Most of us wouldn’t object to tips that save time and inspire our teaching. If they also help us secure subject knowledge, which is what we intend to do in this blog post, so much the better. Even those who already know about relative clauses might benefit from this kind of advice.
For example, could you spot the relative clauses in the three sentences above?
There are a number of points of grammar that can seem a bit tricky if English isn’t your strongest subject – and possibly even if it is.
Relative clauses is one of those topics that can set off a shiver of panic, perhaps because you don’t remember being taught about them when you were at school.
Fear not, however, because we have some pointers that should help you gain a better understanding for yourself and enhance your teaching practice.
What is a relative clause?
A relative clause is a group of words that modifies a noun in the main clause by adding extra information about it. It can come at the end of a sentence or be embedded within it.
If you struggled to identify examples of relative clauses in the first paragraph above, take a look at the examples here, and those in italics in the paragraph below.
Relative clause examples
- The person who brought the cakes.
- The teacher who made this worksheet.
- The road which bends to the left.
- The language that they speak in Tanzania.
A relative clause begins with a relative pronoun, while a subordinate clause can start with a relative pronoun or a subordinating conjunction.
How to explain relative clauses to children
Making the concept of relative clauses ‘stick’ for children can be quite daunting but here are a couple of ideas.
‘Relative’ means that the clause relates to the noun. However, you could get them to write examples about their relatives, for example: ‘My grandma, who has a broomstick, often goes out at night.’ or ‘This is the bike that my sister bought.’
Alternatively, try using our relative clauses sentence maker cards. They’re a great, hands-on way to get pupils to create sentences of their own.
Why teach relative clauses?
Once you’ve answered the question, ‘What is a relative clause?’ the next question your pupils might ask is, ‘Why do I need to know about them?’ There are two reasons to know about relative clauses. One is because they improve your writing; the other is because they might well come up in the GPS test.
How to spot a relative pronoun
A good way of identifying relative clauses is to look for relative pronouns such as that, which, who and whose or relative adverbs such as where, when and why. Knowing that, feel free to check back over the first paragraph! Hopefully, they are now jumping off the page or screen at you.
Finding the clause
Having found the pronoun, you should now be able to find the clause. Remember, just because there is a that, which, who, etc, doesn’t mean it must be a relative clause.
Pupils will need to be able to identify the whole clause and the noun that it relates to.
Why not give them a range of sentences that use these pronouns and ask them to be sorted into two groups: those that contain relative clauses and those that don’t?
Using relative clauses in writing
Of course, pupils also need to put their knowledge into practice. Encourage them to deliberately weave relative clauses into their writing where appropriate in a way that they could confidently point out to someone else.
It also helps to have a task that lends itself to the inclusion of relative clauses. For an instant solution, try our Tricky Grammar Story Starter resource pack for relative clauses, which includes full teacher guidance as well as stimulating activities.
Alternatively, if you’re a full Plazoom member, you could try the relevant Y5 Grammar Burst pack, which provides plans for short teaching sessions followed by the chance to use relative clauses in context and ultimately in an extended writing task.
Restrictive clause or non-restrictive clause
Possibly focusing on your more able pupils, why not explore the difference between restrictive relative clauses and non restrictive relative clauses? Non restrictive relative clauses are those that can be removed from the sentence without changing the essential meaning.
For example, My brother, who turned eight this year, has never learned to ride a bike. You could remove the relative clause and the sentence would still make sense: My brother has never learned to ride a bike.
However, you cannot remove a restrictive relative clause without changing the meaning of the sentence.
For example, She looked around the class to spot the pupil who had the tidiest table. Without the relative clause who had the tidiest table, the sentence loses its essential meaning.
Why does this distinction matter? It helps with your punctuation. Non-restrictive clauses should have commas to demarcate them but restrictive ones should not.
Relative clauses – learning by checking
Make good use of peer assessment. As well as making sure that you use relative clauses as a focus of your own assessment, challenge pupils to spot them in their partner’s work. For the more able ones, get them to check whether they have been punctuated correctly from a restrictive/non-restrictive perspective.
Relative clauses and embedded relative clauses – handle with care
As with most things in life, relative clauses can become too much of a good thing, especially embedded ones. There are plenty of other techniques, such as expanded noun phrases, that can increase the clarity and descriptive power of a piece of writing. Overuse of relative clauses can lead to the writing feeling rather ‘clunky’ or disjointed. In short, they should be used in moderation, relatively speaking.