When thinking about sentence-level skills, we’re focusing on syntax, or the structure of a sentence. Syntax and grammar skills and comprehension at the sentence level is a foundational language skill. Syntax skills, in short, are your students’ ability to know how to use a word. I like to describe syntax as the rules for how you can connect words to build sentences.
When you target syntax, you’re working on improving the arrangement/ordering of words in a sentence or the complexity of a sentence.
Sentence-level work is the glue between semantics/vocabulary and comprehension of longer chunks of language (including text and story comprehension) so it’s a critical place to focus your language therapy.
In my opinion, syntax is an often underrated target and skill for improving communication and reading performance. Syntax skills correlate with reading comprehension, even after controlling for other skills like vocabulary, decoding, and memory skills. In addition, the syntax skills of children as young as 2-3 is strongly related to their reading skills years later (Scarborough, 1990).
If learners can’t understand the individual sentences that comprise a larger chunk of language or text, this creates a major obstacle in comprehension. Comprehension of complex sentences is also an important skill for understanding oral language including classroom instruction and directions.
By the time students enter the school years, typically developing children have relatively strong grammar skills including the use of past tense verbs, a variety of pronouns, plurals, and more (think about Brown’s Morphemes). This means that is it important we provide effective syntax interventions early and don’t just wait until the upper grades.
In fact, children with language disorders demonstrate relative strengths in vocabulary when compared to their syntactic abilities. Similar skill profiles have been found in some autistic children as well (Bangert et. al., 2019). This further highlights the importance of targeting syntax, a foundational language skill, in your language therapy sessions.
Did you know that there is a specialized area of our verbal working memory system just for assessing the syntax of a sentence?
Research has shown that children with DLD often have weaker verbal working memory skills which reduces their ability to coordinate both storage (holding the sound of the words in their working memory) and processing (analyzing the words for meaning). (Montgomery et. al., 2021)
I like to imagine that this part of our brain contains lots of internalized mental frameworks for different types of sentences. So, while we’re listening or reading something, our brain is running what we’re reading through those frameworks to see if there’s a match.
These frameworks help make organizing and understanding incoming information a lot more efficient.
If somebody told you a complex sentence or phrase you didn’t quite hear or understand, one strategy you might use is remembering the sounds and words and repeating them to yourself a few times. While you’re repeating the words to yourself, you still might not even fully understand them. That ability to repeat what is said (without necessarily understanding) is the verbal working memory system at work.
While we hold the sounds in our working memory, we’re using all sorts of tools to try to understand what was said. Our brains might scan for word boundaries, familiar sentence structure, word endings we’ve heard before, or even individual words that we don’t recognize.
In addition to that, we might visualize the information to help process it. That means we make a visual (like an image, map, picture, diagram of spatial relationships, etc…) in our mind while we read, write, talk, and listen. As we listen more or read more, we update that visual to match what we learn.
To boost sentence-level comprehension, it’s important to keep this complex process in mind. Strengthening individual foundational skills (ex: vocabulary, syntax, working memory) can help to free up the processing resources necessary for analyzing increasingly complex sentences.
Targeted Syntax Teaching
Similarly to many other language skills, targeting syntax starts with asking how you can help your students visualize, conceptualize, or organize sentence-level information and concepts.
Interventions targeting syntax skills can be more effective when they include explicit and systematic components. My favorite ways to do this are:
- Using visual cues including color-coding, arrows, icons, and shapes to show parts of speech, phrases, key details, relationships between words, and more. (think of the graphic shown on the top of this page).
- Providing sentence frames. For example, when working on Defining, I like to provide the sentence frame, “A (item) is a (category) that (attribute)” and when contrasting items, I like to use “One _______ but the other _______”.
- Showing visuals that help learners understand the purpose of each part of speech (e.g., verbs show actions, or what the subject does – adjectives describe, or tell about something – adverbs tell how something is done).
- Giving clear, direct descriptions of grammatical rules.
You can see some of these strategies at work in the example shown below (from my Past Tense Verb Sentence Sliders resource).
Explicit approaches like this help our learners become aware of underlying rules or patterns to the language they encounter everyday.
Two other research-supported strategies for increasing syntactic knowledge are:
1. Sentence Combining
This skill requires a great deal of syntactic knowledge and allows for direct teaching and practice on skills like using conjunctions, using adverbs and adjectives, and understanding tricky relative clauses. Learn more about sentence combining here: Sentence Combining
2. Sentence Deconstruction
Sentence deconstruction breaks apart a sentence into separate pieces and discusses how each piece relates to one another. Learn more about deconstructing complex sentences here: Complex Sentence Deconstruction
Practice Syntax Skills in Context
Research has also shown that once students gain skills through explicit and systematic instruction, it can be beneficial to target that same skill within contextualized activities. That means working on syntax skills within themes, texts, activities, and my favorite medium, picture books. Some easy ways to target syntax in context are:
- Creating simple definitions (A ____ is a ____ that _____) to describe items from a book or text.
- Deconstructing sentences you read. What is the subject of the sentence? What is the action or verb? Better yet, color code these parts of speech and discuss how all of the parts work together and how each adds meaning. Break apart sentences that contain conjunctions and talk about how the pieces of information relate to one another.
- Combining sentences from a text or story. As an added challenge, turn a sentence you read containing a conjunction back into 2 separate sentences!
Below is an example routine for developing a robust, multi-week unit based around a picture book to help you see where syntax work might fit into a language therapy system:
In this example, you might introduce the topic or book and then preview the activities, targets, etc… for the unit.
Next, you’d read the story and discuss the macrostructure (big picture) of the story.
Then, you’d do direct teaching of both vocabulary and syntax skills (including activities like those shared above!)) related to the story.
Last, you’d look at overall comprehension of the story and write a story of your own!
Having topic continuity across activities and targets for several weeks promotes skill development and language growth because your students continually revisit and build on knowledge they’ve built in previous weeks. It also increases the generalization of skills!
To see examples of contextualized units for different themes or original picture books made specifically for speech and language therapy sessions, click here.
These units have themed grammar and syntax activities built in – including sentence formulation and sentence combining activities!