The same steps used to describe phonology and morphology are used for syntax: discrete units, categorize the units, group or classify the units and find the dependencies.
For syntax, clauses are the units. These clauses and their combinations should already be familiar: simple sentence, compound sentence, complex sentence, compound-complex sentence. But what is a clause? Just a string of words? “Truffles chocolate dark use to for best bourbon your very the is” doesn’t work, unless Master Yoda from Star Wars you are. Thus, syntax also includes a specific order for the words. “Dark chocolate is the very best to use for your bourbon truffles.” A basic sentence is subject+verb+object, with more complexity added for a richer text. Negative statements have their order as do questions and other clauses. See the Resources page for a great website on word order in English.
So what? Since many of our emergent bilinguals and learners’ primary language may have different word orders, we need to explicitly teach them the correct order in English. For example, in Spanish, the modifier goes after the noun: chocolate obscuro.
Categorize the Units
Words function differently. In the above sentence, the and chocolate are not the same and do not serve the same purpose. Most words are either content or function words.
Why is this important? Some of the primary languages of our emergent bilinguals may have different patterns for function or content words than English. In English, we add an “s” to nouns to signify plurals (but not the modifier). In Spanish, the function word also gets an “s” sometimes and sometimes not: Dark chocolate bourbon truffles are the very best.Las trufas bourbones de chocolate obscuro son las mejores.
Classify the Units
Some words just go together, and others do not. In our sentence, these words are grouped together: “Dark chocolate” “is” “the very best” “to use” “for your” “bourbon truffles.” To classify these phrases, we would but “dark chocolate” and “bourbon truffles” as noun phrases. “The very best” and “for your” serve other functions. Additionally, phrases themselves have specific functions. The subject of a sentence can be a phrase. The verb in a sentence can be a phrase as well as the object of the sentence.
How does knowing this help our learners? The brain likes to read and create in groups. Learners who read word by word or dysfluent and will have a tough time with comprehension. Learners need to know the functions of noun phrases and verb phrases and the specific phrases that help describe them. When they write, they need to know how to create richer, more descriptive creations.
Some words just go together, or change based on number, hence the descriptor dependency.
So what? The patterns for concordance in English and other languages like Spanish are different. Explicit instruction is needed to help learners comprehend what they are reading and to recognize and use the correct form and function when writing. In the end, our learners need to know which words go together, how they go together and in what order.Their primary language most certainly will have a different order.For our learners to be successful we need to make sure they can navigate the ins and outs of English syntax.That takes modeling, practice and feedback.
A final thought
There is a great deal to know and teach about syntax, word order and phrase, clause and sentence construction. It is an ongoing lesson even for fluent adults. I (Shawn) have learned a thing or two. For a more in depth study, see David and Yvonne Freeman’s (chapter 9) from which much of the above is humbly mimicked. They are the true grammar gurus. Scroll down below the references for a work in progress to help with clauses, phrases, sentences and all those fun syntactic pieces.
Applications & Activity Examples
Here are some activities focused on helping ELs and other learners differentiate sounds that correspond to the letters.
(Check back for more as this is still under construction. Thanks for you patience.)