When you’re trying to teach kids higher English skills, it can be really frustrating when they are fundamental skills they simply don’t have. In my experience, the English building block most kids are missing is an understanding of clauses.
The Clause: English Building Block & Gamechanger
Defining Characteristics of Clauses
Since this is a blog for writers, I’m assuming that most of you already know what clauses are (English-wise). On the off chance that you don’t, however, here’s a brief description of the most important distinctions:
- A clause must always have both a subject and a verb.
- Independent Clause = a complete thought that can stand on its own
- Dependent Clause = an independent clause with an added word in front of it
Yes, a dependent clause is an incomplete thought, but recognizing the conjunction or adverb that turns the independent clause into a dependent clause is really useful. See, students can’t always tell when something is an incomplete thought. They can, however, tell when the word “because” is in front of a subject and verb (more often, anyway).
Here’s an example:
- Independent Clause (IC): He traveled forty-five miles in the driving rain.
- Dependent Clause (DC): After he traveled forty-five miles in the driving rain.
The first one is a whole sentence. The second one is a fragment until or unless an independent clause is added to the end of it.
After he traveled forty-five miles in the driving rain (DC), he decided to not even try to drive the rest of the way that night (IC).
Why Is Knowing Clauses Important?
Some people will tell you that knowing clauses is important because it helps you to recognize the different types of sentence structures. While that’s true (the sentence structures are defined by the number and types of clauses in the sentence), naming the type of sentence structure isn’t particularly useful unless you’re going to be teacher English Language Arts or making your career in linguistics.
In which case, I sincerely hope that you don’t struggle with identifying clauses.
The reason I want all my students to be able to write and recognize clauses is that you cannot know punctuation rules well without them. You can’t. Where commas go, where semicolons are needed, where colons can be used – all these rules rely on whether something is a clause or a phrase, what type of clause it is, and where the clause/phrase is in the sentence.
Without understanding those punctuation rules, students are effectively left guessing or following rules given to them in lower grades that are only true sometimes.
For example, in younger grades, students are often told to put a comma in front of “and.” That’s only true if the “and” is part of a list (if you were taught the Oxford comma), or there is an independent clause after “and.”
To prove my point, the punctuation in each of the following sentences is correct:
- We went to the movie theatre, the ice cream parlor, and the book store.
- The number of parties on campus are increasing and seem to be causing a drop in grades.
- Tim and his friend went to the pet store, and they immediately left after catching a glimpse of the tarantula in the clerk’s hand.
So… sometimes, the student would be right and other times, not. If the student’s teacher likes the Oxford comma, the student has a 2/3 chance of being right. If the student’s teacher hates the Oxford comma, the student has a 1/3 chance of being right.
The worst part of this is that the student has no idea why following this rule is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.
This problem is most obvious when students are supposed to edit something. Anyone can (and will) make punctuation mistakes when writing. Students who don’t know these rules, however, have nothing to go on when looking for errors. They can’t find them because they don’t know where to put the commas, semicolons, or colons in the first place.
And, you know what? Those same rules can help the students understand reading passages better.
That’s why knowing clauses is important, and that’s why it’s so frustrating that most kids are missing this essential English building block. If we want kids to be able to write and punctuate effectively, we need to figure out how to fix this.