Understanding Syntax

While improving vocabulary helps with comprehension, we also need to understand the ways that words can be combined into sentences. In Unit 2, we briefly examined syntax—the set of rules that determines parts of speech and the order of words in sentences. These rules help us make sense of what we read, and they help us communicate in ways that others will understand.

The rules of English syntax are complex enough to fill many books, so we won’t try to explain them all here. Instead, we’ll explore why they matter for reading comprehension. Consider these sentences: “the children sing loudly” and the “children loudly sing.” They’re made up of the same words, and even though the word order changes, they mean the same thing. Now, consider these words: “lunch is at noon” and “is lunch at noon.” They’re also made up of the same words, but the sentences have two very different meanings.

That’s an easy example, though. Some changes in syntax produce very subtle differences. Take these two sentences:

  • As a teacher, I understand what it’s like to take care of many children.
  • I understand what it’s like, as a teacher, to take care of many children.

Both of these sentences are syntactically correct. But, for the first sentence to make sense, the speaker must be a teacher.

Teachers and parapros can help students learn syntax in several ways. Explicit teaching of rules and the exceptions to these rules can be helpful. Teaching the various parts of speech is an example. Giving students the chance to compare syntactically rearranged sentences is another effective technique: “Pam chased Judy on the playground” and “Judy was chased by Pam on the playground,” for instance.

Hands-on work creating complex sentences is one of the best ways for students to learn syntax. Research from Bruce Saddler (2005) and others shows that sentence combining is an especially useful exercise for teaching syntax to improve comprehension. The following activity has been adapted from Professor Saddler’s work.