Tackling complex sentences is a new adventure for me. I’ve often been one to “ignore” syntax for other goals, especially in the upper grades when reading comprehension, context clues, and higher order thinking has become so vitally (and very tangibly important). The importance of complex sentences had not truly occurred to me, though I wonder now how it had not.

This article summarizes the importance of complex sentences well, but I had never put any amount of thought into the syntactic make up of sentences that students are hearing and reading when they attempt to remember verbal instructions or comprehend a grade level text. I had focused on listening strategies, key words, context clues, WH questions, and a whole host of other things – but not whether or not they could understand a sentence that contained a relative pronoun.

How silly of me!

But last year, the SLP who wrote IEPs for my upcoming 5th grade students wrote syntax goals, specifically being able to understand complex sentences and write or say sentences using relative pronouns/adverbs and/or subordinating conjunctions. It wasn’t until I got into my first session on this skill that it really clicked with me. Then, I felt inspired to get down to work.

Using the information my friend SLP provided and some of my own research, I assembled a folder of activities to walk us through our learning. Here are some tips I’ve picked up in the process, as well as some materials I’m using!

1 | Start with the basics.

They’ve complained a little, but I’ve found it necessary to start with the very, very basics. We’ve been assembling and ordering short sentences, discussing subjects and verbs as we go along. I’ve tried working on two levels, first with scrambling words to form sentences and second with simple target words to generate spontaneous sentences. In the process, we’ve discovered some gaps in knowledge that will be necessary before we can go deeper.

2 | Move on to compound sentences.

It’s easier to understand the concept of joining ideas when you can use two complete sentences. One of the easier ways I’ve found to do this is simply by giving them a list of FANBOYS and asking them to turn 2 of their sentences (scrambled or generated) into one sentence by joining them with a conjunction. The fun comes in trying to figure out which conjunction will join two (very possibly very unrelated) sentences in a way that at least kind of makes sense.

3 | Teach the vocabulary and provide TONS of examples.

Subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns/adverbs are just a little more abstract than the FANBOYS. I find that students don’t naturally know how to use each word and will try to place the wrong joiner into a sentence or express an inaccurate relationship on either side of the joiner. Explicitly teaching each of the more used joiners, as well as providing a lot of examples of how they are used in sentences is key to understanding.

4 | Don’t forget comprehension!

While you’re providing those examples, make sure to use it as an opportunity to check for understanding, targeting syntax and comprehension together! Talk about the joiner used in the sentences after you’ve answered the questions, discussing why that word was used and why the answer to the question is what it is. Vary the types of questions you ask and try to make them really think about the information presented. Remember, we’re not going for basic knowledge anymore – we’re testing their critical thinking skills and knowledge of the vocabulary.

Are you ready to go? Here are some resources I’ve found helpful!

1 | Grammar workbooks from No Glamour and ***

Oldies but goodies! These workbooks will provide the basic you need to work on sentence structure.

2 | Comprehension of Complex Sentences by The Spontaneous Speech Spot

This has proven a quick, handy resource to quickly review comprehension of complex sentences. The sentences and short paragraphs are easy to read or listen to, with visuals that can (sometimes) be helpful as well.

3 | Complex Sentences Unit from A Happy Learner Store

My complex sentences unit, inspired specifically by my student’s IEP goals, offers opportunities to comprehend complex sentences using visuals/single sentence statements and story form, as well as create complex sentences by unscrambling words and generating your own using a target visual and conjunction/relative pronoun or adverb.

4 | Subordinating Conjunction and Relative Pronoun/Adverb Word Walls from A Happy Learner Store

Each joiner is presented alongside an example sentence on a large card, designed for a word wall. This can be used for explicit teaching, as well as scaffolding during other activities.

5 | Worksheets for Sentence Types from A Happy Learner Store

This set of basic worksheets works from the ground up, giving aid for subjects/verbs, different types of joiners, and simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentence types. Worksheets are presented in 3 forms: identification, fill-in-the-blank, and generation.


I hope you have found something to help you in your teaching of complex sentences today! If you have any tips, tricks, or materials that can help others, please share!