Text-level language instruction: Syntax and beyond

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

When considering writing instruction, William Van Cleave says we should always ask, “Does this make them a better writer, or reader of other’s writing?” If the answer is no, we shouldn’t do it. I have heard him say and seen him write various versions of this quote, and it has stayed with me. Along the same lines, according to Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler, authors of ‘The Writing Revolution’ (TWR), a key problem is that we assign writing without teaching writing.

The purpose of our writing instruction, whether it is sentence or extended text level, is to make our students better communicators of ideas, experiences, and feelings (their own and others), and in turn to become percipient interpreters of the works of others. The beautiful thing about teaching writing well is that students' reading comprehension improves, along with their speaking and thinking skills. We start simply, and build to complex, over time, with explicit instruction, feedback and practice, because written language is vastly different to spoken language.

Some terms

Grammar in a language is the system of conventions that guide its structural use. Grammar is an often misused and misunderstood term. Grammar is comprised of syntax and morphology. I am not going to be discussing morphology today, but you can read more about it here. Syntax is the set of conventions that govern how we can (and can’t) combine words and phrases to form complete sentences. In other words, syntax is about knowing how to use and arrange words to form sentences. This is an important skill for speaking and writing.

Sentences, clauses and phrases

To be a grammatically complete sentence, at a minimum, a sentence must include a subject (the who or the what) and its predicate (the action). An example of the simplest form is, ‘The girl ran’. A sentence must contain at least one clause.

A clause is a group of words that can be a simple sentence on its own (an independent clause) or one that must be combined with other words to form a complete sentence. If it cannot stand alone it is called a dependent clause. For example, ‘I baked a cake’ is an independent clause (and a simple sentence) but ‘while on annual leave’ is a dependent clause and must be joined to something else to form a complete sentence. We can join these two clauses together to create, ‘I baked a cake while on annual leave’, which is a complete sentence now containing an independent and dependent clause.

A phrase is a group of words that does not contain a subject and its verb (predicate). In conversation, I could answer a question about how long I was overseas for by saying, “for six weeks”. That is an example of a phrase.

There are many types of clauses, but I will not go into that here. The main sentence structure types we teach are simple sentences (one independent clause), compound sentences (two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction such as ‘and’), and complex sentences (one independent clause joined to one or more dependent clauses using a subordinating conjunction such as ‘although’ or ‘because’).

Starting simple – sentence level instruction

Chapter 1 in TWR is titled ‘Sentences: The Basic Building Blocks of Writing’. It begins with a quote:

“If you were building a house, would you start with the roof? Probably not. But for far too long, I was attempting to do just that with my writing assignments.” (Hochman & Wexler, 2017, p.23).


“Eventually I realized that if I wanted my students to write good paragraphs and compositions, I was going to need to start building a solid foundation first – just the way I would start building a house. And in writing, that foundation consists of sentences.
The importance of spending plenty of instructional time working with sentences can’t be stressed enough. Sentence-level work is the engine that will propel your students from writing the way they speak to using the structures of written language.” (Hochman & Wexler, 2017, p.24).

Writing instruction must begin at the sentence level. Others have written previously about the obsession with genre, storytelling and moving to extended text before we have the foundation right, often with the foundation never being laid at all. Hochman & Wexler write:

“…when students do get a chance to write in elementary school, they’re often encouraged to write at length too soon, sometimes at a furious pace. They don’t learn how to construct interesting and grammatically correct sentences first, and they aren’t encouraged to plan or outline before they write. The idea is that they’ll later refine their writing, under the teacher’s guidance, bringing coherence and – perhaps – correct grammar and punctuation to what they’ve produced.” (Hochman & Wexler, 2017, p.2)

In TWR, Grade 1 instruction includes:

· Converting fragments (e.g. incomplete sentence lacking subject, verb or both; dependent clause missing its independent clause) to sentences

· Expanding sentences via ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘why’

· Completing sentences using ‘but’ and ‘because’

· Learning statement and question sentence types

· Learning the ways punctuation can end a sentence

· Learning what a paragraph is and how to create a Single Paragraph Outline (SPO)

TWR advocates strongly for explicit sentence level instruction. It does include teaching:

· What makes a sentence

· What is a complete sentence and sentence boundaries

· Correct word order

· Punctuation practice

· Subjects, predicates, prepositional phrases

· Turning fragments into sentences

· Basic sentence types

· Statements (declarative)

· Commands (imperative)

· Questions (interrogative)

· Exclamations (exclamatory)

· Using conjunctions and clauses

· Common conjunctions

· Independent and dependent clauses

· Sentence combining

· Short declaratives are combined to create one longer, more complex sentence

This is all essential for instruction but if you are looking for more foundational (word-level, sentence-level and punctuation) teaching materials, there are some other resources you may want to use alongside or in addition to TWR, depending on where your students are at.

Parts 1 and 2 in ‘The Grammar Book: Understanding and teaching primary grammar’ by Zoë and Tim Paramour cover:

· Writing words

· Types of noun

· Pronouns and determiners

· Types of verb

· Subject, verb and object

· Adjectives and adverbs

· Plurals, contractions and apostrophes

· Punctuation at the end of the sentence

· Main and subordinate clauses

· Types of subordinate clause

· Prepositions and conjunctions

· Types of phrase

· Commas

· Semi-colons, colons, brackets, dashes and forward slashes

· Inverted commas

William Van Cleave has a range of teaching resources which aim to develop sentence construction skills including:

· Writing Matters and the Writing Matters Tutor Pack

· Sentence Sense (Level A and B)

Getting more complex – extended text instruction

In TWR, by Grade 6, along with everything learned previously (which is quite a lot), they are learning:

· How to transition within and between paragraphs

· How to develop main ideas for Multiple-Paragraph Outlines (MPOs) including biography, cause/effect, compare/contrast, problem/solution and pro/con

· More advanced revision and editing techniques

· A range of introduction and conclusion types with scaffolding tasks

By Grade 8 they are:

· Developing a thesis statement for a given topic

· Constructing a Multiple-Paragraph Outline (MPO) independently for a given topic

· Developing introductions and conclusions independently

By Grades 9-10 they are:

· Researching both sides of a debatable topic and developing thesis statements for argumentative essays

· Sequencing claims and counterclaims for argumentative essays

· Embedding quotes in a way that supports the argument

· Writing introductions and conclusions for argumentative essays

· Writing argumentative essays on a range of topics

If you are looking for ideas to teach alongside or in addition to TWR, I recommend Part 3 of ‘The Grammar Book: Understanding and teaching primary grammar’ by Zoë and Tim Paramour which covers:

· Moods and voices

· Structuring whole texts

· Breaking the ‘rules’

A sample K-6 sentence/paragraph writing scope and sequence

Thanks to the hard working educators over at Reading Science in Schools on facebook, here is a sample scope and sequence for you to have a look at.

k-6 sentence scope and sequence- Reading
Download • 551KB

In closing

You may or may not be aware that there is a large body of writing instruction research. It is yet another example of research translation failure in education. The more I have immersed myself in the science of reading literature over the years, the more I have become interested in writing, and have realised just how much we already know about what works. If you are interested in reading more about this, I highly recommend checking out the work of Steve Graham. TWR book is also full of helpful references.

While we push for a reading revolution, we must also push for a writing revolution. These are interdependent skills, essential to academic achievement and the development of critical and independent thought. Instruction must be explicit and cumulative across the primary and secondary school years. If we fail in this, we are passively accepting a continuation of the reality that approximately 40% of Year 9 students in Australia remain at or below the minimum benchmark for Writing, and that far too many young people graduate high school with inadequate writing skills for higher education and work. Professor Pamela Snow has written about this recently, as have I.

Long live The Writing Revolution!

“Although you’ll probably find a range of skill levels, you’ll need to focus on the skills the majority of your students need.” (Hochman & Wexler, 2017, p.227)

Further reading

Graham, S., McKeown, D., Kiuhara, S., & Harris, K. R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 879.

Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(3), 445.

Graham, S., & Hebert, M. (2011). Writing to read: A meta-analysis of the impact of writing and writing instruction on reading. Harvard Educational Review,81(4), 710-744.

Graham, S. & Perin, D. (2007). Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools. Retrieved from https://www.carnegie.org/publications/writing-next-effective-strategies-to-improve-writing-of-adolescents-in-middle-and-high-schools/

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