Complex Sentences: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

Complex Sentences: A teacher's guide to introducing sentence comprehension tasks in the classroom, from research into practice.

What is a Complex Sentence?

Understanding grammar is a significant part of the English curriculum. Children need words to describe words, it's difficult to talk about language unless we know the names for the different writing conventions. In this article, we look at the different definitions you'll be using in the classroom, such as subordinate clauses and conjunctions. We'll also try and help you make teaching complex sentence comprehension more engaging for school-age children. We must first appreciate that writing is a linguistic task. We are effectively joining our thoughts and articulating these through spoken language. Encoding text is a secondary task after verbalisation. Writing and reading swims on a sea of classroom talk. The acquisition of language is a complex activity that involves the mental processing of sentences. As well as being a visual task it's also a neural activity involving a lot of mental bandwidth.

A complex sentence contains both a dependent clause and an independent clause. The independent clause is a complete thought such as 'stay outside'. The dependent clause cannot stand alone and does not make sense by itself for example 'until it rains'. These types of sentences can work either way round, 'stay outside until it rains' or 'until it rains, stay outside.' We can also use subordinating conjunctions to make a complete sentence. For example, 'The dog barks because it was scared' (because being the subordinating conjunction. Again this sentence type can work either way round, for example, 'Because it was scared, the dog barked'. We will look at how these simple grammar rules can be developed with Writer's Block later in the article. We will also look at the range of sentence types including, compound-complex sentences and multi-clause sentences. 

Before we dive deeper, a few clarifications:

  1. A compound sentence is a sentence that has two independent clauses and a conjunction (FANBOYS).
  2. A compound sentence is a group of two or more sentences that are combined together by a coordinating conjunction.
  3. Coordinating conjunctions are used to join two or more independent clauses.

How to Teach Complex Sentences to School-Age Children

Complex Sentences are easy when they are taught in the best way. Whether the main reason is lack of effort, or lack of understanding; it can be challenging to encourage a child to write a complex sentence (Montag & MacDonald, 2015).

Simple sentences are easy to write, including just a single clause and demonstrating a complete idea, a simple sentence (for example: ‘She has never performed so intelligently'.) doesn’t contain much scope for illustrating ideas on paper or creativity.

Encouraging students to write one independent clause at a minimum – ‘She has never performed so smartly because she didn't receive proper guidance in the past’ – opens up new doors of creativity.

Writers Block for developing complex sentences
Writers Block for developing complex sentences

Getting started with complex sentence comprehension

A complex sentence is a sentence with more than a single clause in it. First is a primary clause and the other one is a subordinate clause. These sentences are also called multi-clause sentences. In order to understand compound-complex sentences, it is important to recall complex sentences and compound sentences. A compound sentence contains two simple sentences connected to each other by a conjunction. A complex sentence contains a simple sentence and a subordinate or dependent clause (includes a verb and a subject but does not show a complete thought).

Therefore, a compound-complex sentence consists of more than a single sentence connected to each other by a conjunction, and one of these sentences needs to be complex. One can say, Complex Compound Sentence is a compound sentence that has a subordinate or dependent clause.

Following are some of the examples of Compound Complex Sentences:

  • When he woke up, he was late for work, and his boss was very upset.
  • He will get to read a book, but first, he has to complete an assignment after he finishes eating.
  • They performed very well, but their dresses were wet because it rained the whole time.

Following are some of the most effective ways to teach children how to write Complex Sentences.

Integrating common subordinating conjunctions
Integrating common subordinating conjunctions

Starting with an Independent and Dependent Clauses

It has become so much important to teach Complex Sentences to the students that teachers are now teaching Complex Sentences early in the school year. According to Smith (2017) the perfect way to introduce students to Complex Sentences is to start by introducing independent and dependent clauses. It gives the foundation to learn about parts of a complex sentence. Teachers can use a PowerPoint presentation for reviewing independent and dependent clauses in a lesson. Teachers can use any interesting way to teach Complex Sentences to the students. For example:  After the introduction, the teacher can pass out a single index card to each student on which there would be either written a dependent or an independent clause. Each student will leave the card on his desk and walk around the classroom to look for his partner (independent will be searching for dependent and vice versa) to make a meaningful complex sentence.

The teacher would inform the learners that their card has just a single correct match so they must read and select carefully. After finding a match for each card, each pair of students would stand and read aloud their complex sentence (both partners will read their part). The students would continue the activity until all of them have a match and have participated in the class activity. After helping the students with a deeper understanding of independent and dependent clauses, they are ready to better understand Complex Sentences.

Colour coding the sentence types
Colour coding the sentence types

Simple Sentence Comprehension

The 5 Ws ‘What? Who? Why? Where? and When?’ are great to help students remember how to stretch a sentence (Shea & Roberts, 2016). For instance:

'What' is the menu tonight?

‘Who’ will cook food?

'When' will the guests arrive?

‘Where' are the guests coming from?

'Why' are they visiting us?

The teacher can help children understand complex sentences by engaging them through a memory game. Five students can participate in the game, each representing a single 'W' by holding a small card with any one of the 5 'W's written on it.

The child with the ‘What' would select the action of the sentence. The child with the ‘Who?’ would incorporate the subject to the sentence. In the end, the ‘Why?’ has to recall all the previous parts of the conversation, and add his last part.

This memory game will bring some smiles and a lot of unforgettable ideas for future tasks of language.

Subordinating Conjunction

Teachers can teach students about 'Subordinating Conjunctions' before asking them to write Complex Sentences (Potter, 2017). Subordinating conjunctions like “since,” “while,” or “after" are combined with dependent and independent clauses. When the dependent clause is used first, a comma must be added to separate the clauses. Teachers can use Subordinating Conjunction to help students understand Complex Sentences in several ways. For example: The teacher can ask students to sit into groups and complete the following sentences with subordinating conjunctions.

________ you leave the building, make sure to switch off all the lights.

________ he was late today, he will talk to his neighbours tomorrow.

________ she has said something, she would never change her mind.

The teacher must give students some time to find a suitable subordinating conjunction for each sentence. After this, teacher can ask students to share their answers with other group members. It is interesting how some coordinating conjunctions can entirely change the meaning of a sentence.

  • If you leave the building, make sure to switch off all the lights.
  • After you leave the building, make sure to switch off all the lights.
  • The above example shows that using 'if' or 'after' changed the reason for switching off the lights.

The teacher can show the students how a sentence can be grammatically affected by removing a subordinating conjunction from a sentence. These sentences will be written on the board:

Rather than using the shortcut, the runners ran all the way around the field.

  • Since reading about dolphins, Emma has been very happy.
  • Even if you don't invite her in the evening, she would come to talk with you.
  • Life is important, even if you don't spend it carefully.

Now, the task would be to remove the subordinating conjunctions from the above sentences and to re-write them to remain grammatically correct. Learners must remain as closely as possible to the actual meaning of the sentence.

The connectives in English are words that can be used to link two clauses together. They are often called conjunctions because they join two clauses together. In some cases, they can also be used to join sentences together. A connective is a word or phrase that connects two ideas. A connective helps you understand how the words relate to each other. Children who write well tend to vary their sentence lengths to add interest to their written work, and they use a variety of connectives to do this. For example, you might have something that happened because of something else, this would be classed as a causal connective e.g. 'My head hurt because I bumped it'.

 Ways of explaining a connective to a child:

- A connective is like a bridge. It connects two things together.

- A connective is like a chain. You can't break them without breaking everything else in their path.

- A connectives makes connections. They help you see how things are related. 


Sandwich Sentences

A complex sentence contains more detail which stops it from having a simple start and an end point (Cohen, 2017). The sentence ‘Food is tasty’ may offer an accurate fact, but to change this sentence into truly engaging it needs a bit of filler. Just like a sandwich, a complex sentence needs a beginning; some extra details in the centre (the filling); and an end point (the bread) – such as ‘Food is tasty because it contains an accurate amount of spices’.

To help students with writing delicious complex sentences (rather than hard crackers), teachers can give pictures of sandwiches, and ask the students to write their sentences around layers of a sandwich. The more details the students can provide, the more delicious the sandwich will become!

'She saw a lion in the zoo and roared at it, because it was sleeping'. Students can get bonus points for adding extra details in a sentence.

Turn a sentence comprehension task into a game

Children always enjoy playing games and taking part in engaging activities (Carr, 2013). Fun games provide a great help in children's learning about Complex Sentences. For example: a teacher can teach Complex Sentences using a 3 Minute Race. After setting a timer for 3 minutes, students will write as many complex sentences as they can. Students will stop to write when the timer starts ringing. Students will share what they wrote with their partner and discuss if the sentences they wrote are complex. In the end, the students with the maximum number of correct sentences will stand in front of the class and gets a prize.

Clarke (2019) states that children enjoy writing about their favourite things. It could be a favourite toy, food, or something else they fancy. Hence, an engaging activity would be to ask the children to write about the things they like, and why. For instance, ‘I like winter, because I like to play in the snow!’. The sentences would be cut in half, and put in a couple of mystery boxes – one box of ‘why’ box and one box of ‘what’. Every student can pick a ‘why’ and ‘what’ from the boxes at random and put two of them together. Each child would read aloud both cards and find who in the class has the other half of the sentence. In the end, children would transcribe the wrong sentence that they picked, and give a new starter or ending to the sentences.

Also, the teacher can give one index card to each student. Every student would write one simple sentence and two complex sentences on their card (in their preferred order). Then, the students would trade index cards with their partner. Each partner would search for the sentence which is not a complex sentence.

Sentence Construction ideas

Writer's block provides children with an engaging way of developing sentence comprehension accuracy. Because children can move the blocks, they are able to explore sentence structure without fear of failure. The game-like quality of block building enables children to develop complex sentence comprehension. Sentence construction activities enable pupils to explore the grammatical structures needed to become a skilled writer. Whatever the key stage, children can start with experimental sentences and quickly transform them into something more complex. This fluidity promotes complex sentence comprehension and memory in children. 

The above discussion shows that complex sentences are an amazing addition to the writing process. Starting with Independent and Dependent Clauses, using the 5 Ws, using Subordinating Conjunction, Sandwich Sentences and fun games are some of the most effective ways to teach Complex Sentences to the students. Using these can bring improvement in children's writing. To see children's writings loaded with different of types sentences, including some remarkable complex sentences, is a great reward for teachers. It is not right to think that just because the sentence is complex, it is too complicated for the children. Combining dependent and independent clauses provides a better description and more detail to a sentence. However, students need to be reminded to remain mindful of their comma usage. They must check if they need a comma while deducting a pause or distinction from their independent clause. They can be even asked to read their work in a loud voice, in order to find out if they need to add a comma in a sentence. It can be a little challenging, but great fun to help children to add dimension to their writing. To learn more about Writer's Block or organise a demo for your school, please visit this page.


Carr, J. (2013). Relevant Learning is Fun. The Learning Curve, Summer.

Clarke, J. (2019). What's your favourite…?. Early Years Educator, 20(12), xv-xvi.

Cohen, S. B., & Shimorina, A. (2017). Split and rephrase. arXiv preprint arXiv:1707.06971.

Montag, J. L., & MacDonald, M. C. (2015). Text exposure predicts spoken production of complex sentences in 8-and 12-year-old children and adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(2), 447.

Potter, M. (2017). English Sentence Structure Review-TASK.

Shea, M., & Roberts, N. (2016). Fives: an integrated strategy for comprehension and vocabulary learning. Journal of Inquiry and Action in Education, 8(1), 6.

Smith, C. (2017). Complex Sentences: Searching for the purpose of education inside a Massachusetts State Prison. Harvard Educational Review, 87(1), 81-98.