Clauses: Teaching Implications

Excessive co-ordination

When young children first start to write, many of them write whole stories using only one or two sentences with a string of clauses connected by and or and then. This is a very natural stage of learning about writing. But the same pattern appears in secondary writers - research into GCSE writing patterns showed that excessive co-ordination was a problem in weaker pupils writing. This is especially true in narrative. Writers need to be alerted to the over-use of co-ordination and be encouraged to consider if a subordinator would be more appropriate, or to break the text into more sentences. ICT can be very useful in promoting experimentation with different effects.

The pattern of excessive co-ordination often accompanies a high use of finite verbs. Writers in this category use verbs and co-ordination to move narrative forward at a breathless pace. It is predominantly action-based with little authorial comment or reflection and little detail for the reader.

Variety in use of co-ordinators and subordinators

There is a much more limited range of co-ordinators available for use, but the best writers are more likely to make use of more complex constructions such as 'not only but also'. Analysis of pupils' writing shows that pupils of every age and ability use subordination to some degree, but weaker or more immature writers tend to draw upon a smaller repertoire, particularly relative pronouns, because, when and if. Introducing writers to a wider range of subordinators may give them greater flexibility and control in their writing.

Freestanding subordinate clauses

This tends to be a punctuation problem, and is an example of how access to metalinguistic understanding can help teachers to show pupils why certain structures are not desirable, or are incorrect. A subordinate clause cannot stand on its own and needs its main clause to relate to, but sometimes pupils create a new sentence for the subordinate clause. For example

He went into town. Because he wanted some new trainers.

This error is often frequently found in adult (and students'!) writing, particularly with the subordinator although. For example

This pupil has a spelling difficulty. Although he reads very well.

The problem may occur sometimes because the writer uses a subordinate clause to open a sentence but fails to follow up with the main clause. You could take either of the example above and correct them by removing the full stop or by leaving the full stop and adding a main clause after the subordinate clause. Please note: it is, of course, important to remember that a freestanding subordinate clause for emphasis or effect is a sophisticated feature and should be encouraged, not discouraged. As with most grammar 'rules', constructive rule-breaking is a mark of linguistic dexterity and great writers all do it.

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