Explicit Grammar: Teaching Relative Clauses

I’ve been experimenting this year with different ways of making the mechanics of writing a little more explicit to my students. My hope is that the more grammar knowledge my students have, the more explicitly they can understand their choices when writing. For some, this might involve showing them something new. For others, it might make them a little more aware of aspects of grammar they often use without really knowing it.

This week’s experimentation involved the explicit teaching of relative clauses.

The Grammar:

Relative clauses are a specific type of subordinate clause. Sometimes they are referred to as ‘adjectival’ or ‘adjective’ clauses, as they act like adjectives, giving extra information about a noun. For students to grasp relative clauses, they probably need to have a decent understanding of what a subordinate clause is, and ideally, the relationship between nouns and adjectives.

It’s pretty easy to spot relative clauses, as they are typically introduced by a select few words:

  • The relative pronouns ( who, whose, which, that )
  • The relative adverbs (where, when why)

For example: On Tuesdays I eat apple pie, which is my favourite dessert.

Here, the part in red is the main clause and the part in blue is the relative clause, giving extra information about my preference for apple pie.

What I find interesting about relative clauses, and where I feel knowledge of them can most benefit my students, is how they can be embedded into sentences, often in the middle of a main clause. This happens frequently in newspaper articles, where relative clauses help define the roles of people and give information about places and events.

As an example, take these two separate pieces of information about the Titanic.

  • 64– the number of lifeboats the Titanic was equipped to carry.
  • 20– the number of lifeboats she carried on her maiden voyage.

If students are asked to put these two pieces of information in a sentence, they might write something like:

1. “The Titanic was equipped to carry sixty-four lifeboats, but on her maiden voyage she only carried twenty”

But, if prompted to use a relative clause, their sentence might work like this:

2. “The Titanic, which was equipped to carry sixty-four lifeboats, only carried twenty on her maiden voyage.”

Here, the relative clause is embedded within the main clause. Stylistically, I think the second sentence sounds much more like a newspaper report or article. It also, albeit only slightly, increases the lexical density of the sentence, allowing communication of the same information in a slightly more concise manner. This might help students write effective summaries, as well as helping them achieve a more formal writing style. 

The Lesson:

I practised this lesson with both my year 11 groups this week. I’m hoping relative clauses can help them answer question one of their iGCSE exam if asked to write in a formal register. I also intend to revisit the technique when revising summary writing for question three.

I started off the lesson by giving the students part of a newspaper article. I used a news story called ‘Breathless in Krakow’ from the Guardian, purely because my colleague had a copy to hand. It’s worth checking any materials first, but I’ll wager you’ll find relative clauses used widely in most broadsheet articles.

The students’ first task was to read the article and get thinking about commas. I especially wanted them to find sentences with two or more commas, asking them to make notes on how  commas were being used, and what sorts of information was being separated with two commas. We then shared ideas, coming up with the following:

  • commas help give definitions
  • commas help separate extra information about the people and places in the article
  • commas can list details like the effects of pollution

After this discussion, I introduced the term relative clause, first recapping main clauses and subordinate clauses by going through a couple of examples on the board. I didn’t distinguish between relative adverbs and pronouns, instead just giving the students a list of words that might help them spot relative clauses. The students then went back to the article, identifying relative clauses, with some being able identify the main clauses of the sentence too.

After this, I gave students 10 facts about the Titanic (we were writing on the anniversary of its sinking). Students were asked to represent / summarise this information, focusing on using relative clauses in their writing.

The second half of the powerpoint was used to help recap nominalisation, another great technique for writing in a formal, concise manner. We then attempted a slightly adapted question one response to the iGCSE reading paper.

Like with any writing technique, relative clauses are most effective when used judiciously. But, they are a fairly easy concept to grasp and should, I hope, give my students a little more confidence with writing formally.

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