Let’s Teach:  Complex Sentences Part 1

Let’s Teach: Complex Sentences Part 1

This week I had the opportunity to teach in a really great 4th-grade classroom, but it was one of those lessons where the students just weren’t getting it and I was changing plans on the fly.  I went in to teach independent and dependent clauses but ended up teaching a full complex sentence lesson.  


As you may know, these two things are very similar to teach, but there are a few differences.  Looking at the 2008 Texas TEKS for writing, 4th graders learn about independent and dependent clauses; however, complex sentences are not introduced until 7th grade.  But every 4th-grade STAAR test has included at least one, usually two or three, questions about complex sentences.  The questions are coded as revising questions, but students really have to have some basic knowledge of complex sentences to be able to answer them.  

On a side note, the new Texas ELAR TEKS have complex sentences being introduced in 5th grade instead of 7th.  The new ELAR TEKS will go into effect in 2019-2020 for K-8 grades and 2020-2021 for high school.  

So my 4th-grade team is determined to tackle this concept this year.  They have taught simple and compound sentences, and the students do a great job with these.  So the debate arose on whether we just teach independent and dependent clauses, or do we teach full complex sentences?  

When I look at how the complex sentence questions are worded on the STAAR test, I think students can determine the correct answer by using a process of elimination based on what they know about simple and compound sentences, but there are a few questions that could be really confusing.  So the consensus in the group was to go ahead and just teach independent and dependent clauses, and then we could go from there.  

Independent and Dependent Clauses

First of all, what is an independent and dependent clause?  Better yet, what is a clause?  A clause is a group of words that contain a subject and a predicate.  An independent clause is a group of words that contain a subject, verb, and a complete thought.  It’s basically a complete sentence.  A dependent clause is a group of words that contains a subject, a verb, but is NOT a complete thought.

Independent and Dependent Clauses notes
Notes over Clauses

My fourth-grade lesson started out with just independent and dependent clauses.  We started out with notes for a notebook foldable.  I told them to think of independent clauses as their parent.  Their parent is independent and can go and do what they want.  A dependent clause was like them.  They depended on their parents to take them everywhere.  A dependent clause is not a complete sentence unless it has an independent clause attached to it.

Independent and dependent clauses notebook page
Independent and Dependent Clauses Notebook

So far so good!  The students really seemed to be getting what I was saying, so we practiced as a class with a Smart Notebook interactive lesson where I called students up to the board to identify and create independent and dependent clauses.  They did great!  They got them all right with support from the teacher and other students in the class.  So now it was time to practice on their own.  I gave them a NoRedInk assignment to practice, and this is where things went very wrong.

One example of a sentence in NoRedInk that was confusing for students is:

All the movie theaters were playing the movie that Sarah wrote about her family vacation.  

Students had a hard time picking out the dependent clause – that Sarah wrote about her family vacation.  You can ask yourself “Which movie?”, but students were still confused.  

What Went Wrong?

Fourth graders are still at a level where they are looking for a subject and a verb to help them identify a sentence.  So when they have a sentence with an independent and a dependent clause, which both have a subject and a verb, they don’t know which is which.  To them, they see a subject and a verb and it’s a sentence.  They couldn’t tell that one was a complete thought and the other was not.  I could teach my 7th graders to look for the shift in the thinking of the sentence, and they could do this; however, this concept was a little too advanced for fourth graders.

Make Adjustments

I am now brainstorming in overdrive on how I can adjust this lesson on the spot and teach this a different way that will make sense.  I come to the conclusion that if I go ahead and teach complex sentences, that would give students subordinating conjunctions to look for in helping them identify the dependent clause.  If students can start identifying dependent clauses with the help of a subordinating conjunction to see how it sounds, then they can start identifying adjectival and nominal dependent clauses that do not use a subordinating conjunction.  

So we adjusted our notes and started teaching complex sentences.  You won’t believe how well they did once I taught them this! Read part two to hear a recap of how things went with complex sentences.

Independent and dependent clauses

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