The Significance of Syntax in Comprehension

A very important part of reading comprehension is language comprehension.  It’s one of the two factors named in the long-ago created Simple View of Reading, and is also a big part of Scarborough’s Reading Rope as well my favorite model, the much updated Active View of Reading.  The latter two do a very nice job of breaking down what the term language comprehension really means.  They both specify that background knowledge and vocabulary, two topics I’ve written about before, are smaller but important strands of language comprehension.  Another one?  Language structure.  In particular, the significance of syntax and its role in comprehension.

Let’s try some sentences together.  


Here’s one from my new favorite picture book, Starstruck:  The Cosmic Journey of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, by Krull and Brewer:

“They talked nonstop about science while Neil toured the labs, and then Sagan drove the high school senior through the snow back to the bus station.”

To an adult, this is a pretty straightforward sentence.  But to understand it, the reader has to know that “they” is referring to DeGrasse and Sagan, that “and then” means time has passed and so has the setting, and that “the high school senior” is referring to Tyson.  

Here’s another, from another of my favorites, The Brilliant Deep, by Kate Messmer:

“They are the gardeners of the reef, tiny groundskeepers who control the algae.” 

Here, the reader must understand that “they” refers to sea urchins that were named in the sentence right before this one, not coral reefs, which are the subject of this book.  Readers also must understand that the writer’s use of a comma here lets the reader know that “tiny groundskeepers who control the algae” defines the function of sea urchins, and is not something separate.  

And one more, from the book How to Build a Hug, by Guglielmo and Tourville:

“Temple missed her mom, too, but she just couldn’t express her feelings the same way.”

Here, the reader must understand that “her” and “she” refers to Temple, not Temple’s mom.  

Researcher Tim Shanahan has an interesting blog post all about it. In it, he discusses a lot of research findings that underscore  the significance of syntax in comprehension.  He says that:

“[T]hey found that syntax mattered with regular classroom kids and those with dyslexia. They reported this pattern in English, French, Dutch, and Cantonese. They found syntax to matter with native English speakers and with English Language Learners. Syntax played a significant role in comprehension…”

Shanahan on Literacy blog, 8/13/22

Wow.  Read that quote again.

Let it sink in. 

Syntax matters. A lot.  A whole lot.

Kids–all kids–need support with maintaining comprehension with more and more sophisticated sentences–and this need only increases as the texts they encounter become more complex.   The sentence complexity kids will encounter in texts is far greater than the sentence complexity used in most kids’ every day oral language (it’s often far more advanced than our own everyday language!), so there’s a definite need to teach it.  

I know what you’re thinking at this point.

Ok, if syntax is so significant, then how do teachers go about teaching it?  

Well, this is where we can once again turn to the interactive read aloud.  If you’ve been reading my posts for any amount of time (thank you, btw!!), you know that I believe that this humble little instructional tool is the vehicle for teaching almost everything.  

Syntax–how it works and why it’s so important–is yet one more way to leverage read alouds.  

How, you ask?

Do what Cunningham, Burkins, and Yates of Shifting the Balance 3-5 tell us to do:  “regularly unpack–or dissect–interesting, unusual, confusing, or complex sentences.” 

To start, pick a sentence from a read aloud you’re already using, and use it as a mentor sentence.  (Hopefully, you’re also already using this same book as a mentor text, and you’re getting all kinds of reading and writing lesson mileage from it!) This is exactly what I did above, when I pulled out a sentence from my read alouds–books I’m truly planning to read with students.  

Then, try what Kylene Beers does. In her book When Kids Can’t Read (both editions), she explains a fabulous routine activity to use with students, Syntax Surgery.  She credits author Adrienne Herrell (2000) as the first to come up with this strategy, which was originally advised to use to help English language learners.  Beers has ratcheted this original strategy up a notch.  

She names 6 common ways syntax confusion can impede comprehension. 

Here’s one, taken from her book:

See how she’s used an example sentence from a passage?  This is displayed for the class to see.  Then, the teacher would circle things, draw arrows, and/or underline phrases to show how the parts of the sentence are related–all while explicitly explaining the reasoning.  If you’re as old as me, this will bring back memories of sentence diagramming (which in some places is becoming de rigueur again)–but it’s not at all the same.

Syntax Surgery is simply a way to pull back the curtain for kids; to help them understand the significant role of syntax in comprehension, and to model for them how to unpack the sentence.

The significant role that syntax plays in comprehension doesn’t only show up in upper grade, complex texts. It can also come into play in very simple stories, too.  Here’s an example, which I’ve totally made up but is a pretty common one:

“Mom, can I go out to play?” she asked.  

Even with this very short sentence, the reader must understand that “she” is referring to the girl, not the mom.  

Language comprehension is a massive piece of the comprehension puzzle, for sure.  And it’s deep–much deeper than the Simple View of Reading conveys.  

It’s quite multi-faceted.  

The significance of syntax in comprehension is key–and often not very obvious.  It’s worth examining the kinds of sentences your students who struggle with comprehension are coming up against.  Syntax may just be the key.  

For more ideas about how to teach syntax authentically, I cannot recommend Beers’ book enough.  And no, I’m not an Amazon affiliate–it’s just an excellent, no-nonsense resource for all things comprehension.

Could you use a thinking partner to help develop lessons on syntax instruction?  I’m here to help!  Through virtual coaching, I can help you find a great sentence in the read alouds you’re already using, help you develop a clear way to teach syntax (and so much more!), and brainstorm ways to help your students apply this work to their own writing for even greater learning impact. 

This is just one small example of the kind of support I’m here for. And the best part is, we could work together without having to even leave the couch–how great is that? Just reach out to set up a coaching call–I’m here for you!

Did you find this post helpful?  Share it with your teacher friends so they can benefit, too!

Related Posts:  Want Students to Succeed in Reading?  Build Background Knowledge, Powerful Instruction:  The Interactive Read Aloud, Beyond the Simple View:  Reading’s True Complexity, Powerful Vocabulary Instruction in Read Alouds, MSV Explained [and Why It’s So Misunderstood]

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