Building Language Skills: Strategies for Compound and Complex Sentences

Language is comprised of sounds, words, phrases, and sentences.  At all levels, language tends to be rule-based. Phonology refers to the rules of the sound system and the rules of sound combination.  Morphology refers to the structure and construction of words. Morphology skills require an understanding and use of the appropriate structure of a word, such as word roots, prefixes, and affixes (called morphemes).  Strong knowledge of grammatical morphemes, such as use of –ing for a present progressive verb, /s/ to indicate a plural form, and correct use of verb tense, is necessary to have well developed morphology skills. The content or semantics is the meaning behind the morphemes and words within a sentence – the literal meaning. How we convey semantics in our everyday speech and language is known as our pragmatic language such as conversational turns or the attitude of the speaker.

Syntax refers to the rules of word order and word combinations to form phrases and sentences. Solid syntactic skills require an understanding of the use of correct word order and organization in phrases and sentences with the ability to use increasingly complex sentences as language develops. This phenomenon can be difficult for a child with disabilities.

Children with morphology and syntactic deficits have trouble learning and using the rules that govern word formation (morphemes) and phrase/sentence formation (syntax).  At the word level, these children may not correctly use plural forms or verb tenses.  At the phrase or sentence level, children with syntactic deficits might use incorrect word order, leave out words, or use a limited number of complex sentences. For example, a child may omit prepositional clauses which decreases one’s use of complex sentences. It is important to target prepositions with one-step instructions such as stating, “Put the ball under the box.” In addition, locative prepositions can be targeted by presenting a descriptive photograph with many items, asking the child, “What is under the ___?”

Children with disorders of motor speech control are likely to have cooccurring difficulties with morphology related to impaired speech control.  For example, a child with a motor speech disorder may not be able to produce /s/ and /z/. This limits the child in producing plural words.  Disorganized and/or immature language in phrases and sentences is also seen frequently in children with motor speech disorders. Words may be omitted, or sentences simplified due to difficulty with speech production. Facial and tongue exercises can relieve the difficulty of speech production.

By introducing various sentence structures one at a time, it will be easier for the child to understand sentence structures. Begin with simple sentences, focusing on the subject and verb. A subject and verb together is the purest form of a sentence. Once the child understands this sentence structure, it is important to introduce adjectives. Children should be able to identify descriptive language words by pointing to objects and pictures, then they can learn to verbally express adjectives. Next, children can learn to construct various sentence structures (e.g. Article + Noun+ Verb + Adjective, Article + Adjective + Noun + Verb). There will be a variety of other simple sentence forms for children to learn to communicate. Once they have added a variety of expressive sentences consistently into their communication repertoire, a speech-language pathologist can introduce compound sentences to children with language disorders.  Explain that a compound sentence has at least two simple sentences or independent clauses that can stand on its own. Phrases or dependent clauses are not included in compound sentences.

Then, introduce the mnemonic acronym FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. These words mark the beginning of a phrase; they are also known as coordinating conjunctions because the words join two simple sentences. A speech-language pathologist can provide children with a verbal and written model of compound sentences (e.g. I went to the museum and I saw the dinosaur exhibit). Children can practice identifying compound sentences in children’s literature, rearranging provided words to construct sentences, and expressing compound sentences when provided with target coordinating conjunctions. Many children in elementary and even middle school need direct instruction during language therapy to master this linguistic skill.

Prepositions also indicate the beginning of a dependent phrase. During speech/language therapy practice, children can highlight prepositions and coordinating conjunctions in a dependent phrase to differentiate independent and dependent clauses. Once the child understands the difference between a dependent and independent clause, explain that a complex sentence contains one dependent clause (e.g. phrase) and one independent clause (e.g. simple sentence). A complex sentence often begins with a subordinating conjunction. The speech language pathologist can describe the mnemonic acronym AAAWWUUBBIS: after, although, as, when, while, until, unless, because, before, if, since to learn these types of conjunctions.

Compound-complex sentences are sentences with at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. A compound-complex sentence combines both compound sentences and complex sentences together. An activity during speech/language therapy with middle school students, can be to highlight the dependent clauses, while underlining each independent clause. Remember each clause always needs an agreeing subject and a verb!

Many children and adolescents will benefit from learning the parts of speech that are essential for sentence construction. A speech-language pathologist may provide a quick vocabulary check to evaluate what parts of speech terms a student may already know. It is a good idea to provide a brief assessment that contains a word bank. Then, you should provide direct instruction to elementary and middle school students with examples containing the parts of speech. They can practice identifying the words in children’s literature and structured syntax activities. Additionally, picture description tasks are ideal activities for children to practice building compound and complex sentences.  Here are a few language building resources to improve the syntax skills of children with receptive and expressive language disorders:

English/Language Arts Vocabulary Progress Monitoring

Parts of Speech Graphic Organizer

Guess What? Types of Sentences, Parts of Sentences, & Parts of Speech

No Glamour Sentence Structure

Guess What? Prefixes & Suffixes

Speech/Language Therapy Curriculum Assessments