Syntactic Awareness: Teaching Sentence Structure (Part 1)

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 8 Comments

The ability to understand at the sentence level is in many ways the foundation for being able to comprehend text. The ways in which authors express their ideas through sentences greatly affects a reader’s ability to access and identify those ideas. Sentences that are complex, contain a large number of ideas (also called propositions), or have unusual word order will make it difficulty for students to comprehend what they are reading, especially students who enter school with limited oral language exposure or for whom English is a second language.

Consider this:

  • One by one, sentences (oral or written) communicate ideas that add up to make meaning.
  • Efficient processing of sentence structure is necessary for overall comprehension.
  • The level of a text’s syntax is one predictor of a text’s comprehensibility (Snow et al., 2005).
  • Effective readers have knowledge of phrase structures, parts of sentences, and how they work (Scott, 2004).

Sentence knowledge is also important for student composing (oral or written). As Saddler (2012) explains it, “Of the many difficulties writers encounter when engaged in the complex act of writing, crafting sentences that accurately convey the meaning is particularly challenging…. manipulating sentences is both effortful and critical.”

Syntactic Awareness

Syntax is the study and understanding of grammar — the system and arrangement of words, phrases, and clauses that make up a sentences. In order to comprehend a sentence, the reader must process, store (in working memory), and integrate a variety of syntactic and word meaning information (Paris & Hamilton, 2009).

Syntactic awareness means having the ability to monitor the relationships among the words in a sentence in order to understand while reading or composing orally or in writing. Students build syntactic awareness through exposure to oral language when they are young and particularly through exposure to written language that they hear through read aloud or independent reading (around grade 3).

Activities to Develop Syntactic Awareness

There are several instructional activities that can help students develop “sentence sense” (i.e., syntactic awareness) by providing opportunities for students to manipulate and add words in sentences.

Sentence Scramble

During a sentence scramble activity, students arrange words to form a sentence. Students are given a set of words from a sentence that are out of order. They must then arrange the words into a complete sentence that follows correct English grammar. Words cannot be deleted. Here are two examples:

Here are a few suggestions for using sentence scrambles with your students:

  • Use sentences from text used for reading or read aloud.
  • Include words recently encountered in phonics or spelling lessons.
  • Include newly learned vocabulary terms.
  • Introduce sentence scrambles that have just a few words — three or four at the most. Then gradually expand the number of words as well as the complexity of the sentence structure. Be sure to avoid using too many words that might overwhelm students.
  • Scaffold the task by capitalizing the first word of the sentence and including punctuation after the last word.

Sentence Elaboration: The “W” Questions

Sentence elaboration activities help students use and manipulate a growing number of words in sentences (Marilyn Adams, 2011). They are especially helpful for developing syntactic awareness for subordinate clauses, prepositional phrases, and adverbial phrases. A basic sentence elaboration activity uses six question words: who, what, where, why, which, how. The activity starts with a simple subject (e.g., the turtle). Then, a series of questions is asked to prompt students to expand and elaborate. This activity can be done in whole group with students making suggestions while the teacher writes the sentences. For older students, this activity can be done in small groups or with partners. Scaffold by giving students just two or three of the question words, then gradually expand the task.

Here is an example:

The sources for these activities are two Keys to Literacy professional development programs: The Key Comprehension Routine: Grades K-3, and Keys to Early Writing. Click here to learn more about these programs and order the books. In next month’s post I will share two more activities that building syntactic awareness: Kernel Sentence Elaboration and Sentence Combining.


Adams, M.J. (2011). Reading, language, and the mind. PowerPoint delivered at NYSED Network Team Institute, November 29, 2011, Albany, NY.

Saddler, B. (2012). Teacher’s guide to effective sentence
. New York: Guilford Press.

Scott, C. (2004). Syntactic
contributions to literacy development. In C. Stone, E. Stillman, B. Ehren,
& K. Apel (Eds.) Handbook of language
and literacy
  pp 340-363. New York:
Guilford Press.

Snow, C., Griffin, P., & Burns, M.S. (eds.). (2005). Knowledge to Support the Teaching of Reading. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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  1. Bill Knotek

    I think that we learn best when our brains naturally look for real whole ideas to make sense of things. For example, I am in the dark; I need to walk to bathroom. I can’t just walk there with out first predicting a step. I take. step, only to step into my dresser; my brain reconsiders, in a flash, where go step next. I proceed to bathroom. It wasn’t just a misstep to my brain. The misstep was used to reconsider a better step…to the whole idea of going to bathroom. Believe me this is a real need idea! Now what does this have to do with syntax, a subject I love by the way. The brain works reading much like stepping. It has a set for ambiguity-it reconsiders. You and I can make sense of the order, as we read, reconsidering as we go. You know. Miscues. Here’s the thing: it is based on real wholes like my trip to bathroom. What is the purpose of reading? Real need? Is the language and knowledge of writer known enough for the reader’s brain TO make sense, not exactly. Starting with practice with exact kinds of syntax I know as teacher isn’t as important as setting up a real, whole need to for the child to make sense of written language. .

  2. Jonice c

    Hello Joan, I found this blog to be very formative, yet straight forward on sentence structures. I think the activity you presented within your blog was a cool and fun one that children will enjoy! I loved how you also presented us with suggestions on how to actually use the sentence scrambles which will make the activity beneficial.

    • Joan Sedita

      You are welcome! I hope you will find the activities helpful with your students. Joan

  3. Sandra Eagles

    I am interested in Part 2 of syntax awareness

  4. Cherry Thorpe

    I am so glad I came upon this site in my quest to learn more about helping students improve in reading and and other language arts related subjects

  5. Catherine Mwelu Ngila

    What a great and insightful piece to teach the students syntactic awareness!

  6. Judy Hamsley

    Good ideas for teaching syntactic awareness and useful examples. These can easily be used in instruction.

  7. Judy Hamsley

    Good ideas for teaching syntactic awareness and useful examples. These can easily be used in instruction. I think Ms Sedita’s definitions and examples were clearly defined and stated and relevant to lower grade instruction.



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