In the spirit of the term “oldie but goodie,” we at CORE wanted to resurface an important topic related to the language comprehension portion of Scarborough’s Reading Rope—language structures, or syntax. The winter 2015 edition of the Reading Expert, republished below, discusses the importance of teaching syntax to support sentence comprehension and reminds us of this important element of language comprehension.
There are two recent developments related to CORE’s professional learning on this topic. The first is that Nancy Hennessy, a leader in the literacy professional learning world on comprehension instruction, has recently presented a webinar on this topic as part of CORE’s 2021–22 webinar series (February 2022). It can be viewed here. The second development is that CORE is currently collaborating with Nancy to create an additional module for CORE’s Elementary Reading Academy on the topic of syntax. This new module is scheduled to be available by mid-fall of 2022. So, without further ado, we hope you enjoy reading (or rereading) this article on syntax.
Syntax: A new frontier in addressing the Common Core State Standards
Last November’s International Dyslexia Association (IDA) conference offered an informative reading comprehension symposium facilitated by Dr. Kate Cain from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. She is currently one of several educational researchers who make up the Language and Reading Research Consortium (LRRC). This consortium is leading the effort (and making some promising advancements) to uncover the processes and difficulties of reading comprehension. The last three decades of research have brought much clarity to the field for how word-level processes support reading comprehension; however, the complexities of reading comprehension still present many unanswered questions.
A reading research model known as the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) separates reading comprehension into two components—word recognition and language comprehension. This model is not to imply that reading is simple, but that variation in reading ability can be captured by these two components. Researchers have more clearly identified what dimensions support language comprehension and how they interact and support each other to allow comprehension. Language comprehension is distinguished further in a graphic adapted from Cain and her colleagues at the LRRC and Scarborough’s Reading Rope Model (2001).
The five dimensions supporting language comprehension along with strong word reading skills work together to form a mental model of what we read. While we know that reading comprehension difficulties can stem from weaknesses in the word reading component, we also know more clearly now that difficulties in reading comprehension can be caused by weaknesses in one or more of these language comprehension dimensions, what researchers refer to as specific language impairment (SLI). Researchers are currently testing interventions in these dimensions.
This issue of the Reading Expert will focus on understanding sentences and some ways to help better develop this dimension. Up until recently, grammar and syntax instruction have received scant consideration in reading research. Academics have long argued that the sentence is the major processing unit of language and syntax (word order) defines the sentence (Scott, 2014), and studies suggest that syntax plays a role in predicting reading comprehension (Adlof, Catts, & Lee, 2010). Dr. Mary Schleppegrell, at the University of Michigan, is a leader in the field of academic language, linguistics, and second-language development. She and her colleagues encourage teachers to provide functional language analysis, which is the systematic analysis of language patterns and meanings of those patterns in challenging text. In light of the Common Core’s demand for more complex text, this functional language analysis is a way to deconstruct complex text to make it more comprehensible to students. In addition, a small research base is developing to support functional language analysis as a type of intervention.
The summer 2013 edition of IDA’s publication, Perspectives on Language, provides a focus on syntax. In this edition, Mary Schleppegrell writes an article, “Exploring Language and Meaning in Complex Texts,” which exemplifies functional language analysis. In this article Dr. Schleppegrell argues that to successfully support reading complex text as advocated by the Common Core State Standards, teachers should incorporate three strategies into their teaching: 1) explore how authors present agency, who or what is acting in the text; 2) identify conjunctions and explore how they connect ideas in a sentence; and 3) track the words through which characters and concepts are introduced and developed, known as chains of reference. These three strategies draw upon systemic functional linguistics, of which functional grammar is a part.
To address agency, Schleppegrell suggests that at the elementary level, agency (who or what is doing the action) is obscured by text that is written in passive voice. By asking who is doing the action, teachers can draw students’ attention to the differences between active and passive voice to better comprehend. At the secondary level, nominalizations obscure agency. Nominalizations take a process (a verb) such as destroying and turn it into a noun (destruction). Schleppegrell argues that “complex texts are packed with nominalizations that condense a lot of information into a single word or phrase” (p. 38). She exemplifies the phrase “The destruction of the buffalo . . . ” and how in this instance it is not clear who is doing the action. It requires the reader to fill in missing information, maybe presented earlier in the text, or maybe not. In this instance, having teachers notice the missing information and asking students to identify who destroyed the buffalo will help to identify agency.
To address conjunctions, Schleppegrell recommends that teachers help elementary students identify conjunctions such as although, however, thus, but, and others used in complex texts to help them understand the author’s line of reasoning. Students need opportunities to recognize how authors use these conjunctions and how they shape the meanings presented in the clauses they connect (p. 39). Using an example of a secondary history text, Schleppegrell presents the idea that sometimes verbs can, like conjunctions, convey causal logic. This makes text even more challenging as, in these cases, there are no conjunctions to identify. For example, in the sentence, The destruction of the buffalo and removal of Native Americans to reservations emptied the land for grazing cattle, the verb emptied serves as the causal signal.
To address chains of reference, Schleppegrell suggests that elementary readers often don’t recognize when authors use pronouns and synonyms to refer to a character or concept that was introduced earlier in the text. “Teachers can help students recognize such reference chains by identifying a key character or concept and tracing its development across a text. By tracking reference and highlighting the chains of reference, students gain insights into how complex texts are constructed and how information develops in a text” (p. 40).
There are other strategies to support syntax instruction presented in other articles in the summer 2013 edition of Perspectives, but we wanted to share this one in particular as it speaks to the complexities of our language and the need for teacher support to address functional language analysis in their classrooms. CORE’s training entitled Language Conventions and Writing Fundamentals addresses grammar and syntax from a functional language perspective at both the elementary and secondary levels and can be a resource to support analysis of complex text. If you’d like to speak to CORE about bringing this training or any of our other job-embedded professional learning services to your district, please contact us.
Adlof, S. M., Catts, H. W., & Lee, J. (2010). Kindergarten predictors of second vs. eighth grade reading comprehension impairments. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43, 332–345.
Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.
Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading disabilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97–110). New York: Guilford.
Schleppegrell, M. (2013). Exploring language and meaning in complex texts. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 39(3), 37–42.
Scott. C. (2014, November). Accounting for the sentence comprehension part of reading comprehension: What makes sentences hard to understand and what can be done about it.Presentation at the meeting of the International Dyslexia Association, San Diego, CA.