Teaching about sentences and clauses


What teachers need to know about sentences and clauses

Simple sentences and main clauses have common elements (subject, object etc) which teachers should be able to recognise and understand in order to analyse writing. Analysis can be the basis of correcting errors, suggesting improvements and highlighting good practice in pupils’ work.

Complex sentences are an essential element of higher level writing, as they contain subordinate clauses. In order to use these with confidence, it’s useful to understand their structure and function.

Variety is the spice of writing. Sentences and clauses take many different forms, and apparently small changes can completely alter the sense or effect.

Why is it important to know how to teach sentences and clauses?

The National Curriculum and the KS3 Framework

The (1999) National Curriculum for English at Key Stages 3 and 4 has the following requirements:

Writing to imagine, explore, entertain

Pupils should be taught:

  • to exploit choice of language and structure to achieve particular effects and appeal to the reader.

Writing: Language Structure

Pupils should be taught:

  • the principles of sentence grammar and whole-text cohesion and how to use this knowledge in their writing;
  • the structure of phrases and clauses and how they can be combined.


The Key Stage 3 National Strategy: Framework for teaching English: Years 7, 8 and 9 contains the following objectives:

Sentence construction and punctuation

Year 7

Pupils should be taught to:

  • extend their use and control of complex sentences by:

    – recognising and using subordinate clauses;

    – exploring the functions of subordinate clauses, e.g. relative clauses such as ‘which I bought’ or adverbial clauses such as ‘having finished his lunch’;

    – deploying subordinate clauses in a variety of positions within the sentence.

Year 8

Pupils should be taught to:

  • combine clauses into complex sentences, using the comma effectively as a boundary signpost and checking for fluency and clarity, e.g. using non-finite clauses.

Year 9

Pupils should be taught to:

  • review and develop the meaning, clarity, organisation and impact of complex sentences in their own writing.

In this area, what are KS3 pupils good at and what do they need to develop?

Good at….

Most KS3 pupils make very few errors in clause structure when writing. When errors do occur, they are more likely to indicate the need for pupils to read their work through for sense and errors, rather than a lack of grammatical understanding.

Another strength of KS3 writers is that even those who use non-standard English when they speak rarely use non-standard clause patterns in writing. Of course, some writers sometimes use non-standard forms, but by KS3 most ‘non-standard speakers’ are aware of where standard and non-standard forms diverge and of the need to use the former in writing.

Need to develop….

One of the main signs of mature writing is variety in clause structure, which some KS3 writers find hard to produce. They may need support, encouragement or even direct instruction.

The following sentence written by a KS3 pupil uses clause structures that are more suitable in casual speech than in formal writing:

However, she ended up being called another stupid woman, by many.

The same meaning could have been expressed more elegantly:

In the end many people called her “another stupid woman”.

One challenge for KS3 pupils is to learn to express increasingly complex ideas in as simple and direct a way as possible. Clause structure is one of the main areas of grammar where this can be achieved.

Here are two samples of writing at KS3 which illustrate these strengths and weaknesses. The first writer uses main clauses exclusively. Think about the effect.

I’ve found 1 million pounds that’s right. I walking home from school and I saw a bin bag in front of me. I kicked over and the bag split open. I looked in and there was a pile of money in there. I took it home and counted it and there was a million quid. What shall I spend it on?


This KS3 writer is still using co-ordination as the only device to link sentences. In this extract three pairs and one triplet of clauses are linked by the conjunction “and”. Every new thought has equal weight, and the effect is monotonous.

This pupil could be deliberately restricting the use of subordinate clauses – or may not have developed the capacity to handle them yet. Explicit teaching will help to develop it.

The second KS3 writer uses subordinate clauses. Think about the effect.

It happened last night, in the park. I was there, with a few mates, you know doing the usual sort of things, scaring old ladies, engraving a few names on the park bench. It was getting late, about half an hour before I needed to be home, so Sadie and I decided to go for a walk the long way home as we were both freezing and bored…


The writer of this extract uses the subordination patterns more typical of adult prose, with non-finite verbs such as doing, scaring, to be and to go, and subordinating conjunctions such as before and as. The only example of the writer using the co-ordinating and is to link nouns or adjectives, not clauses.

This pupil is already well able to handle some kinds of subordinate clauses, but may need help on others. Explicit teaching will help to develop both range and control.


Comments are closed.

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.