4 Types of Sentences Your Students Need to Know (and How to Teach Them)

4 Types of Sentences Your Students Need to Know (and How to Teach Them)

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 15,462 views |

Not every scholar likes grammar, but if you teach ESL students hopefully they at least have a tolerance for the complexities of the English language.

Still….If they have yet to develop this appreciation, perhaps breaking down these four types of English sentences will help. Starting with simple subject and verb sentences, you can walk your students through the intricacies of English grammar one sentence at a time. And once they understand how the sentences break down, they can start putting them together on their own.

Teach These Types of Sentences for Your Students’ Immense Benefit

  1. 1

    Simple Sentences

    The grammatical category of Simple Sentences is what it sounds like – simple. Simple sentences require nothing more than a subject and a verb, though they often include plenty of descriptive words and phrases. A simple sentence is one independent clause. Almost every English student can identify and produce this type of senesce (unless you are teaching absolute beginners). If your students are advanced beginners and above, they are probably already familiar with this type of sentence structure and ready to move on to the next type.

  2. 2

    Compound Sentences

    Compound sentences aren’t all that complicated either, though they may look otherwise to your ESL students. Just like a compound word, a compound sentence is two simple sentences joined together – to equally important pieces paired together. In compound words, a speaker just puts two words together to make a new English word: school + house = schoolhouse. No special grammar is needed to make a compound word. In compound sentences, however, you need a coordinating conjunction to join what would otherwise be two independent clauses. Coordinating conjunctions in English include and, but, and so. Though it is common in spoken English to start a sentence with these words, grammatically it is incorrect. When used correctly, these words take two simple sentences and make them into one compound sentence. A compound sentence starts with an independent clause, which is then followed by a comma, a coordinating conjunction, and the second independent clause. For example,

    • They went to dinner, and then they saw a movie.

    These clauses could be separate and independent sentences, but and makes them something more. Both clauses in the compound sentences must have a subject and a verb. If the second clause does not contain a subject, as in the following sentence, it is not a compound sentence.

    • They went to dinner and then saw a movie.

    This sentence is a simple sentence with a compound verb since only the verbs are joined with the coordinating conjunction and there is no subject written with the second verb. Make sure your students can pick out a subject in each clause of a compound sentence and distinguish that from a simple sentence with a compound verb.

  3. 3

    Complex Sentences

    Complex sentences aren’t for the timid language learner. They are sentences which contain one independent clause and one or more dependent clause. While coordinating conjunctions are used to join an independent clause to another independent clause, a subordinating conjunction joins a dependent clause to an independent clause. English contains many subordinating conjunctions, so I won’t mention them all here. Some of the most common are after, because, before, if, since, that, unless, and until.

    Subordinating conjunctions show some kind of relationship of meaning between the independent clause and the dependent clauses. Some complex sentences show a cause and effect relationship between the clauses. The subordinating conjunction used most often to show cause and effect is because. In such a structure, the cause goes in the dependent clause and the effect goes in the independent clause.

    • He was happy because he aced the test.

    When a dependent clause comes after an independent clause in a complex sentence, no comma is used. If, however, the dependent clause comes before the independent clause in a complex sentence, it is followed by a comma.

    • Because he aced the test, he was happy.

    This pattern is also true for most subordinating conjunctions and dependent clauses. When the dependent clause precedes the independent clause, it is followed by a comma. When it follows the independent clause, no comma is used.

    • Until I get them right, I will keep practicing subordinating clauses.
    • I will keep practicing subordinating clauses until I get them right.

    Intermediate students should have some familiarity with complex sentences and will continue to study them through their advanced classes.

  4. 4

    Compound-Complex Sentences

    Once your students understand and are able to use both compound sentences and complex sentences, they will be ready to move on to Compound-Complex sentences. These most complicated of English sentences are a combination of compound sentences and complex sentences as the name implies. A compound-complex sentence in English contains at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. In essence, it is the combination of a complex sentence with an additional independent clause. This is an example of a compound-complex sentence.

    • I will drive you to the building, and I will wait for you while you have your interview.

    This sentence has two independent clauses (I will drive you to the building and I will wait for you) as well as a dependent clause (while you have your interview). It contains both a coordinating conjunction and a subordinating conjunction. While compound-complex sentences aren’t ideal for sentence diagramming, they are used in both spoken and written English, and your students should be able to understand them before they complete their English studies. They aren’t as daunting as they seem, however. If your students are comfortable with compound sentences and complex sentences, this last category of English sentences should be a simple next step.

When sentences can get so complicated, why not just stick to simple, straightforward grammar for ESL students? There are actually several reasons your students need to understand and be able to use all of these sentences. First, the people around them will use these more complex sentences. Native speakers form complicated sentences without even realizing it, and your students won’t understand what they are saying if they haven’t learned these more complicated sentence patterns. Secondly, if your students have any future planned in the business or educational world, they will be expected to understand and produce sentences like these in formal writing and speech. Thirdly, and not lastly, others will make judgments of your students based on the variety and complexity of the language they use. To make the best impression, your students should be comfortable using all these types of sentences; variety in sentence structure is perceived as intelligence. These are just a few of the reasons your students need to know compound and complex sentences, so what are you waiting for?

What tips do you have to share about teaching English sentence structure to ESL students?

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