Sentence structure seems a dry and unglamorous topic, but it powerfully impacts on almost all aspects of reading and learning, communication, performance, and even personal persuasion. Overblown? Don't think so. Winston Churchill rightly praised the consequences of his being trapped in remedial English for three terms in a row: "I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence-which is a noble thing."
Syntax is defined as the grammatical arrangement of words in sentences. Simple enough, but it can bedevil everyone at some point, but particularly older students with dyslexia, auditory processing difficulties, and those with limited auditory working memories.
A student's slide may be insidious beginning in the upper elementary school years or maybe middle school. It's not a problem in the early ages because sentences are fairly straightforward. It only develops when clauses become more complex and sentences start having multiple nouns. Like, "The Toyota that hit the Chevrolet spun out of control." - Which car spun out of control?
Look at the extra brain work (slowed reaction times) required to comprehend the following two sentences: "The janitor who frustrated the plumber lost the key on the street." "The janitor who the plumber frustrated lost the key on the street." In this study, researchers also looked at the influence that grammatical complexity had on solving easy vs. more demanding (larger numbers) problems.
Math word problems are hard because the grammatical demands are great (passive tense), information cannot be filled-in by context (like understanding what's being studied in class or looking and visual explanations), and complex calculations may have to be performed as well. Here's a sample question from one of the released items from the WASL here:
"A team has won 10 of the 15 games it has played. The team has 25 games left to play. The players figure they will make the playoffs if their winning percentage for the season is 60%. How many of the remaining games must the team win to have a winning percentage of 60% for the season."
Bright children with dyslexia or other learning challenges may overcome obstacles with reading only to find themselves failing again because of misinterpreting essay questions or word problem questions. The most exasperating part is that they might have known the work or had the right answers - but they misunderstood the question. It's not hard to see how problems with understanding sentence structure can affect everything - from knowing what's going on in class (worse with a rambling teacher or one who is fond of long sentences), misunderstanding assignments, and expressing oneself poorly.
We've put some links to helpful sites for Sentence Comprehension on the Internet. Please share any sites or books that you like in comments (we'd like more people to leave comments). Diagramming looks just dreadful to some people, but it can be illuminating to others because it puts language into visual language. Check out the first link below - particularly if you have Powerpoint and can look at the 'slideshow' on diagramming.
Finally, those of you who are in the persuasion business for a living (CEO, advertising, guru), are probably already aware of the structural tricks of verbal persuasion...it can be very helpful studying great speeches and writing. The bottom link is to a journalist's article on writing with parallel constructions.
Sentence Comprehension: Connection to Reading
Syntax, Math, and Working Memory
Persuasion Analysis & Classroom
Parallel Lines and Persuasion