Sentences (Part 2 of 3): Processing Sentences
“Sentence” is the third unit (sound-word-sentence-discourse) of oral language described as a primary basis for learning to read and reading to learn. Developmentally, the “average” child begins to put words together to form “sentences” by age 2. They don’t know the “parts of speech” names, but they do learn that there are certain kinds of words that go together (nouns and verbs, nouns and adjectives, verbs and adverbs) to achieve a certain purpose. As they continue to develop, their sentences grow longer and more complex.
I write about sentences in terms of three dimensions: structure, process(ing) and function. I began with structure because structure (form/grammar) is often the way sentences are talked about by adults and are addressed in school curriculum.
There is more to sentence development than its form or structure (syntax). Equally important for the development of literacy (reading) skills are processing of sentences and using sentences for communication—function.
Processing complex sentences
From a developmental perspective Loban’s research with 211 students followed from K to grade 12 shows the following about students’ skills at processing language at the sentence level:
*Those superior in oral language in kindergarten and grade one before they learn to read and write are the very ones who excel in reading and writing by the time they are in grade 6.
^In sentences in oral language, the high group in the 1st grade demonstrates a proficiency in elaboration attained by the low group only at grades 5 or 6.
^Although all subjects knew and used all the basic structural patterns of English sentence, the high group had a much greater flexibility and repertoire within the pattern of a sentence: that is, they had more ways to fill slots like the subject, the modifiers, and the objects.
^The members of the high group used more subordination, combining communication units in complex fashion
^The high group showed
*longer communication units
*greater elaboration of subject and predicate
*more embedding in transformational grammar
*greater use of adjectival dependent clauses
Difficulties in attending to or producing long and/or complex sentences impacts reading in a number of ways.
For example, in her text on Teaching Reading Comprehension Processes (1991), Judith Westphal Irwin describes three kinds of comprehension skills: metaprocesses, macroprocesses and microprocesses. Under microprocesses, Irwin describes the importance of chunking words into meaningful phrases, selecting what is most important from the sentence to keep in short term memory for interpretation of upcoming sentences (that is, microselection); and then using that information across sentence boundaries (integrative processes).
“Integrative processes” she defined as the processes involved in understanding and inferring the relationships between clauses and sentences. Three main types of integrative processes are understanding anaphora, understanding connective relationships, and making “slot filling” inference.” (Irwin, page 38). In the following pages, she offers several suggestions for teaching these skills. (pp. 38-49)
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Cheryl M. Scott, Chapter 16: Syntax in Stone, et. al. (Eds.), Handbook of Language and Literacy: Development and Disorders, (2005)
Scott lists three things that make sentences complex:
1) Features of open class words (nouns, verbs); reversible passive sentences
2) Number and type of syntactic operations (usually reflected in sentence length)
3) Types of syntactic operations (reversible order, subordination, ambiguity, parsing, etc.)
So, just as is the case in Words/Vocabulary, the complexity of sentence and the operations required to process them, (anaphora, connectives, inferences, for example) influences how easily a child can process sentences.
This reminds us of the quote from the work of Amanda C. Brandone, Sara J. Salkind, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, U. of Delaware and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek:
“… Although most grammatical structures are in place by the age of 5, children continue to acquire more complex forms and rules of grammar in the school setting….”
Although the “average” child has mastered the basic structures of sentences by age 5, children still need to learn the more complex structures that will require more demanding processing. The question we need to ask is how they will learn these sentence structures in order to process them efficiently and effectively. This does not mean that we should focus on directly teaching “grammar” to young children as a basis for reading. Young children (preschool through primary grades) learn language skill through meaningful contexts. Sentences become meaningful to children when we focus on the “functions” of sentences, part 3 of our “sentence” topic.
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