Sentence structure

Students need to elaborate and extend their ideas to make a detailed, precise and coherent piece of text.

The use of a variety of sentence structures including extended simple sentences and complex sentences create texts that are more interesting and paint a more vivid picture in the reader’s head. Students are able to confidently enhance their writing by understanding how sentences are structured for effect.

Complex sentences

A complex sentence is formed by adding one or more subordinate (dependent) clauses to the main (independent) clause using conjunctions and/or relative pronouns. A clause is a simple sentence. Simple sentences contain only one clause (verb group). Complex sentences contain more than one clause (verb group).

In technical, scientific and mathematical writing the logical relationship between the items that the conjunctions connect is not made explicit and introduces comprehension complications. These writing genres bring the challenging elements of unfamiliar vocabulary including jargon and technical words, lexically dense sentences and an element of ‘guessing’ or interpreting the data in relation to the task. For many students the concepts or subject matter are unfamiliar and therefore problematic.

Constructing complex sentences

Complex sentences result when other more sophisticated devices are used to join clauses; this means a subordinate (dependent) clause is joined with a main (or independent) clause.

There are three main ways to join clauses to make complex sentences. By using:

  • relative pronouns – that, which, who, whose.
  • conjunctions (subordinating) – while, because, although, as, when, until, unless, through, by, since, whenever, if, where, before, and so on.
  • verb structures (non-finite) – (participle) verb forms that end in –ing or –ed or an infinitive verb form such as to go, to become, to see.
  • More information on clauses. (PDF 254.04KB)

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: vary sentence beginnings

Often when students start with the subject their sentences begin to sound monotonous and the sentences do not flow well. The aim of these activities is to avoid the subject-verb pattern. (For example: I love shopping. My friend and I will go shopping all the time. We love to buy clothes. She likes buying jeans.)

The following activities need to be explicitly taught – modelled, guided and then independently applied – as a tool to improve students own writing as well as a way to analyse texts.

  • Students begin writing with a Participle or Participial Phrase (“ing” or “ed”) or explore authentic texts for examples. Students do not begin each sentence with the same word, but rather the same part of speech.
    For example:
    Slithering down the trunk of the tree, I ripped my best pants.
    Hoping to escape the teacher's attention, Matt crawled into the classroom.
    Past Participial Phrase (use an “ed” word):
    Impressed by the ceremony, we left the room in silence.
    Depressed by the amount of homework, the student collapsed into tears.
  • Search authentic texts for examples and write passages that begin with a Prepositional Phrase:
    With a smile on his face, the lion devoured the boy.
    Across the bay, the light flickered and went out.
  • Search authentic texts for examples and write passages that begin with a dependent clause (begin with a subordinating conjunction.) These help express relationships such as compare/contrast or cause/effect.
    Though some critics have complained about his scary dress sense, Tony is still popular.
    While I was doing the test, my pencil broke.
  • Use the appositive, (after subject noun or object noun) which is a grammatical construction in which two elements, normally noun phrases, are placed side by side, with one element serving to define or modify the other to create sophisticated writing. For example:
    A well-respected Mayor, Trifolium knew she could run for prime minister.
    A struggling street performer, Gary wandered from street to street.
  • Search authentic texts for examples and write passages that begin with an Infinitive Phrase: (“to + verb”)
    To cope with the new tax law, taxpayers must comprehend subtle variations in meaning.
  • Search authentic texts for examples and write passages that combine sentences with a relative pronoun: who, whom, whose, which, that
    Mary spent the money. It belonged to her sister.
    Mary spent the money that belonged to her sister.
    The money that belonged to her sister was spent by Mary.

    More examples are available in the relative clauses exercises (PDF 80.38KB)
  • Search authentic texts for examples and write passages that have dependent clauses in a pair or in a series (At the beginning or the end of a sentence use:
    If …, if …, if …, then Subject Verb.
    When …, when …, when …, Subject Verb.
    Subject Verb that …, that …, that …
    For example:
    If Chris had the money, if he spent the time, if he met a girlfriend, he would take a trip around the world.
    Whether you use a Mac or whether you own a PC, you can play great games on a computer.

You’ll notice in the examples above that this construction must employ dependent clauses, relies on parallelism, and expresses conditions dependent upon the main clause.

This is a special pattern that should be used sparingly. It is particularly helpful:

  • at the end of a single paragraph to summarise the major points,
  • in structuring a thesis statement having three or more parts (or points), or
  • in the introductory or concluding paragraph to bring together the main points of a composition in a single sentence.

Activity 2: sentence fluency in action

Use the following ideas to explicitly teach to, then modify student / teacher selected sentences with small groups, whole class or for independent editing.

Original Sentences: Elizabeth walked briskly to the movies. She wanted to see the new Despicable Me.

  • To use a participle take out the verb (walk or want) and start with it. Note: The non-finite clause must be placed directly before the noun doing the action.
    Revised Sentence: Walking quickly to the movies, Elizabeth was excited to see the new Despicable Me.
    Revised Sentence: Wanting to see the new Despicable Me, Elizabeth walked briskly to the movies.
  • To use a dependent clause. Create a cause and effect relationship or compare/contrast
    Revised Sentence: Because Elizabeth wanted to see the new Despicable Me, she walked quickly to the movies.
    Original Sentence: She saw the lights across the bay. They were twinkling and flickering on the water.
  • To use a preposition take out the phase and put it at the beginning.
    Revised Sentence (not complex): Across the bay, she saw the lights twinkling and flickering on the water.

Activity 3: sentence mash up

Use the proforma independent and dependent clauses (PDF 176.33KB) cut in half.

Students write either a dependent or independent clause (as per the sheet) on it and pass it to the next person in the small group. When all the spaces have writing on them students then write up as many humorous sentences with the ones off the sheet. The aim is to pace the clauses in as many as possible places. Students then select the best from theirs to write up onto a large cardboard strip to be displayed in the class. The posters may be useful.

Activity 4: sentence dominoes

The S3 Game for grammar and punctuation (PDF 221.82KB) cards need to be printed, laminated and cut up. Students in a group of ten (or five and they have 2 each) take one of the cards. The student with the ‘start’ card calls out their card and the person with the answer responds. This continues until everyone has had a turn.

Activity 5: sentence types

Using the resources kinds of sentences (PDF 120.63KB) explicitly teach and then use the resource either as an assessment gathering tool or as an opportunity for students to work as a guided group.

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