How to Teach Sentence Structure

Does grammar have a place in your writing programme? Previously when I've thought about teaching sentence structure,  I've thought about teaching sentence length or type, such as 'compound' or 'complex'. I didn't think I was doing too badly with this either, until I spent a few hours chatting to Dr Jannie Van Hees over the holidays. I realised that something was definitely missing from my programme!

A Problem

Over the years I have encountered many students who struggle with sentence structure in different ways. I'm sure we are all familiar with the 'and then' writer. These are children who are determined to fit a whole story into a sentence. " First I woke up and then I had breakfast and after that I watched TV..." need I say more. I've also taught natural poets, writers who write in beautiful utterances:
"tears pouring, dreams caged. Useless wings flutter." I have a real soft spot for these writers, but you can imagine how difficult they find essay writing.

Regardless of their different writing styles, these students share the same problem; sentence structure. Or a lack thereof. It wasn't until I started talking to Jannie that I realised these students often don't understand what a sentence is. They simply know to start with a capital letter and end with a full stop.

A Possible Solution

Dr Jannie helped me to realise that I need to be more explicit when I teach sentence structure. I need to start from the beginning, from what a sentence actually is.

We began by discussing clauses - what they are and what they must contain. We spent a few days simply highlighting verbs and subjects in simple sentences, before we moved on to identifying independent and dependent clauses. All the while we kept 'reminding ourselves' that a sentence contains one main idea and one or more clauses. As dry as this sounds, the students actually enjoyed these sessions, they seemed to feel a sense of accomplishment as they were able to pick out clauses in extracts of texts.

Once confident in the clause, we could then move on to the type of sentence structure I was used to. We discussed the impact of varying sentence lengths. We then looked at simple, compound and complex sentences - noticing how they were built from clauses. If we could meet in person, we would also be participating in dictations, to draw attention to the way these sentences sound and the role of punctuation.

This focus linked to our reading and writing activities. In reading we would pull apart a few sentences to discuss the clauses within them. Then in writing, we started by writing one simple sentence and over time built on (our next step would be paragraph structure). We would discuss the sentence structure that we each used to check that it was grammatically correct and clear for our readers.

A Real Life Example
You can see how I started this unit with my learners here.


  1. Kia ora Danni, this is a very inspirational blog post. It really does connect with what I plan to do with my inquiry this year. I will also seek the help of Jannie with my inquiry. Thank you for this very explicit explanation of your steps in empowering your learners in writing.

    1. Hi Amy,

      I did think of your inquiry as I wrote this, as I think awareness of audience is a huge part of crafting clear sentences. I'm so glad it was helpful!

  2. I think this is an informative post and it is very useful and knowledgeable. therefore, I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article.
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