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Strengthening the Bones of Comprehension: 7 strategies for improving sentence comprehension through direct instruction

Categories: dyslexia, Education & Teaching, Professional Development, Reading Strategies for K-12, Student Centric Learning, Teacher Best Practices, The Digital Age, Whole Child Literacy

Members of the Learning Ally community may already be familiar with The Reading Rope. Grounded in the Science of Reading, the reading rope is an analogy which depicts successful literacy as a braided combination of many sub-skills. “When we break this down, we have to teach kids to decode. We have to teach kids vocabulary. We have to teach kids about syntax and sentence sense…So there's a lot of essential skill building” says Laura Stewart, Chief Academic Officer at 95 Percent Group

Of the many skills which are woven into the rope, Stewart is raising awareness of one which is especially overlooked: Syntax. In language, syntax is the study of how words can be ordered and arranged in sentences to create meaning. Stewart posits that many students who struggle with comprehension may be getting stuck at this sentence level. “Less fluent readers may not have the stamina to hold sentences in [their] working memory until a meaning is extracted,” she explains. Luckily, Stewart met with the Learning Ally community to share 7 strategies for improving sentence comprehension through direct instruction.

1. Use “Teacher Talk” to Solidify Understanding. One of Stewart's first and easiest recommendations is to familiarize kids with the concept of complete sentences. “I might tell the children that a sentence tells us about someone or something. A sentence tells us what someone is doing or what something looks like” She says. Because sentences can carry many meanings and take on many forms, it’s important to start young students with a simplified frame of reference. “We're not really defining it. We're kind of modeling it for them… I've often heard teachers describe sentences to kids by saying a sentence has a who and a do”. 

2. Make a Game of Counting Sentences. After students grasp a theoretical understanding of sentences, it's time to put that knowledge into practice. Teachers should read out loud slowly to their students, pausing after each sentence to mark another tally or raise another finger. “What we're doing is reminding children to listen for a complete idea,” she explains. “This is a great way for students to develop sentence prosody, because sentences do have a certain rhythm”.

3. Ask Students “What’s Missing?” This strategy is another great way to train students to listen for sentence completeness. Stewart recommends starting orally by presenting students with a sentence fragment, either a subject or a predicate. Then, ask the students to answer “What’s Missing?”. By giving a non-example, teachers can further model what is, and what is not, a complete sentence. This works well for younger students who will struggle with more abstract explanations.

Stewart adds that “[these] strategies are simply something that we can do throughout the day…. We don't have to actually make this part of our ELA block… This is just something that we can tune our own teacher antenna to and make this part of our teacher talk”. In contrast, these next four steps are a bit more hands on, and will be more appropriate for older students.

4. Have Students Arrange Sentence Anagrams. Similar to a traditional anagram, which is a word formed by rearranging letters, Stewart’s “Sentence Anagrams” are formed by rearranging fragments. This activity works well when paired with a text read together in class. In this activity, teachers should ask students a question about information learned in the text. Students are then provided with the answer in the form of a dis-organized sentence–or un-scaffolded elements. The objective is for students to properly arrange the sentence elements to form a complete answer. “One of the most effective ways is to actually use sentence cards,” she says, which allows students to easily visualize the way words are ordered to create meaning.

5. Don’t Shy Away from Parts of Speech. “One question I quite often get is: do we teach parts of speech?” Stewart admits. Her answer is yes. “We really want to focus on this idea, that different words in a sentence serve different functions in that sentence”. While parts of speech and coding have historically been brushed aside, Stewart emphasizes that it is an important part of understanding syntax. Instruction about sentence coding can even pair nicely with Sentence Anagram activities. “[Teachers should] really focus on the mobility of the different parts of a sentence”.

Of course, literacy isn’t just about reading comprehension. As students get older, it’s important to connect their understanding of syntax with their writing skills. “I often see writing instruction that emphasizes whole compositions. And I think we're missing an important step,”  she explains. “We need to teach kids to develop a well-constructed sentence. Because sentences are the bones of all writing”. 

6. Challenge Students to Elaborate on Basic Sentences. According to Stewart, this is one of the trickiest strategies on her list. In this activity, students start with a simple sentence and expand it to “make it more meaningful and interesting”. Students can be guided through expansions by asking questions that align with each part of speech. For example, students can expand the predicate by asking “where?” and “when?”. They can go further by asking “to whom?” “for whom?” or  “for what?”. They can also expand the subject by asking questions about traits. Traits can be physical or relational, and they can even describe ownership or amount. For example, “The boys ran.” can be expanded to “Yesterday, the three boys ran to get groceries”.

7. Explore Sentence Variety in Student Writing. The goal of this strategy is “to create more interesting compositions by focusing on sentence level… types of sentences, length of sentences, [and] beginnings of sentences” says Stewart. For older kids, this may involve formal instruction on sentence types like interrogative, declarative, imperative, and exclamatory. Older students can go through their work, labeling  sentences to make sure they have one of each type.  But younger students can also practice diversifying their sentences. “One way that we can teach our students about sentence variety is to have them just count the number of words in their sentences”. Another trick for younger students is to circle the first word of each sentence. Students should “try not to start two sentences with the same word”, says Stewart.

With these seven strategies, Stewart hopes that students of all ages can gain a better grasp of how sentences are created and understood. And with learning loss as a result of the pandemic, this instruction seems urgent. “We know that many of our students do not express themselves orally in complete sentences.” But by developing a general understanding of syntax, students can expect to see improvement in their writing and their reading comprehension. “Sometimes students make an error in decoding and if they have good syntactic awareness, they can repair that error spontaneously”.

Article by: Michael Manzi. Michael was a struggling reader. Now, he writes articles and blogs to promote research-backed literacy interventions for students across the education spectrum.

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