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How to Teach Complex Sentences

Simply put: Learning to write complex sentences will improve your students’ writing. Perhaps no other revision tool produces a greater “bang for the buck.” However, even the best tools can be overused. A contractor may love her “go-to” nail gun, but sometimes a simple hammer may better fit the task.

Our job as writing teachers is to show developing writers how complex sentences help authors communicate efficiently, precisely, and coherently (three academic language words every student should learn). So often, with our justifiable focus on getting students to write in complete sentences during the primary grades, developing writers get caught in a pit trap of writing simple sentences only in the SUBJECT-PREDICATE-OBJECT pattern. Students need a sturdy ladder to climb out of this trap.

The complex sentence is aptly named. Understanding, recognizing, and producing complex sentences require a substantial amount of prior knowledge and experience in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. We can (and should) use a few short-cuts to get to the end goal of getting students to use complex sentences in their own writing, but we do no service to them by ignoring, simplifying, or generalizing the requisite scaffolds of academic language and syntax. Kids gotta learn how their language works. Yes, that involves plenty of grammar instruction and practice.

To scaffold how to teach complex sentences, teach each rung of the ladder well. Tighten up each of the wobbly rungs and don’t skip any. Your learners are diverse. Who knows what they know and don’t know? (Although you could give my diagnostic grammar and usage assessment to find out).

How to Teach Complex Sentences Ladder

How to Teach Complex Sentences

Connect to and Build Prior Knowledge

RUNG 1

“First, let’s review the characteristics of a simple sentence.”

Write or display these definitions and examples, read them out loud, and tell students to copy them.

“A simple sentence has three characteristics: 1. It tells a complete thought. 2. It has both a subject and a predicate. The subject is a noun or pronoun and serves as the “do-er” of the sentence. A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. A pronoun takes the place of a noun. The predicate is a verb or verbs and acts upon the subject or links the subject to something else in the sentence. 3. When read out loud, a simple sentence makes the voice drop down at the end of a statement or go up at the end of a question. Examples: Karen enjoys chocolate. Do you like chocolate?

Identify the Problem: Connect to Oral Language and Reading

RUNG 2 

Convince students that too many simple sentences strung together can be a problem, especially in essays. Reading out loud helps students identify the machine gun quality of repetitive simple sentences. Write or display this paragraph and read it out loud.

“Now listen to me as I read this paragraph of simple sentences. Afterwards, let’s read the paragraph out loud together as a class.”

     Thomas Alva Edison was born into a well-educated family. He had a lot of challenges to overcome. Tom was the youngest of seven children. Tom did not receive undivided attention from his parents. His parent had so many children. Thomas did not learn to talk as a young boy. His parents did not interact much with him. His siblings did not interact much with him. He finally learned to talk. He began talking at age four. Then he would not stop. He asked why and how questions about everything.

Debrief with your students: “What did you think about how this paragraph is written? How did it sound? Each sentence in the paragraph is a simple sentence. We can combine simple sentences with a conjunction to form another type of sentence: the compound sentences. A conjunction is a joining word. When we combine simple sentences, we change the name of a simple sentence to an independent clause. Let’s copy these definitions and example: A simple sentence is an independent clause. Two or more joined independent clauses form a compound sentence. Example: Then he would not stop, and he asked why and how questions about everything.

Another type of sentence is the complex sentence. Let’s listen to me as I read the same paragraph, revised with some revised complex sentences. Afterwards, we will read the paragraph out loud together as a class.”

Identify the Solution: Connect to Oral Language and Reading

RUNG 3

Convince students that adding sentence variety by including complex sentences makes writing more efficient, precise, and coherent. “Now listen to me as I read this paragraph of simple sentences. Afterwards, let’s read the paragraph out loud together as a class.”

     Although Thomas Alva Edison was born into a well-educated family, he had a lot of challenges to overcome. Tom was the youngest of seven children. Because his parents had so many children, Tom did not receive their undivided attention. Thomas did not learn to talk as a young boy since his parents and siblings rarely interacted with him. When he finally learned to talk at age four, he would not stop. He asked why and how questions about everything.

Debrief with your students: “Does this revised paragraph  provide the same information as the first? What did you think about how this revised paragraph is written? How did it sound? Many of the sentences in this revised paragraph are complex sentences. Let’s copy this down: A complex sentence has one independent clause and at least one dependent clause. A dependent clause has three characteristics: 1. It begins with a subordinate conjunction.  Subordinate means less important than or under the control of someone or something else. 2. It has at least one noun or a pronoun and at least one connected verb. 3. When read out loud, a dependent clause does not makes the voice drop down at the end of a statement. Example: Although (subordinate conjunction) Mike (noun) and I (pronoun) listen (verb), (When read out loud the voice does not drop down.)

Now let’s figure out how the author formed complex sentences to make the our own writing efficient, precise, and coherent. Efficient means to be well-organized and not wasteful. Precise means to be specific and exact. Coherent means to be logical, orderly, and consistent.”

Common Subordinating Conjunctions

Bud is wise, but hot! AAA WWW Subordinating Conjunctions

Teach How to Write Dependent Clauses

RUNG 4 

“Write down this formula for writing dependent clauses: dependent clause = subordinate conjunction (Bud is wise, but hot! AAA WWW) + at least noun or pronoun + at least one connected verb + any other words. 

Bud is wise, but hot! AAA WWW is a memory trick to help you remember the common subordinate conjunctions. Copy down this list, underlining the first letter of each subordinate conjunction:”

before, unless, despite (in spite of), in order that, so, while, if, since, even though (if), because, until, that, how, once, than, after, although (though), as (as if, as long as, as though), whether, when (whenever), where (wherever)

Have students write and share five dependent clauses in their notebooks and pair share as you monitor this guided practice.

Teach How to Connect Dependent Clauses to Independent Clauses

RUNG 5 

“A dependent clause added onto an independent clause (a simple sentence) forms a complex sentence. The dependent clause may be placed at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence. Copy these sentences with their examples.

Place a comma after a dependent clause that begins a sentence. Example: After I sneeze, I always blow my nose.

Place commas before and after a dependent clause in the middle of the sentence. Example: I use a handkerchief, when I sneeze, to be polite.

Don’t place a comma before a dependent clause that ends a sentence. Example: I stop sneezing when it’s not allergy season.”

Assign a Formative Assessment to Determine Mastery

RUNG 6 

Write a short paragraph in which you use three complex sentences: one at the beginning of a sentence; one in the middle of a sentence; and one at the end of a sentence.

Extend the Learning: Writing Style

RUNG 7 

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Teach students to avoid using more than two complex sentences in a row in any given paragraph. Overuse of simple sentences is problematic, but the same is true with complex sentences. Review the revised paragraph above and analyze the different types of sentences, their placements within the paragraph, and the placement of the dependent clause within the complex sentences themselves. Analyze the types of sentences in both narrative and expository text.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 Programs

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 Programs

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based grades 4-8 Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)  programs to teach the Common Core Language Strand Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics worksheets and includes sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

The program also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the author’s program.

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Adverbial Clauses

Adverbial Clauses                                                     

Common Core Language Standard 1

Perhaps the greatest tool of a developing writer is the adverbial clause. When a writer learns to tag on an adverbial clause at the beginning or end of a simple sentence, the writer’s writing improves immensely.

Today’s grammar and usage lesson is on adverbial clauses. Remember that a dependent clause has a noun and verb, but does not express a complete thought. An adverb modifies a verb, an adjective, or an adverb and answers What degree? How? Where? or When?

Now let’s read the grammar and usage lesson and study the examples.

An adverbial clause is a dependent clause that begins with a subordinating conjunction. Place a comma following an adverbial clause that begins a sentence, but no comma is used before an adverbial clause that ends a sentence. Examples: Unless you practice, you will never succeed. Use the following memory trick to prompt your use of these dependent (subordinate) clauses:

Bud is wise, but hot! AAA WWW

before, unless, despite (in spite of), in order that, so, while, if, since, even though (if), because, until, that, how, once, than, after, although (though), as (as if, as long as, as though), whether, when (whenever), where (wherever)

Now circle or highlight what is right and revise what is wrong according to grammar and usage lesson.

Practice: Even though you beg me, I still won’t help. I’m not the kind of person who will rescue people, whenever they start crying.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 Programs

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 Programs

Let’s check the Practice Answers.

Grammar and Usage Practice Answers: Even though you beg me, I still won’t help. I’m not the kind of person who will rescue people whenever they start crying.

Now let’s apply what we have learned.

Writing Application: Write your own sentence using an adverbial clause at the beginning of the sentence.

This writing opener is part of a comprehensive language conventions lesson from the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)  Grades 4‒8 programs. Complete descriptions, instructional scopes and sequences, introductory video, previews, and two-week test drives of the grade-level teacher guides and student workbooks are available here.

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How and When to Teach Adverbs

Adverbs are tricky. Knowing the definition of this basic part of speech only gets us so far. Yes, we do need to know what we are talking about when we refer to adverbs. Some common language of instruction only makes sense. Even the writing process purists, never proponents of direct grammar instruction, have always agreed that teaching the definitions of adverbs and the other parts of speech is necessary. However, we also need to teach recognition (reading) and application (writing) and adverb are challenging for most students.

Teachers know that students have been taught adverbs in the past, but students rarely retain much of this instruction. Why? We simply need to focus more on student learning, rather than simply covering the subject. Following is an instructional approach guaranteed to interrupt this forgetting cycle. At the end of this article, I will share an instructional scope and sequence for adverbs with clear definitions and examples.

1. DIE AR

(I know. A pretty depressing mnemonic. Not necessarily a subconscious desire to kill off the Accelerated Reader® program… but then again…)

DEFINE Help students memorize the definitions of the key adverbial components. Rote memory is foundational to higher order thinking. Use memory tricks, repetition, raps, and songs. Check out the Parts of Speech Song. Students love this. Test and re-test to ensure mastery.

IDENTIFY Help students identify adverb components in practice examples and real text. Using quality, un-canned and authentic mentor text, such as famous literary quotations and short passages/poetry teaches two necessary components at the same time: identification practice and sentence modeling.

EDIT Help students practice error analysis for each adverb component by editing text that contains correct and incorrect usage. Seeing what is wrong does clarify what is right. But don’t limit your instruction, as in Daily Oral Language, to this step. Students need both mentor texts and writing practice to master adverbial components. Grammar taught in the context of reading and writing translates into long-term memory and application.

APPLY Help students use adverbs correctly in targeted practice sentences. Sentence frames are one solid instructional method to practice application. For example, for adverbs…

________________ (When?) the old man walked ________________ (How)? down the sidewalk and stopped ________________ (Where?) by the fire station. He looked ________________ tired (What Degree?).

Possible response: Earlier (Today) the old man walked slowly down the sidewalk and stopped here (there) by the fire station. He looked very tired.

REVISE Help students understand the importance and relevance of learning adverbs by revising their own authentic writing. Stress using what they have learned about adverb components to improve coherence, sentence variety, author voice, word choice, clarity, and style. Make sure to share the best revisions as mentor texts. Post them on your walls and refer to them often to reinforce definition, identification, and writing style.

2. Assessments

Diagnostic assessments of key grammatical features, such as adverbs, serves two purposes: First, the results inform what to teach and how much time to spend on direct instruction. It may be that one group or class tends to have mastery re: how adverbs, but weaknesses in adverbial clauses. A different group or class may have different strengths and weaknesses. Second, diagnostic assessments provide individual baselines upon which to build learning. The purpose of formative assessment is to identify relative strengths and weaknesses of both instruction and learning. Sharing this data with students is vital. Students need to know what they know and what they don’t know to motivate learning. Students also need to see the personal relevance of the instructional task. Check out an effective multiple-choice diagnostic grammar assessment under Free ELA/Reading Assessments.

Formative assessments need to be designed to measure actual mastery of the grammatical concept. So, a useful formative assessment of adverb components must be comprehensive and include all steps of the DIE AR process. Simply giving a unit test as a summative assessment only satisfies the teacher (and colleagues) that the teacher is covering the subject, i.e. teaching adverbs. Good teachers use data to affect instructional practice. Good teachers re-teach judiciously. Good teachers differentiate instruction according to assessment data.

3. Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction should focus on relative weaknesses. A good recording matrix for formative assessments specifically informs the teacher regarding component mastery and provides the data to inform instruction: how many students need remediation and what skills need (and don’t need) to be addressed. Individual, paired, and small group instruction with targeted independent practice makes sense. A workshop design in which the teacher distributes worksheets, monitors practice, and uses mini-conferences to assess mastery ensures effective remediation. Differentiated instruction doesn’t have to be a planning or management nightmare. The what of differentiated instruction is key, much more so than the how.

Adverbs Instructional Scope and Sequence    

Primary Elementary School

An adverb describes a verb. Find the verb or verbs in the sentence and ask How? If there is a word in the sentence answers that question, than it is an adverb.

Instructional Model

Teacher: Look at this sentence on the board while I read it out loud. Tom walked slowly. Let’s read it again together.

Teacher and Students: Tom walked slowly.

Teacher: Name the verb in this sentence.

Students: walked

Teacher: walked How?*

Students: slowly

Teacher: Yes, slowly is the adverb because it answers How?

*Notice that the teacher should not say “Tom walked How?” because adding on the rest of the sentence does not reinforce the specific strategy used to identify adverbs. Adding the rest of the sentence adds confusion.

Adverb Tips:

The adverb may be found before or after the word that it describes.

The adverb frequently ends in _ly.

Intermediate and Upper Elementary School

An adverb modifies (describes) a verb with how, when, or where.

Examples:

How? Tom walked slowly

When? because he had arrived early

Where? to the place where we were to meet.

Adverb Tips:

Avoid overusing the adverb, very; it usually does not add much meaning to a sentence.

As a matter of good writing style, place specific adverbs before general ones.

Example: It should be exactly where I described, next to the desk, or somewhere over there.

Explanation: The more specific adverbs exactly where and next are properly placed before the more general somewhere over there.

Middle School

An adverb modifies a verb with how, when, where, or what degree.

Examples:

How? Tom walked slowly

When? because he had arrived early

Where? at the place where

What Degree? he knew very well his entire future could be decided.

Adverbial phrases are groups of related words in a sentence with an adverb or adverbs that modify a verb in a connected independent clause. An independent clause is a noun and verb which expresses a complete thought. Usually separate an adverbial phrase from a connected independent clause with a comma. Adverbial clauses are dependent clauses that modify verbs. A dependent (subordinate) clause includes a subject and a verb that does not express a complete thought. An adverbial clause needs to be connected at the beginning or end of an independent clause to form a complex sentence. Place a comma between the dependent and independent clauses.

Example: Walking slowly, Tom enjoyed the scenery.

Adverb Tips:

An adverbial clause left on its own is a sentence fragment.

Signal words beginning adverb clauses include after, as, as if, as long as, as much as, as soon as, because, before, even if, how, if, in order that, once, since, so that, than, unless, until, when, whenever, where, wherever, and while.

As a matter of good writing style, place specific adverbs before general ones.

Example: It should be exactly where I described, next to the desk, or somewhere over there.

Explanation: The more specific adverbs exactly where and next are properly placed before the more general somewhere over there.

High School

An adverb modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb with how, when, where, or what degree.

Examples:

How? Tom walked very slowly

When? because he had arrived extremely early

Where? at the place just right where

What Degree? he already knew his entire future could be decided.

Adverb Tips:

Students often confuse adjectives with adverbs when the words serve as superlative modifiers.

Some long superlative modifiers are adjectives. Adjectives describe a proper noun, a common noun, or a pronoun with How Many? Which One? or What Kind?

Example: Of the many intelligent men in the group, Tom was the most intelligent.

Explanation: The superlative modifier most intelligent is an adjective because it modifies the  noun (a predicate nominative) Tom.

Some long superlative modifiers are adverbs. Adverbs describe an adjective, adverb, or verb with How? When? Where? or What Degree? Example: Of the three arguing angrily, Tom argued most angrily.

Explanation: The superlative modifier most angrily is an adverb because it modifies the verb argued.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

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How to Integrate Grammar and Writing Instruction

In my last article, I classified the chief divisions in grammatical instruction* as follows: 1. those who favor part to whole instruction and 2. those who prefer whole to part instruction. I argued that teachers need not accept an “either-or” philosophy of instruction, but can certainly be eclectic in their instructional strategies. Of course, kind and persistent readers of the Pennington Publishing Blog are naturally putting me to the test to flesh out how I balance instruction, using both forms of  those inductive and deductive instructional strategies.

Diagnostic Assessment and Differentiated Instruction

Teachers too often teach what some students do not know at the expense of some students who already know what is being taught. For example, students learn the definition and identification of a sentence subject over and over again from third through twelfth grade. Teachers legitimize this repeated instruction by arguing that learning is recursive and, thus, reviewing is necessary.

Instead of making excuses, teachers should address the problems inherent in a diverse classroom. Why not administer diagnostic assessments to determine who does and does not need extra instruction in sentence subjects? Then, use the data to inform and differentiate instruction. Targeted worksheets that correspond to the diagnostic assessment, as in my Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, with individual one-on-one follow-up conferences or in small group review just makes sense. How often and how much class time do I devote to grammar differentiation? Twice per week, 15 minutes per day.

Direct Instruction

Front-loading grammar and mechanics instruction is efficient and transfers to student writing when a teacher follows a coherent scope and sequence of instruction that builds upon previous instruction and writing practice. For example, here is a scope and sequence for teaching adverbs that builds in year-to-year review, and also helps students deepen their understanding of this part of speech to improve their writing:

  • Primary students should learn that an _ly word “talks about” a physical action verb and practice recognizing these words in their reading and adding _ly words to sentences.
  • Intermediate students should learn that an _ly word “talks about” a mental action (e.g. knows) or state of being (e.g. was) verb. They should also practice recognizing these words in their reading and adding _ly words to various places within sentences.
  • Upper elementary students should learn that adverbs ask How? When? and Where? to describe verbs and practice recognizing all forms of adverbs, including adverbial phrases, in their reading. They should also practice adding adverbs to various places within sentences and as transitions within paragraphs.
  • Middle school students should learn that adverbs ask How? When? Where? and What Degree? to modify verbs and adverbs and practice recognizing all forms of adverbs in their reading. They should also practice adding adverbial phrases and clauses to various places within sentences and as transitions within and between paragraphs.
  • High school students should learn that adverbs ask How? When? Where? and What Degree? to modify verbs, adverbs, and adjectives and practice recognizing all forms of adverbs in their reading. They should also practice adding adverbial phrases and clauses to provide sentence variety to various places within sentences and as transitions within and between paragraphs. Students should also practice elements of style, such as placing shorter adverbs before longer adverbs and placing general adverbs before specific adverbs within sentences. Students should also contrast comparative adjectives and adverbial phrases, identify dangling modifiers, and practice recognition and revision of these errors for SAT/ACT test preparation practice.

Sentence modeling from exemplary student writing and literature should be examined and emulated in brief student writing exercises with direct instructional feedback. Alongside of sentence models, contrasting sentences with writing errors should also be analyzed, but not in the context of an incoherent, scatter-gun D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) “program.” Download an example of my Sentence Lifting exercise at  Grammar Openers Toolkit Sampler to see how this direct instruction approach integrates grammar and mechanics instruction within the context of real writing. My Teaching Grammar and Mechanics curriculum has 64 Sentence Lifting lessons with multiple instruction layers of instruction (as in the adverb example above) to provide the teacher with resources that reflect leveled degrees of difficulty. How often and how much class time do I devote to direct grammar and mechanics instruction? Three times per week, 15-20 minutes per day.

Writing Strategies

Teachers should practice sentence manipulation and sentence combining. For example, re-writing subject-verb-complement sentence construction to begin with complex sentences, such as with adverbial clause sentence openers is excellent practice. I use Sentence Revision exercises such as in the Writing Openers Toolkit Sampler from my Teaching Essay Strategies curriculum to help students practice sentence construction and revision. Sentence Revision also provides exercises in writing style. How often and how much class time do I devote to Sentence Revision? Three times per week, 10 minutes per day.

Writing Process

I require students to include specific sentence openers that we have practiced within their writing process pieces. Students re-write sentences to reflect their practice within the revision stage of the writing process. Peer editing focuses on the specific grammar and mechanics that we have been learning in our Sentence Lifting and Sentence Revision lessons.

Here are brief overviews of the two curricular sources described above: Find essay strategy worksheets, writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in Teaching Essay Strategies. Find whole-class diagnostic grammar and mechanics assessments with 72 targeted worksheets to differentiate instruction based upon these assessments and a full year of 15-minute Sentence Llifting lessons with standards-based mechanics, spelling, and grammar skills in Teaching Grammar and Mechanics. Download free previews or purchase on my website.

*By grammatical instruction, I refer to usage, word choice, grammar, syntax, punctuation, capitalization, spelling rules, and the like, as most teachers tend to lump together these writing skills.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Grammar and Mechanics

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics

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