syn·tax |

  • the way in which words are put together to form phrases or clauses                
  • a connected or orderly system
  • the formal properties of languages

Merriam-Webster, 2021

What does it mean for learners?

The Steps

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.

Discrete Units

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

Discrete Units

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.)

Combining Units

consonant/vowel sorts
short/long vowel sorts
(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

Grouping or Categorizing Units

voiced/voiceless sorts
nasal/non-nasal sorts
(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.
Thanks for you patience.)


m/n/ng sorts
k/g sorts
/s/ /z/ /es/ sorts
/ed/ /d/ /t/ sorts
(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

More if You Absolutely Have to Know

Context Words

Typically thought of as nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.  These tell us who, how, and when.

Function Words

Those words that help put the content words together: determiners (the, this, that) and pronouns (she, it, we, they).

Phrase Structure Rules

Under Construction

Noun Phrases

More on the way

Adjective Phrases

More on the way

Prepositional Phrases

More on the way

Verb Phrases

More on the way

Auxiliary Verbs

More on the way


More on the way

Language Functions

More on the way

Simple Sentences

More to come

Compound Sentences

More to come

Complex Sentences

More to come

Compound-Complex Sentences

More to come

Adverb Clauses

More to come

Adjective Clauses

More to come

Noun Clauses

More to come

Affirmative & Negative Statements

More to come


More to come

References & Resources

Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2016). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (6th ed.). Pearson.

Curzan, A., & Adams, M. (2012). How English works: A linguistic introduction (3rd ed.). Pearson.

Freeman, D. E., & Freeman, Y. S. (2014). Essential  linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and  grammar. (2nd ed.). Heinemann.

Helman, L., Bear, D. R., Templeton, S., Invernizzi,  M., & Johnston, F. (2012). Words their way with English learners: Word study  for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (2nd ed.). Pearson.

Johnston, F., Invernizzi, M., Bear, D. R., &  Templeton, S. (2018). Words Their Way: Word Sorts for Letter Name –  Alphabetic Spellers (3rd ed.). Pearson.

Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M. (2017). Building  literacy with English language learners (2 ed.). Guilford.

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