How to Teach Relative Clauses | Teaching English Grammar

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How to teach relative clauses

Relative Clauses: We Use Them all the Time

Relative clauses are important and we use them all the time in the English language.We just use them naturally, never make mistakes and use reduced relative clauses all the time without even realizing it. The problem comes when teaching relative clauses to students because while important, it’s  something that most students aren’t confident in. Relative clauses are also heavy on the grammar and metalanguage (language used to talk about language-“reduced relative clause” for example).

It’s Difficult to Teach Relative Clauses: What to Do?

Skip that chapter in the book and save yourself a headache?

No! It actually is important and useful for intermediate and advanced level students. However, I’m not sure I’d attempt teaching relative clauses to  beginners. They often struggle with making even simple sentences!

Become a Powerpoint King or Queen?

No! Rocking out the powerpoint for more than about 5-10 minutes in a row is never a good teaching plan.  It goes against everything good and holy student-centered teaching.  It’s the least effective teaching method and students usually just end up sleeping.

Attempt to Teach it in a Student-Centred Way?

Yes!  Teaching relative clauses in a student-centred way is going to be the best plan for you. Even though it’s a grammar heavy thing, doesn’t mean that you need to lecture.

I remember when I did my CELTA course and had to teach the simple past. I lectured the students on all the ins and outs of it for a few minutes and then assigned some practice questions for my students. At the end, during feedback time, my tutor said it wasn’t terrible, but that it could have been far, far more student-centred. That comment changed the way I taught!

Related: 50 Student Centred ESL Activities and Games

Relative Clause Grammar: Self-Discovery Style

I made this Relative Clause Self-Study Worksheet in an attempt to get students to “discover” the grammar in a way that doesn’t involve me lecturing. I point out the page in the book with the grammar explanation and direct students to refer to it if they’re unsure; all of the students have studied this before so I’m hoping they can activate their prior knowledge and have the basics already.

Controlled Practice

After doing this worksheet, students do a page in their book focusing on the forms (very controlled practice). They’ll compare with their partner first and then we’ll check answers as a class.

Somewhat Controlled Practice

Next, they think about 1 person-a friend or family member and write down 5 or 6 sentences about them, using relative clauses (2-3 object clauses and 2-3 subject clauses) (somewhat controlled but less than previous exercise). They share with their partner who will think of some interesting follow-up questions.

Free Practice

Then, it’s finally time for free(r)-practice!  I’ll put this up on the screen: Relative Clause Friends and Family Questions and ask students to choose 2 or 3 questions to answer. They can think of 3 or 4 sentences/ question, one of which must use a relative clause. They’ll share their answers with their partner and have a discussion together.


I’ve also used these questions for homework and got students to submit answers via YouTube or in writing.

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Last update on 2019-09-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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