Sentence Trees

The strategy that I am about to introduce you to comes directly from the field of linguistics. It’s sometimes referred to as “phrase markers”, at other times syntax trees. I call it simply “sentence trees” as that’s what they are – trees, diagrams or graphic organisers showing interrelationships between different parts of speech and parts of sentence and how individual words when combined into phrases build up entire sentences.

If you learn a new language, being presented with sentences like, “A magnet creates an invisible area of magnetism all around it called a magnetic field.” or “He was the leader of the Nazi party and became a powerful dictator.” is akin to being submerged in water without having the ability to swim. It’s too much and too quickly. We need to be able to break this language down for our learners into manageable chunks.

You can see in the image below what sentence trees look like. I decided to use them with my learners because quite a few of them seemed to struggle with the idea of subjects, verbs or objects being more than just one word. In this example here, “Gerald” is indeed one word and it is also a subject, but of course “Gorgeous Gerald” would make a subject and so would “Gorgeous Gerald with a moustache”. I thought showing to the students which words actually make up subjects (more on that later) would allow them a way in. I was right. It worked like a charm – including in ways I thought were amazing and unpredictable.

First, the children need letter codes so they know what to put on the trees. This means that, as a teacher, you need to know the sentences you would use with them prior to your lesson: a list of parts of speech and parts of sentence needs to be made. In my case, I translated these into my learners’ languages to be 100% certain they know what these were. All the learners in my group are first language literate and received full schooling in their countries of origin, so using the first language is simply drawing on their prior knowledge.

I provided my learners a sheet with examples of the different terms so that they could refer to it later. This was particularly important in terms of the articles (a, an, the) which do not exist in any of the languages that the learners in my class speak so it’s not something they would naturally think of.

Back to the first sentence. First, we need to stress to the learners that there are two levels of the sentences and that we’re going to assign one parts of speech term to each individual word in the sentence. Therefore, “Gerald” is a noun, “has” is a verb, “a” is an article and “ring” is an noun again. Now we can say that “Gerald” is a subject: this is who or what the sentence is about. We stress that this time just one noun is a subject. The same goes for “has” which is a verb (now treated as part of a sentence rather than of speech). Finally, and this is where the students start realising that parts of speech can be composed of more than one word, “a” and “ring” form the sentence’s object. You will need to explain to the students the concept of an object – linked to the verb, it answers the question of “what” or “who” about the verb. In our case here, “Gerald has WHAT?” It is really useful not to use questions like “What does Gerald have?” here – in such a question the word WHAT is three words away from “have”; we want to impress on the students the proximity of the WHAT (“a ring” in the sentence here) to the verb.

Please also do not make the mistake of describing verbs to the students as “doing words”. If you do that, you’re going to run into serious trouble trying to explain why we consider words such as “have”, “has”, “am”, “is” and “are”  to be verbs, too.

Once the students understand that “a ring” is the object of the sentence, you can show that the subject, the verb and the object make up the entire sentence.

Now we can start expanding phrases. As you can see, this sentence is almost the same, but we’re now adding the adjective “expensive” to the object phrase. You would stress that this object is now composed of 3 words rather than two.. This also tells your learners how build adjectival phrases (article+adjective+noun). You can revisit that in your teaching if you ever ask them to use more descriptive language in their writing or in their speech!

Now we’re going make the same sentence negative to show our students that on the SVO sentence level a verb can be composed of two words (or, indeed, more, if you think of structures such as “have been completed” or “has not finished”). Now, “doesn’t” is actually what is called an “auxiliary verb” (helping verb) as it helps to create the negative meaning of present  simple tense verbs. I didn’t think it would be appropriate or useful to my learners to be teaching them an additional term. But I still wanted them to understand that the “big verb” is made up of “a small verb” (auxiliary) and “a main verb”. That’s why I’m using here lower case “v” for the auxiliary verb and uppercase “V” for the main verbs. It did the trick.

The rest of the sentence follows as it previously did: “an” is an article (we could draw our learners’ attention now to why it was “a ring” before, and now it has become “an expensive ring”.  Once we’ve completed talking about the lower level, we can show that “Gerald” is a subject, “doesn’t have” makes up the “big verb” and “an expensive ring” is the sentence’s object.

Let’s now look at a completely different sentence. Here, “Mr” is a noun and “Birling” is a noun. “speaks” is a verb, of course, but now we also introduce the preposition “to”. The sheet I gave to my students (the one with examples of the different terms) was very useful here as they were able to refer to the list of prepositions there. “Eric” is a noun. Again, of use to the students here is the fact that, in English, prepositions come after a verb, but before a noun, and they can see that on the tree. “And” is a connective and “leaves” is another verb.

The fact that there are two verbs here is the point of this sentence. What I wanted for my students to notice and ponder here is why the first part of the sentence (before “and”) does contain a subject, a verb and an object, but the second one, after the connective “and” only possesses the verb “leaves”. Students quickly figure it out: both “speaks” and “leaves” refer to “Mr Birling”, thus the subject “Mr Birling” is not required to be used twice. As for the object, by this stage students should know that objects are optional to sentences and do not need to be there. (It’s very easy to explain this by giving them examples such as “The teacher smiled.” or “I laughed.”

When we get to the entire sentence level, we can link the connective “and” using a dotted line. “And” is not a part of the SVO structure of sentences; rather, it allows us to create longer compound sentences, much like other connectives such as “but”, “so”, “as” and “or” would.

We can now show that, in this case, the entire sentence is actually made of two “sub-sentences”: S1 and S2. For us teachers, these are independent clauses making up a compound sentence.

Of course, if we add the subject in the sentence after the connective “and”, we could choose to refer to someone else than Mr Birling. Here the adjective “his” and the noun “son” make up the subject of the clause S2. If you think about it, it’s not so easy to figure out it’s actually an adjective, but possessive adjective it is as it describes (or in grammar terms “modifies” the noun “son” by providing more information about him.

I use this example because, in my lesson on Thursday, one of my learners simply proceeded to name “his” as “Adj”. Children will normally think of words such as “large”, “good” and “beautiful” as adjectives. “His” would not normally be thought of as an adjective, and much less so by EAL learners. But, of course, once children get the idea that words preceding nouns tend to describe them (such as in “expensive ring”) and they can visualise this by using sentence trees (and we’ve done a lot of these!), it becomes a logical an assumption to make! Just to let you know, at no point in my lesson did I make use of the term “possessive adjective”. The girl figured it out entirely on her own!

Below, we have sentence where it is the subject that contains an adjective. The sentence starts with the article “The” and then proceeds to the adjective “police” and noun “inspector”. We need to stop here to explain. Whilst yes, technically “police” is a noun, when it is put before another noun – in our case “inspector” – it modifies (describes) the inspector. Therefore, it takes the function of an adjective. This is something that puzzles a lot of EAL learners – for instance, in my own mother tongue, Polish, “police” is “policja” but “police inspector” is “inspektor policji”. Same in Lithuanian where “police” is “policija” but “police inspector” is “policijus inspektorius”. “Police” as a noun and “police” as an adjective take different forms. It is useful, therefore, to remind our EAL learners that in English essentially any noun, placed before another noun, can take the adjectival function without changing its form.

Next, we’ve got our verb “arrives” and now we’ve got a preposition “at”, article “the” and noun “house”. Many many expressions in the English language take this P-A-N structure, of course. “at the house”, “in the afternoon”, “off the bat”, “off the wall”, “on the beach”, “at the front” are just a few of the examples. Again, a teachable moment which you can easily draw on later.

We can see now how all of these words make up the sentence’s subject, verb and object.

I’d also like to show you how sentence trees can useful to break down the language in subjects across the curriculum. Here is one from the subject of History where we can see the use of the passive voice (look at “was ordered”, which is made of the auxiliary verb “was” and the past participle “ordered”. You might notice that “to” in “to pay” is not grammatically considered to be a preposition, but rather a participle.

This one, lengthier and more complex-looking, from Geography, is another example of how a word normally acting as a noun (“storm”), when placed in front of another noun (“surges”), begins acting as an adjective. This is also a great example of how long subjects and objects can be in terms of number of words used for them. Since we can ask the question, “Storm surges are WHAT?”, the answer being, “the greatest threat to life from a tropical storm”, we can consider everything after the verb to be the sentence’s object.

In conclusion, using sentence trees with your learners is a terrific way of breaking the language down into manageable, smaller portions as you have seen by now. One remark needs to be made. We’re doing this with young learners in mind; if you are a linguist, you would notice rather quickly that we do not follow phrase markers as done by linguists. In our final example, we took the last 9 words and showed that they are one object. In phrase markers / syntax trees, we would likely have another stage; for instance, “a tropical storm” would be an noun phrase, but then “from a tropical storm” forms a prepositional phrase. That’s linguist’s stuff and far too advanced for our learners. We make things clearer for them without exposing them to large numbers of grammatical terms. We simply want to use the idea of sentence trees to make the grammar of subjects, verbs and objects – sentences – more accessible to them and usable by them.

This strategy has a huge potential for teaching the order of sentences, but also the order of words in phrases: you can show your learners language patterns such as article-adjective-noun or preposition-article-noun.

I hope you find it useful.

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3 Replies to “Sentence Trees

  1. Thank you. This is very helpful. I teach ESOL in communities and my learners are low level. Importantly, it for me to learn how to teach basic English.

  2. Hi Kamil. I like this system and I would think it also lends itself to learners completing missing parts or labelling functions within a tree as they increase in confidence.
    Have you come across sentence diagramming, which is essentially a less labelled version (and perhaps slightly more complex in its layout) than sentence trees?

    1. Thank you, James. Yes, I have heard of sentence diagramming. Do you have a source of these that you would recommend? In writing the post, I was going on my linguistic knowledge more than anything else, but I am always open to reading!

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