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ESL Sentence Structures to Teach Young Learners

by Christopher Cascio

When teaching basic sentence patterns to young ESL learners, build your lessons logically so that when you introduce a new element, it stands out against the familiar grammatical components. Furthermore, it helps to use the same examples throughout a sentence building session because the words you use might be as new to your students as the concepts you are teaching.

Simple Sentence: Subject-Verb

The simplest sentence structure in the English language is the simple sentence that contains only a subject and a verb. It makes sense that this should be the first sentence structure you teach. An example of this type of sentence would be "Tom eats." Another, in past tense, is "Ellen taught." By starting with this foundational structure, you allow students to focus on using simple nouns and verbs that express a complete thought.

Simple Sentence: Subject-Verb-Direct Object

Building upon the simple subject-verb pattern, you can expand the simple sentence to include a direct object. You can even use extensions of your previous sentences so the student can easily recognize what elements are new. For instance, using the example "Tom eats fish" or "Ellen taught English" makes it easy for a student to identify the new word, "fish" or "English," as the direct object. If this lesson comes easily, you can introduce an adjective, which can help speakers of romance languages understand that in English, adjectival modifiers come before the words they modify. An example is "Tom ate raw fish."

Simple Sentence: Subject-Verb-Indirect Object-Direct Object

You can also add an indirect object so students can communicate more complex relationships between a subject and object. Again, use a pre-existing example to reveal new material: "Ellen taught us English" makes the indirect object, "us," obvious. You can explain that this example could also be written as "Ellen taught English to us," which adds the preposition "to," while "us" is still the indirect object. If your students understand these concepts easily, you can add an adverb to show how verbs are modified, either as "Ellen happily taught us English" or "Ellen taught us English happily."

Compound and Complex Sentences

Offering examples of compound and complex sentences will help students understand how they can add a secondary concept to those expressed in simple sentences, without having to begin a new sentence. For example, "Tom ate raw fish, and he became sick" illustrates how independent clauses -- or ideas -- can be joined with a comma and a coordinating conjunction -- in this example, through the conjunction "and." You can then alter the example to form a complex sentence: "Tom ate raw fish, but became sick." You can easily show how the complex sentence is different from the compound sentence because the subordinate clause, "but became sick," does not contain both a subject and a verb. However, both express the same idea and are grammatically correct.

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