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Mass Literacy


Reading is the act of processing text in order to derive meaning. To learn to read, children must develop both fluent word reading and language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer,1986). Language comprehension is built upon vocabulary and morphology, knowledge, syntax, and higher-level language skills.

How Syntax Contributes to Reading Development

Syntax refers to the formation of sentences and the associated grammatical rules (Foorman, et al., 2016 ). "Syntax skills help us understand how sentences work—the meanings behind word order, structure, and punctuation. By providing support for developing syntax skills, we can help readers understand increasingly complex texts" (Learner Variability Project).

Syntactic skills are correlated with reading comprehension and language comprehension (Westby, 2012), although the nature of the relationship is still being studied (Oakhill, Cain, & Elbro, 2015). A number of recent studies have shown that syntax and grammar are predictors of later reading comprehension ability (Logan, 2017).

Promoting Syntax Development in the Classroom

Knowledge of how grammatical elements such as pronouns, lexical references, and connectives function in sentences allows young children to follow the ideas in a sentence and understand its meaning (Oakhill, Cain, & Elbro, 2015). Children do not need to know the names of these grammatical terms, but they do need to develop understanding of how sentences work in natural speech and in text. Working with sentences can be part of a class's engagement with complex text. Complex text offers rich language; teachers can facilitate a discussion of short snippets of text to help students parse rich sentences and develop understanding.

Teach Linguistic Structures Such as Pronouns, Lexical References, and Connectives

Teaching these support students to track and follow the meaning within sentences (Oakhill, Cain, & Elbro, 2015).

Example: Marcy was very thirsty for a cold drink* so she gulped her iced lemonade* quickly!

  • Pronouns: she, he, his her, their, they, them
  • *Lexical references: when a different word or phrase is used to refer to the original word
  • Connectives: and, also, because, so, then, before, during, after

Teach Word Functions by Asking Students a Series of Questions About a Sentence

Example from Literacy How: Our wet, hairy dog crawled under my bed during the thunderstorm.

  • Ask who or what did it? dog (looking for the namer/noun — the who/what)
  • Ask what did it do? crawled (looking for the action word/verb — the do)
  • Ask 'how many, what kind, which one? wet, hairy (looking for adjectives describing the namer)
  • Ask where, when, how, why? under the bed, during the thunderstorm (looking for adverbs that tell about the action)

Teach Sentence Structure, Sentence Types, and How to Build Sentences

Developing syntax can involve examining how sentences are built, learning to expand sentences, and learning to combine short, choppy sentences into longer, grammatically correct sentences. Studies have shown positive effects of sentence combining on reading comprehension (Scott, 2009).

Learn More About Syntax Development

Considerations for Students Learning English

English learners should have equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in all literacy instruction. The WIDA Can Do Descriptors highlight what language learners can do at various stages of language development.

Taking Bilingualism into Account

"It's important that young ESL students recognize word order and sentence structure. As students get older and progress with English, it becomes more difficult to correct syntax problems. In many cases, older students translate their native language directly into English without considering the word order that changes between languages" (Lubin, 2020).

Supports for English Learners


Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website: What Works Clearinghouse.

Freeman, D. & Freeman, Y. (2004). Essential linguistics: What you need to know to teach reading, esl, spelling, phonics, grammar. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.

Krashen, S.D. (1981). Bilingual education and second language acquisition theory. In Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework. (p.51–79). California State Department of Education.

Logan, J. (2017). Pressure points in reading comprehension: A quantile multiple regression analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(4), 451.

Lubin, M. (2020, March 23). A Simple Guide to Teaching Young ESL Students About Syntax. Retrieved August 24, 2020

Oakhill, J., Cain, K., & Elbro, C. (2015). Understanding and teaching reading comprehension: A handbook. New York: Routledge.

Scott, C.M. (2009). A case for the sentence in reading comprehension. Language, speech, and hearing services in schools, 40 2, 184–91.Westby, C. (2012). Assessing and remediating text comprehension problems. In A.G. Kamhi & H.W. Catts (Eds.), Language and reading disabilities (3rd ed., pp1–23). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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Last Updated: August 19, 2022

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