Why We Need to Teach Sentence Comprehension

For the need of a nail the shoe was misplaced;

For the need of a shoe the horse was misplaced;

For the need of a horse the battle was misplaced;

For the failure of battle the dominion was misplaced —

And all for the need of a horseshoe nail.

— Proverb

This oft-used litany jogs my memory of studying:

For the need of phonemic consciousness the decoding was misplaced; for the need of phonics the fluency was misplaced … you get the concept. The talents that comprise studying are hierarchical, every nested within the different (although it isn’t as linear because the horseshoe nail system — we don’t utterly accomplish a studying step earlier than the onset of the later ones, and people later steps can improve the sooner ones; phonemic consciousness, for instance, is less complicated to accomplish when the phonics that it permits, is itself being taught).

Over the years, I’ve written so much about letters and phonemes, decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and the like. Recent analysis (Sorenson, et al., 2020) jogs my memory of an necessary step within the studying sequence that we have a tendency to skip. Reading researchers have assiduously explored the significance of vocabulary and textual content construction in studying comprehension, as nicely they need to; these are necessary features of language which were discovered to facilitate the power to perceive textual content. But between these two linguistic extremes (the smallest chunks and the biggest), there may be the seemingly unloved sentence.

Correlational research have lengthy demonstrated that one’s capacity to negotiate the which means of sentences is related to studying comprehension. This connection has been proven by evaluating performances with texts that adjust of their sentence complexity (consider all of the research of readability), by correlating the outcomes of grammar exams and studying comprehension exams, and by evaluating good and poor studying comprehenders’ capacity to perceive specific oral sentence constructions (as within the current research, that explored passive and energetic sentences). Sorenson and colleagues reported that passive sentences had been markedly more durable for fifth graders to perceive.

Despite the lengthy historical past of such analysis, that has not translated into substantial efforts to enhance college students’ comprehension by means of sentence instruction.

Part of the rationale for which may be due to the long-noted failure of specific grammar instruction to enhance writing high quality or studying comprehension (e.g., Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, & Schoer, 1963). If grammar instruction doesn’t assist, then why pursue the problem?

At one time, I’d have agreed with that. I can’t say I took to formal grammar instruction a lot as a boy, and in reality, I thought of it to be fairly a ache in my nether reaches. As youngsters we had been tortured with sentence diagramming workouts that I nonetheless don’t actually perceive when one will get a lot past the declarative sentences of the Hemingway selection.

But I’ve come to imagine that the problem is extra refined and that the expectation that common grammar instruction ought to improve studying or writing for native audio system is somewha simplistic. Readers should be ready to perceive sentences, however they have to achieve this like proficient language customers, not linguists. If a scholar can assemble sentences that make sense and tease out the meanings of these sentences they confront in texts, then I don’t care a lot whether or not they can clarify the distinction between an infinitive and a participle or know what a gerund is.

I’m not rejecting the worth of formal grammar instruction altogether both. It clearly helps when one is finding out a second language, not less than with regard to sentence constructions that differ throughout languages. For occasion, in English a easy sentence might comply with the sequence: Subject – Verb – Direct Object… whereas in French, it might be Subject – Direct Object – Verb. It might help to have someone level that out. (If you’re French and attempting to be taught English you don’t need to say, “John him called”).

Steve Graham helpfully identified in his meta-analyses on writing instruction that whereas formal grammar had a adverse impact dimension (which means the comparability teams outperformed the grammar teams), not like the opposite approaches to instruction, grammar was at all times within the position of management group. What this implies is that grammar was by no means examined in a circumstance by which the researchers had been striving to make it work. All the brand new supplies, skilled improvement, classroom visits, and the like had been showered on the choice strategy being touted by the researchers. Perhaps if somebody set out to make formal grammar educating work, it would fare higher in such research.

But even when not, it strikes me that instruction in how to make sense of sentences may play an necessary position in studying comprehension.

We don’t monitor college students’ comprehension of textual content particularly intently. Oh, we consider comprehension each formally (e.g., standardized exams) and informally (e.g., classroom discussions, instructor questions). But we aren’t particularly attentive to the potential sources of the misunderstandings. Where did the scholars go improper?

If we acknowledge that college students might wrestle with sentences written within the passive voice, then it might behoove us to educate studying with some texts that use this troublesome building. Our monitoring of scholar success on this case wouldn’t merely pursue common questions in regards to the concepts within the textual content. They would zero in on the concepts expressed in these passive voice sentences to see if that was a part of the issue. Obviously the identical may very well be achieved with all types of grammatical constructions (a number of problematic ones have been recognized within the analysis literature).

When college students fail to perceive such sentences, it might make sense not simply to inform them they bought it improper. We’d need to present them how to make sense of these sorts of sentences. A scholar who simply understands, “The cat chased the dog” could also be confused by, “The dog was chased by the cat.” Teaching college students to preserve their eyes open for that form of sentence and the way to both translate it to its energetic type or to query who was doing the chasing appear to be so as.

Of course, that form of educating can’t be useful in an tutorial surroundings by which college students are protected against language complexity (e.g., the educational degree). If college students are to spend their tutorial time studying texts they’ll already perceive simply, then educating them to make sense of sophisticated sentences gained’t enhance their efficiency and youngsters will quickly be taught to disregard what for them can be unproductive educating.

We do one thing like this with vocabulary; deliberately introducing phrases we expect college students might not know and supporting them with vocabulary instruction. (As with grammar, the worth of such instruction varies to the extent that comprehension activates the which means of these phrases. Vocabulary instruction has larger results when comprehension is evaluated with texts containing the taught phrases than with texts that don’t).

Reading instruction ought to deliberately place college students in conditions by which their understanding of a textual content will rely on their capacity to surmount some specific conceptual or linguistic limitations. As famous, vocabulary instruction usually does that. We also needs to be doing it with morphology, sentence grammar, cohesive hyperlinks, textual content construction, and the like.

For the need of a phrase a sentence was misplaced;

For the need of a sentence the textual content was misplaced;

For the need of a textual content the educational was misplaced;

For the failure of studying the dominion will really be misplaced.


Sorenson Duncan, T., Mimeau, C., Crowell, N., & Deacon, S. H. (2020). Not all sentences are created equal: Evaluating the relation between youngsters’s understanding of primary and troublesome sentences and their studying comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology. 

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