Writing Complex Sentences in History

In this History lesson with my newly arrived EAL learners, we were talking about allies and enemies in the World War 2. The content target was for students to be able to tell who were the allies and who were their enemies – based on 7 different countries – and who the leaders of those countries were. My linguistic target for them was writing sentences, depending on their level, either compound or complex, but not simple. Indeed, for my top level, they were actually, so to speak, “super-complex” sentences. We’ll see later what I mean by this. The title of this video is “writing complex sentences” as the majority of the learners were writing complex sentences, with only the lowest level writing compound ones.

Again, I used resources available at EAL Nexus as my base material (The Bell Foundation, https://ealresources.bell-foundation.org.uk/resources/world-war-ii-allies-and-enemies). This involved first EAL learners familiarising themselves with the cards with the flags of the allied countries on two opposing sides of the conflict and the pictures of the leaders of those countries. We played a Pelmanism game first – this is simply placing cards on a table face-down and trying to remember their position by uncovering two images at a time. The player who finds most pairs wins. Throughout this exercise, I insisted that the learners say the following sentences every time they picked their cards, e.g., “This is a flag of Germany” and “Germany’s leader was Adolf Hitler”, obviously changing the names of the flags and the leaders depending on which card they picked.

Next (same image, top-right above), we played another card game in the same pairs where students needed to match the flag cards with the pictures of the leaders on the game board. For instance, if the card with the American flag was picked with “enemy of the United States” written on it, the player would have to place it on the picture of Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo or Benito Mussolini. Again, the students’ turn-taking was punctuated by them speaking sentences, in this case, “Adolf Hitler was the leader of Germany. Germany was an enemy of the United States.” justifying their choices. The player’s partner would then verify the truthfulness or falsehood of their statements.

The final activity (bottom-left above) was working with the large A3 diagram which you can see in the bottom left side of the screenshot. Here, the pairs of students had to simply write “enemy” or “ally” in each white box. I did not ask them this time to speak sentences whilst they were conducting this activity – if we did this, it would obviously take ages!

These activities were provided by EAL Nexus. Now it was over to me to get them to write sentences. The students on my “red” (lowest) English language acquisition level engaged in writing the simplest – compoundsentences. As we can see just under the ally/enemy diagram, they were provided with a gap fill (called “cloze” sometimes) activity, where learners needed to complete the sentences with the relevant names of the countries. They were asked to write 10 such sentences. As a reminder, sentences using FANBOYS connectives (for, and, nor, BUT, or, yet and so) are called compound

The orange level, however, had a bigger task. We can immediately see here that these sentences are longer and definitely complex. In fact, they are “super-complex” as they include two “which” clauses within one sentence. This work was building on what I had taught the students before – in the previous 3 weeks, where we had been working extensively on distinguishing between simple, compound and complex sentences. The learners on the orange and green levels do understand the difference between compound and complex; obvious if one looks at their books – so now it was time to move to the higher level of grammatical complexity. We can see how the substitution table now checks for the historical understanding – by asking which of the leaders was the leader of which country, but I also checked for whether or not they understand the difference between “an enemy” and “an ally”, which were the words introduced in this lesson. Grammatically, these sentences are in the past simple tense, building up on the tense we had been studying and revising recently. The students were asked to write 10 sentences of this sort.


What really should happen when you use the substitution tables is that they should be able to let their user generate several sentences rather than just one. By mixing the names of the countries in column 1 and column 6, we can, of course create more than just 10 sentences that I asked for.

The top level in the class received this substitution table, where as you can see I replaced the names of the countries with the flags – obviously meaning that the learners needed to turn them into words. When planning this part of the lesson, I toyed for a moment or two with the idea of whether or not to replace the names of the leaders with pictures, but deemed this inappropriate as they are not actual English words, but names of people – this would not have been a language intervention. Again, the learners needed to write 10 sentences using this table.


However, there was one more thing they needed to do. They needed to present the sentences graphically. Now, what does this mean, exactly?

It was something that the learners had been asked to do in the preceding week. This image (below) is not from my lesson, actually, from another of my blogs. Both of these sentences are complex. Sentence number one is composed of the main clause “This is the book” and the relative clause “which inspired me”. This type of relative clause is sometimes referred to as “defining”, this is to say that the book is identified – or defined – by the “inspired” clause. We know which book we’re talking about. Because the relative clause “which inspired me” is subordinate to its main clause “this is the book”, we can present the main clause graphically as “above” the subordinate/relative clause “which inspired me.

The second sentence is different in that we do not need “who is an engineer” to define “my father”. We usually have one father! so the phrase “who is an engineer” provides additional information about the father, but doesn’t define him – thus this clause is called “non-defining relative clause”. Here, the main clause “My father is a master of disguise” is broken by the relative clause “who is an engineer” and we can see this presented graphically – 1a, first part of the main clause comes first, but then we go lower to the relative (subordinate) clause, but then come back up to 1b, which is the rest of the main clause we started with.

Our World War 2 sentences also contain such non-defining relative clauses – two of them! Given that my learners already knew how to draw complex sentences, I asked them to look at the sentences they had just written and try to come up with how they could present it. They worked as a group. They needed some guidance, and needed to revisit their previous drawing of complex sentences, but did, in the end, figure out how to draw the sentences. Here, our main clause is the 1a+1b “Germany was an enemy of Britain”, with “which was led by Adolf Hitler” describing Germany, being relative clause (2), which is why we need to lower from 1a to 2, and then come back up to finish the main clause, but then, of course, “Britain” is described further by the relative clause (3) “which was led by Winston Churchill” so we need to go lower towards 3.

* Note: these concepts are explored in far greater detail in my online course (only 35 GBP) “Grammar for Secondary School Teachers”.

They all got it. There was little doubt about it. What it means now, in fact, is that they will be able to write sentences in a similar structure as the one you see about Amelia. All of these are “super-complex” as they contain two subordinate/relative clauses (the “which” clauses). NALDIC, National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum, insist that we focus on grammar and extend the use of language – this is precisely what we’ve done here. We took their understanding of complex sentences they had already, and pushed them further, challenging them. This is, of course, nothing else but the well known Vygotsky’s ZPD. What was achieved in that lesson last Thursday was precisely what he talked about: with guidance, learners “can do”. Their homework is now to write sentences using the same structure about their family members or about their friends, for instance, “Kornelia, who is my sister, has guitar lessons on Sundays, which are very difficult.”

Now, of course, I can alternate much easier between the English language itself and subject content. You might not have that kind of freedom. But there would be nothing to stop you, in History lessons, from assigning them as homework to write such sentences providing them with bits of information about Adolf Hitler, Henry VIII or William Wilberforce or whichever topic in history you are covering. For instance, “Henry VIII, who had six wives, was crowned in 1509 when he was only 18 years old.” or “SMS Schleswig-Holstein, which was a German battleship, fired the first shot in WW2, which then lasted for 6 years.”

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