(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)*
I recently put my students in small groups, gave them a list of sentences and asked them to identify which were incorrect and to correct those. Several of the groups either thought that this sentence was correct or believed that there was something wrong with it but couldn’t correct it:
- She doubted him to go to the party on Friday.
Surprisingly, these were advanced-level students who were stymied by this. In fact, when they asked me to explain the problem, some of them asked me, “Are you sure it’s wrong? It sounds right to me.” I imagine that the reason for their confusion is because they are familiar with the pattern of Subject + Verb + Object:
Actually, this is not a difficult grammar structure for students to learn, even lower level students. Basically, I tell them that after certain verbs, they should write “that” + subject + verb. (Technically, the word “that” is optional, but to keep it simple, I tell them to write “that.”) Although the formal term of this structure is “noun clauses,” I don’t expect them to remember that. If they can remember which verbs are followed by this structure, they’ll be fine.
These are some examples of this kind of mistake:
Mistake: She doubted him to go to the party on Friday.
Correct: She doubted that he would go to the party on Friday.
Mistake: His parents worry their kids to get into an accident.
Correct: His parents worry that their kids will get into an accident.
Avoiding unnecessarily complicated explanations (and handout exercises)
To help students in the most efficient manner, I will sometimes paint with a broad brush. I have found this general “rule” can be an easy way for students to avoid mistakes like those above.
After these commonly used verbs, you should write the word “that + subject + verb.”
- understand · know · worry · feel · realize
- hope · learn · believe · notice · think
Some of you might think, “Wait a minute. How about this sentence?”
· I believe him to be an honest person.
Yes, it’s true that that sentence which doesn’t follow the general rule is grammatically correct:
But in all my years of teaching writing, I rarely see students use them that way. They almost always use them with a noun clause so I don’t waste their time/mental energy talking to them about using these with an object. Instead, I just generalize and tell them that they should be followed by “that.”
After students have completed the following set of exercises, they tend to use those noun clauses correctly in their writing.
Exercise 1: Listening. I have found it most effective to start with a listening exercise. This way, perhaps the correct form will sound right to them.
Exercise 2: Identify. Working with the listening passage in Exercise 1, students identify all the verbs. This helps them internalize which words should be followed by “that.”
Exercise 3: Analyze. Students analyze a passage, find and correct the six noun clause mistakes.
Exercise 4: Apply. In this exercise, using verbs that they had worked with in the previous exercises, they write original sentences.
Here is the complete set of exercises which you are welcome to try out with your students. Noun Clauses Exercises HO
For more exercises that take a similar multi-step approach to teaching writing and grammar for writing, see Write after Input
Also, for more handout-exercises that use this approach, see
*About the free-download materials. During my 40 years of teaching ESL, I have had many colleagues who were very generous with their time, advice and materials. These downloads are my way of paying it forward.