Syntactic Awareness: Teaching Sentence Structure Part 2

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 5 Comments

I posted part 1 of Syntactic Awareness on June 2. As noted in that post, 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. Developing sentence skills is also essential to becoming a good writer.

In part 1, I shared two instructional suggestions for building syntactic awareness of students across multiple grades: Sentence Scrambles and Sentence Elaboration using who, what, why, when and how questions. Part 2 includes suggestions for Sentence Elaboration using “kernel” sentences, and Sentence Combining. All of these instructional practices are part of the Keys to Early Writing professional development course.

Sentence Elaboration: Expanding Kernel Sentences

This activity helps students use more words and use more complex sentence structure. For this activity, the teacher gives a kernel sentence (i.e., the start of a simple sentence that has a noun and a verb). Students are asked to gradually add to the sentence following the sequence presented below with examples.

Start with a noun and a verb: turtle dives

Elaborate the subject — add articles, adjectives: The small, green turtle dives.

Elaborate the predicate — add adverbs: The small, green turtle dives quickly.

Add a phrase — The small, green turtle dives quickly into the seaweed.

Compound the subject — The small, green turtle and his brother dive quickly into the seaweed.

Compound the predicate — The small, green turtle and his brother dive and swim quickly into the seaweed.

Add a dependent clause to make a complex sentence — Because they are frightened, the small, green turtle and his brother dive quickly into the seaweed.

Combine two sentences into a compound sentence — Because they are frightened, the small, green turtle and his brother dive quickly into the seaweed, and they hide from predators.

Teachers from any subject can provide practice with this type of sentence elaboration. Start with a kernel sentence about a topic your students are learning in your content area. Ask them to elaborate by adding content-related facts and information. You can also give them specific vocabulary terms to include in their sentences.

Sentence Combining

Sentence combining activities were introduced in the 1960’s (Strong, 1986). Research consistently finds that sentence combining is an effective method for helping students of all ages, from elementary grades through college, produce more syntactically mature sentences, and it is one of the eleven instructional practices recommended in the Writing Next research meta-analysis (Graham & Perrin, 2007; Saddler, 2012). Sentence combining provides practice with manipulating and rearranging words in sentences, expanding sentences, and clarifying sentence meaning.

Because a sentence combining activity only takes a few minutes, it is an activity that can be used as an “admit ticket” at the start of class or when ever there are a few minutes between classroom activities. It is best to start by giving students two simple sentences to combine, as in the basic examples below.

  • The book was good. The movie was good. (The book and movie were good.)
  • The boy drank lemonade. The boy was thirsty. (The thirsty boy drank lemonade.)
  • The girls thought the weather was perfect. The girls were playing soccer. (The girls were playing soccer because they thought the weather was perfect.)

Eventually, as students become more adept at their sentence combining, you can give them more than two sentences to combine. The more the sentences, the more options students will have for the word order they use. Teachers of any subject can provide sentence combining practice. Start by selecting a sentence from classroom text and break it into a series of short sentences. The first example below is a sentence from John Steinbeck’s book “The Pearl”. The second example is a sentence from a social studies text. The teacher shows the original sentence after students have done their own combining.

The ants were busy on the ground, big black ones with shiny bodies, and little dusty quick ants.

  • The ants were busy.
  • They were on the ground.
  • There were big ones.
  • The big ones were black.
  • The big ones had shiny bodies.
  • There were little ants.
  • The little ants were dusty.
  • The little ones were quick.

The fancy exterior decorations on just about every building were carved from wood, then painted to look like stone or marble.

  • The decorations were carved.
  • The decorations were fancy.
  • The decorations were on the exterior.
  • They were carved from wood.
  • They were on just about every building.
  • Then the decorations were painted.
  • They were painted to look like stone.
  • Or they were painted to look like marble.

For more suggestions about developing syntactic awareness and sentence writing, check out Bruce Saddler’s book “Teacher’s Guide to Effective Sentence Writing” (2012). Keys to Literacy’s two writing PD programs also include sentence instruction suggestions: Keys to Early Writing and Keys to Content Writing.


  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve the writing of adolescents in middle and high schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for  Excellent Education.
  • Saddler, B. (2012). Teacher’s guide to effective sentence writing. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Strong, W. (1986). Creative approaches to sentence combining. ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills. National Council of Teachers of English.

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. Jovita Chea

    Thank you very much for the plethora of useful and timely resources made available to enhance teaching.
    Warmest regards!

  2. Manek

    Thank you, systematically explained. Will be helpful to gain ground with my students.

    • Esther Greenberger

      Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge of writing. This information will definitely help me as I tutor students in reading and writing.

  3. Cindy Zirnheld

    Syntactic awareness is basically teaching sentence structure. Some of the strategies I would use to teach sentence structure are sentence scramble, sentence elaboration, and sentence combining.

  4. Judy Hamsley

    I especially liked your example of sentence combining and how it can be used through college. I mainly teach middle school and this will be an engaging and useful learning activity. Using sentences from our present reading material will be especially useful.



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