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Grammar

Teaching grammar basics: sentence structure

By Oliver Shrouder

16 Jan 2023

Children putting their hands up in the classroom.

Even if you have not learned about sentence structure before, you might find that you’re able to tell when a sentence has been written incorrectly. A sentence is a series of words that expresses a complete thought, and sentence structure refers to how the basic elements of a sentence (such as subjects, objects, and punctuation) fit together. The rules of how a sentence works are simple, but they are essential to learn when constructing something which is grammatically correct.

Most sentences consist of a set of words containing a subject and a predicate. The subject is what the sentence is about, and a predicate is what is being said about the subject:

  • Jasmine plays football.

In this sentence, “Jasmine” is the subject, and “plays football” is the predicate.

Sentences are the building blocks of the English language, and almost every aspect of grammar is contained within them. When you have a strong grasp of the structure of sentences and how more complex syntax works, you can become a much more versatile writer.

In English, there are four different types of sentences: the simple sentence, the compound sentence, the complex sentence, and the compound-complex sentence. Varying the types of sentences you use can make a piece of writing more engaging, and helps to make your writing sound less repetitive. Using different sentence structures also helps learners apply their grammar knowledge in their own writing as well as in the classroom.

Simple sentences are the most basic type of sentence and consist of a single independent clause. An independent clause is a clause that makes sense on its own. This means the sentence contains a subject and a verb, expressing one complete thought:

  • I love movies.
  • John and Syed went home early today.
  • Maria ate half of her dinner.

The middle sentence is slightly more complicated, as it uses a compound subject. This means that the predicate of the sentence refers to more than one person or thing.

Compound sentences are a more complicated version of the simple sentence. In these sentences, two (or more) independent clauses are joined together by a conjunction or a semicolon. Some examples of conjunctions used in complex sentences are and, but, or, for, nor, yet, and so. It is important to remember that each clause can form its own sentence, as they are independent.

  • I love movies and Susan loves music.
  • John went home early today but I decided to stay a little later.
  • Marie ate half of her dinner; she went to bed instead. 

If you are having trouble using semicolons, try to think of them having the same meaning as a comma followed by the conjunction “and”:

  • My favourite plate broke this morning, and I had to go to the shop to get a replacement.
  • My favourite plate broke this morning; I had to go to the shop to get a replacement.

Both are still compound sentences, as both halves make sense on their own. “My favourite plate broke this morning” is a complete thought. “I had to go to the shop to get a replacement” is also a complete thought, as no more information is necessary.

A complex sentence is a sentence made up of an independent clause and a dependent clause. A dependent clause is a section of the sentence which would not make sense on its own, whereas an independent clause is a complete thought. Some examples of the conjunctions used in complex sentences are because, until, as, although, and since.

  • You’re eating your vegetables whether you like it or not.
  • My dog barks on walks because she fears strangers.
  • I don’t usually like Tom’s music, although his new song is quite good.

With each of these sentences, the first half is independent as it doesn’t need any more information to be understood. We learn that the dog barks on walks the speaker does not usually like someone’s music, and we do not need any more information to understand them. However, the rest of the sentence wouldn’t make any sense on their own: who fears strangers, and whose song is quite good? As the second half of the sentence is dependent on the first, we can tell that these sentences are complex rather than compound.

You can also use relative pronouns in a complex sentence to join independent and dependent clauses. Relative pronouns are words such as that, which, who, and whose.

  • He’s the man whom I met the other day.
  • It was my friend who lost the car keys.

A compound-complex sentence is the most complicated sentence structure. These sentences are made of at least two independent clauses, as well as one or more dependent clauses. As these sentences are normally longer than other sentences, it is important to punctuate them correctly to ensure they are as clear as possible.

  • The team celebrated and the fans jumped for joy because they had finally scored a goal.

If we break this sentence down, we find three distinct clauses. “The team celebrated” and “the fans jumped for joy” are both independent clauses because they are complete thoughts. However, “because they scored a goal” is a dependent clause, as we need the information from the rest of the sentence to figure out its full meaning. Here are two more examples:

  • John forgot to meet his friend after school, so he bought them a box of chocolates when they next met up.
  • Even though Susan likes classical music, she decided to listen to the new Beyonce album and enjoyed it a lot.

Like the first example, these sentences contain two independent clauses and one dependent clause. An easy way to spot a dependent clause is to look at how pronouns are used: do you need to know what “it” and “she” means to understand it? If so, you are looking at a dependent clause.

When teaching sentence structure, it is important to be aware of the mistakes your learners might make. One example is a comma splice, where a comma is incorrectly used to separate two independent clauses:

  • My bike broke yesterday, it is being fixed at the repair shop now.

To fix this, make sure your learners use a semicolon or include a conjunction:

  • My bike broke yesterday; it is being fixed at the repair shop now.
  • My bike broke yesterday, and it is being fixed at the repair shop now.

You can also introduce sentence types in a scaffolded way. Rather than introducing all the information at once, it can be explored one section at a time, beginning with simple sentences and ending with compound-complex sentences. You can also review the previous types of sentences before introducing something new, then ask your class questions about the topic to ensure their full understanding. To keep your learners engaged, you could bring in examples from books and non-traditional texts to make learning sentence structure more fun.

Sentence types, especially when you begin to explore those which are more complex, can be difficult for many learners to understand. Make sure your learners are given time to process and memorise the information; after you have introduced a type of sentence, review it during the week through worksheets, discussion in the classroom, or asking your learners to find and provide examples of their own at home.

To encourage your learners to construct sentences of their own, you can introduce sentence construction cards in the classroom. Provide everyone with a series of cards, each containing a single word. From these cards, ask your learners to create their own grammatically correct sentences.

You could develop this activity by providing them with cards that do not make a single sentence. This will allow them to come up with sentences of their own and explore syntax outside of one correct answer.

For younger learners, you can include capital letters and full stops so they know where their sentences should start and end. Alternatively, you can introduce punctuation such as commas or semicolons to encourage advanced learners to create more complex sentences and explore different clauses.

For younger learners, this activity is excellent to solidify their understanding of simple sentence structure. When your learners unscramble sentences, they become cognizant of word order and begin to understand that word order is essential for a sentence to make sense.

Provide your class with a series of words, each written on a card. Ask them to use these words to find out what the complete sentence is. Some smaller sentences, those which are six words or less, can be completed alone and more complex sentences can be completed in small groups.

Like sentence construction cards, you can introduce more complicated sentence structures using punctuation like commas and semicolons.

Find activities like these, and more, in our mini workbook on independent and subordinate clauses.

Sentence builder worksheets can encourage younger learners to create their own sentences from prompts. Your worksheets should include sentence starters (short phrases to introduce an idea), adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs. These worksheets allow your classroom to explore syntax through different words, as well as learn how the use of different verbs and adjectives can affect the meaning of a sentence.

You can also adapt these worksheets depending on the topic you are currently exploring and introduce subject-specific words.

Songs and chants are a vital way to help learners understand sentence structure, as they are the easiest way for learners to remember information. You could bring in your favourite pop song and ask your learners to identify sentence structures and clauses in the lyrics. Songs often use complex sentence structures, so listening to them helps those examples to be recalled in the classroom.

An activity chant you could use is “extend the sentence”. Begin the chant by describing the first thing a person did and ask the next student to add more information. Continue this until a learner cannot think of anything to add, or if the sentence has become too long. You could also develop this by asking them to use specific types of sentence structure when they respond.

Complete the sentence quizzes can be used in any classroom to help solidify the knowledge of sentence structure. Provide your learners with a list of sentences that have something removed and ask them to find out what is missing. You can begin by removing the verb from a simple sentence, then challenge your class by removing conjunctions and punctuation from complex and compound sentences.

Quizzes such as these are easily adaptable, so learners of any age can benefit from them. You can encourage learners to identify semicolons as well as conjunctions when a sentence has two independent clauses, which can also help them identify errors with comma splicing. Once the quiz is complete, you could ask your learners to identify the different types of sentences being explored or identify each type of clause.

From the basics to the most advanced grammar techniques, Bedrock’s core curriculum uses bespoke fiction and nonfiction texts, teaching videos, recap activities and mastery tasks to reinforce learners’ understanding of grammar. Through Bedrock’s deep-learning curriculum, students learn to use grammar techniques in their own writing and analyse their effects critically. Progress is shown through low-stakes formative assessing, linked closely to targets set by the UK National Curriculum.

Teach your learners the grammar and vocabulary they need to make progress in their reading comprehension, whether at primary or secondary level, through Bedrock’s differentiated literacy curriculum.

Explicitly teach vocabulary and grammar through bespoke prose and teaching videos.