Syntax refers to the rules used to join words into meaningful sentences, sentences into coherent paragraphs, and paragraphs into longer passages. Early in school, students read relatively simple sentences, often composed of nouns and verbs. However, as students continue in school, the syntactic complexity of reading passages increases rapidly.

Students must pay special attention to word order (for example, in embedded clauses), parts of speech (such as pronouns), and special uses of words, all of which affect the meaning of a sentence or passage.

Here are some strategies for helping students develop their reading comprehension skills by focusing on understanding syntax.

Helpful Hints

  • Confirm that students’ skills in word decoding (reading words rapidly and accurately) are at, or near grade level. Provide opportunities for students to make decoding skills “automatic,” so that they are able to focus on the entire sentence or passage that they are reading. Click here for more about word decoding.  
  • Provide direct instruction about the rules of grammar and the exceptions to common syntactic rules.  
  • Provide students with examples of the different ways sentences may be combined.  
  • Give students practice working with syntactically rearranged sentences, for example, comparing “The dog chased the cat” with “The cat was chased by the dog,” “Get a glass of milk before you sit down” with “Sit down after you get a glass of milk,” etc.  
  • Give students increasingly complex sentences and ask them to interpret different possible meanings.  
  • Help students see how improving reading ability may also enhance writing skills.  
    • Teach sentence diagramming to enhance students awareness of syntax.  
    • Utilize cloze procedures (the leaving out of specific words) that require students to fill in words that are grammatically correct.  
    • Provide students with syntactically incorrect sentences, and ask them to generate as many corrections as possible.