Complex Sentence Structure: A Creative Solution

Complex sentence structure can be difficult to teach. Students often have difficulty moving from simple to more complex sentences, and incoroporating art seems to make the concept easier and more visual especially for late elementary and middle school students.

Writing supports reading, as all instruction in schools should, because students, especially those who struggle, will almost always read what they or another student has written.

Independent and Dependent Clauses and Complex Sentence Structure

The process begins with the addition of dependent clauses to basic simple sentences (independent clauses.) Students often mistake dependent clauses as sentences when, in fact, they can not stand alone but must be "joined" to independent clauses in order to express a complete thought.

A good way to help children visualize this is to relate it to something with which they are familiar - mothers and babies. Mothers are independent and typically able to survive "on their own." They are independent.

Babies, on the other hand, are unable to survive by themselves. They need to be "joined" with a caregiver who is independent - most often, their mothers. They are therefore considered dependent.

Approaching the concept in this way places the learning into the context of the student which is always important in developing meaning and ownership of any concept being presented.

The Grammar-quarium

In the Grammar-quarium, an independent clause is written on each mother fish. Each of these can stand alone as a sentence since a parent fish can "swim alone" safely.

Baby fish cannot swim alone, however, and must swim with their mothers to complete a complex sentence. Students complete the dependent clauses by adding their own words to the introductory word (subordinating conjunction) that is already written on the baby fish.

I love snow

while it lasts.

whenever I am asleep.

after a lot of it falls.

although it is cold.

Summer is my favorite season

whenever it's sunny out.

after doing the EOG math.

while I am out of school.

although I miss school.

More examples of independent clauses:

 I like math.

 I enjoy science.

 Ipads are great.

My favorite sport is _________.

Dogs are good pets.

I love my smart phone.

Common Subordinating Conjunctions









For more subordinating conjuctions, see Subordinating Conjunctions at

The Grammar-quarium may also be used to teach compound sentences by joining two parent fish with coordinate conjunctions (and, but, or) similar to the Designer Fish in the right column.

Go to Stretegies for Teaching Writing from Complex Sentence Structure

Go to Children Writing Stories from Complex Sentence Structure

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Designer Fish

While editing the writing of my sixth grade students, I discovered that almost all of them started sentences with the word "And."

Since it is a conjuction and joins two words, phrases, or clauses together, there must be something on either side of it.

So we created "kissing fish" for our Grammar-quarium and decorated them with our own special designs, writing on them common expressions using the word "and."

We had a lot of fun finding them and were sharing them for days, even after the project was complete!

Designer Fish ideas

  • salt and pepper
  • fish and chips
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • Tom and Jerry
  • Phinneas and Ferb
  • Lilo and Stitch
  • peanut butter and jelly
  • black and white

Fish for Printing

Clicking on the name of each fish will open the file for printing.

Mother fish (left and right facing)

Baby fish facing right

Baby fish facing left

Designer (Kissing) fish left

Designer (Kissing) fish right


Here's where your artists can really shine by creating seaweed, animal life, and other treasures for the display.