Building Better Sentences: Rigorous Syntax for English Learners

by Natalia Heckman

“The assumption has been that if students read enough, they’ll simply pick up writing skills, through a kind of osmosis. But writing is the hardest thing we ask students to do, and the evidence is clear that very few students become good writers on their own” (Hochman, 2017).

A written language is an organized system of symbols. It’s a logical structure guided by rules — for the most part. To be able to read, we need to be able to decode. In order to write, we have to encode. The encoding and decoding processes happen at all levels of the language system: words, sentences, discourse (paragraphs).  We use phonics to decode words. We use syntax to decode sentences.  Decoding is a necessary step to comprehension. Being able to use the rules that govern a written language is necessary, and it’s also one aspect of literacy. 

Can we acquire a foreign language naturally, simply by speaking it? Absolutely! 

Can English learners figure out how to write and read by just “picking it up” naturally? Unfortunately, this is very unlikely. Research shows that full literacy is not something that happens accidentally, or on its own. So, hoping that our students will “break the code” of a written language through haphazard exposure to text and occasional written tasks is unrealistic, to say the least. While reading/phonics is a topic of constant debates, syntax is frequently overlooked. Why should we focus on syntax in every classroom? Why is syntax worth our time as we build lessons focused on language acquisition?

Rigorous Syntax Instruction: Why Is it Necessary? 

  • To improve reading comprehension: The ability to grasp syntactic cues is one of the strongest indicators of reading proficiency. Students may know the words but fail to recognize connections between ideas and follow the trail of logic that is dependent on their understanding of sentence patterns and sentence structure. For example, according to Hochman and Lemov (2017), students often fail to understand coordination and subordination of ideas. The more complex the texts are, the more low-frequency syntactic features they contain. For example, participial verbal phrases are almost nonexistent in social oral communication, but they are common in written texts of various genres (Schleppegrell, 2004). 
  • To ensure comprehensible written output: Trying to write without understanding syntax, or sentence structure, is like driving without knowing the rules of the road. As we learn a new language system, someone has to show us the ropes. Faced with a written task, English learners may struggle with the process (how to write) even more than they struggle with the message (what to write). By focusing on the target form (an example of what a sentence should look like) and providing scaffolds (such as sentence stems and frames), teachers can help students produce output that is accurate and comprehensible. 
  • To ensure growth of students’ language proficiency: Sufficient oracy and lagging literacy are the characteristics we often observe in our long-term English learners stagnating at intermediate/advanced levels. Expectations of near-native proficiency in reading and writing require that our students surpass the threshold of social language and become fluent academic readers and writers. Developing a broad and varied repertoire of complex syntactic features and cohesion devices necessary for written proficiency growth is not feasible without some targeted syntax instruction. 

Demystifying Syntax: What Does this Word Do? 

My father is a mechanical engineer. Days on end, he tinkered on our family car more for fun than out of necessity. I remember sitting in the garage looking under the hood of the vehicle, mesmerized by the intricacy of its insides and bugging my dad with questions like,  “What does this part do?” Although I was about 10 years old, my father could explain to me, clearly and succinctly, which parts of the engine did what and how these parts working together “made the car go.” As a language teacher, I want to lift the metaphorical hood and show my students how the parts of a sentence work together to make the sentence “go.” 

Asking function questions to each word in a sentence demystifies syntax for our students and shows them how sentences are made. Rather than getting bogged down into technical identification of parts of speech and types of sentences, I would focus on what each word/phrase does (its function) and how it serves the purpose of communication (contributes to the overall message). 

Practical Application: What Would it Look Like in the Classroom? 

Once we set the goal of giving syntax due attention, what actions can we take that will ensure our students’ success? 

  • Focus on one syntactic feature at a time: It is important to frontload specific language tools, but it is a teacher’s decision what type of syntactic element is necessary for a specific lesson (Dutro & Moran, 2002). For example, if students work on contrasting characters, they will benefit from learning to build sentences with  “while,” “unlike,” “on the contrary,” and “nevertheless” according to a given sentence template. This sentence type is a language tool and the language form English learners need to express differences between characters in speaking and consequently in writing during the course of the characterization lesson. 
  • Make models accessible: For model sentences to be effective, they must be aligned to the language proficiency of the students. As we model sentence structure, we need to make sure that our mentor sentences (the examples we use) are easy for all students to understand. Complexity of the vocabulary in a model sentence may detract from students’ ability to focus on the structure of the sentence. 

Provide abundant opportunities for scaffolded output: Let students do it! Pointing out a syntactic element and explaining how it is constructed is just the start. Syntactic dexterity does not come simply from exposure but from abundant opportunities for hands-on practice. Sentence-level practice is never a waste of time! Several types of scaffolded activities will solidify the skill and ensure its transition of the target element into students’ independent writing.

Consider the following gradual release process as you teach a new syntactic element or a sentence pattern: 

Step 1.  Provide Models 
This is the I DO of the lesson, where teacher models and students watch. Teachers may start by displaying the mentor sentence and breaking it into blocks of meaning by asking questions to identify the syntactic and logical purpose of each block. 

Step 2. Have Students Identify Patterns 
Students work with familiar texts to identify the target element in the writing of others. Students may work in groups with partners to complete scavenger hunts or sorting activities. It’s a great time for teachers to see how well students understand the pattern and clarify any misconceptions.

Step 3. Have Students Construct Sentences Based on the Patterns
Sentence combining, sentence unscrambling, and building sentences with the help of sentence patterning charts are just a few activities that provide opportunities to work with a particular sentence structure. Students construct sentences according to the displayed pattern, using word banks or phrases that they manipulate to fit the pattern.

Step 4. Provide Additional Patterns to Deepen Understanding  
Teacher displays a mentor sentence and a sentence stem (or a paragraph frame) that students have practiced before. Students build original messages according to the pattern. Teacher encourages students to share sentences orally to check with each other and hear multiple examples of completed frames from peers of various language proficiency levels. The goal is to deepen understanding of the pattern and to reach the minimum threshold of accuracy needed for comprehensible output. Teacher’s in-the-moment feedback is crucial at this point. 

Step 5. Encourage Students to Use Patterns During Independent Writing 
Students complete a writing task independently. Students are encouraged to incorporate the practiced elements into their own writing to communicate an idea. Some errors may still occur as the students implement new elements independently. These errors do not always indicate the lack of understanding but may simply point to the need for more practice. 

As we move students from basic to more complex structures, it is important to provide a safe environment where errors are perceived (and even encouraged) as an expected and inevitable attribute of risk-taking.

Want to learn more from Natalia? Visit our events page to register for her upcoming trainings.


Wright, Wayne E. (2015)  Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy and Practice.  Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Publishing, Inc. 

Hochman, J. & Wexler, N. (2017) The Writing Revolution. San-Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass

Dutro, S & Moran, C. (2002) Rethinking English Language Instruction: An Architectural Approach S Educational Partnership Center, University of California, Santa Cruz. Retrieved on July 11, 2020 from file:///C:/Users/nheck/Downloads/Rethinking%20English%20Language%20Instruction.pdf

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective. Routledge.
Zwiers, J. (2008) Building Academic Language. Newark, DE: Jossey-Bass/International Reading Association.

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