As I work in schools across the country, it seems to me that the subject knowledge of English grammar has vastly improved amongst our teachers since the introduction of the SPAG test and the 2014 national curriculum. But there are still one or two tricky areas that seem designed to trip up the unwary teacher. This series of blog posts aims to unpick the trickier elements of English grammar: the subject knowledge and how to teach it. In the first of these, we’ll look at the unsung hero of the sentence, and a vital concept for key stage 2 teachers and children to understand – the humble clause.
In part 1, I’ll examine the knowledge children ought to acquire, how I would sequence the learning and provide you with a few tips on how to teach clauses to key stage two children. In part 2, I’ll investigate why an understanding of clauses matters, and how it can improve the quality of children’s writing. In further posts, I’ll examine how we can teach particular clause types to children to increase the range of sentence patterns children have at their fingertips when writing.
A garden without its statue…
Perhaps the most common definition of a clause is that it contains a subject and a verb [fig. 1].
Implied subjects are tricky to understand and, frankly, not worth the effort. So stick with the constant within all clauses – the verb.
V-v-v-verb, verb, verb, v-verb is the word
If the verb is the key to unlocking the clause, this means we need to be sure that an understanding of verbs is secure before we work on clauses. If we build on shaky foundations, the house is likely to collapse. Beyond the basic definition of ‘a word that describes an action’, there are three things that often trip up the novice learner.
1 stative verbs
Some verbs, called stative verbs (no need to use this term with children), describe states of being rather than action. The concept of ‘being words’ is too abstract for many children to grasp, and it’s unnecessary. Simply have them learn a short list of the common forms of the verb ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ (verbs children ought to be familiar with when learning the progressive and perfect tenses in years 2 and 3 respectively):
to be: am, are, is, was, were
to have: have, has, had
Don’t tell children they are ‘being’ words. Too many don’t get it. Tell children that some verbs don’t describe actions and that we will learn a short list of important ones. Place these on display in a prominent position. When they are undertaking an activity which involves them identifying verbs, tell children that if they are struggling to find the verb, it’s likely one on the display. They should use it to help them. After a few weeks, take the list down; they should remember the verbs if you’ve they’ve been using the list.
Now, they might get stuck with verbs that are not on the list. There will likely be one of three reasons to this:
It’s a verb not in their vocabulary. The solution: teach this new word.
It’s a word that denotes a clear action and is in their vocabulary. The solution: reteach verbs; they don’t understand them well enough.
It’s another stative verb. There are many others (Google the term if you are interested). Add this new word to the display.
2 verb phrases
Some verbs come in short strings of two or more verbs: ‘was running’, ‘must dance’, ‘had been eating’, ‘should have been working’, which will consist of a main verb (a participle, if we are being technical) and one or more helper verbs (auxilliaries). I call these strings ‘verb phrases’ (I shall cover phrases in a future post). Verb phrases can get a little tricky as they can often have pesky adverbs hidden in there too. In ‘was always talking’ the adverb ‘always’ splits the two verbs in the phrase. I’ve taught this to many year upper key stage two classes, and most children can understand this.
For some children, if it looks like a verb, it’s a verb. They look at the suffix of a word and there’s an -ed or an -ing at the end, they identify it as a verb. This is largely down to children being incorrectly taught to use the suffix alone to determine word class. It ends in -ly so it must be an adverb. Sure, suffixes can provide a useful clue to the word class, but it is the function of the word in a sentence that determines its class. So, if a word describes a noun, it’s an adjective no matter how much it might look like a verb.
The verb is the nucleus of sentence structure
A quick question: how many clauses are in the sentence in [fig. 3]?
A handy definition of a clause across key stage 2 is ‘a part of sentence that contains a single verb’. If you understand and can locate simple verbs, then this task is almost trivial. Count the verbs and you have the number of clauses. Most key stage 2 children, when taught clauses this way, should be able to answer this question in barely any more time than it takes to read the sentence; if they struggle it’s either a reading problem or a lack of understanding of verbs. The verbs are underlined in [fig 4.].
Each of these verbs forms the nucleus of a clause. Five verbs, five clauses, five sentence parts that function as building blocks for sentences. The clauses are picked out in colour in [fig. 5]. Each clause contains a single verb. (Please note, those of you using Rainbow Grammar, this is not the Rainbow Grammar colour system.)
To practice and assess children’s depth of understanding, I often play a quick round of an activity I call ‘Example or Non-Example’ (catchy title, I know). Present children with a range of sentence fragments in quick succession; they say whether it is an example of clause or not. Always ask them to prove it – by finding the verb or by identifying that it doesn’t have one. Start them off as a whole class, but have them practice independently too. Below is a list, I used with a year 4 class (who were studying Beowulf at the time). I’ve underlined the verbs.
the monster prowled across the moor
as thunder boomed in the dark sky
in the middle of the misty moor
smashing the door into pieces
a huge monster with sharp claws
the warriors grabbed their weapons
throwing a man across the hall
whose mouth had razor-sharp teeth
which was wild with hunger
men with gleaming spears and wooden shields
while its eyes were red slits of pure hatred
the men were stabbing with their spears
huge arms with rippling muscles
spilled blood on the stone floor
the beast had killed six brave men
The difficulty increases as children move through the list; stative verbs, verb phrases and adjectives that look like verbs add layers of complexity, and how far children progress indicates their level of understanding. Note mistakes in these areas and reteach if necessary.
What do you call a group of Santa’s helpers?
Once we’ve secured an understanding of clause, it’s time to develop understanding of the different types of clauses, their structures, functions and how they connect one to another. But it’s not just that we want children to know more about this stuff, we want them to organise that thinking into a structured mental model. Novice learners tend to have knowledge stored in a higgledy piggledy mush of thoughts and ideas, whereas experts have sorted out their thinking into structured schema with meaningful connections. The first step on the journey towards expert thinking about clauses is to begin to build a hierarchical structure by separating the concept of clause into two broad categories in [fig.6].fig. 6
A main clauses can function independently as a sentence; a subordinate clause cannot. Explain that we could place a capital letter at the start, and a full stop (or exclamation / question mark) at the end, of the main clauses and we would have a sentence. Not so with a subordinate clause. We might sort those fragments we’d earlier identified as clauses. [fig. 7]
At this point we might have children match main clauses to subordinate ones to cement the idea that a subordinate clause makes sense when attached to a main clause, and that we can’t slap clauses together haphazardly without considering the content of the clauses and the meaning created.
“Curioser and curiouser!” cried Alice
Once the difference between main and subordinate clause is secure, it’s time to look more closely at subordinate clauses. Children ought to be taught that ‘subordinate clause’ is an umbrella term for a number of clauses that don’t function independently as sentences (that number varies depending on how you classify clauses). The national curriculum identifies two, one indirectly and the other more directly. From the national curriculum grammar appendix:
Year 2: subordination (using when, if, that, because)
Year 3: expressing time, place and cause using conjunctions (for example, when, before, after, while, so, because).
Year 5: Relative clauses beginning with who, which, where, when, whose, that or an omitted relative pronoun
The first two statements (years 2 and 3) relate to subordinate clauses that begin with subordinating conjunctions (and one relative pronoun in year 2). These are often called adverbial clauses because they function as adverbs by modifying verbs. The third relates to relative clauses (sometimes called adjective clauses because they describe nouns) which start with relative pronouns.
I also teach a third type of subordinate clause, often termed a non-finite clause, which is a clause that contains a non-finite verb – a verb that doesn’t express tense.
Understanding clauses functionally as adverbs or adjectives, or that they might contain verbs without tense is too complicated for many key stage two children. And also completely unnecessary. When teaching subordinate clause types, keep it simple – focus on their structure. In particular focus on the first word of the clause; this will tell us which type of clause it is.
An adverbial clause [fig. 8]: starts with a subordinating conjunction such as because, if, when, although, while, or as.
A relative clause [fig. 9]: starts with a relative pronoun such as that, when, where, which, who or whose. Technically speaking, whose is relative determiner, and when and where are relative adverbs, but I call them all relative pronouns to avoid over complicating things. I can live with the white lie.
A non-finite clause [fig. 10]: starts with a verb ending in -ing or -ed – technically, a participle, but in key stage two ‘verb’ will do just fine. Non-finite clauses don’t actually have to start with a verb, but I stick to those that do. It keeps things simple.
The national curriculum requires children to know the name of only one of these subordinate clauses – the relative clause – but it’s helpful, and simple enough, for children to learn all three names. And knowing the names makes it easier to talk about them with children. Part of developing an understanding of any domain is getting to grips with its vocabulary, and grammar is no different. I want variety in children’s sentence structure and these three subordinate clause types go a long way to providing that. If, when modelling or guiding writing, I want to be able to talk about the sentence patterns I’m using, referring to them by their names is the most efficient way of doing so. And anyway, sloppy language within a domain often denotes sloppy thinking.
So, we have now expanded our hierarchical structure to include these clause types as in [fig. 11].
Girlfriend in a comma
Once children can identify subordinate clause types through an understanding of the words that begin them, we should focus their attention on two further concepts: mobility and demarcation.
Both adverbial and non-finite clauses are mobile and can be moved around in a sentence. A relative clause cannot. We might, however, prefer the clauses in one position or another for a number of reasons, but more on that in a follow-up post. For now, children should see these two clause types as movable structures that they can place in a number of positions within a sentence to create structural variety as in [fig. 12] and [fig. 13].
We should be wary of embedding or ‘dropping in’ these subordinate clauses between the subject and predicate. We ought to have a damn good reason for splitting up the information in the main clause. Done well, it can be a useful addition to writer’s toolkit (I’ll discuss how it can be used well in the next post), but all too often, in the hands of novice writers, it just makes sentences awkward to read. With that in mind, I tend not to split main clauses in this way until upper key stage, and not before children master using subordinate clauses before and after the main clause.
Relative clauses cannot be moved. They follow the noun, noun phrase or pronoun that they they describe. In [fig. 14] the relative clause ‘who tried Colin’s yaks’ milk cheese’ modifies the pronoun ‘those’.
Children will also need to understand how to demarcate clauses within sentences, initially using commas, and then progressing to brackets and dashes (using these sparingly). Now, commas are as much a matter of taste as they are of English grammar. Some demarcate many of their clauses with commas, others far fewer. But if I’m introducing commas to demarcate clauses, I will typically explain how to do so as follows:
For adverbial clauses [fig. 12], demarcate the clause with commas unless it follows the main clause. The rationale here is that when the adverbial clause follows the main clause the conjunction demarcates the boundary between the clauses making the comma less necessary.
For non-finite clauses [fig. 13], demarcate the clause with commas in all positions.
For relative clauses, demarcate with commas when first learning to use them in year 5. In year 6, explore the difference between essential and non-essential relative clauses (again, more in a follow-up post).
Now, I don’t follow this guidance religiously myself and nor do I suspect do you. But we are not novice writers. We’ve had years and years of practice to develop an understanding of how clauses relate to one another and how that might be demarcated (or not) through many years of reading and writing. Children have not. Introducing grey areas too soon will only confuse. Keep it simple. They will develop a feel for the nuances as they become ever more sophisticated readers and writers.
By the time children’s understanding of clause structure is well-established, their thinking should be organised as in [fig.15] and they are on their way to an understanding of clauses of an expert.
To infinity and all that
In the next post in this series, I shall explore why all of this matters and how can this understanding improve quality of children’s writing. And I’ll explore a few techniques that you can easy drop into your lessons to have children writing better sentences.