Unit 4: Grammar for Improving Composition Skills


Grammar is central to good writing. Our mastery of grammatical categories and structures determines whether what we write is meaningful, logical and interesting to read. The message that we wish to convey through our written words will serve its purpose only if we shape it through the appropriate language. As we saw in Unit 2 above, a sentence like I would like to invite you to dinner is meant for one audience and purpose, and Why don’t you guys join me for dinner? is meant for another. The first sentence is a statement with a modal verb, and is meant as a formal invitation, while the second sentence, which uses an interrogative form, is also an invitation, but is meant as an informal, spontaneous utterance, addressed to close friends.

This unit presents ways in which grammatical structures convey different meanings in written compositions. It contains activities for practice in using simple, compound and complex sentences, sequencing of ideas in paragraphs through relative clauses and pronouns, use of grammatical connectors like conjunctions, and descriptive categories such as adjectives, to improve composition.

Unit outcomes


Upon completion of this unit you will be able to:

  • explore different ways in which English grammar can be used for better writing,

  • give your students practice in expressing themselves appropriately by helping them focus on the use of appropriate grammatical structure, and

  • motivate your students to play grammar games to improve their language skills.



Simple sentences:

Sentences with two essential parts: a subject and a predicate as in A boy ate the mangoes where a boy is the subject and ate the mangoes is the predicate.

Compound sentences:

These are sentences usually formed by combining two simple sentences with conjunctions such as and or but, as in The man can beat the drum and his wife can sing.

Complex sentences:

These are commonly formed by sentences with a main clause and a subordinate clause as in I saw her (main clause) when she was running away (subordinate clause).

Compound-complex sentences:

These are commonly formed by a combination of simple, compound and complex sentences with a series of subordinate clauses as in The woman was clapping her hands (simple sentence) and her children were dancing beautifully (compound sentence) because they were very happy (complex sentence).


Non-finite verbs:

Verbs with no subject, tense or number. They are participial verbs (i.e., verbs that end in –ing or –ed but are not denoting past/present/future tense) and do not use auxiliary verbs (“be” verbs or modals) to complete their meaning. For example: Turning the handle, she opened the door.



These are words used for joining other words or group of words in sentences (e.g., and, but, or, neither… nor, either… or, and so on).


Sentence linkers:

These are words that link sentences together (e.g., therefore, consequently, furthermore, firstly, secondly and so on).


Descriptive adjectives:

These are words and expressions that are used to describe a noun in a sentence. They can appear before the noun (attributive adjectives) — as in a handsome boy, a beautiful girl — or after it (predicative adjectives) — as in The boy is handsome.


Connected writing:

Any piece of written text that is at least a paragraph long, and expresses an idea or a group of related ideas.

Teacher support information

As teachers of English, we are all familiar with grammatical concepts, categories and structures, and have been teaching these to our students to improve their writing skills. However, we also know that even though we have taught our students about different types of sentences, use of pronouns and articles, active and passive voice and so on, we still find many errors in their written work. Somehow the grammatical concepts that we teach are not transferred to our students’ compositions. One reason for this may be that students do not get enough practice in the process of writing, which requires careful attention to grammar, style and choice of words. In this unit, we will try to address some of these issues by helping you engage your students in writing activities that practise key grammatical categories.

Case study

Case study

Mrs Cecelia Wong is a teacher in a semi-urban secondary school. Her greatest problem was the nonchalant attitude of her JSS III students to grammar. They became so bored during grammar lessons that Mrs Wong had stopped teaching this component of English.

At an English Language teachers’ conference, Mrs Wong mentioned this problem and discovered that many colleagues faced the same problem, no matter where they taught. The solution suggested to her was to show students how grammar operates in real and meaningful communicative situations. She decided that her approach to teaching grammar would have to change when she returned to her school. She realised that she would have to make grammar less abstract and more meaningful to real-life communication. Writing was her first target. She engaged her students in interesting tasks that helped them use specific grammatical categories in authentic and real-life situations. Mrs Wong carried out her own personal research on which grammatical categories her students needed to practise most, and set out to design simple and collaborative tasks on these. She had her students work in pairs and groups, and tried to relate their tasks to the grammar teaching points in their textbooks. To Mrs Wong’s pleasant surprise, her students’ attitude to grammar started to change. They now saw grammar lessons as interesting and meaningful. Above all, their use of grammar in their writing improved radically. Mrs Wong could see the value of re-directing the teaching of grammar towards better written English.

Points to ponder

  1. What is your JSS students’ attitude to grammar? Are they enthusiastic about grammar lessons? Why?

  2. In your grammar classes, do you bring in examples from students’ familiar contexts to illustrate a grammar rule or point? What advantages does such a strategy have over traditional strategies such as memorising grammar rules in isolation?


Activity 1: Effective writing: Using non-finite verbs in descriptive passages

Activity 1

In any piece of connected writing, we use several strategies to relate one idea to the next. Sometimes we like to give a background, a reason, a consequence or additional information to the idea we wish to express. The grammatical way of doing this is to use complex or compound sentences, and to join their ideas by special grammatical devices. In Unit 2 we discussed one such category: relative clauses. In this unit, we will look at the uses of non-finite verb forms — verb forms that do not specify the time of an action or event. Non-finite verbs usually end in –ing or –ed, and are often found at the beginning of subordinate clauses.

In this activity, your students will practise using non-finite verbs, focusing on the function they perform in subordinate clauses. Before you begin the activity, however, have a short class discussion on auxiliary and main verbs, which they will have already learned about in previous classes. Remind them that auxiliary verbs are also known as helping verbs, and are the various forms of the verbs be, have and do (am, is, are, was, were, do, does, did, have, has, had and so on). Also bring to their notice that these verbs tell us about the time and aspect of an action — whether something happened in the past, present or future, and whether the action was continuous (progressive aspect: continuous tense), regular (habitual) or began in the past and ended in the present (perfect aspect).

Then have them suggest some main verbs, and put up several sentences demonstrating tense and aspect (e.g., past continuous, present perfect). Ask them for the tense forms of such main verbs (past, present, future forms). Explain that such verbs, which give us information about the time and duration of an action, are called finite verbs.

Now put up a few non-finite verbs and draw the students’ attention to the fact that although these are also main verbs, they do not have auxiliary or helping verbs with them. To illustrate the point, you can use a pair of sentences like:

I turned the lock and walked into the room.

Turning the lock, I walked into the room.

Show them how in the first sentence, the verbs turned and walked both show that the activity was completed in the past. In the second sentence, however, only the verb walked tells us the time of the action. The verb turning, although ending in –ing, by itself does not give us any information about the time. For example, we could use the same verb turning to talk about the event happening at different times:

Turning the lock, I walk into the room.

Turning the lock, I will walk into the room.

Turning the lock, I am walking into the room.

Tell the students that such verbs are called non-finite verbs because they give us no definite information about the time and duration of an action. Illustrate this using several examples of non-finite verbs with to forms as well as –ing and –ed forms. For example:

Walking home from school, I met my friends playing in the park.

Swept away by the huge ocean waves, nothing remained of our village after the storm.

To walk home from school through the park takes us one whole hour.

Have the students listen to the audio tape of a conversation between a police officer investigating a robbery and some people he is interviewing (see Resource 1) and complete the exercise below.


Listen to the conversation between a police officer investigating a robbery and the people who live in the neighbouring apartments.

As you listen, note down the verbs you hear. Then sort the verbs into finite and non-finite. Now study the same conversation (on your worksheet) with a partner, and say what information the non-finite verbs are giving. For example, the first non-finite verb, talking, is giving us more information about the behaviour of the robbers.

When the students have finished the exercise, discuss how finite verbs give us information about the time, duration, etc., of an action, while non-finite verbs give us additional information about the action. For more practice, help them write a similar conversation using a mixture of finite and non-finite verbs.

Activity 2: Composing a story: The use of reported speech

Activity 2

As you are aware, students at the JSS level are regularly expected to narrate and report on events, whether real (e.g., a concert) or imaginary (e.g., a story). This kind of composition is expected to help students use English for longer exchanges, in both spoken and written forms. To help develop the students’ ability to compose factual or fictional narratives relating to people and events, we need to engage them in meaningful activities where they practise using grammatical forms and structures relating to reporting.

In this activity, students will practise narrating an event/composing a story by reporting on conversations. This should give them practice in using reported speech in its appropriate tense forms and sentence patterns.

As a pre-task, play the dialogue in Resource 2a to your students, or read it out to them, and ask them to listen carefully, as they will have to report what they have heard. The dialogue is between two boys, Abdul and Robin.

Ask a student to report what Abdul asked Robin. You can prompt him or her by reporting the first sentence: Abdul asked Robin whether he had done his maths homework. You can ask different students, in turns, to report the next part of the dialogue. In case the students forget the conversation, play it to them again. After the students have reported on every sentence in the conversation, point out the grammatical changes that occur when we report someone else’s words. (See Resource 2b for common changes.)

Now ask the students, working in pairs, to write their own dialogues for the conversation between Robin and Abdul. Ask some of them to report to the class what the boys are talking about. (As this is a preparatory activity, you do not need to ask every pair to report.) As the students speak, write their reported sentences (just one or two) on the board, and then ask them for the original dialogue. Put these on the board as well, and draw the students’ attention to the grammatical differences between direct and reported speech. You can focus on the use of a reporting verb, the change in tense, the differences in punctuation and so on. This activity should help them understand the function of reported speech in an actual, real-life context.

For the main activity, have the students, working in the same pairs, compose a story about Robin and Abdul. Ask them to think first about factual details of their own lives, such as the name of their school, their class, the place they stay and so on. Then have them use their imagination to think of fictional details, such as why Abdul forgot his homework, and what would happen when the teacher found out, and so on. Remind them to think of an interesting beginning and ending for the story. Since this is an exercise in practising reported speech, instruct them to use reported speech instead of actual dialogue. For example, they could include a sentence like:

Just when he was about to enter through the school gates, Abdul realised he had forgotten his homework notebook. He rushed into the classroom to see if he could borrow anyone’s homework. Relieved to see Robin, Abdul hurriedly asked Robin whether he had done his Maths homework…

You can also ask them to illustrate their stories with pictures. Once the stories come in, you can put them on the display board in turns.

As a post-writing activity, ask your students to read English newspapers and magazines (one good magazine is Reader’s Digest, which has a section on quotes) and note down the quotable quotes in their notebooks. The students should bring one of the quotes to the class every day, rewriting them in reported speech. Each student can contribute one quotable quote and its reported form for the bulletin board every day.

Activity 3: Describing events


Activity 3

In Module 4 — Effective Writing, one activity in Unit 3 (Activity 3: Communicating effectively: Writing a report) was meant to develop students’ report writing skills. In that activity, we discussed the effect on the meaning of a sentence when we replace active voice with passive voice. In this activity, we will practise using active and passive voice when describing an event. To prepare your students for this activity, you could take them through the strategies described in Module 4 — putting comparable sentences in active and passive voice on the board, and asking your students to point out the grammatical differences. The discussion should focus on the fact that when the structure of the sentence changes from active to passive, the focus shifts from the doer of the action to the action itself.

For this activity, show students the video (Resource 3a: Describing a cultural show) or read out the transcript. Tell them to watch carefully and note down the following information in their notebooks:

  1. The names of the people in the video

  2. The number of cultural presentations described

  3. The names of the presentations

  4. The comments about each presentation

Now give them Samantha’s description of the event (see Resource 3b for the audio file and transcript), and draw their attention to the fact that in this passage Samantha is commenting on the presenters. Focus on the sentences used to describe the presentations. They use the active voice, because Samantha is highlighting the performers.

The students should rewrite the description, but this time focusing on the performance rather than the performers. In other words, they have to change the sentences in the active voice to the passive voice, so that the attention shifts from the person doing the action to the action itself. For example:

Our college Dramatics Club had put together a cultural extravaganza for the Governor’s visit, and it was a really unique experience.

will become:

A cultural extravaganza was put together by our college Dramatics Club for the Governor’s visit, and it was a really unique experience.

Continue in this way until all the sentences in the active voice are in the passive voice. Remind the students that not all the sentences need to be changed, only those that describe the performances need to be rewritten.

When the students have completed the activity, have them compare their passage with the original one, noting how the focus of the description changes. You can end the activity by asking them about other situations where they would need to write descriptions in the passive voice (reporting a piece of news, giving an account of a treatment, etc.).

Unit summary


In this unit we looked at a few grammatical structures that perform important functions in written texts. We also discussed the differences in meaning and focus that arise when one grammatical structure is replaced by another. More importantly, we tried to show the students how a sound knowledge of grammar helps us compose written English texts and respond to events more appropriately. The unit also tried to familiarise students with the various functions performed by common grammatical structures such as active and passive voice, reported speech and relative clauses.



  • As you worked through the unit, how did you find the organisation of the activities? Which activities did you find difficult to organise? How did you overcome these difficulties? What do you think could have been done better?



  • How can we make grammar more interesting and useful for students? What kind of activities would give them a chance to practise using grammar appropriately in real-life situations?

  • In what ways can we encourage peer activities in the class to develop grammatical skills? Do you think pair work and group work help students to practise their English language skills better?


Resource 1: A robbery investigation (transcript)

Resource 1

First Witness (Man): Here are the police, finally! Wonder what took them so long to arrive?

Second Witness (Woman): Well, I saw them talking to those three men over there!

Police Officer 1: Excuse me, we’ve just got a complaint about a robbery here — could you tell us something more about it?

Man: Well, I was awakened by a bell ringing. Jumping out of bed, I rushed out, thinking it was my doorbell. Opening the front door, I was surprised to see no one there.

Woman: Rushing out almost at the same time, I was shocked to see the front door of the flat opposite ours ajar, the furniture smashed to bits, the crystal showpieces broken, and our neighbour screaming for help.

Police Officer 2: Anything valuable stolen?

Woman: Um… I’m not too sure, but the lady was muttering something about jewellery. People walking up the stairs rushed to her aid, but the robbers had left by then.

Police Officer 1: The man standing outside the gate there — is he your security guard?

Man: Who, Ricky? He’s the caretaker — he would know about anyone leaving the building in a hurry!

Police Officer 1: Thanks, well talk to him and see what we can do.



Resource file

See in the enclosed DVD an audio recording of the activity:

  • Scripts\Module6\Unit4\Activity1\Resource1\Audio\A_Robbery_Investigation.mp3

Resource 2a: Reported speech (transcript)

Resource 2a

Abdul: Have you finished your maths homework, Robin? I forgot to bring my homework notebook, and I know Mr Smith’s going to order me out of the class!

Robin: What’s there to be so scared of, Abdul? Just copy down the homework from my notebook at lunch break and submit it!

Abdul: But I don’t have a notebook to copy it in…

Robin: Wait, I’ve got an extra notebook for my project work. You can use that.

Abdul: Thanks, Robin, you’ve saved my life!


Resource file

See in the enclosed DVD an audio recording of the activity:

  • Scripts\Module6\Unit4\Activity2\Resource2a\Audio\Using_Reported_Speech.mp3

Resource 2b: Reported speech (table of common changes)

Resource 2b

Direct Speech







Will + main verb

Main verb

changes to

Indirect Speech




That day

The following day

The previous day

Would + main verb

Am/is/was/are/were + main verb (past participle)

Resource 3a: Describing a cultural show (transcript)


Resource 3a

Rodney: Hi, Samantha! Where were you yesterday? We missed you at the rock show!

Samantha: Oh, sorry, Rodney! Our college Dramatics Club had put together a cultural extravaganza for the Governor’s visit, and it was a really unique experience.

Nikita: So what happened there? Was it good?

Samantha: It was terrific, Nikita! There were, let me see… seven presentations, including a solo performance by Jennifer White the country singer. Of course, the best performance was by our Dramatics Club. They put on a skit on our generation’s obsession with our iPhones and iPads and what not, and it was hilarious!

Shalom: We sure missed it, Sam! Why didn’t you tell us about it?

Samantha: I DID, Shalom! Last week… in the cafeteria, remember?

Shalom: Yeah… you did, didn’t you? And I clean forgot! So what else did you like?

Samantha: I think the ballet from The Troupers was simply superb. The violin solo by our local maestro Mr Mogambo wasn’t too bad either, though a bit too slow for the young crowd.

Rodney: Okay… that makes it four so far. What were the other three shows?

Samantha: Let me see… Umm… It started with an Indian classical dance recital by the Patil twins, Ruchika and Devika, which was actually very exotic and nice, and then there was one gymnastics show from a circus performer who danced with rings. The other item, I think, was the stand-up comedian Joe Pullman’s gig, which I thought was boring and his jokes were in really bad taste. I think that was about all.




Resource file

See in the enclosed DVD a video recording of the activity:

  • Scripts\Module6\Unit4\Activity3\Resource3a\Video\Cultural_Show.mp4

Resource 3b: Describing a cultural show (active voice)

Resource 3b


Our college Dramatics Club had put together a cultural extravaganza for the Governor’s visit, and it was a really unique experience. Seven acts put on performances. Jennifer White, the country singer, sang her popular numbers. The Dramatics Club put up the best performance — a skit on our generation’s obsession with our iPhones and iPads. Everyone enjoyed the skit. The ballet from The Troupers brought tears to everyone’s eyes. However, the young crowd did not enjoy the violin solo by our local maestro Mr Mogambo. The Patil twins, Ruchika and Devika, started the evening with an Indian classical dance recital, which was very exotic and nice. A circus artist then performed a gymnastics show with rings. Joe Pullman, the stand-up comedian put on a boring gig. I thought his jokes were in really bad taste. I think that was about all.



Resource file

See in the enclosed DVD an audio recording of the activity:

  • Scripts\Module6\Unit4\Activity3\Resource3b\Audio\Samanthas_Description.mp3

Teacher question and answer


Question: What do I do with students in my class who cannot read or write English well? How much more explanation of grammatical terms can be given in a class?

Answer: This is a big problem for all ESL (English as a Second Language) and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students. In almost every class you will find that some students can use some grammar items correctly while others cannot. One way of handling learner differences is to design and administer tasks that have different degrees of complexity. For example, when you give a task on tenses, give easier exercises to the less proficient students and more complex exercises to those who are more proficient. This way every student in the class will be involved, and students will have an opportunity to develop at their own pace. Another strategy you could use is to pair or group students who have poor grammar with students with stronger grammar skills. This will give the less proficient students a chance to learn from the better ones in an actual context. It does not help to teach and re-visit grammar items continually. It is better to use them spontaneously and in context.