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Lesson Plan: Teaching ESL Students the Difference Between Subject Complements and Direct Objects

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 12/9/2013

The following article describes a lesson plan for teaching ESL students the difference between subject complements and direct objects, and you'll find examples included. The lesson plan also includes practice exercises with answers.

  • slide 1 of 11

    What Is a Subject Complement?

    First define the term "subject complement." Subject complements are words, phrases, and clauses that follow copular verbs and describe English the subject. Subject complement is a grammatical function. For example, the following italicized words, phrases, and clauses function as subject complements:

    • My grandfather is a farmer.
    • The cookies smell delicious.
    • My least favorite assignment was writing the grant.
    • The worst part of the workday is during the afternoon.
    • The problem remains that you refuse to study grammar.
  • slide 2 of 11

    What Is a Copular Verb?

    Next, define the term "copular verb." Also called linking verbs and state-of-being verbs, copular verbs are equating verbs that link the subject complement in the predicate to the subject. The most common copular verb in English is be. Other English copular verbs include:

    • appear
    • become
    • feel
    • get
    • grow
    • look
    • prove
    • remain
    • resemble
    • seem
    • smell
    • sound
    • stay
    • taste
    • turn
  • slide 3 of 11

    What Grammatical Forms Can Function as Subject Complements?

    Then discuss the types of words, phrases, and clauses that can function as subject complements. Five grammatical forms can function as the subject complement:

    1. Noun phrases
    2. Adjective phrases
    3. Prepositional phrases
    4. Verb phrases
    5. Noun clauses

    Nouns and adjectives most frequently function as subject complements. Traditional grammars sometimes refer to nouns functioning as subject complements as predicate nominatives and to adjectives functioning as subject complements as predicate adjectives. Students should learn both alternative terms.

  • slide 4 of 11

    Subject Complement Practice Exercise

    Use the following exercise to practice identifying subject complements. The students should mark the subject complement in each sentence and then identify the grammatical form.

    Sentences

    • The soup tastes too spicy.
    • My professor remained calm and unemotional.
    • Your grandmother's favorite pastime was reading books.
    • My brother has become a car mechanic.
    • The assignment seems easy.
    • The location for the party can be wherever you want.
    • The coldest time of year is in the winter.
    • I will be a librarian.
    • The basement smells unusually musty.
    • Her singing sounds like a dying rooster.

    Answers

    • The soup tastes too spicy. Adjective Phrase
    • My professor remained calm and unemotional. Adjective Phrase
    • Your grandmother's favorite pastime was reading books. Verb Phrase
    • My brother has become a car mechanic. Noun Phrase
    • The assignment seems easy. Adjective Phrase
    • The location for the party can be wherever you want. Noun Clause
    • The coldest time of year is in the winter. Prepositional Phrase
    • I will be a librarian. Noun Phrase
    • The basement smells unusually musty. Adjective Phrase
    • Her singing sounds like a dying rooster. Prepositional Phrase
  • slide 5 of 11

    What Is a Direct Object?

    Now define the term "direct object." Direct objects are words, phrases, and clauses that follow transitive verbs and answer the question "who or what" receives the action of the verb. Direct object is also a grammatical function. For example, the following italicized words, phrases, and clauses function as direct objects:

    • The little girl recognized the author of her favorite book.
    • The critic has tasted the soup.
    • I will clean under the bed.
    • My mother-in-law has always preferred to eat fruits and vegetables.
    • Our dog dislikes when we put him in his pen.
  • slide 6 of 11

    What Is a Transitive Verb?

    Then define the term "transitive verb." Transitive verbs are verbs that have and sometimes require direct objects and may also take indirect objects. Transitive verbs are the most common verb form in English. For example, the following italicized verbs and verb phrases are transitive verbs:

    • The bird ate the worm.
    • Schoolchildren are singing songs in the park.
    • My cat has broken my antique vase.
    • Will you open the door for me?
    • Those crooks might pay off the security guard.
  • slide 7 of 11

    What Grammatical Forms Can Function as Direct Objects?

    Next discuss the types of words, phrases, and clauses that can function as direct objects. Four grammatical forms can function as the direct object:

    1. Noun phrases
    2. Prepositional phrases
    3. Verb phrases
    4. Noun clauses

    Nouns most frequently function as direct objects.

  • slide 8 of 11

    Direct Objects Practice Exercise

    Use the following exercise to practice identifying direct objects. The students should mark the direct object in each sentence and then identify the grammatical form.

    Sentences

    • Dogs enjoy chewing rawhide bones.
    • My mother scrubbed behind the refrigerator.
    • The child threw a tantrum.
    • The guard has sounded the alarm.
    • I discovered that the party will take place on Saturday.
    • My grandfather always preferred to watch basketball.
    • The teller had alerted the police.
    • The caterer will bake the wedding cake.
    • His parents surprised him.
    • She will have heated the leftovers.

    Answers

    • Dogs enjoy chewing rawhide bones. Verb Phrase
    • My mother scrubbed behind the refrigerator. Prepositional Phrase
    • The child threw a tantrum. Noun Phrase
    • The guard has sounded the alarm. Noun Phrase
    • I discovered that the party will take place on Saturday. Noun Clause
    • My grandfather always preferred to watch basketball. Verb Phrase
    • The teller had alerted the police. Noun Phrase
    • The caterer will bake the wedding cake. Noun Phrase
    • His parents surprised him. Noun Phrase
    • She will have heated the leftovers. Noun Phrase
  • slide 9 of 11

    Is the Verb Phrase a Subject Complement or a Progressive Verb?

    Next point out the difference between verb phrases functioning as subject complements and verbs in the progressive aspect. The following sentences both contain the phrase is reading this book:

    • The most recent assignment is reading this book.
    • The child is reading this book.

    Both sentences contain the phrase is reading this book. However, only the first sentence contains a subject complement. The second sentence contains a verb in the progressive aspect.

    • Subject (Noun Phrase) | Predicate (Verb) | Subject Complement (Verb Phrase)
    • The most recent assignment | is | reading this book.

    • Subject (Noun Phrase) | Predicate (Progressive Verb) | Direct Object (Noun Phrase)
    • The child | is reading | this book.

    In the first sentence, the subject complement reading this book describes the subject the most recent assignment. In other words, the most recent assignment is reading this book, and reading this book is the most recent assignment. The linking verb is simply links the subject complement to the subject.

    In the second sentence, the direct object this book receives the action performed by the child. In other words, the book is being read by the child. The form of the verb is reading is the progressive aspect. The progressive aspect is formed by the verb be plus the present participle of the verb. Progressive verbs indicate ongoing actions.

    ESL students must learn to distinguish verb phrases in the forming of present participles functioning as subject complements from verbs in the progressive aspect.

  • slide 10 of 11

    Is the Verb a Copular Verb or a Transitive verb?

    Finally, discuss the group of verbs that can be either copular or transitive depending on context and syntactic structure. Certain verbs in English, specifically the sense verbs, can be either copular verbs or transitive verbs depending on the grammatical function that follows the verb. The following English verbs are both copular and transitive verbs:

    • feel
    • look
    • smell
    • sound
    • taste

    For example, the following sentences both contain the verb smell:

    • The cake smells scrumptious.
    • My dog smells the cake.

    The verb smells in the first sentence is a copular verb, linking the adjective functioning as a subject complement scrumptious to the subject the cake. The adjective scrumptious describes the noun phrase the cake.

    The verb smells in the second sentence is a transitive verb followed by a direct object. The noun phrase functioning as a direct object the cake receives the action performed by my dog. In other words, the cake is being smelled by my dog.

  • slide 11 of 11

    Subject Complement or Direct Object Practice Exercise

    Use the following exercise to practice identifying subject complements and direct objects. The students should mark the subject complements and direct objects in each sentence and then identify the grammatical form and function.

    Sentences

    • The cow is eating the hay.
    • Those cookies smell like heaven on earth.
    • His mother is a teacher.
    • The museum has sold its most valuable painting.
    • The professor seems a trifle cranky.
    • He grows pumpkins.
    • She will announce who won the prize.
    • Your father enjoys my practicing the guitar.
    • The problem is that he refuses to finish the assignment.
    • The scariest place in the park is in the tunnel.

    Answers

    • The cow is eating the hay. Noun Phrase – Direct Object
    • Those cookies smell like heaven on earth. Prepositional Phrase – Subject Complement
    • His mother is a teacher. Noun Phrase – Subject Complement
    • The museum has sold its most valuable painting. Noun Phrase – Direct Object
    • The professor seems a trifle cranky. Adjective Phrase – Subject Complement
    • He grows pumpkins. Noun Phrase – Direct Object
    • She will announce who won the prize. Noun Clause – Direct Object
    • Your father enjoys my practicing the guitar. Verb Phrase – Direct Object
    • The problem is that he refuses to finish the assignment. Noun Clause – Subject Complement
    • The scariest place in the park is in the tunnel. Prepositional Phrase – Subject Complement

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