Pinpointing the reasons behind a struggling reader at the upper elementary level can be challenging. Maybe you have had a student who can decode multisyllabic words flawlessly, pause when they see punctuation, and even read dialogue with expression. Yet they get to the end of a page and cannot answer questions such as “How did the character feel about what happened to them?” Typically, when we see this in a student, we switch gears and look to strengthen their understanding of story elements or maybe teach them strategies to summarize at the end of the story. However, there is space between making meaning at the word level and making meaning at the chapter or passage level, which is sentence comprehension. This post will share tips and strategies for improving sentence-level comprehension with 4th and 5th graders.
What is Sentence-Level Comprehension?
Sentence comprehension is the ability to understand the meaning of a sentence, whether that sentence is independently read by the student, read aloud by a teacher, or even heard spoken. It’s an important part of language processing and involves understanding not only the individual words but also the overall message conveyed by the sentence as a whole. This includes understanding how the sentence is built (grammatical structure), the sequence or order of words, and the overall situation or context.
Sentence comprehension is an important factor in reading comprehension. Without understanding sentences, the reader cannot understand the ideas being communicated in a paragraph, a chapter, or an entire text.
If you suspect a student may be struggling with sentence comprehension, select a text or passage to read. As you are reading, regularly stop to ask them sentence specific questions. You will be able to notice fairly quickly if they are struggling at the sentence level of comprehension.
What Makes Some Sentences Difficult to Comprehend?
According to The Role of Complex Sentence Knowledge in Children with Reading and Writing Difficulties, here are a few grammatical structures or elements that can make sentences difficult to understand:
Complex or Multiple Noun or Participle Phrases
Noun phrases and participle phrases are phrases that play key roles in making sentences more descriptive and meaningful. Understanding and using them correctly can be tricky for students due to their potential complexity and their placement in a sentence.
Dependent clauses can be tough for students. They increase sentence complexity by adding more information, and their dependence on the main clause can be hard to grasp, particularly when their reference is unclear. There are also different types of these clauses, each with its own rules.
Here are a few clauses that can be tricky for students who struggle with sentence comprehension.
1. Adverbial Clauses
In this sentence, “Even though it was raining heavily, and the wind was blowing fiercely” is the adverbial clause. This clause provides more details about the weather when the family decided to go for their picnic.
2. Object Complement Clauses
In this sentence, “that the players had been training intensely and were fully prepared to win the championship game” is the object complement clause. It completes the meaning of the verb “announced.” In other words, it answers the question: What did the team captain announce?
3. Relative Clauses
In this sentence, “which is filled with exciting adventures and has a blue cover” is a relative clause. It tells us more details about the noun (the book).
Now imagine having all of those phrases and clauses in one sentence!
Students may also struggle with sentences written in passive voice. In English, we usually use the active voice, where the subject does the action. In passive voice, the action is done to the subject which can be tricky for students to understand.
Ways to Increase Sentence Level Comprehension
Now that we have explored what sentence comprehension is and why it may be difficult, let’s look at some instructional strategies that can increase sentence comprehension.
For students who are struggling to understand what makes a complete sentence, this is a great starting point. It helps them break down the sentence by focusing on the grammatical structure.
Determine a set way that you want students to diagram sentences. Also, determine what parts of the sentence you want your students to diagram (parts of speech, sentence parts, punctuation, etc.). This will vary depending on your grade level and the needs and strengths of your students.
One easy way to get started with sentence diagramming is to have students draw a line between the subject and predicate and circle all of the punctuation. From there, students can see the WHO and WHAT of the sentence. After students diagram several sentences, their understanding of what makes a complete sentence should become clearer. It also forces students to slow down and spend time looking at the intricate pieces of the sentence.
If you feel as though your students are ready for more of a challenge, here are some diagramming steps to add into your routine:
- Have students label the parts of speech above each word.
- Have students connect pronouns with their antecedents to reinforce their understanding of reference and clarity.
- Have students underline independent clauses with a solid line and dependent clauses with a dashed line.
- Challenge students to identify the type of sentence they are diagramming: is it a simple, compound, complex, or compound-complex sentence? Is it declarative (a statement), interrogative (a question), imperative (a command), or exclamatory (an exclamation)? This could lead to a discussion about how punctuation influences the mood and meaning of a sentence.
Model Sentence Comprehension
You might need to start by explicitly modeling the work of sentence-level comprehension for your students.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how you might model this process:
1. Choose an Example Sentence – Start with a sentence that has a clear subject, predicate, and some descriptive words or phrases. For example: “In her bright red raincoat, Lucia splashed merrily through the puddles on her way home.”
2. Read the Sentence Aloud – Reading the sentence aloud gives students the chance to hear the sentence in its entirety. It also reduces the cognitive loud of decoding the sentence..
3. Identify the Subject and Predicate – Ask students, “Who or what is the sentence about?” and “What are they doing?” In our example, Lucia is the subject and “splashed merrily through the puddles on her way home” is the complete predicate.
4. Discuss Descriptive Details – Talk about the words and phrases that provide more information about the subject or the action. In our example, “In her bright red raincoat” tells us more about Lucia and what she is wearing. “Merrily” describes how Lucia is splashing through the puddles.
5. Discuss Word Choice – Discuss why the author might have chosen specific words and what effect they have on the overall meaning and mood of the sentence. For example, the word “merrily” suggests that Lucia is enjoying herself, despite the rain.
6. Ask Comprehension Questions – Questions like “What might the weather be like?” “How does Lucia feel about the rain?” and “Where might Lucia be coming from?” can help students infer more information from the sentence.
7. Relate to Larger Context – If the sentence is from a larger text, ask students how it fits into the overall story or text. For example, “Why might it be important that Lucia enjoys the rain?”
Sentence-Level Comprehension Questions
Here are some general questions that you can use to discuss sentences with students to help them practice sentence comprehension:
- Who or what is the subject?
- What is the subject doing?
- What additional details are given about the subject?
- Who is the narrator? Is it 1st person or 3rd person?
- What tense is this sentence in?
- What genre does this sentence fit?
- What might be happening in the rest of the story based on this sentence?
Nonfiction Questions (It is important to do this with a variety of sentences from different genres, including nonfiction)
- What or who is the topic?
- What details is the sentence telling you about the topic?
- If you read a section of text with this sentence included, what else might you learn about the topic?
- What is the text structure of the sentence? Explain how you know.
NOTE: Any specific grammatical questions (about phrases or clauses) can be added into the discussion based on your language or grammar standards and your students’ needs.
Reading Graffiti Wall
Create a bulletin board in your classroom where students can write down interesting or inspiring sentences that they find in their independent reading books. Students can add sentences to the bulletin board whenever they’d like or you can have a set system.
This type of activity encourages students to look at the meaning and purpose of individual sentences and also allows all students to read sentences that vary in level, genre, complexity, and purpose. It also opens the door for great discussions between teacher and student or student and student.
Practice Expanding Simple Sentences
To strengthen sentence-level comprehension, have students practice expanding simple sentences. This can help them develop a better understanding of sentence structure and how different elements add to the meaning of a sentence.
Here are some example steps to practice sentence expansion:
- Start with a Sentence: The dog barked.
- Add adjectives: The large, energetic dog barked.
- When? Last night, the large, energetic dog barked.
- Where? Last night, the large, energetic dog barked while standing in front of the door.
- How? Last night, the large, energetic dog barked loudly and frantically while standing in front of the door.
- Why? Due to the large storm that happened last night, the large, energetic dog barked loudly and frantically while standing in front of the door.
And here is a more advanced expanding sentence sequence:
- Start with a Simple Sentence.
- Discuss the Sentence – Talk about the subject (the dog) and the predicate (barked) and what they mean in the sentence.
- Expand the Subject – Have students add more specific details to the subject.
- Expand the Verb – Next, discuss how to add more detail to the verb by describing how the action was done.
- Add an Adverbial Clause – Discuss adding a clause that gives more information about when, where, or why the action happened.
- Add a Relative Clause – A relative clause can add more information about a noun in the sentence.
- Repeat – Repeat this exercise with different simple sentences, encouraging students to add different types of details (such as adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and relative clauses).
Practice Combining Sentences and Clauses
Another strategy to help with sentence comprehension is to practice combining simple sentences or clauses. This activity will help them understand how sentences can be structured and how information can be connected in different ways.
Here are some example steps to practice combining sentences (these steps will vary based on your students and their needs):
- Start with Simple Sentences – Provide your students with two or three simple sentences that are related.
- Discuss the Sentences – Talk about each sentence separately, identifying the subject and predicate and discussing their meaning.
- Combine the Sentences – Guide students in combining the sentences in a way that makes sense.
- Discuss the Combined Sentence – Discuss the combined sentence, focusing on how the information from the original sentences is now connected. Also discuss optional ways to combine the sentences.
- Repeat – Repeat this exercise with different sets of sentences, encouraging students to experiment with different ways of combining them.
Sentence deconstruction involves breaking down complex sentences into simpler sentences or breaking down a complex sentence into its “parts.” This can help students understand the structure and meaning of more complex sentences.
Here are some example ways to practice deconstructing sentences (these steps will vary based on your students and their needs):
Breaking a Complex Sentence into “Parts”
- Choose a sentence to break down and analyze. Example: “This morning, the meticulous librarian organized an extensive collection of ancient manuscripts in the city library.”
- Ask students the following questions about the sentence:
- Who or what? The meticulous librarian
- Is/Was Doing? Organized an extensive collection of ancient manuscripts
- When? This morning
- Where? In the city library
This is the most simple or basic way to breakdown a sentence. Other variations include adding in these questions:
- To Whom or To What?
You could begin with the simple steps and work up to students analyzing sentences by answering all of the questions (with some not being applicable to specific sentences).
Breaking a Complex Sentence into Simple Sentences
- Choose a Complex Sentence – Select a complex sentence from a text the students are familiar with. For example, “Despite the rain, Kia decided to walk to the store because she needed ingredients for dinner.”
- Break Down the Sentence – Break down the sentence into simpler sentences. “It was raining. Despite this, Kia decided to walk. She needed to go to the store. She needed ingredients for dinner.”
- Discuss Each Sentence – Discuss the meaning of each sentence.
- Discuss the Complex Sentence – Talk about how the simple sentences combine to form the complex sentence. Point out any conjunctions or other connecting words that help to combine the information.
When Do I Do This Work?
These sentence-level questions can be done in a small group, individually, or as a whole class.
Small Group or Individual Intervention
The great thing about doing it in a small group is it allows you to differentiate the sentence level. Your higher groups may be able to look at more complex/compound sentences or have discussions about how relative clauses and adverbial help further our understanding. You can pull sentences from texts you are reading with the group or have specific sentences prepped ahead of time.
You can have an open discussion about the sentence or use a template/graphic organizer to have a more structured analysis.
Want ready-to-go intervention sentences with questions (and answers)?
If you are working with students individually, you can always use their independent reading choice as a starting point. Have the student read aloud to you and pause at the end of a paragraph. After they finish reading, ask them some questions about the paragraph. If they are struggling to answer those questions, this would be a great opportunity to stop and work with them at the sentence level. Break the paragraph into smaller chunks and work with the student to make meaning out of each sentence and then put them together to create the bigger picture.
Whole Group Instruction
These sentence level questions are quick and easy to fit in at the beginning of a literacy block. Here are some ways you can do this:
You can use a sentence study routine like Mentor Sentences. This type of sentence routine involves doing a different activity with the same sentence each day. On Mondays, you can brainstorm what students notice about the sentence using the questions I listed above, then on Tuesdays, you can diagram the sentence, on Wednesdays, you can revise the sentence to make it stronger or slightly change the meaning or purpose, and finally, on Thursdays, you can have students write their own sentence in the author’s style. There are many different ways that this work can be done in your classroom.
Sentence Comprehension Warmups
If you are not able to commit to a weekly mentor sentence routine but still want to incorporate sentence level comprehension, try having a sentence warmup to begin your literacy block. You can do this one day a week or more, depending on the needs of your students and how much time you have.
Simply display or make copies of a grade-level sentence for students to discuss and answer questions about.
Want ready-to-go warmups for sentence comprehension? Click here to see Sentence Comprehension Warmups: Fiction and Nonfiction for Grades 4-5!
Sentence Comprehension Reading Centers or Literacy Stations
Integrating sentence-level comprehension activities into your existing reading centers or literacy stations can be an effective strategy. Here are a few activities that will keep students engaged and expose them to a variety of sentence comprehension exercises:
Sentence Sorting Activity
Prepare sentence strips containing different sentence types. You could have simple, compound, and complex sentences (or just simple and compound), simple subjects and compound subjects, fiction sentences and nonfiction sentences, etc. Have students sort the sentences into different categories. Once they are sorted, students can practice reading each sentence out loud, making sure to pause at appropriate punctuation marks, and discuss the meaning of each sentence.
Provide students with a grade level sentence and have them answer questions about the sentence. You can use the free sentence study mat OR purchase ready-made sentences for analysis by clicking here.
Sentence Building Game
Create a game where students can make their own sentences. Provide them with words from different parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) and encourage them to build their own sentences. They can then swap their sentences with a partner to discuss the meaning of the sentence created. This will help with sentence comprehension and also encourage creativity.
This activity can add a fun and creative element to the literacy station. Provide students with sentences and have them draw an illustration that represents the meaning of the sentence. This allows them to visualize the sentence, deepening their understanding.
Provide students with a sentence where the words are scrambled. Have students unscramble the sentence and then discuss its meaning. This activity can be adapted to different difficulty levels by using longer or more complex sentences.
Expanding or Combining Sentences Center
Provide students with a variety of simple sentences. Have students expand or combine the sentence (following any guidelines or steps you give them). After expanding or combining the sentences, students can trade sentences with a partner or group member to discuss the changes and what those changes added to meaning of the sentence.
Add to Daily Read Aloud
If you’re worried about time or want to start this work on a smaller scale, try incorporating some of this into your daily read-aloud. Pause when you come across an interesting, challenging, or meaningful sentence. Write the sentence on the board and discuss what you notice in the sentence and how you create meaning. As you do this work more, students will become more comfortable with the idea of creating meaning at the sentence level. It would also be great to add the sentences you discuss during read-aloud to your reading graffiti wall.
Sentence-level comprehension work can be seamlessly added into your literacy routines, and the impact it will have on students’ ability to comprehend is extremely powerful.