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Learning to use more complex sentences

As students progress through their schooling, they work with more complex ideas and interrelationships (people or things that are connected to each other and that may be affecting each other).

To express these adequately (a way that is satisfactory for the purpose), students need to be able to write and say sentences of greater complexity.

By helping students join together simpler phrases, teachers can scaffold their learning of more complex sentences.

Three ways of scaffolding students in learning to use more complex sentences are:

  • sentence combining
  • repeating and substituting word patterns
  • building complex sentences in the context of information transfer activities.

An information transfer activity involves getting students to put spoken or written texts into another form, such as a chart, grid, picture, table or diagram. Another option is to start with the chart, grid, picture and so on and have students put this in spoken or written texts. 

Because of the relationship between output (speaking and writing) and the acquisition of new language, when students begin to produce (say and write) more complex sentences, they also begin to understand such sentences better in their reading. 

Activities to produce complex sentences

Some ways of scaffolding sentence complexity are: combining, substituting and repeating.

Sentence combining

Give your students sets of two or three simple sentences. Ask them to combine each set into one sentence.

TIP: You may find it helpful to raise your own awareness of the structure of the language your students need by rewriting some complex sentences into several simple sentences, and then putting them back together again.

Sentence combining is an activity that focuses more on language form than on meaning.

However, as the students work – preferably in pairs or groups – to combine the sentences, they do need to focus on meaning to make sure the combined sentence means the same as the separate sentences. Double-check that nothing has been left out.

Because they have produced the combined sentence themselves from parts they understand, students also understand the longer, more complex sentence.

An example of sentences to combine

Combine these three sentences into one longer sentence. There are many possible sentences. Find as many as you can.

  1. This plant might be a fern.
  2. The young leaves can help you to decide.
  3. The young leaves have a special form.

Repetition and substitution

If you draw your students' attention to a useful sentence pattern that is complex (difficult) for them, they can use the same pattern many times just by changing one or two words. In this way, they create important sentences that are a little more complex than they would say or write on their own.

Do this activity orally because the repetition, which can be boring in writing, is a challenge when speaking. Two techniques for promoting fluency through repetition are described below.

The 4/3/2 activity

Give students have a few seconds to prepare to speak about a topic (for example, fern leaves).

After preparing, they speak to a first partner for about 60 seconds.

Then, they move to another partner and give the same talk for 45 seconds.

Finally, they move to a third partner and speak for 30 seconds.

When students do this, what they say changes slightly each time, and they speak more correctly and more fluently.

Rhythm and repetition

If you and your students are interested in rhythms and beats, you can use this interest to support their language development.

In this activity, you choose a complex sentence that is useful for your students’ curriculum learning. You make them comfortable with it by using repetition and rhythm.

You set the beat.

Then, students have to try to keep the beat when they say the sentences.

You can start off with the whole class together, then choose individuals or pairs of students to speak, and then another student, and so on around the class or group.

You can go on to make small changes in the sentence, keeping the same rhythm.


Ferns are usually very easy to identify from their leaves.

This is an academic sentence. Although it is written for students working up to level 4 in the curriculum, students are not likely to use such a sentence in everyday conversation. However, they do need to be able to say sentences like this in learning contexts and to feel easy and confident in doing so.

Some students, whether English is their first language or not, will find it quite hard to say this sentence fluently. You should give them a chance to practise until they are quite confident with it. Then they can start changing some parts of the sentence.

To begin with, you can supply the words:

  • grasses: Grasses are usually very easy to identify from their leaves. 
  • flaxes: Flaxes are usually very easy to identify from their leaves. 

Next you can ask your students to change two items:

  • flowers: Flowers are usually very easy to identify from their petals
  • conifers: Conifers are usually very easy to identify from their needles.
  • trees: Trees are usually very easy to identify from their trunk and bark.

Finally, the students may be able to supply their own words for the slots in the sentence pattern without losing the beat:

  • spiders: spiders are usually very easy to identify from their eight legs.

Activities like these can form part of an oral language programme.

Exploring your practice

Learning to use more complex sentences

Try these three ways of helping students produce more complex sentences for an authentic, curriculum-related speaking or writing purpose.

  • Sentence combining
  • Repeating and substituting word patterns
  • Building complex sentences in the context of information transfer activities.

Observe your students and record some of the sentences they produce.

Compare these sentences with sentences for similar purposes that they have previously produced.

Develop an information-transfer activity based on a table or a diagram that helps your students to record and organise information, which they will then need to write or talk about using appropriately complex sentences.

Think about how you can encourage the students to write or say longer sentences – based on the information transfer activity – that are interesting to hear or read and that present an achievable challenge for them.