunction to finish out the sentence.
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Compound-complex sentences are, not surprisingly, the most difficult for students to write well. If, however, your students have put the work in to gain a firm grasp of the preceding three sentence types, then they should manage these competently with a bit of practice.
Before teaching compound-complex sentences, it’ll be worth asking your students if they can make an educated guess at a definition of this type of sentence based on its title alone.
The more astute among your students may well be able to work out that a compound-complex sentence refers to joining a compound sentence with a complex one. More accurately, a compound-complex sentence combines at least two independent clauses and one dependent clause.
Since the school was closed, Sarah ran home and her mum made her some breakfast.
We can see here the sentence begins with a dependent clause followed by a compound sentence. We can also see a complex sentence nestled there if we look at the bracketed content in the version below.
(Since the school was closed, Sarah ran home) and her mum made her some breakfast.
This is a fairly straightforward example of complex sentences, but they can come in lots of guises, containing lots more information while still conforming to the compound-complex structure.
Because most visitors to the city regularly miss out on the great bargains available here, local companies endeavor to attract tourists to their businesses and help them understand how to access the best deals the capital has to offer.
A lot is going on in this sentence, but it follows the same structure as the previous one on closer examination. That is, it opens with a dependent clause (that starts with subordinating conjunction) and is then followed by a compound sentence.
With practice, your students will soon be able to quickly identify these more sophisticated types of sentences and produce their own examples.
Compound-complex sentences can bring variety to a piece of writing and help articulate complex things. However, it is essential to encourage students to pay particular attention to the placement of commas in these sentences to ensure readers do not get confused. Encourage students to proofread all their writing, especially when writing longer, more structurally sophisticated sentences such as these.
You could begin reinforcing student understanding of compound-complex sentences by providing them with a handout featuring several examples of this type of sentence.
Working in pairs or small groups, have the students identify and mark the independent clauses (more than 1) and dependent clauses (at least 1) in each sentence. When students can do this confidently, they can then begin to attempt to compose their own sentences.
Another good activity that works well as a summary of sentence structure work is to provide the students with a collection of jumbled sentences of each of the four types.
Challenge the students to sort the sentences into each of the four types. In a plenary, compare each group’s findings and examine those sentences where the groups disagreed on their categorization.
In teaching sentence structure, it is essential to emphasize to our students that though the terminology may seem quite daunting at first, they will quickly come to understand how each structure works and recognize them when they come across them in a text.
Much of this is often done by feel, especially for native English speakers. Just as someone may be a competent cyclist and struggle to explain the process verbally, grammar can sometimes feel like a barrier to doing.
Be sure to make lots of time for students to bridge the gap between the theoretical and the practical by offering opportunities to engage in activities that allow students to get creative in producing their own sentences.
WRITING CHECKLISTS FOR ALL TEXT TYPES
WHAT IS A SENTENCE FRAGMENT?
A sentence fragment is a collection of words that looks similar to a sentence but actually isn’t a complete sentence. Sentence fragments usually lack a subject or verb or don’t express a complete thought. Whilst a fragmented sentence can be punctuated to appear similar to a complete sentence; it is no substitute for a sentence.
Sentence fragment features:
These are the distinguishing features of a sentence fragment:
- It lacks a subject
- Example: Jumped further than a Kangaroo. (Who jumped?)
- It lacks a verb or has the wrong verb form
- Example: My favorite math teacher. (What did the teacher do or say?)
- It is a residual phrase
- Example: For better or worse. (What is better or worse? What is it modifying?)
- It is an abandoned clause
- Example: When my mother married my father. (What happened when “my mother married my father?”)
- It is an improper use of “such as, for example, especially,” etc.
- Example: Such as, my brother was practising martial arts. (It is unclear; did something happen when my brother was practising martial arts?)
The methods for correcting a sentence fragment are varied, but essentially it will boil down to three options. Either attach it to a nearby sentence, revise and add the missing elements or rewrite the entire passage or fragment until they are operating in sync with each other.
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The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and English university lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book, The Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing, can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.