Why We Need to Teach Sentence Comprehension

  • syntax
  • 03 October, 2020

“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost;

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost;

For the want of a horse the battle was lost;

For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost;--

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

                        -James Baldwin

This oft used litany reminds me of reading:

For the want of phonemic awareness the decoding was lost; for the want of phonics the fluency was lost… you get the idea. The abilities that comprise reading are hierarchical, each nested in the other (though it is not as linear as the horseshoe nail formula—we don’t completely accomplish a reading step before the onset of the later ones, and those later steps can enhance the earlier ones; phonemic awareness, for example, is easier to accomplish when the phonics that it enables, is itself being taught).

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about letters and phonemes, decoding, fluency, vocabulary and the like. Recent research (Sorenson, et al., 2020) reminds me of an important step in the learning sequence that we tend to skip. Reading researchers have assiduously explored the importance of vocabulary and text structure in reading comprehension, as well they should; these are important aspects of language that have been found to facilitate the ability to understand text. But between these two linguistic extremes (the smallest chunks and the largest), there is the seemingly unloved sentence.

Correlational studies have long demonstrated that one’s ability to negotiate the meaning of sentences is connected to reading comprehension. This connection has been shown by comparing performances with texts that vary in their sentence complexity (think of all the studies of readability), by correlating the results of grammar tests and reading comprehension tests, and by evaluating good and poor reading comprehenders’ ability to understand particular oral sentence structures (as in the recent study, that explored passive and active sentences). Sorenson and colleagues reported that passive sentences were markedly harder for fifth graders to understand.

Despite the long history of such research, that has not translated into substantial efforts to improve students’ comprehension through sentence instruction.

Part of the reason for that may be due to the long-noted failure of explicit grammar instruction to improve writing quality or reading comprehension (e.g., Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, & Schoer, 1963). If grammar instruction doesn’t help, then why pursue the issue?

At one time, I would have agreed with that. I can’t say I took to formal grammar instruction much as a boy, and in fact, I considered it to be quite a pain in my nether reaches. As children we were tortured with sentence diagramming exercises that I still don’t really understand when one gets much beyond the declarative sentences of the Hemingway variety.

But I’ve come to believe that the issue is more subtle and that the expectation that general grammar instruction should enhance reading or writing for native speakers is somewha simplistic. Readers must be able to understand sentences, but they must do so like proficient language users, not linguists. If a student can construct sentences that make sense and tease out the meanings of those sentences they confront in texts, then I don’t care much whether they can explain the difference between an infinitive and a participle or know what a gerund is.

I’m not rejecting the value of formal grammar instruction altogether either. It clearly helps when one is studying a second language, at least with regard to sentence constructions that differ across languages. For instance, in English a simple sentence may follow the sequence: Subject – Verb – Direct Object… while in French, it would be Subject – Direct Object – Verb. It can help to have somebody point that out.(If you’re French and trying to learn English you don’t want to say, “John him called”).

Steve Graham helpfully pointed out in his meta-analyses on writing instruction that while formal grammar had a negative effect size (meaning the comparison groups outperformed the grammar groups), unlike the other approaches to instruction, grammar was always in the role of control group. What this means is that grammar was never tested in a circumstance in which the researchers were striving to make it work. All the new materials, professional development, classroom visits, and the like were showered on the alternative approach being touted by the researchers. Perhaps if someone set out to make formal grammar teaching work, it might fare better in such studies.

But even if not, it strikes me that instruction in how to make sense of sentences could play an important role in reading comprehension.

We don’t monitor students’ comprehension of text especially closely. Oh, we evaluate comprehension both formally (e.g., standardized tests) and informally (e.g., classroom discussions, teacher questions). But we aren’t especially attentive to the potential sources of the misunderstandings. Where did the students go wrong?

If we recognize that students may struggle with sentences written in the passive voice, then it would behoove us to teach reading with some texts that use this difficult construction. Our monitoring of student success in this case would not simply pursue general questions about the ideas in the text. They would zero in on the ideas expressed in those passive voice sentences to see if that was part of the problem. Obviously the same could be done with all kinds of grammatical constructions (several problematic ones have been identified in the research literature).

When students fail to understand such sentences, it would make sense not just to tell them they got it wrong. We’d want to show them how to make sense of those kinds of sentences. A student who easily understands, “The cat chased the dog” may be confused by, “The dog was chased by the cat.” Teaching students to keep their eyes open for that kind of sentence and how to either translate it to its active form or to question who was doing the chasing seem to be in order.

Of course, that kind of teaching cannot be beneficial in an instructional environment in which students are protected from language complexity (e.g., the instructional level). If students are to spend their instructional time reading texts they can already understand easily, then teaching them to make sense of complicated sentences won’t improve their performance and kids will soon learn to disregard what for them would be unproductive teaching.

We do something like this with vocabulary; intentionally introducing words we think students may not know and supporting them with vocabulary instruction. (As with grammar, the value of such instruction varies to the extent that comprehension turns on the meaning of those words. Vocabulary instruction has greater effects when comprehension is evaluated with texts containing the taught words than with texts that don’t).

Reading instruction should intentionally place students in situations in which their understanding of a text will depend upon their ability to surmount some particular conceptual or linguistic barriers. As noted, vocabulary instruction often does that. We should also be doing it with morphology, sentence grammar, cohesive links, text structure, and the like.

For the want of a word a sentence was lost;

For the want of a sentence the text was lost;

For the want of a text the learning was lost;

For the failure of learning the kingdom will truly be lost.



Sorenson Duncan, T., Mimeau, C., Crowell, N., & Deacon, S. H. (2020). Not all sentences are created equal: Evaluating the relation between children’s understanding of basic and difficult sentences and their reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1037/edu0000545


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sarah Tantillo Oct 03, 2020 04:04 PM

I agree 100% that we need to spend more time focused on SENTENCES—comprehending them and building them. Readers here might want to check out my book USING GRAMMAR TO IMPROVE WRITING: https://theliteracycookbook.wordpress.com/2018/05/24/my-new-book-using-grammar-to-improve-writing-is-now-available/

Joan Sedita Oct 03, 2020 04:08 PM

Thanks, Tim, for shining a light on this often neglected aspect of comprehension instruction. As you and S. Graham note, formal grammar instruction focused primarily on labeling parts of speech does not get you very far in terms of helping students develop sentence skills. The focus needs to be on activities that help students unpack complex sentences and expand simple sentences, especially those kinds of activities that have students practice manipulating words within sentences. As Graham's report Writing Next points out, there is a long research history supporting the use of sentence combining to improve both the comprehension and writing skills of students across all grades, even into college. Other activities such as sentence scrambles, sentence expansion and elaboration using "W" questions suggested by Marilyn Adams, and the expanded kernel sentence suggested by my colleagues Charles Haynes and Terry Jennings from the Landmark School are also helpful. I'm also glad that you pointed out the need to make sure we expose students to complex, challenging sentences in what they read. These sentences then become excellent sources for completing sentence activities. If your readers are interested, I wrote three blog posts this past year that offer suggestions for teaching sentence skills that support both comprehension and writing: "Cohesive Ties" on Aug 19, "Sentence Structure Part 1" on June 2, and "Sentence Structure Part 2" on July 7. The posts can be accessed at the "Literacy Lines" blog site: https://keystoliteracy.com/blog/

Stephen Parker Oct 03, 2020 04:38 PM

I can't agree with you Tim that "phonemic awareness,,, is easier to accomplish when the phonics that it enables, is itself being taught." My experience teaching children with synthetic phonics, and my reading of researcher David Share, indicate to me just the opposite: that "phonemic awareness develops only in the specific context of learning to read an alphabetic script.”

More from David Share: "Most children develop an awareness of phonemes as they learn to read.”

In short, phonemic awareness doesn't enable phonics Tim; phonics, properly taught, quickly enables phonemic awareness.

Stephen Parker (@ParkerPhonics)

Sam Bommarito Oct 03, 2020 05:19 PM

Here's a sentence from an old song from the 40's. I'm my own grandpa. BTW it is possible to be your own grandpa. Check out the rather funny song on YouTube based on that 1940's song. Also, E=MC2. Both may be a bit off your point but not really. Back in the day I used these two things as examples of how some easy to decode items can contain very complex ideas. I think that statement is much closer to your point. I fully agree that it is important to teach students how to unpack meaning at the sentence level. Being able to decode a sentence does not automatically lead to understanding that sentence, and there is more to comprehension than just listening comprehension. I recognize there are some who maintain otherwise, but there is considerable research evidence showing that there is more to reading comprehension than just listening comprehension. . So I have to strongly agree to the idea that " Reading instruction should intentionally place students in situations in which their understanding of a text will depend upon their ability to surmount some particular conceptual or linguistic barriers." Based on the research of Nell Duke and others I would first try using the gradual release model to do any form of direct teaching about comprehension. @doctorsam7, doctorsam7.blog

Ann C. Kay Oct 03, 2020 05:29 PM


I love that you used a rhythmically metered poem to start your article! Neuroscientists have found that the ability to keep a beat ("syncronization") is a foundational skill the brain needs to develop in order for a child to become fluent in language and reading. Here are two citations:

"The synchronizers also had higher pre-reading skills (phonological processing, auditory short-term memory, and rapid naming) compared with non-synchronizers. Overall, the results supported the idea that accurate temporal processing is important for developing the foundational skills needed in order to learn how to read."
-Article, March 2015, by Nina Kraus, PhD, & Samira Anderson, AuD, PhD https://northwestern.app.box.com/s/4gvdq5wksmiwti98jk362jdf0mijs2xs

"Beat synchronization (a task necessitating precise integration of auditory perception and motor production) has offered an intriguing window into the biology of reading ability and its substrate skills. Converging lines of evidence indicate that children and adults who struggle to synchronize to a beat also struggle to read and have deficient neural encoding of sound. The preschool years constitute a sensitive period for phonological development, a time when experience with language and its internalization lay the foundation for reading acquisition."
--Beat synchronization predicts neural speech encoding and reading readiness in preschoolers. Kali Woodruff Carr, Travis White-Schwoch, Adam T. Tierney, Dana L. Strait, and Nina Kraus. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2014 Oct 7; 111(40): 14564.

I would appreciate your help in communicating the importance of the biology of reading. I'd be happy to share a bibliography of 50+ current neuroscientific and other music research studies. annckay@comcast.net

Thank you,
Ann Kay

Timothy Shanahan Oct 03, 2020 09:02 PM


There is a pretty substantial research literature showing that phonemic awareness progress is greater when PA is combined with letters and letter sounds instruction.


Tina Abrego Oct 03, 2020 10:29 PM

Ok, I love this post and I particularly love that you quoted Steve Graham because he was on of my Professors at Univ. of Maryland back in the day along with his wife, Karen Harris Graham!! :)

steven rosenberg Oct 04, 2020 01:59 PM

The sentence is the most important level of language for comprehension and composition, but it is the most neglected. "The Writing Revolution" by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler (Jossey- Bass, 2017) describes how to teach sentence (and text) writing in the context of reading comprehension of texts students are reading with minimal (if any) focus on grammar. Many years ago, while I was a sped teacher in a public elementary school, I started using Hochman's strategies to teach students how to write sentences. Their ability to write sentences improved significantly and dramatically over a relatively short period of time. Up until using Hochman's strategies, I had been unable to help my student learn to write sentences.

Jen Oct 04, 2020 02:59 PM

Suggestions on how to approach this in an instructional program?

Lizzie Oct 04, 2020 10:32 PM

I actually enjoyed grammar diagramming in my old-fashioned school, somewhat like algebra. But with my own kids I’ll use the four level approach of Michael Clay Thompson’s curriculum.

“From a utilitarian point of view, I think grammar is an intellectual pocketknife; it is small, easily purchased, and so useful that one would not dream of being without it. Grammar is so lovely that even if it were useless, one would irresistibly explore it, as one explores chess, or architecture, or the spiral geometries of shells. It is a sort of magic aesthetic lens, through which we can view the delicate structures of ideas." – Michael Clay Thompson

Timothy Shanahan Oct 05, 2020 01:35 AM


There are a ton of good idea in the comments here. I would definitely use and all of these. I've had great luck with sentence combining and reducing using sentences in the texts that students are trying to read. I would suggest that you go into the Publications section of this website and look at the powerpoints and print articles on teaching with complex text. There are specific ideas there.



Bruce Billings Oct 05, 2020 11:24 PM

Hello Dr. Shanahan,

I've been very interested in this aspect of instruction. I've felt that grammar and sentence structure can play a pivotal role in helping struggling readers better comprehend a text, particularly a focus on cohesive ties, such as anaphoric and cataphoric references. I developed an intervention for my 7th grade students, where I took chunks of the grade-level anchor text we were studying, highlighted vague pronouns or difficult vocabulary (usually referents involving synonyms), and had students close read the chunk. During the close read students would identify what each referent referred to, either writing it above each highlighted word or drawing an arrow to the word in the text that it referred to. Then answer text-dependent questions to build comprehension.

I used this with a small group of my tier 3 readers, all of whom were in the school's phonics-based intervention program. Most exhibited whole word reading traits, often guessing words based on the first letter sounds, and all struggled with basic comprehension. I felt that they were receiving a proper intervention for fluency, but their lack of comprehension skills was not being addressed. I conducted this intervention throughout our novel study and for a few students, making connections between the various referents had opened the door for comprehension. For 2 of my students, I saw test scores go from 40s to 80-90s.

So my question is: Is there specific research that you know of that explores the use of teaching cohesive ties and anaphoric and cataphoric references as an intervention to help improve student comprehension? (Particularly at the middle school level)

I find that there is so much time and resources dedicated to full-scale fluency interventions, but student comprehension (which is not as easily observable as fluency and at times invisible unless truly diagnosed) is just expected to be solved on its own. I'm hoping that I can find ways to include proper comprehension interventions within the tier 1 classroom environment.

Thanks for all you do,

Nancy Chapel Eberhardt Oct 06, 2020 02:11 PM

Margie Gillis and I would like to add our support for explicit instruction of syntax. In fact, we advocate laying the foundation with beginning readers, even with decodable text. Why? We believe it is critical for beginning readers to learn to expect that the words they can read mean something and have a role in the text. For example, in the decodable sentence: The cat sat on the mat. We can ask “Who did it?” (the cat). “What did it do?” (sat). “Where did it do it?” (on the mat). This type of functional grammar, versus an emphasis on grammatical terms such as noun, verb, adverb, develops the language processing at the word and phrase level that impacts fluency and ultimately comprehension. We’ve focused on this in our book Syntax: Knowledge to Practice @ www.literacyhow.org.

I would also like to give a shout out to Nancy Hennessy’s new book The Reading Comprehension Blueprint, in which she devotes a chapter to the contribution of syntax to comprehension.

Diana O’Sullivqn Oct 09, 2020 06:45 PM

In teaching sentence structure to enhance comprehension and writing, the one brain ability that has been totally left out is visual processing. Indeed, visual processing is the brain’s most powerful, efficient and rapid processing ability. A system which allows students to visually learn and manipulate parts of the speech and parts of sentences has been my endeavor recently. I have found using images in teaching grammar and making sentence structure visual has greatly improved the interest and understanding of my students. It also allows for much grea

Lisawj Oct 10, 2020 07:02 PM

Brenda Shurley has a program of functional grammar that is fantastic. I am not a fan of the whole program just the question and answer flow. When I was first required to use it I could not see the purpose. Research seemed to say at that time grammar did not help comprehension or writing. Twenty years later if research said that it did not , I would ignore the research. Grammar that gives the kids the keys to meaning is indispensable to me.

Leanne Kratzmann Oct 24, 2020 12:37 AM

Bruce Billings - I have had similar success with the strategies you are using. The research I first encountered was related to ESL students. There is a great resource from Triune initiatives in NZ that you might find useful - Key Into Reorganistaion.
I also used concepts from functional grammar to develop sentence comprehension. After one workshop with Bev Derewianka it became clear to me that 'the clause' was the key to unlocking potential in reading and writing with the early secondary girls I was teaching.

Frank Oct 24, 2020 10:27 PM

I found this post extremely helpful. It has really helped me to clarify my thinking in this area.

Have you read Natalie Wexler's "The Knowledge Gap?" If so, I would love to know what you think of her take on sentence writing and building knowledge in the context of the Common Core.

Kristine Waddell Mar 13, 2022 03:23 AM


This post was very helpful in understanding the role that grammar, vocabulary, and sentence instruction could and should have in a literacy program. I agree with the idea that explicit grammar instruction does not reap the rewards. In my experience, teaching such skills in isolation does not seem to lead to transference for my students into their everyday writing. Rather, I try to find natural opportunities for these discussions. I had not considered the differentiation that active and passive sentences can have for students. I like how you explained how passive sentences may be more challenging, therefore, to look for texts that contain this form. It makes sense to see how difficulties in sentence comprehension could lead to challenges in reading comprehension. Your explanation of how vocabulary instruction often occurs with students being supported during the acquisition of words and how this should happen for other aspects of literacy makes sense. The biggest takeaway I had from this post was not to protect students from language complexity.

Thank you for your insightful thoughts.

Anna M Birkett Apr 15, 2024 08:58 PM

I remember teaching sentence diagramming and my kids did it too.

Arlanda Smith Apr 26, 2024 05:54 AM

I agree that a students understanding of a text will depend upon their ability to surmount some particular conceptual or linguistic barriers. As noted, vocabulary instruction often does that. We should also be doing it with morphology, sentence grammar, cohesive links and text structure.

Mary McKeeman Apr 29, 2024 01:38 AM

I am an ELD teacher. We have practiced unpacking juicy sentences. It is a good way to increase comprehension of the text as well as to teach how to effectively convey thoughts in writing. I still have a lot more to learn about this approach.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 29, 2024 02:53 AM


Even with the simplest of sentences start thinking about what role each of the words play... what is it that they are doing in the sentences... make sure your students start to figure it out -- that will get them into the relationships that syntax depends upon (that word describes the verb, that one tells what the subject looked like, etc.).


Andrea Wilson May 12, 2024 02:24 AM

I would like to know more on reading instruction intentionally placing students in situations in which their understanding of a text will depend upon their ability to surmount some particular conceptual or linguistic barriers. I agree vocabulary instruction often does that.

Timothy Shanahan May 12, 2024 04:17 PM

There are several blog entries and publications devoted to those issues. Search for articles about teaching with challenging text or complex text or for pieces on cohesion, text structure, and vocabulary.


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Why We Need to Teach Sentence Comprehension


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