Who Needs Syntax?


In a workshop last year for silent fluency, I showed this slide.

Rand Reading Group (Snow 2002) reinforced my slide by stating the following, “for students to successfully “negotiate textual meaning the reader must bring at least the following to the act of reading:  cognitive capabilities, motivation, linguistic knowledge and experiences.”


What Rand Reading Group included that I did not was linguistic knowledge and experiences. Linguistics refers to the structure of language.  Syntax is part of linguistics because it is the art of combining words together to make sentences, the proper word order and punctuation which helps to build the structure of our language. (Grammar)


I bring this up because syntax is almost subconscious at early ages, being created through speaking and listening. As children speak and listen, they are learning how words are combined to create sentences and questions. As they encounter language through listening and modeling, the sentences become more complex.  You have heard a small child say, “see dog.”  The adult or other child will say, “Yes, you see a dog.”  As time progresses the child begins to clarify and say, “I see a dog.”


The complexity of language and “syntax” increases each year as the child gets older and has different experiences. Sentences become more complex and vocabulary more abstract.  According to J.S. Chall (1983), by the 4th grade the grade level text structure students are exposed to begins to exceed conversational language.”  This is a HUGE discovery for me because we all know about the “4th grade slump,” this seems to help to explain that gap. The rigor or complexity in the language of the text is higher than the students are use to putting in order or comfortably recognizing.


Syntax affects fluency and comprehension because it is the student’s ability to chunk sentences into “syntactic chunks” that help with intonation, stress and pause as they read.


We, as teachers, do not really think about syntax but it plays a large role in reading fluency and comprehension. A few facts about syntax that teachers NEED to know.

  • Syntax awareness at 1st grade predicts word recognition at 2nd (Tunmer, 1989)
  • Poor readers have difficulty detecting and correcting syntactic errors. (Bentin, Deutsch, and Liberman, 1990)
  • Lower levels of syntax awareness usually correspond with lower fluency and comprehension performance.
  • If you increase syntax awareness than you can increase reading ability in both fluency and comprehension.


So, bottom line, what are the implications for our students and classrooms?  How do we build syntax awareness for our students?

Speaking in complete sentences! By encouraging students to put all answers and thoughts in complete sentences, you are helping them to practice the art of syntax (applying word order).  Help students to extend sentences and to make more complex sentences.

Create more complex sentences than they are used to speaking and reading and have students put them together on sentence strips. If you have students who are still speaking in simple sentences, then give them a compound sentence on a sentence strip. Ask them to put it together. They will want to make two sentences but will see the conjunction holds it together. For older students, give them sentences with phrases, clauses and unusual punctuation   By  exposing them to these types of sentences, you are instructing them on language that is above the level they normally speak in conversation and will be reading as they move to more difficult text.

Focus on chunks. The brain has the ability to process four words at a time so thinking about sentences in chunks helps the brain process information and the language easier. For example: The little red hen and the yellow bunny sat around the campfire.  When students are learning to read this and think about how to read—they should see the word “and” which means it is a conjunction holding subjects together so on either side is a chunk.  The verb usually starts another chunk (predicate).  This helps students with fluency and not reading one single word at a time. Modeling how to chunk a sentence and explicitly teaching sentence parts helps students to better determine how to process as they read.

Use all the domains of literacy to build conceptual understanding. To truly understand any concept, a child or adult must work the idea through all domains of literacy.  Students must first hear the information (listening) through modeling, think aloud and direct instruction.  Students next should speak the information through student to student interaction.  The step of speaking allows students to process the information and to own it.  They are putting together their own sentences to make sense of the knowledge (summarizing).  The next step, now that they have proper background, they can begin reading on the topic.  The final step to show true conceptual understanding is when a child can take the information, rearrange, process and make the information their own in writing. This shows that they have a deep understanding and strong command of the information.


Revisiting the above quote from Rand Reading Group (Snow 2002),  “for students to successfully “negotiate textual meaning the reader must bring at least the following to the act of reading:  cognitive capabilities, motivation, linguistic knowledge and experiences.”  The teaching of syntax directly through grammar and punctuation instruction paired with speaking and listening helps students have the linguistic knowledge and experiences to effectively decode text and read with prosody.


Motivation will be another Blog!



Resources considered and read for this Blog: 

Article entitled:  8 Common Mistakes in Modern Language Instruction by claraalert on guestblogger which was accessed on 9/12/2017

Article entitled:  The Role of Early Oral Language in Literacy Development by Timothy Shanahan and Christopher Lonigan which was accessed 9/10/17 

PPT archived on Internet by Michael Sullivan on Significance of Syntax (I am unsure of ownership of this but found this in the title it was saved in.)

Chall, J.S. (1983) Stages of reading development. New York:  Harcourt Brace which was cited in the PPT discussed below.

Language Revisited

Do you have that one person in your life who just “says it?”  Tells you what others haven’t—your hair is sticking up, you have toilet paper on your shoe,  or NO ONE UNDERSTANDS WHAT YOU MEAN BY THE TERM LANGUAGE.  I love my Taylorsville colleagues who keep me grounded!

It had not occurred to me but we do use the word language in various ways. Normally, I refer to language in three ways.


  1. Language = Student to Student Interaction and communication
  2. Language = Common Core Standards L. 1-6
  3. “Academic Language” = the words, phrases, grammar choices and author’s craft in organizing a text


First, language is used to refer to our students’ ability to communicate ideas and thoughts through listening, speaking, reading and writing. Increasing student to student interaction allows time for processing and for students to make sense of knowledge. The four domains of literacy (listening, speaking, reading and writing) are all interrelated and interact to affect one another.


Implications for our classrooms: 

  1. Students process information when they have the opportunity to interact.  Speaking helps students make sense of ideas, ask questions and begin to own their own thinking.  By putting ideas into your own words and examples demonstrates conceptual understanding of the topic.
  2. When you move students through a concept by listening then speaking and progressing to reading and writing—you are scaffolding instruction AND building conceptual understanding.
  3. Allowing students to paraphrase and put information into their own words aids students in making connections to the information on a deeper level.

Secondly, I often refer to the Common Core Language Standards as a way to “increase our focus on language.”  These standards are all grounded in the fundamentals of language and the domains of literacy and are written in a pattern that builds on prior knowledge.


Standard Meaning
L.1 Understanding of conventions and sentence structure


L.2 Understanding of capitalization and punctuation
L.3 Understanding why words were used and chosen and their affect within the text
L.4 Determining word meanings and phrases through context, word parts, reference materials,
L.5 Understanding figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings
L.6 Determining academic and domain specific words and phrases




Implications for our classrooms: 

  1. Language comprises of about 20-25% of the Reading End of Grade Test. Knowing this fact,  a focus on context clues, figurative language, words and phrases that affect characters, setting and mood should all be MAJOR focuses of instruction.
  2. “Language” in the form of words and phrases, woven within the text,  are written to affect the reader—teach students to see subtly and question the techniques used by the author—THIS IS HOW RIGOR IS ATTAINED!
  3. Remember that you must directly teach students what you want them to do. When teaching students how to figure out words and phrases in context teach all the different strategies you might use such as look at punctuation, synonyms, antonyms, grammar, examples embedded, etc. Be explicit when you show students and MODEL what you want for them—then let them try it and apply it.



Lastly, I refer to language in the form of “academic language” which is the words, phrases, grammar choices which affect the author’s craft and organization of the text.  This can be vocabulary but is usually more subtly the structure in which the text is organized.  When our students have knowledge of how sentences are structured can help students “untangle” more complex text.  Without the grammar and punctuation, students’ prosody (expressive reading and understanding of timing, phrasing, intonation and emphasis) is not possible.


Implications for our classrooms:

  1. Understanding phrases, clauses, punctuation and capitalization directly affects BOTH fluency and comprehension.
  2. Grammar should be embedded in discussions of word meanings and close reading to directly teach fluency and comprehension.
  3. Text choice should include structure that includes complex text which challenges students to examine multiple levels of meaning with subtle nuances that they may miss upon first read.  Ensuring text is “complex” with levels of meaning challenges students to read closer and dig deeper.

In summation, the term LANGUAGE is a HUGE component of EVERYTHING that we do in our classrooms because it truly plays a role in all aspects of learning.  We “use language” when communicating. Authors embed language within text to share meaning and to interest the reader.  Finally we integrate language as our instructional support with listening, speaking, reading and writing. We need to infuse it and use the Common Core Language standards as the “skeleton” of our instruction for our literature and informational standards. It is by infusing the grammar, capitalization, punctuation and an understanding of sentence structure within the areas of reading that you will deepen students’ understanding and comprehension.  Language is complex and certainly not something you can check off a list to show mastery.









Poetry- Reasons to Embrace it!

It is NO secret that I love poetry.  As an educator, you should too!  Poetry is a powerful vehicle of language.  Poems contain figurative language, grammar opportunities, and lessons on perspective and point of view in short manageable packages.   Rhyming poems offer an added benefit for younger readers because the rhyming helps them become better decoders. Rhyming improves phonemic awareness and learning of word families such as pill, will, chill, etc.

Poems are short but complex and offer a manageable way to expose students to rigorous text without overwhelming them.  They offer a way to build fluency for our readers. They help students build word recognition and automaticity with repeated readings and sometimes predictable rhyme patterns.

A missing element in our instruction is often GRAMMAR.  Poems offer educators text to examine punctuation and grammar “Do’s and Don’ts.”  Anyone who has looked at an e. e. cummings poem has been exposed to a new world of looking at words and punctuation. Students are able to look at the use of parts of speech in context in small phrases which makes it easier to study the purpose and impact.

Look at the following excerpt from Emily Dickinson’s poem Summer Shower

 A drop fell on the apple tree,

Another on the roof;

A half a dozen kissed the eaves,

And made the gables laugh.


A few went out to help the brook,

That went to help the sea.

Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,

What necklaces could be!


The dust replaced in hoisted roads,

The birds jocoser sung;

The sunshine threw his hat away,

The orchards spangles hung.

This excerpt was accessed from the following website on 2/12/2016:   http://examples.yourdictionary.com/descriptive-poem-examples.html#xvRjwpK0STsrgbAC.99

Within these three stanzas are opportunities to discuss verbs used in unusual ways.  The author creates images with nouns that are unconventional implying that the sunshine has a hat.   Diamante poems are an easy way for teachers to use poetry to focus on the power of grammar use in writing.  Helping children see why particular punctuation is being used such as the semicolon or comma, helps them understand their purpose within text.  Poetry offers these examples and allows the educator to teach skills at a sentence or phrase level rather than an entire paragraph or selection. When you are teaching skills remember that you teach first on a word or sentence level to paragraph to selection to multiple selections.  You do not begin teaching the skill of context clues within an entire selection because it is too much.  You must isolate the skill to one sentence until they understand and make the level more difficult and add more text. By moving through this progression level when you teach your skills, it allows students to grasp the concept on a concrete level before moving to a more complex abstract level.

Poems offer a way for students to apply their reading strategy and make true sense of text. When you read a free verse poem, the first response is normally—what? This response is that you did not comprehend the text and what you do next proves if you are a good reader. If you stop and say you hate poetry—you have just proved yourself not to be a strategic reader. If you apply reading strategies such as rereading, chunking the text, or applying context clues, etc. than you have proven you know how to apply the needed skills to make meaning of text. Poetry provides TONS of opportunity to TRULY engage students into using and applying skills and strategies as they read.  Some of our students do not even know they do not understand while others see that there is a break down in comprehension quickly.  It is this understanding that separates struggling readers from our strongest.  Strong readers make mistakes but they have “read attack” skills and apply them automatically. For the rest of our students, we must teach this skill.   It is rare for our higher students to truly grapple with text. Poetry is embedded with vocabulary and figurative language that even our strongest readers are not proficient. This ensures that ALL of our students are challenged with rigor and learn to see what it feels like when understanding is breaking down and how to apply reading comprehension strategies to fix it. For example, look at the excerpt from Emily Dickinson’s poem, I like to see it lap the Miles:

I like to see it lap the Miles –

And lick the Valleys up –

And stop to feed itself at Tanks –

And then – prodigious step


Around a Pile of Mountains –

And supercilious peer

In Shanties – by the sides of Roads –

And then a Quarry pare

This excerpt was accessed from the following website on 2/12/2016:


Immediately when students read the first stanza they think that the poet is describing an animal because of words such as lick, feed and lap.  The words tank and prodigious normally are skipped because they do not make sense for the reader at first.  The second stanza is usually where students stop and say, “I don’t get it.”  This should make you happy because they are realizing that they are decoding the words but not making  meaning of the text. Having students return to the beginning and begin to question the text and chunk the lines into phrases to really think about the meaning and hidden figurative language embedded in the words helps them think deeper.  The key word is “tanks” because this just does not make sense for an animal.  At this point, strong readers will realize that they must think figuratively.  Think of the opportunity here to model for students how to “fix their break down in comprehension” with modeling, guided questions and student discussion.

Finally, poetry provides creativity and the opportunities to see and think from other perspectives. Poetry is a world where any object or setting can take on a new persona.  Poetry is a world where “things are NUTS” and sometimes do not make sense but open to possibilities. Poetry provides a world of imagination and a place that educators should WANT to run towards.


Resources for you:

K-1 Exemplars 2-3 Exemplars 4-5 Exemplars

For TES specifically–

This Poem Is NUTS- strategy for testing– see Kelly or a 3-5 teacher if you want to learn more


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