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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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How to Teach Conjunctions

Remember the elementary school Schoolhouse Rock song, Conjunction Junction? Here’s the first verse to refresh your memory.

Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?
Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.
Conjunction Junction, how’s that function?
I got three favorite cars
That get most of my job done.
Conjunction Junction, what’s their function?
I got “and”, “but”, and “or”,
They’ll get you pretty far.

“And”:
That’s an additive, like “this and that”.
“But”:
That’s sort of the opposite,
“Not this but that”.
And then there’s “or”:
O-R, when you have a choice like
“This or that”.
“And”, “but”, and “or”,
Get you pretty far.            by Bob Dorough ©1973 Schoolhouse Rock

Countless students have learned that a conjunction “hooks up words and phrases and clauses” from this elementary song. Although only a few examples are given, the tune and lyric are memorable and many students can identify this part of speech, more so than others, because of this song. Now, of course, the above verse only refers to one of three types of conjunctions—the coordinating conjunction.

Upper elementary, middle school, and high school students will need more examples of all three types of conjunctions to assist in accurate identification, and more importantly, to prompt their use of more sophisticated sentence constructions beyond those at the simple sentence levels. However, teaching the function of the three types of conjunctions with the most common examples in memorable ways certainly makes sense for older students. So, here are the three types of conjunctions, each with 1. Definition 2. Common Conjunctions 3. Example 4. Writing Connection 5. Writing Practice and 6. Memory Trick.

Coordinating Conjunctions

1. Definition: A coordinating conjunction joins words, phrases, or clauses of equal weight or similar grammatical construction.

2. Common Conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so

3. Example: Two desserts are fine, but three are better.

4. Writing Connection: Avoid overuse of the conjunction so. Also, do not use the words then and now as coordinating conjunctions. A comma is placed before the conjunction if it joins two or more independent clauses. Teach students that joining two simple related sentences with a comma conjunction forms a more sophisticated compound sentence.

5. Writing Practice: Write cloze sentences with blanks for the coordinating conjunctions, e.g., The food looked good, ______ she was not hungry. Have students compose original sentences for each of the seven common coordinating conjunctions. Have students “book search” for the seven common coordinating conjunctions. Require students to include a certain number of compound sentences in a writing process paper and underline each of the coordinating conjunctions.

6. Memory Trick: Teach the seven common coordinating conjunctions as F.A.N.B.O.Y.S. (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). For younger children, the most common should be taught as B.O.A.S. (but, or, and, so)

Correlative Conjunctions

1. Definition: A correlative conjunction joins another correlative conjunction as a pair. The paired correlative conjunctions serve as conjunctions to connect two balanced words, phrases, or clauses.

2. Common Conjunctions: both-and, from-to, whether-or, as-as, such-that, not-but, neither-nor, not only-but also, as many-as, just as-so, either-or, as-so, so-that

3. Example: Either we work together, or we will fail together.

4. Writing Connection: A comma is placed before the second of the paired conjunctions, if the sentence ends in an independent clause. Teach students that using the correlative conjunctions forms a complex sentence, which is one mark of mature writing.

5. Writing Practice: Write cloze sentences with blanks for the correlative conjunctions, e.g., ______ ______ did the food look good, ______ it ______ tasted great. Have students compose original sentences for each of the common correlative conjunctions. Have students “book search” for the common correlative conjunctions. Require students to include a certain number of correlative conjunctions in a writing process paper.

6. Memory Trick: Teach students to memorize the common correlative conjunctions to the tune of The ABC Song.

ABC Correlative Conjunctions

both-and from-to whether-or

A      B    C      D  E    F      G

as-as such-that not-but neither-nor

H   I   J       K     L     M   N  O     P

not only but also

Q    R S  T    U V

as many-as

W           X

just as-so

Y     +   Z

either-or     as-so  so-that

Now I  know my A,  B,  C’s

if-     then such-as   between-and

Next time won’t you sing with me?

Subordinating Conjunctions

1. Definition: A subordinating conjunction always introduces a dependent clause (a noun and a verb not expressing a complete thought). The subordinating conjunction signals the relationship between the dependent clause and the independent clause (a subject and verb standing alone as a complete thought). A dependent clause is less important than the independent clause and is sometimes called a subordinate clause. It is helpful to remember that sub means under, so that the subordinate clause is subordinate to the independent clause.

2. Common Conjunctions: after, although, as, as if, as long as, as much as, as soon as, as though, because, before, despite, even if, even though, how, if, in spite of, in order that, once, since, so that, than, that, though, unless, until, when, whenever, where, wherever, whether, while

3. Example: Although my friends had already seen it, they saw the show a second time.

4. Writing Connection: Adding a subordinating conjunction to one of the clauses can revise a run-on sentence. A comma is placed after the dependent clause, if it begins a sentence. Teach students that using the subordinate conjunction to signal a dependent clause forms a complex sentence, which is important to sentence variety.

5. Writing Practice: Write cloze sentences with blanks to help students practice subordinating  conjunctions, e.g., ______ the food looked good, I ordered it for dinner. Have students compose original sentences for each of the common correlative conjunctions. Have students “book search” for the subordinating conjunctions. Require students to include a certain number of subordinating conjunctions in a writing process paper. Avoid stringing together two or more sentences with dependent clauses.

6. Memory Trick: Use the following memory trick to prompt your use of these subordinating clauses: Bud is wise, but hot! AAA WWW

B         U         D                             I                       S      W       I     S       E,

Before Unless Despite (In spite of)    In order that     Since   While  If    Since  Even though (if)

B                    U          T         H         O          T.

Because           Until    That     How    Once    Than

A                      A                                A

After                Although (though)        As (As if, As long as, As much as, As soon as, As though)

W                     W                          W

Whether           When (Whenever)   Where (Wherever)

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

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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