Teaching Phrases 3: An Overview of Participle Phrases

In my last post, I gave an overview of noun appositives. As well as appositives, phrases that rename or give more information about nouns, (the underlined part is another appositive example!), we have identified participle phrases (they also seem to be known as participial phrases) as a useful construction to teach to our students.

What are participle phrases?

Participle phrases can broadly be split into two groups: past participle phrases and present participle phrases. A participle phrase will begin with a present or past participle. If it is a present participle phrase, the participle will end in ‘ing’; if it is a past participle it will end in ‘ed’ (regular verbs), or will be irregular (see this link for a list). Participle phrases function as adjectives, describing a specific noun or pronoun (which is usually the subject of a main clause).

Let’s have a look at some examples:

Present Participles

Sitting quietly, the woman read her book.

The woman, sitting quietly and occasionally sipping tea, read her book.

Sitting quietly next to the window of the café, the woman read her book.

The woman sat at the table near the window, reading the book that she had bought at the market.

Sitting quietly near the window, reading the book that she had bought at the market, the woman seemed content.

Past Participles

Soaked to the skin, Peter and Amit huddled in the bus shelter.

Peter and Amit, soaked to the skin from the heavy downpour, huddled in the bus shelter.

Soaked to the skin with their hair plastered across their shivering heads, Peter and Amit huddled in the bus shelter.

Peter and Amit huddled in the bus shelter, soaked to the skin from the heavy downpour.

Soaked to the skin, huddled together for warmth, Peter and Amit waited for the night bus.

Participle phrases are punctuated like appositives: if they are non-essential, they are always separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma or, if they are embedded in the middle, with a pair of commas.

Why should we teach them?

In the last post, I looked at the benefits to practising noun appositives. Here, I will look at two of these benefits and how they apply to participle phrases.

3) Enables students to include more information in a sentence and add complexity

Like appositives, the complexity comes from the fact that the explanation or extra detail is embedded and subordinated within the same sentence rather than having two or more simple constructions. This complexity can be added not only to descriptive writing, but also when writing analytically in response to a text. Compare these examples:

Wordsworth describes the ‘huge peak’ as being ‘grim’. He makes its sound menacing

Describing the ‘huge peak’ as being ‘grim’, Wordsworth makes it sound menacing.

Ozymandias claims he is ‘King of Kings’. He seems tyrannical and oppressive. He uses aggressive and threatening language like ‘despair!’

Claiming he is ‘King of Kings’, he seems tyrannical and oppressive, using aggressive and threatening language like ‘despair!’

Macbeth is lauded at the start of the play. Duncan praises him for being ‘noble’ and the Captain calls him ‘brave’. Macbeth begins the play as a respected and loyal warrior who is utterly committed to defending his country.

Lauded by Duncan who calls him ‘noble’, praised by his peers who describe him as ‘brave’, Macbeth begins the play as a respected and loyal warrior who is utterly committed to defending his country.

6) Encourages close reading

Like with appositives, you can give students a topic and ask them to write sentences that contain participle phrases, developing their ability to analyse or paraphrase the text that they have read.

Here are some examples from Exposure by Wilfred Owen:

TASK: Explore the power of the weather in Exposure

Personifying the ‘merciless’ wind, Owen explores the torment and suffering caused by being freezing cold.

The ‘east winds that knive us’ seem baleful and menacing, causing ‘agonies’ and forcing men to ‘cringe in holes.’

Beginning with the possessive pronoun ‘our’, the poem explores the collective suffering of soldiers.

Pernicious and ‘with fingering stealth’, the snowflakes, things normally associated with peace, tranquillity and beauty, become malicious and threatening, described as ‘feeling for our faces’ as if they are malevolent and hostile.

Next Post: An overview of absolute phrases.








3 thoughts on “Teaching Phrases 3: An Overview of Participle Phrases”

  1. I really appreciate these posts, and am planning to start building them in next year! Thank you for the thoughtful explanations. Quick question: how do you explain to students when they need to use a present participle and when they need to use a past participle?


    1. I’m glad they are useful! With regards to distinguishing between the two (great question!)I teach each in isolation and when students are proficient, I then interleave practice of both. Choosing the correct form is something that requires explicit teaching and I am working on developing this area further by creating Engelmann style example/non example task chains. Sentence combining tasks may be a good starting point: giving students a base sentence then the choice of either a present or a past participle to add on. Easier tasks will offer one correct choice; more advanced ones could offer two competing correct choices, opening up discussion about style and suitability. This post explores this idea a bit more: https://bradford.researchschool.org.uk/2017/11/20/sentence-combining-to-improve-writing-fluency/


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