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How to Teach Sentence Structure

    how to teach sentence structure

    Teaching sentence structure is never an easy task. We often expect our students to come to us with this necessary knowledge for speaking and writing, but that isn’t always the case. Students may already be orally creating sentences, but they do not understand the structure of a sentence and find it difficult to comprehend or discuss sentence structure. More often than not, our students struggle with sentence structure, especially in writing. 

    What is Sentence Structure?

    There are a few ways to define sentence structure, but the most basic definition is how different parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs, conjunctions, etc., function and give meaning within a sentence. 

    One the most simple sentence structures is a sentence composed of a subject and a predicate. The subject is a noun (or noun phrase or verbal noun) that represents who or what is completing the action of the sentence. In English this is often the first noun in its respective clause, though there are expectations with nouns within prepositional phrases that may precede the subject and verb.

    Ex: “The man…” 

    The predicate expresses the action or state of being of the subject. In a sentence it contains the verb and can also include other information as words, phrases, or clauses. 

    Ex. “…throws.”

    Together, these examples create the whole sentence, “The man throws.” The subject is identified as man, and the predicate tells us the action happened to or was performed by the subject. 

    While writing in a basic sentence structure is necessary for simple and direct communication, it  takes more varied or complex sentence structures to give language the nuance needed to discuss complicated subjects. 

    A simple sentence is made up of one independent clause, meaning that on its own it makes sense grammatically and contextually,  but we’ll get to this idea a little later. 

    Teaching Simple Sentence Structure

    Simple Sentence is any grammatically coherent string of words that has a subject and predicate, as described above. However, simple sentences can actually be more complex than just subjects and predicates. In addition to the subject and predicate, a simple sentence also has other sentence elements that add meaning and information about the action of the verb. These elements are Direct Objects and Indirect Objects. 

    Direct objects receive the action of the verb, or more simply, the verb happens to the direct object. They are usually nouns. We can add to our previous sentence – “The man throws a ball” – to highlight what the man throws. The ball is a direct object which receives the action – throwing – done by the man. 

    Indirect objects can also be introduced to indicate to whom or for whom the action is being done. They are usually nouns. Let’s add more to our previous sentence – “The man throws the dog the ball”. The dog is the indirect object which is receiving the direct object, the ball. 

    Teaching Compound Sentence Structure

    Remembering that the word “compound” means a combination of two or more elements, a Compound Sentence is thus a sentence that joins two simple sentences together. To create a compound sentence, take two sentences that have a specific relation to each other and simply add a semicolon or a comma with a conjunction.

    Here are two examples, one using a semicolon and another using a comma with a conjunction.

    Ex: “The man throws the ball, and the dog chases it.”

    Ex:  “The man throws the ball; the dog chases it.”

    Each of these sentences combines the two sentences – “The man throws the ball” and “The dog chases the ball” – into one compound sentence. As you can see, writing a structure either way produces a similar, yet different sentence. Writing with compound structure greatly allows you to increase the depth and complexity of your writing style!

    Teaching Complex Sentence Structure

    Teaching Complex Sentence structure is a little more difficult than teaching simple and compound sentences, and that is because it is necessary to introduce more complicated vocabulary to describe the structures. Students need to know the following terms for clauses: Dependent and Independent. 

    Independent clauses are quite simple – they are single simple sentences! Yes! A single simple sentence structure contains a subject and predicate, both of which are required for an independent clause. An Independent Cause is independent because it can stand alone. This is because it has both a subject, the focus of the sentence, and predicate, which relays information about the action or state of being of the subject. 

    Dependent Clause cannot stand alone; it is dependent, not independent. A dependent clause is attached to an independent clause, usually to give more information related to the information in the independent clause. 

    In the examples below the Independent Clause is bolded and the Dependent Clause is underlined:

    Ex: Even though it is raining outside, the man throws the ball to the dog

    Ex: The man throws the ball to the dog even though it is raining outside. 

    In the first example, the dependent clause comes first and this requires a comma to distinguish it from the independent clause. The second example reverses this. When the independent clause comes first, a comma is not necessary. 

    Teaching Compound Complex Sentence Structure

    Compound Complex Sentence structures are the combination of the sentence structures we’ve seen thus far. These structures contain at least two independent clauses and one dependent clause. Rules on punctuation for compound structures stay the same: The two independent clauses are joined by a semicolon or a comma and conjunction. The dependent clause is then attached to the most relevant independent clause, and will be punctuated with a comma if it comes before the independent clause. 

    Ex: Even though it was raining outside, the man threw the ballthe dog then chases it!

    The underlined portion is a dependent clause attached to the first independent clause which is in bold. Additionally, another related independent clause is attached to the complex sentence structure to create a compound complex structure. Now, readers understand why the man threw the ball despite the fact that it was raining.

    Common Errors When Teaching Sentence Structure

    Writing and speaking in simple, compound, and complex sentences will certainly add depth and complexity to your students’ language and personal communication styles. However, there are some common errors people make when they try to write more complex sentences. Here are 3 common issues you will see students struggle with; be prepared to help them with these!

    Run-on sentences

    Run-on sentences happen when two or more independent clauses (sentences) are connected improperly to form one sentence. The most common type of run-on sentences generally features a comma splice – a comma improperly placed between two independent clauses. The best way to fix a comma splice is to replace the comma with a period to make two separate sentences or to replace the comma with a semicolon to combine both independent clauses into one sentence. 

    Sentence Fragments

    Sentence fragments are any string of words which do not make a grammatically complete sentence. This type of error generally occurs when the main verb or subject is missing or the thought of the sentence is not complete.

    Subject omitted:

    Running late.

    Verb omitted:

    When on the train.

    Incomplete thought:

    Because he ate the last of the food.

    Sometimes sentence fragments happen because students do not understand what a sentence is, but sometimes they occur because a student is dropping words that contain contextual information that they assume is obvious to their audience. For example, “Running late” is a sentence fragment because it is missing a subject (Who is running late?), but this information might be obvious to the student, who may not be specific in their language. 

    Sequence of tenses errors

    One last error to note! Writing complex sentences requires using multiple subjects, verbs, and multiples of other elements in one sentence. One element that needs to be considered and practiced is the comprehension and proper use of tense in sentences. Using multiple tenses within a sentence or paragraph, such as switching from present to past without intention or good effect, can make the language difficult and confusing to understand for the audience. Often, this can be fixed by teaching students to proofread their work before submission! 

    Practice Makes Perfect!

    Helping your students master the nuances and art of writing and combining sentence structures to create different effects is not an easy task, but it will undoubtedly get better with consistent and reflective writing practice. Here’s a few tips for teaching sentence structure:

    1. Directly instruct your students in the above information! People are uncomfortable talking about language because we aren’t taught how to talk about language. It’s also very technical and specific, but they need to hear and converse about language for them to learn it!

    2. Have them write something low stakes— like a journal or a paragraph—and ask them to use a specific amount of sentences with a certain structure. For example, they need to write at least 2 compound sentences, 2 simple sentences, 3 complex sentences, and 1 compound-complex sentence… in no particular order. It’s challenging, but fun!

    3. Peer review! Have students help identify what does and does not make sense. The best way to peer review is to have someone else read your work out loud. Students don’t always like this approach, but to hear your work from someone else is the quickest way to identify errors and possible miscommunications. 

    4. Have them read, read, read. The more we read, the more we absorb the writing styles and inventions of other’s. This helps us develop our own styles as writers. 

    5. Have them complete an assignment with a combination of both reading and writing. Ask students to complete a normal writing task without revealing the second part of the task. Then, have students go back and highlight or color-code the sentence types they used within their writing. For example, highlight all simple sentences in yellow, compound sentences in green, complex sentences in pink, and compound-complex sentences in blue. This will be eye-opening for students to see what their writing style is currently like and motivate students to expand and develop a more diverse writing style by switching up the sentence types they are currently comfortable writing with. 

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