Reading Comprehension

How teaching sentence structure can improve reading comprehension

By Sara Snelling

19 Dec 2022

Students in a classroom

Sentence structure is vital to writing instruction, but its impact goes deeper than that.

Learners need to be able to recognise and understand each element in a sentence, and how they work together, to comprehend what they are reading. In this article, we identify strategies for teaching sentence structure to improve reading comprehension.

Sentence structure is undoubtedly key in learning to write, but it’s also inherent in the process of learning to read. As students learn to create more complex sentences through their writing and oral language, this has a positive impact on their ability to understand what they read. Linguistic knowledge underpins good comprehension, with research studies showing a clear relationship between grammatical sophistication and reading comprehension.

This link is incorporated in readability measures used to predict how well a learner will understand a text. For example, the Lexile Reading Framework matches reader ability with text difficulty, based on word frequency and sentence length. This is because there is evidence that the best predictor of the difficulty of a sentence is its length, with long sentences containing more clauses, many of which are interrelated. Longer sentences that communicate more information and have complex structures place more pressure on working memory in the comprehension process.

So, what does this mean for educators developing reading comprehension lessons?

Sentence structure needs to be taught explicitly for reading comprehension

Sentence length and structure are criteria for how difficult a piece of text is to understand. It makes sense, therefore, that educators should explicitly align the teaching of sentence structures and associated grammatical rules with reading instruction, as well as with writing instruction. When it comes to reading comprehension, a key strategy is to activate prior knowledge. Extend this to incorporate the knowledge needed to make sense of word order, punctuation and other sentence elements, and explicit instruction in sentence structure becomes a prerequisite for reading comprehension.

A learner’s skills in both sentence structure and comprehension ideally should grow in sophistication together. They can be assessed through a continuous system of reading and summarising. If a sentence cannot be accurately summarised, it can be broken down into its components to identify the specific areas that cause confusion. This may be vocabulary related, but equally, it may be connected to confusing or complex sentence structure. To address this, learners need the skills to pull sentences apart and analyse them in a simpler form.

Sentence combining exercises to enhance reading comprehension

Sentence combining is a great way of teaching sentence structure and giving learners the skills to build and, importantly for comprehension, deconstruct sentences. It demonstrates how simple sentences can be brought together in a single sentence that conveys more meaning than its components. When learners come across long or complicated sentences in text, they have prior knowledge of sentence structure to enable them to break them down into simpler forms.

Following are six examples of exercises to practise sentence combining.

1. Create compound sentences using coordinating conjunctions

Compound sentences have more than one independent or main clause, which are clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences. Coordinating conjunctions are words that connect words, phrases and clauses of equal importance (such as, ‘and’ or ‘but’).

Take the following two sentences:

  • I have a guinea pig.
  • Her name is Fluffy.

Using the coordinating conjunction ‘and’, they can be turned into independent clauses within a single compound sentence:

  • I have a guinea pig, and her name is Fluffy.

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2. Create complex sentences using subordinating conjunctions

Complex sentences have an independent clause and one or more dependent or subordinate clauses, which depend on the main clause for meaning. Subordinating conjunctions connect words, phrases and clauses of unequal importance and add explaining information, such as when, why or where something took place.

Take the following two sentences:

  • I will go for a jog.
  • I will go when the rain stops.

These can be joined using the subordinating conjunction ‘when’ to incorporate the information from the second sentence as a dependent clause:

  • I will go for a jog when the rain stops.

3. Combine sentences using compound subjects

A compound subject incorporates two or more simple subjects. Sentences with simple word subjects can be combined with a conjunction to create a sentence with a compound subject if the subjects are performing the same action or are in the same state.

Take the following two simple subject sentences:

  • The fox was hungry.
  • The badger was hungry.

The conjunction ‘and’ can be used to create a single sentence with a compound subject:

  • The fox and badger were hungry.

4. Modify with adjectives and adverbs

When a sentence includes an adjective or adverb that modifies a noun or verb from another sentence, the two can be combined.

Take the following two sentences:

  • The boy ate the apple.
  • The apple was green.

These can be combined based on the adjective ‘green’ in the second sentence relating to the noun ‘apple’ in both sentences:

  • The boy ate the green apple.

5. Embed an appositive (or noun phrase)

When two sentences refer to the same noun, one sentence can be converted into a noun phrase and embedded in the other.

Take the following two sentences:

  • My dog loves to run in the woods.
  • My dog has floppy ears.

These can be combined to create a single sentence about ‘my dog’:

  • My dog, who has floppy ears, loves to run in the woods.

6. Identify a prepositional phrase

A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition (such as ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘on’ or ‘under’), its object, and any words that link the object and the preposition. When a prepositional phrase in one simple sentence relates to elements in another, they can be combined.

Take the following two sentences:

  • The boy watched the train.
  • The train raced down the track.

The prepositional phrase ‘down the track’ relates to the ‘train’ in both sentences and they can be combined into a single sentence:

  • The boy watched the train as it raced down the track.

Cohesion is how ideas are connected within and between sentences. Words and sentences are cohesive when they logically fit together. This is achieved using cohesive devices to link meaning across words within a sentence, and from one sentence to another.

Paragraphs are structures that bring together sentences that focus on a single shared idea or theme. Extracting meaning from each sentence and linking it to others in the same paragraph builds paragraph coherency. A coherent paragraph is logical, easily understood and flows smoothly, as a result of cohesion across its sentences.

To follow this path of cohesion, readers must first become skilled at sentence comprehension. Sentence-combining exercises, such as those outlined above, help learners recognise the cohesive devices used within and between sentences. These include:

  • Conjunctions (within sentences): Maria was hungry because she didn’t eat breakfast.
  • Connectors (between sentences): I am tired. Therefore, I will go to bed early.
  • Ellipsis (omitting identical text): I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings instead of I read The Hobbit and I read The Lord of the Rings.
  • Pronouns (substituting for a previously mentioned noun): Marcel was late. He missed the bus.

Questioning is another useful technique. It’s incorporated within general reading comprehension strategies, but can also be specifically used to focus learners’ attention on the creation of coherence at the paragraph or chapter level. Answering strategic questions that relate to specific parts of a text encourages learners to explicitly think about how they came to acquire information and how meaning was created.

Questioning for narrative texts

  • Who are the main characters in the story? What happened to them? How did they respond? How are they feeling?
  • Where is the story set? How do you know that? What is it like there?
  • What happened at the beginning? What happened in the middle? What happened at the end? What changed across the storyline?
  • Can you summarise the story in the order in which events happened?
  • How do you know that?
  • Where in the text does it tell you that?
  • What keywords are used to describe that?
  • Was it easy to follow the storyline? Why?

Questioning for nonfiction texts

  • What is the topic of the text?
  • What are the main ideas shared in the text?
  • What supporting details are given for each idea?
  • How do the ideas relate to each other?
  • What did you know about the topic at the start of the text?
  • What did you know in the middle?
  • What did you know by the end?
  • Where in the text did you learn that?
  • How is the information organised (for example, compare and contrast, question and answer, cause and effect, sequence)?
  • What did you learn from each paragraph?
  • Was it easy to understand the text? Why?

How Bedrock’s grammar curriculum supports learners’ reading comprehension skills

To gain a full understanding of sentence construction, learners need deep knowledge of the grammar skills within a text. Teachers can ensure these skills are consistently taught and mastered with the help of Bedrock’s core curriculum.

Bedrock’s grammar curriculum combines engaging teaching videos with bespoke fiction and nonfiction prose to provide a detailed explanation of grammar techniques. Learning is reinforced through recap tasks and mastery activities, ensuring knowledge is retained in the long term. Differentiated for primary and secondary, the grammar curriculum increases in complexity and can support learners as a resource throughout their academic journey, ensuring that fundamental reading comprehension skills continue to be secure as learners advance through key stages.

With a free trial, your school can try Bedrock’s core curriculum and see how the grammar curriculum (and vocabulary curriculum) can boost progress.

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