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Coaching ESL Writers To Construct Complex Structures: Part 1

Pupils should be coached to construct complex structures as early as possible. Lower and upper forms pupils, particularly those who are intermediate learners and above, must know what a complex structure is and know how to construct complex structures for their better language quality in writing. This is absolutely in line with the assessment criteria for language endorsed by the Malaysian Examination Syndicate.

 What is a complex structure/sentence? The answer for this question can easily be found in grammar books or websites. ChatGPT can also offer an explanation. However, let me share my explanation about the complex structure based on my experience coaching my pupils to construct complex structures. Teachers may share the brief explanation shared below with their pupils.

A complex structure is a sentence that has a main idea (independent clause – can be on its own to form a complete sentence) and at least a subordinate idea (dependent clause – cannot stand on its own as a complete sentence). Teachers may also explain to the pupils that the main idea is a complete sentence whereas the subordinate idea (also refers to as a supporting or an additional idea) is not a complete sentence.

It is not difficult to identify a complex structure because it has subordinating conjunctions such as because, when, who and since to connect clauses. What is the function of the subordinate idea / dependent clause? Teachers may inform the pupils that it provides a detail or an elaboration. Besides, it can make the idea presented to be more specific.

Study the examples below:

1.      The live band will perform three songs (main idea) after the closing ceremony (subordinate idea).

1.1   The live band will perform three songs [main idea / complete sentence / independent clause]

1.2   after the closing ceremony [subordinate idea / incomplete sentence / dependent clause]


2.      Despite only being released two days ago, the movie has raked in RM5 million.

2.1   Despite only being released two days ago [subordinate idea / incomplete sentence / dependent clause]

2.2   the movie has raked in RM5 million [main idea / complete sentence / independent clause]


3.      The owner of the chalet, who is a British, knows how to entertain his guests.

3.1   The owner of the chalet knows how to entertain his guests [main idea / complete sentence / independent clause]

3.2   who is a British [subordinate idea / incomplete sentence / dependent clause]


After making sure the pupils understand what a complex structure is all about, of course, there must be sentence construction practices which can be fully guided, guided, or done independently. Looking at the pupils’ proficiency, ability and readiness, teachers may determine whether the sentence construction practice should be implemented in groups, pairs or individually. As we know, teachers are always the best decision makers who can decide what is the best. Examples of exercises which teachers may give to the pupils are shared below.


Identify the main ideas the sentences below. Underline each main idea.


1.      The participants enjoyed the beach cleaning project because they learnt so much about teamwork.

2.      Mutiara Café which was opened last year is always crowded during lunch.

3.      When the concert started all the teenagers screamed happily.

4.      Although artificial intelligence is good, we must always be careful with the information it offers.

5.      If we do not stop illegal logging, we will lose all the flora and fauna soon.



Identify the subordinate ideas the sentences below. Underline each subordinate idea.

1.      Online shopping is popular because it has many benefits.

2.      Despite the heavy snow, the children still play in the field.

3.      Mr. Kamal is extremely happy since his retirement.

4.      The cat ran across the hall while I was watching television.

5.      Whenever it rains, she will use her pink umbrella.



Change the subordinate idea in each sentence (the clause in bold). You may suggest any relevant and suitable ideas.

1.      He will be punished again because he fails his test.

2.      People are still littering although the government has increased the fine.

3.      All teenagers must think first before they trust any stranger.

4.      Alia is loved by all since she is very generous.

5.      Even though I like spaghetti, I avoid ordering it at the café.


Complete the sentences below with relevant subordinate ideas.

1.      The prefects were still playing in the field even though …

2.      Let me know your decision if …

3.      She has been learning French since …

4.      We can enjoy the sunset at Cenang Beach before …

5.      I must read English novels in order to …



In group / pairs / Individually, construct a complex sentence using each of the words given. Underline the main idea in each sentence.

1.      Because

2.      Although

3.      That

4.      Until

5.      Despite


Practices 1-5 suggested above should provide intermediate, above intermediate, or advanced ESL learners with a clear understanding of complex structures and how to construct them. Teachers may add more sentences if they think their learners need more than five examples or tasks. Additionally, if the activities offered above are not suitable, teachers may design their own sentence construction activities to suit their own learners and teaching context. In the next posting, more challenging activities that reinforce complex sentences will be shared. 

You may download this write up and edit it accordingly to suit your learners.

Complex structures Part 1
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