Sentences are so commonplace we often take them for granted. But teaching young English learners to put a sentence together correctly will provide them with a foundation for all their future grammar learning. Many ESL programs for children focus on teaching vocabulary. Sentence patterns may be taught to show how vocabulary words are used, but these static sentences rarely find their way into a young learner’s conversation. Instead, what student too often learn is to express themselves by using English words according to their native grammar structures. For example, while teaching in Taiwan, I regularly heard children point to something in their bowl and ask, “This can eat?” Or a child who fell down might have said, “My arm is so hurt.” These sentences use correct Chinese grammar, but communicate the speaker’s ideas poorly in English. Without learning to structure a sentence with the correct subject-verb-object relationship early on, the student will be limited in their ability to communicate properly.
To begin teaching sentence structure, start with the basics. Begin by having the students tell you some nouns and personal names. Write about five of each on the left side of the board. Then have them tell you ten or more verbs. Ask some students to make sentences using just these nouns and verbs. If the students have learned Past Simple tense have them make their sentences using this tense. If they have not, write the verbs in the Present Simple tense for them. Write some of the students’ sentences on the board. Then, on the right side of the board, write some nouns that can be used as direct objects for the sentences. Have some more students make sentences by matching these objects to the sentences you wrote. For example, if you wrote the sentence “The pencil writes.” and you wrote the direct object “paper” a student might make the sentence “The pencil writes on the paper.” For lower level learners you may need to help them to use the correct prepositions and articles.
After learning the basic structure of a sentence, students will have the foundation they need to learn to build great sentences. As the academic year progresses, review this framework at the beginning of each lesson on verb tenses. When teaching lessons on adjectives and adverbs, you can show your students how those words add more meaning to sentence. When students learn this basic structure, learning new verb tenses will no longer seem merely an academic exercise. They will understand the new verb tenses as a way to express themselves following a pattern they already know. Once they have learned this pattern, they will be able to communicate their ideas clearly when speaking and writing.