Teaching Sentence Structure to ESL Students

Teaching sentence structure to ESL students doesn’t have to be complex.

Sentence Structure in English

a picture of a book page that is written in English
Photo by Finn Mund on Unsplash

In English, there are four types of sentence structure, each explained below:

Simple Sentence Structure

A simple sentence consists of one independent clause. The subject is accompanied by a verb as well as an independent clause that expresses an entire thought.

Students are able to grasp and construct simple sentences in their own way, which is not surprising. Children often write these types of sentences on their own, and they usually follow the well-known Subject-Verb-Object pattern.

Compound Sentence Structure

A compound sentence consists of at least two independent clauses that are joined by a semicolon or conjunction. You can form a sentence by each of these clauses.

Complex Sentence Structure

In complex sentences, you combine an independent clause and a dependent clause. The dependent clause starts with a subordinate verb or relative pronoun and contains a subject and verb. The verb does not express a full thought.

Compound-Complex Structure

A compound-complex sentence consists of at least two independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses.

One thing to note here is that people use dependent clauses frequently, but they are incorrect in syntax. Dependent clauses on their own are also called sentence fragments or incomplete sentences and are grammatical errors in English writing.

Looking at these four types without an example would puzzle even native English speakers, let alone students. That’s why, even though we went over four types of sentence structures, teaching it this way would be a disaster.

Teaching Sentence Structure to ESL Students

When teaching sentence structure to your students, keep these tips in mind:

1. Start Simple

English sentence structures follow a simple rule of thumb at their very core. Firstly, we have a subject (who or what the sentence is about) and then a verb (what happens to that subject).

We teach beginners a variety of words. Some are nouns (such as things in their immediate environment), and some are actions.

The best way to teach sentence structure is to find pictures of people or objects and images of actions. After that, have the students combine these two.

2. Go Step by Step

Once they have a basic subject + verb down, you can introduce subject + subject + object structure. Building on what they know is key to this.

3. Go Over Individual Parts of a Sentence

Speech is similar in many languages, at least in the way different languages express nouns (concepts, places, people, events, etc.). An action is a verb in almost all languages.

Since they are the same, or at least similar, your students will have an easier time understanding the structure.

Pam is an expert grammarian with years of experience teaching English, writing and ESL Grammar courses at the university level. She is enamored with all things language and fascinated with how we use words to shape our world.

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