“I am from Rome. Rome is very nice. People eat spaghetti in Rome. I like it a lot.” Any teacher who has ever encountered writing like this knows that students like to write in short simple sentences.
To push them out into more complex sentences, a fun grammar point to teach is adjective clauses. They’re one of the most commonly used grammar structures, and they’re incredibly useful for teaching students to add more detail in their writing. Stuck on how to approach this complex topic?
The best way is to start simple. There are a lot of exceptions and nuances with adjective clauses. Eventually your students will learn all of these, but you don’t have to put them all out there at once. Start with the basics and teach them how to use who, which, and that. Once they feel comfortable, add in where and when. After that, throw in whose and teach the difference between identifying and non-identifying adjective clauses.
Start with the Basics
who, which, that
These are the simplest of adjective clauses to explain and use.
- The boy who I’m going to marry is handsome.
- The class that I’m taking next semester seems difficult.
Emphasize that although that is acceptable for both people and things in essential adjective clauses, most native speakers will use who for people and that for things.
Subject or Object Clauses
Just as adjectives can modify either subjects or objects, adjective clauses can do the same.
- Subject: I am only friends with people who recycle.
- Object: The man who(m) I am friends with recycles.
Note that whom is only possible in object clauses; it can be easily found by identifying the second subject that comes after the pronoun.
When teaching where and when, be sure to explain that both words show the position of something, either in place or time.
- Rome is the city where I’m getting married.
- Early morning is the time when I’m happiest.
If you have a preposition (read: pre- POSITION), you are now indicating the position, so you don’t need where or when.
- Rome is the city that I’m getting married in.
- Early morning is the time that I’m happiest at.
You can also teach them to be more formal. Note the change of relative pronoun and preposition movement:
- Rome is the city in which I’m getting married.
- Early morning is the time at which I’m happiest.
Tell students that whose is always followed by a noun that belongs to the subject/or object. Be sure to teach them the difference between whose and who’s.
- Tom Jones, whose name I’m taking, is an engineer.
- Tom Jones, who’s an engineer, is going to be my husband.
Identifying vs. Non-identifying
Whether you call it restrictive/non-restrictive, essential/non-essential, or necessary/unnecessary, be sure to explain this important rule.
- My brother who lives in New York has a baby.
- My brother, who lives in New York, has a baby.
Use similar sentences that only differ by punctuation to illustrate the difference in meaning. In example A, I have more than one brother, but both of them live in different cities so I can identify them by this information. In sentence B, I only have one brother, so I’m giving extra information that you don’t need to know to understand who I’m talking about.
Remind your students that extra information = extra punctuation, and we only use commas with non-essential adjective clauses. We also only use wh- words in these clauses (no that allowed). Practice reading these sentences out loud to show how the comma creates a pause.
Activities to Teach & Practice Adjective Clauses
Mix and Match Adjective Clauses
Write down the names of famous people, places, or things on note cards (Lady Gaga; Rome; a smart phone; etc… ) Give students a second blank note card and instruct them to write an adjective clause that describes their card (e.g. The singer who wears crazy costumes; or The city that I want to visit). Collect both the name cards and the adjective clause cards from all the students and shuffle them. Redistribute one name card and one adjective clause to each student. Have the students stand up and try to match the adjective clause to the name. When they are finished, tell them to combine them to create a sentence (e.g. The singer who wears crazy costumes is Lady Gaga).
An alternative way to do this activity is to collect the name and adjective clause cards and shuffle them, then redistribute one of each to each student. Instead of standing up and finding the match, have one student start by reading his adjective clause. The student who has the appropriate name card would finish the sentence by saying the correct verb and the name. Then this student would read his adjective clause and so on.
This popular game is a hit with the students and is great to teach adjective clauses. To make it easier on the teacher, provide blank note cards to the students and have them make their own game cards. Tell the students to use only nouns and underline the target noun at the top of the card. Underneath, have them write three taboo words with “x”s next to them so students will know which words they cannot say. You may need to institute a rule that says when describing a word for their team, students must describe the word with an adjective clause; they can’t simply say synonyms.
To practice the use of adjective clauses to describe people, have one class period where students aren’t allowed to use names. For example, if students want to refer to other students in the class, they must say, “I want to ask the student who has a purple shirt to borrow a pencil.” This is also a good skill to reinforce the idea of identifying/non-identifying clauses because if they just used “the student,” we wouldn’t know who they were referring to.
Students don’t have to be at an advanced level to learn adjective clauses, especially ones that have who, which, and that.
As soon as students learn wh- questions, they’re reading to begin combining sentences with relative pronouns and improve the complexity of their sentences.
What do you think the benefit is of teaching adjective clauses early?