Relative clauses present a new, more complex way for students to express themselves.
Examine these 3 constructive ways to reinforce relative clauses in writing and speaking, and your students will be making relative strides in no time.
How to Teach or Review Relative Clauses
Observe and Report
It is necessary to carefully introduce relative clauses in a way that is not intimidating and utilize exercises that reiterate effective uses. In the beginning, start with the three relative clauses that students will encounter most. Those are the ones that begin with that, which, and who. That is used for objects and people, which is only used to describe objects, and who obviously describes only people. The most common one used is that, because which can often feel too formal and who is restrictive. However, it is important to practice all three first in speaking and second in writing. Show punctuation as you go, but don't make it the focus of the lesson until they are going to use relative clauses in writing.
A wonderful introductory exercise to reinforce relative clauses is for students to observe people or objects and report back facts that are important. You can devise your instructions however you would like. One possibility is to have them look around the room and create sentences about what they see. You could have them choose one person or one object and try to create as many sentences as they can based on what they observe. They can choose to describe people or objects. First they create basic sentences like, Mary is talking to Juan. Then ask them to add in extra information that they observe or already know. They could call out how one thing relates to another (defining clause) or give extra information about a relationship or object. You may want them to work in pairs to take their basic sentences and add in relative clauses. Ask them to use humor or creativity when approaching the assignment. Some example might go like this:
- Mary is talking to Juan, turns into: Mary, who is wearing a pink hat, is talking to Juan. Or, The girl who is talking to Juan is wearing a pink hat.
- The teacher is sitting at the desk. This could turn into: The teacher who is sitting at the desk is the best teacher in the school.
- The coffee cup on the table is empty could turn into: The coffee cup that is sitting on the table is empty.
Once the students have created a few sentences that include relative clauses, it's a good time to discuss with them whether the clauses are defining clauses or non-defining clauses. This is not only a comprehension check, but can also be used to challenge them to create both kinds of sentences so they can clearly see the difference.
The non-defining clause provides extra information and is not necessary for the sentence to make sense. It tells us some extra piece of information about the subject, and is set off by a set of commas.
John, who is the boy sitting next to Sarah, is often late to class. This is a non-defining clause because it provides extra information. You can remove the clause and the sentence still makes sense. The commas almost act as parenthesis.
Compare that to:
The car that I bought yesterday was expensive. Here the relative clause is identifying which car we are talking about and is necessary for the sentence to make sense. So it is a defining clause.
You can work on the two types of clauses with the above exercise, and work on punctuation when students have grasped the general concept of relative clauses.
Joining Two Sentences
Another way to reinforce relative clauses is to create a matching exercise of definitions. The exercise entails two parts to be joined so that in the end, all sentences on the page make good sense. On one side of the handout have a list subjects to define. On the other side provide the prompt for the relative clause. Students must match all of them correctly otherwise they will be left with definitions that don't make sense. You can focus on a mix of grammar, places, animals, professions, or objects. Some examples are:
An adjective is... an animal/stripes A pilot is... a part of speech/description A zebra is... a place/mail A post office is.. a person/airplane
After they have made all their matches, they must then make correct sentences. An example would be: A pilot is a person who flies an airplane. This is an appropriate activity for recent vocabulary to be mixed with determining whether to use that, who, which, or where for relative clauses. You could alter this by doing it on the board, or by having students create matching challenges for partners as a wrap-up.
One last way to reinforce relative clauses is to look at how we describe people. This would be a good time to focus on writing, punctuation, and creating complex sentences or paragraphs. Honing in on personality traits brings in a topic everyone likes to discuss and provides a stimulating way for students to describe the people important to them. You can vary activities here by playing guessing games or by brainstorming for a short writing assignment. A guessing game could be one that utilizes celebrities or people that everyone in the class knows. One student has a person in mind and students must guess the person by asking questions like: Is she someone who has children? Is he a person who sings? Is he a man who has gray hair. Provide a lot of examples so that students get the idea of the variety of question types they can ask.
For brainstorming, ask the students to pick someone who means a lot to them and have them brainstorm some personality traits that define that person to them. Then challenge them to write a paragraph about the person using relative clauses to provide information in an interesting way. Give them an example:
My mom is a person who is very calm. She never gets upset. She always listens to me, and she is the type of person who wouldn't yell at anyone. She is caring and a person who has great morals. She would never lie, and she is a woman who keeps everyone around her honest.
You can make your example simpler if need be, and give students the opportunity to first write short sentences and then do another activity where they focus on making more complex statements.