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Ask Thomas is a periodic column by veteren ESL teacher, Thomas Lavelle. Thomas Lavelle received his Masters in TESL from Birmingham and has taught ESL in many countries, but currently teaches at a university in the United States.





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Teaching Noun Clauses, Part 1

Today's topic is noun clauses. I have to warn you in advance that if you decided to tackle this area, my experience has been that noun clauses are complex and difficult to teach!  They are even more difficult to explain but I'll try to be as clear as possible and break them down gradually.

A noun clause is a dependent clause that works like a noun. You can find it as a subject, object or the compliment of a subject. Because of the variety of noun clauses, today I'm only going to try to discuss noun clauses as they are used as objects. Furthermore, in this article, I will confine the discussion to one aspect of object noun clauses: the 'that-clause'. I will offer an activity to teach these types of noun clauses.

To refresh your memory, a noun clause as an object might look like this:

Intro/Independent              Noun Clause/Dependent

Subject        Verb               Object

He                knows             that noun clauses are difficult.

There are three types of common noun clauses, which I'll eventually cover.

  • That- clauses, which are like the example above.
  • If/whether clauses:

I don't know whether/if my students  have studied noun clauses before.

The teacher must determine if they are ready to study noun clauses.

  • Wh- clauses that begin with words like who, what, how, whenever, which, etc?/font>

 I don't know which noun clauses to teach.

First you need to explain what a noun clause is.

As for punctuation, the intro clause determines whether it's a question or statement.

Now here's where it starts to get tricky to teach. How does a student know what tense to put the verb in the noun clause. Here's what I mean:

 At yesterday's meeting, the teachers all agreed that teaching noun clauses is/was a difficult problem.

I don't know about you but I have to think twice about which verb to choose. In most cases, any tense of the verb in the noun clause is grammatically acceptable, but it often changes the meaning in ways that are too subtle to teach to your students. 

The teachers agreed that teaching noun clauses is difficult implies that in general noun clauses are difficult to teach.

The teachers agreed that teaching noun clauses was difficult implies that it was a difficult at that particular time when they taught it.

That Clauses

 That  clauses are made from statements and are introduced by the word that. Now we have to kick it up another level because of the indirect object problem.

  • Sometimes we have sentences that begin such as, I agree that . . . , He concluded that . . . I noticed that . . .No problem, right?
  • But can we say, I assured that . . . I convinced that . . . I notified that . . . I reminded that . . . ? Of course we cannot. We must use an indirect object. I assured my students that they could handle noun clauses. I convinced them that it wasn??so difficult.
  • Then we have some verbs in the intro clause that you have the choice to use an indirect object or not. But the preposition 'to' is required.

I proved (to the students) that they could grasp this concept. I mentioned( to them) that we other students had done well with noun clauses.

  • Finally, there is the case when the indirect object is optional.

I promised (them) that the test would be easy. I promised (them) it would be short.

So let's get organized and set up a chart of the four groups and their different situations.

  1. Intro clause: no indirect object needed.

Common verbs include: agree, answer, notice assert, conclude, know, realize, state, think . .

Everyone knows that English is an international language

      2. Intro clause: indirect object optional but if used, needs the word 'to'

           Common verbs include: admit, explain. mention, point out, prove, reply

            I explained ( to my boss) that my computer crashed .

3.Intro clause: must use indirect object

 Common verbs include: assure, convince, inform, notify, remind, tell . . .

I reminded him that he had an appointment today

      4. Intro clause: indirect object optional

             Common verbs include: promise, show, teach, warn, write

           He showed (the class) how to make soup

Now there is yet another complication: After certain verbs and adjectives in the intro clause, the verb in the 'that-clause' is expressed in the simple form. Here??an example:

The ESL conversation instructor urged that the students be more talkative. He insisted that they not waste time looking in their dictionaries. It is necessary that each student speak more to other students.

Here are some of the verbs that cover this case:

Advise, ask command, demand, direct, insist, move, propose, recommend, suggest, urge

Here are some adjectives that cover this case:

Advisable, essential, necessary, important, urgent, vital

I know that's more than you ever care to know about this topic so in case you are still with me, here's an activity to get your students some practice with 'that' clauses.

 Warm up Exercise One: Choose a verb plus 'that' from the above groups that make sense in these sentences:
  1. Experts __________________ exercise is important for health.
  2. However, a recent  magazine article _________________ Americans do not exercise enough.
  3. Dr. Jones , in a letter to Congress, ________________ a campaign to increase the health of Americans is necessary.
  4. He also _________________ nutrition education in schools must begin in elementary school.
  5. He _____________ every American change his/her lifestyle.
Activity Two: Practicing the verb in the base form in the 'that' clause.
 This can be used as a conversation or writing activity

 Fictional Background Information:  There is a sudden and  serious reduction in the oil supply to our country and has caused a shortage. As a result, the government is proposing restrictions on gasoline use for cars. Follow the example to make noun clauses:



What did the government order?

People must decrease their use of gasoline; they should not waste gas.

Answer: The government ordered that people decrease their gasoline use and that they not waste it.


Show students how to cut out the modal, must, should, etc? __________________________________________________________________

  1. What did the government demand?

Each family must reduce their gas usage by 30%



    2. What is necessary?

Everyone must obey the new restrictions



3.What did the government require for people who live in the city?

People can only drive 3 times a week .      



       4. What is advisable?

People should conserve gas as much as possible.



       5. What has been demanded of airlines? 

Airlines should cut their trips by 25 %



       6. What was suggested?

All workers use public transportation if possible



       7. What was urged?  

People must take this crisis seriously

If you are using this as a speaking practice activity you can put the questions on one card and the response on another card and pass them out at random in small groups. Or put all the questions in a pile and have students take turns picking up a question card and the next student must answer the question with a suitable noun clause. The above example is short so you'll have to create some more situations to practice with but it should give you an idea about how to get started teaching noun clauses that begin with 'that'.


Oshima, A. and Hogue, A.(1999) Writing Academic English   Longman