Teaching grammar basics: sentence clauses

By Oliver Shrouder

29 Nov 2022

Students working on technology in a classroom.

Teaching grammar basics

Ensuring every learner has a fundamental understanding of grammar is important for every aspect of their literacy development. Mastery of grammar techniques helps learners to transcribe, read, comprehend and even communicate verbally.

To solidify your understanding of how the grammar techniques learners should master, as set out in the National Curriculum, as well as strategies for teaching them, find others in our Teaching Grammar Basics series:

  • Nouns (types of nouns and understanding nouns)
  • Adjectives
  • Apostrophes
  • Commas
  • Tense and aspect
  • Full stops and capital letters
  • Connectors

What is a clause?

A clause, simply put, is a group of words that form sentences or parts of sentences. A clause always includes a subject and a verb, and there are four different types used across the English language. It is important to remember that a clause is not the same thing as a phrase. Here is a small sentence:

  • The old, fat cat.

This is a phrase and not a clause, as it expresses information about a subject but contains no verb. If we develop this phrase further and describe what the subject is doing, it can turn into a clause:

  • The old, fat cat slept on the sofa.

Here, the subject is the cat, and the verb is “slept”. This clause can also be called a simple sentence, as it expresses a single complete idea.

Clauses, as essential components of sentences, are vital when learning about the English language; almost every aspect of grammar is contained within them. Once you have a strong grasp on how clauses work, you can gain a stronger understanding on the structure of sentences, making them more complex and versatile.

What are the four types of clauses?

Independent clauses

An independent clause is a clause that expresses a complete thought and, as a result, can stand on its own as a sentence:

  • Sarah loves birdwatching.
  • My dog won’t stop barking!
  • His car is a lovely shade of blue.

Each of these is a simple sentence, as they can be understood without any more information. They can be added to part of a longer sentence, such as a complex or a compound sentence:

  • Sarah loves birdwatching, even if her husband doesn’t.
  • My dog won’t stop barking at the birds outside.
  • Even if nobody else likes it, to me his car is a lovely shade of blue.

An easy way to tell if a clause is independent is to remove the rest of the sentence. If you can still understand it, then you are looking at an independent clause!

Dependent clause

A dependent clause (also called a subordinate clause) is the opposite of an independent clause: rather than being able to be understood on its own, a dependent clause needs more information to make sense. In other words, a dependent clause is an incomplete idea which needs further context:

  • Unless Maria helps.
  • Who went home early.
  • Until my hands stung.

If we take these dependent clauses and add an independent clause, it creates a sentence which makes much more sense:

  • I am not putting my toys away unless Maria helps!
  • James is the coworker who went home early.
  • I played the guitar until my hands stung.

Relative clause

A relative clause is a type of dependent clause and is used to give more information about a noun. Relative clauses are introduced by relative pronouns, such as that, which, when, who, and where:

  • I think he’s the man who helped carry my bags.
  • She moved to Sydney, which is in Australia. 
  • I heard that the sea in Cornwall is never cold!

Relative clauses always come after the noun. In each of the above sentences, we learn more about the sea, the man, and Sydney, from the relative clauses that qualify them.

Conditional clause

A conditional clause is a clause that states a hypothesis or a condition. Conditional clauses usually use the word “if” to signify when they occur, though some use “unless”, “provided that”, and “as long as” instead. To illustrate this, here are two examples:

  • If you don’t get up now, you’ll miss the bus!
  • I would cook the lasagne tonight if I knew how.

In both sentences there is an independent clause, “you’ll miss the bus” and “I would cook lasagne tonight”. Each of these clauses is then qualified with a condition. If I knew how to cook lasagne, it would be cooked tonight. If you got up now, you might catch the bus. Although these examples are in the future tense, expressing hypothetical outcomes, conditional clauses can also be used in the past tense:

  • If you had gotten up sooner, you wouldn’t have missed the bus!
  • I would have cooked lasagne tonight if I knew how.

These are conditional clauses as they express the outcome of a hypothetical: the current situation would be different if the past had been different. Remember, if you are using an if-clause at the beginning of the sentence (like this one), you must use a comma afterwards.

How do clauses work?

In English, clauses can either operate as adjectives, as adverbs, or as nouns:

  • John was upset by what he had seen.

In this sentence two clauses are present. “John was upset” is an independent clause, as it can be understood without any more information. However, the dependent clause “what he had seen” is a noun clause, as the clause is functioning in the same way as a noun: this means that “what he had seen” could be replaced by the thing John had seen, and still make grammatical sense:

  • John was upset by the movie.

An adjective clause functions in a similar way:

  • Fruit that is grown organically is more expensive.

In this sentence “that is grown organically” is an adjectival clause, as the clause is being used instead of an adjective. This is because the clause modifies the subject of the sentence in the same way an adjective does. If we add an adjective instead of an adjectival clause, the sentence has the same meaning:

  • Organic fruit is more expensive.

The final way a clause operates is as an adverb. Like the previous examples, the adverbial clause replaces the adverb in a sentence. Here is an example of an adverb clause, and what the sentence looks like with the adverb added back in:

  • He eats chocolate once a week as a treat.
  • He eats chocolate weekly.

The clause “once a week as a treat” has the same meaning as “weekly”, so we can replace one with the other to create an adjectival sentence.

Best practice for teaching clauses

One of the most important ways to teach clauses in the classroom is to identify them in-text. When you introduce a new type of clause, ask your learners to find it in a text or in an isolated sentence. If your learners are struggling, you can reintroduce the definition to the class to ensure they know what they are looking for.

Once your learners are confident in identifying a type of clause in each text, you can present them with the rules for using and constructing them. Ask your learners questions about each type of clause and ask them to create their own examples. When they are first creating their own sentences with clauses, it can be useful to compare the different types to ensure they know what to focus on.

When learners are comfortable developing clausal sentences, you can then introduce longer writing tasks which involve different types. Ask your learners to write a short paragraph which uses an adjectival clause and a relative clause. If they are struggling, you can reintroduce the definitions to solidify their knowledge.

Clauses, like sentence structure, can be difficult for younger learners to understand at first. This means it is crucial that your class is given time to understand them, as well as memorise any relevant information. You can also introduce clauses in a scaffolded way: rather than introducing all of them once, you can explore clauses one at a time, reviewing them at the start of each lesson.


Sentence Scramble

For younger learners, you can solidify their knowledge of clauses through mixed up sentences. Provide your class with a series of words written on cards which, when combined, make a complete sentence. You can begin with short independent clauses, and once your class is confident, you can introduce commas and dependent clauses. Try using different words such as if, whether, and that to help your students identify what types of clauses they are unscrambling.

This activity is also a good opportunity to show learners that clauses can be presented in different orders and still be grammatically correct:

  • He eats fish and chips only on Fridays.
  • Only on Fridays he eats fish and chips.

Clause worksheets

Use worksheets to solidify your learners' understanding of clauses. In our free downloadable PDF, find completing clauses and flipping clauses worksheets, designed to reinforce mastery of sentence structure.

Identifying clauses

Photocopy a selected passage of a book or text and provide them to your class, split into smaller groups. Provide them with coloured pens and ask them to mark independent clauses in green, and dependent clauses in red. Set a timer, and see which group can find the most clauses correctly in the time limit.

You can expand on this activity by bringing in different types of text, such as poetry or pop-music. You could also ask your learners to bring in their favourite book or song, and ask the class to identify the types of clause on a page or in lyrics.

Sentence strips

Write sentences on pieces of paper and cut them in half, so that each clause is separate. Mix up the halves and provide them to your class. On your whiteboard, draw a column for dependent clauses and a column for independent clauses. Ask your students to come up one at a time and place one strip in one of the columns. Once all the halves are on the whiteboard, ask your learners to draw lines between the halves to join them up again.

As this activity only requires columns and paper, it can be adapted to include columns for any kind of clause. For more able learners, you could ask them to split up the dependent clauses into relative and conditional.

In pairs, you could also ask your learners to create their own sentence strips. One learner should come up with an independent clause or simple sentence, and their partner should develop the sentence with a dependent clause. If you wish, you can provide a prize for the most interesting sentence!

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