Grammar 101: Clauses Pt. 3 – Traffic Lights

“Grammar is… the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.” 
Stephen King


In the past two posts in this sequence I looked at the sequence of teaching clauses in key stage 2, and also discussed why clauses matter. In this post, I want to take a closer look at main clauses and how to teach them.

Understanding main clauses is critical to good sentence structure. Almost all sentence in English have at least one, and subordinate clauses without main clauses to give them direction are like ships without rudders, drifting aimlessly in a sea of ideas. Main clauses are the foundations upon which great sentences are built, the sturdy stem upon which great sentences can blossom.


So, what’s in a sentence?

Ask your students what a sentence is. The chances are that the first that they will say is that they start with capital letters and end up with full stops. Which doesn’t really tell us what a sentence is, but rather where a written sentence begins and ends. It’s a little like describing a dog by saying it begins with a nose and ends with a tail. It doesn’t really describe the essence of ‘doggy-ness’. And, if your students are younger, they’ll likely talk about finger spaces too.

So they talk about start, the end and the gaps between the words, but what of the words themselves? We might next get, ‘It’s a group of words that makes sense’. This is often the definition that children have learned that teachers like, and so parrot it with no understanding. Ask them, ‘So how do you know when it makes sense?’ and you’ll find that their understanding is a house of cards. And what do they mean by ‘a group of words’ anyway? The group of words ‘a lovely cup of tea’ makes sense to me, but it’s not a sentence. Hopefully, the group of words that  you are reading right now makes sense to you; however, it’s not a single idea, but a cluster of sentences.

So students might fine tune their definition to ‘a group of words that communicate a single idea’, which is true of a simple sentence (but not true of a compound or complex one), but we might still ask, ‘How do we know when a single idea has been properly communicated?’

And to unpick this we need to delve under the hood of sentences and see what makes the motor run. We need to talk grammar.


April prepares her green traffic light…

The simplest sentences consist of a single main clause, containing a single verb (see the first post in this series). When first teaching young students how sentences work, start by showing them a traffic light on its side, like so:

Even young children tend to know that green in a traffic light means go, and red means stop. We’ll use orange (rather than amber) in its ‘slow down and be prepared to stop’ sense, or simply ‘slow down’, rather than ‘be prepared to go’. Just like the colours in a traffic light, a simple sentence needs to start (our green light), slow down (our orange light) and stop (you guessed it, our red light).

Let’s take a simple sentence:

The dragon soared through the sky.

We can understand this through concepts we’ll attach to our traffic light colours. First our sentence needs to start; this will be our green light. The green light will describe ‘who or what the sentence is about’, and because it is green for go, we should find this at the start of our sentence. Who or what is the sentence about? It’s clearly about ‘the dragon’, so we can colour this green.

The dragon soared through the sky.

It is important that if students simply say ‘dragon’ in response to the question ‘Who or what is the sentence about?’ that you have them also pick up the determiner ‘the’ too. There’s no need to talk about determiners at this point. I usually follow up with ‘The sentence isn’t about a dragon, my dragon or that dragon. It’s about __ dragon.” and they’ll fill in the blank.

So, green light done. Now onto the orange. An orange light tells us something about the green light. The most common thing that the orange light will tell us is what the green light did. So we might ask of our sentence ‘What did the dragon do?’ The answer we are looking for is ‘soared through the sky’ and we can colour this orange.

The dragon soared through the sky.

It is important here to be precise. If in response to ‘What did the dragon do?’, the answer is ‘it soared through the sky’ ensure that this is trimmed to ‘soared through the sky’.  The golden rule, just like Roy Walker’s contestants, is to say what you see, and there is no ‘it’ in our sentence. When using this structure to write their own sentences, we don’t want to end up with, ‘The dragon it soared through the sky.’

The question, ‘What did the dragon do?’ is phrased in the past tense because the sentence we are unpicking is in the past tense. If our sentence were, ‘The dragon soars through the sky.’ then ask the question in the present tense: ‘What does the dragon do?’ Match the tense of your question to the tense of the sentence.

At this point, it is important to stress that I wouldn’t teach how sentences and clauses work without first having taught about verbs (seriously, go read the first post in the series), and once verbs have been taught, children will equate doing with verbs. So in response to, ‘What did the dragon do?’ we might get the response, ‘soared’. In this case model picking up ‘through the sky’ too. I usually say something like, ‘We know more about that. The dragon didn’t just soar; it soared through the sky.’ and colour this orange too. They’ll soon pick up that you are looking for more than the verb. Because, when introducing this approach to understanding sentences, we are working with simple sentences, this will be the remaining words in the sentence. There’s no need be talking adverbial phrases.

And because you’ve already taught verbs, have them underline the verb too.

The dragon soared through the sky.

This is helpful both in the short and the long term. In the short term, it tells year 1 students where the orange light starts: it will begin with the verb that we’ve just underlined. This won’t remain true in year 2 when they are taught adverbs (The dragon quietly soared through the sky.), but their understanding will be secure by this point so this shouldn’t pose a problem.

And in the long term, understanding that the orange light should contain one, and only one verb (or one verb phrase such as ‘was soaring’ or ‘had soared’) will be helpful when we look at coordination and subordination (we’ll explore this in further posts).

So, we have slowed our sentence down. All that remains is to stop it. And in our sentence, as in most sentences, the full stop does exactly that.

The dragon soared through the sky.

And our sentence is complete.

There are three things to note about this approach.

  1. In our simple single clause sentence, everything is coloured in; nothing is unexplained. It’s neat and tidy, and therefore easily understood even by young students. We have two core structures one in green that tells us what our sentence is about, and one in orange that tells us what the green thing did. And we cap it if with a red ‘stop’.
  2. The order goes green, orange, red. Our sentence cannot be about ‘the sky’ because this is at the end of the sentence. This will not always be true, (Up jumped the frog.) but as children write complex sentences as they become more sophisticated writers, this green/orange pattern will be at the core of almost every sentence they write.
  3. In this approach, red means stop. It does not mean ‘punctuation’. As such there will only be one red light in a sentence – at the end. And that will usually be a full stop (and occasionally an exclamation mark or question mark). A comma never stops a sentence so would never be coloured red. Ever.


And it doesn’t matter how complex a simple sentence containing only a single clause gets, it will contain these three colours in this sequence.

The huge shadow of the black-bellied dragon slid silently over the lochs and glens of Scotland in search of food.

Who or what is the sentence about? the huge shadow of the black-bellied dragon

What did ‘the huge shadow of the black-bellied dragon’ do? slid silently over the lochs sea glens of Scotland in search of food

In key stage 2, we can use the correct terminology, naming the green sentence element as the subject, and the orange as the predicate. This simply speeds up discussion about these sentence elements. Rather than ask, ‘Who or what is the sentence about?, we can now ask. ‘What is the subject?’. And rather than ask, ‘What did the huge shadow of the black-bellied dragon do?’ we can ask, ‘What is the predicate?’


Play your cards right

Once children have been taught this subject / predicate structure, they ought to practice writing sentences using this pattern to write accurate sentences. To do so I use my laminated Rainbow Grammar cards.

The above sentences were written by year 2 children at Chewynd Primary Academy based on the Scottish myth of the Stoorworm Dragon (I’ve copied them here, but they are faithful copies of the originals).

The cards are helpful for a few reasons:

  • Sentences are more likely to be complete and end with a full stop.
  • Sentence elements can be manipulated – one subject or predicate can be swapped out for another and the structure of the sentence will remain sound: this becomes more useful when students write complex sentences, where clauses might be moved around in sentences (more on this in subsequent posts).
  • Because they are laminated, mistakes are easily erased, and children are more likely to attempt more challenging vocabulary.
  • Students tend to like writing on the cards, trying out their ideas and sentence structure before writing things up on paper.


Clowns to the left of me…

This subject | predicate structure that forms a simple sentence might be termed a main clause. As such it may form the nucleus of a more elaborate sentence.

As the black-bellied dragon soared overhead, a huge shadow slid silently over lochs and glens, enveloping Scotland in darkness.

And by dividing up the main clause into subject and predicate, it is easy to see at which point we might insert another clause into the main clause.

A huge shadow, sliding silently over lochs and glens, enveloped Scotland in darkness.

It is to these complex patterns we shall turn in the next few posts in the series.



Click on the images of the cards below to download PDF versions of the subject, predicate and stop cards.

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