‘Drawing sentences’

The title relates to something I touched on rather briefly in my 40-minute workshop/session at a recent ResearchED conference in Oxford; something which seems to have generated some interest both at and following the event – on Twitter. 

I hasten to add that what is about to follow can and, indeed, should be used as much with EAL learners as with native English speaking students – for the purpose of teaching and making explicit the English language.

‘Drawing sentences’ is about presenting sentence clauses graphically so that your students can appreciate the relationships between the different clauses in sentences. When I was at school in Poland, for the entire I was in the high school (secondary), the following – in my rather bad handwriting below – was “hammered into” me. 


This type 1 of ‘drawing sentences’ is graphically depicting the relationships between relative clauses (where words such as who, what, when, why, whom and that) are used. In Polish, relative clauses are invariably preceded by a comma. In English, which is considerably more relaxed with its comma usage, we can use the same graphical representation to distinguish between:

  • defining clauses (sentence 1 above) – the relative clause “which inspired me” defines “the book” clause 1 would lose meaning if you did not include clause 2 – you need 2 to understand 1. When using such defining clauses, the rule is that we do not include a comma when writing it.
  • non-defining clauses (sentence 2 above) – here, however, if you remove the who- clause, the sentence is still perfectly understandable as people normally have just 1 father! Removing this additional information about the father being an engineer, does not adversely affect your ability to understand the clause 1 (composed here of 1a and 1b). Such additional information, which doesn’t define the subject of the main clause, is put in between two commas (or a comma and a full stop if it is put at the end of a sentence in other cases).

In both of these cases, the number 1 or 1a+1b constitute main clauses, and clauses number two are their subordinate clauses, dependent on them (you cannot just write Which inspired me. or Who is an engineer. without talking about the book or the father first – it would make no sense. It seems to make more sense to talk to students about subordinate clauses rather than relative clauses here. Sub = under, and that is precisely what is presented in the “drawing of the sentences” here. The dotted line and the positioning of clause 2 under clause 1 indicate that clause 2 serves clause 1.



I did not speak of this type of presenting sentences at the ResearchED conference, but it is a natural extension of this type of thinking. Clearly, there are more ways to link clauses than through relative relationships. Please look at the examples below.

In a certain way, using this type of graphical representation of clauses in sentences is slightly reminiscent of graphic organisers / key visuals, very much a strong aspect of distinct EAL pedagogy. However, I am sure you can appreciate how it can work for all learners. It will make the learners think about he structure of their sentences and whether what they are trying to express is logical. The Type 1, with its specific distinction around the usage of comma, might help students to think more about punctuation emphasise the point that writing is not just speaking written down and in so doing help avoid issues such as run-on sentences.

The Type 2 “drawing” does focus on connectives but shows the relationships created by these – connective mats just don’t do that. Perhaps this is of particular importance to EAL learners who will often be unaware of the myriad of English language connectives and will, thus, be unable to use the vast majority of them (representing them visually can be used in explicit teaching of these), but arguably, these will be very beneficial to all learners, focusing their attention on whether the meaning they want to put across to you is actually being expressed. Reverse-investigating of your own writing in this manner can be a very powerful self-reflective tool for formative assessment. It could also indicate to students whether or not they use double-clause sentences at all – perhaps, if can never get to show two clauses graphically – they use too simplistic a language! Why not tackle that?

Just a thought.

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