• 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, 2019

syn·tax | \ˈsin-ˌtaks

What does it mean for learners?

The same steps used to describe phonology and morphology are used for syntax: discrete units, categorize the units, 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 More 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 comment:

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’ve even learned a thing or two. For a more in depth study, see David and Yvonne Freeman’s book cited below (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


Application/Activity Examples

Descrete Units

See variation in Classifying Units below.

Differentiation:  Remove all words except, subjects, verbs and objects.

Categorize the Units

 (Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

Classifying the Units

Language Objective:

     Students will correctly classify/group (cut apart) units of the provided sentences in English.


     Lists of sentences from the current mentor text or content students are reading and discussing.

     Scissors for each pair of students




  • With their partners, students will read sentences and discuss the groupings of words in each sentence.
  • When both agree, students will cut apart sentences as as units.
  • Students will glue units one at a time on the paper and write why these words go together as a unit.
  • Variation: Cut apart all words in sentences and have students reconstruct sentences in units.  Students will need to justify groupings.  For example:  These go together because the describe the subject.


 (Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

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.). Boston: Pearson.

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

Freeman, D. E., & Freeman, Y. S. (2014). Essential  linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and  grammar. (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: 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.). Upper Saddle  River, NJ: Pearson.

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

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

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

 More to follow as this part is still under construction.

Noun Phrases

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Adjective Phrases

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Prepositinal Phrases

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Verb Phrases

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Auxiliary Verbs

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Language Functions

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Simple Sentences

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Compound Sentences

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Complex Sentences

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Compound-Complex Sentences

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Adverb Clauses

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Adjective Clauses

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Noun Clauses

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Affirmative/Negative Statements

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