One of the most important skills acquired in elementary school is reading – and it can be the source of great difficulty when students do not learn to read as expected. But a struggling reader is not necessarily just grappling with putting together words and letters – there are in fact numerous underlying language processes that are deeply intertwined with the reading process.
At the most basic level, reading involves recognizing written symbols (letters), associating these letters and letter combinations with sounds, and learning rules to put together words based on these letter-sound associations. This process is known as decoding, and the association system is known as phonics. Stringing words together and reading them with a natural flow is called fluency. At the kindergarten, first grade, and sometimes second grade levels, reading instruction often focuses on phonics, decoding, and fluency; but by the time students approach third grade, they are expected to be reading for content – that is, not just deciphering words and sentences but also understanding the meaning of what they read. In order to make this jump from decoding to comprehending, a variety of underlying spoken language processes are necessary.
One such process is syntax, which deals with the grammatical order of words in a sentence. A child begins to learn about word order at a young age: not necessarily from having story books read to him, but through the everyday spoken language he hears around him. For instance, a very young child might say, “No Mommy go,” if he does not want his mother to leave. As he grows and his syntax is refined, he may switch the word order to “Mommy no go,” until eventually he develops skills to form the complete and syntactically correct message, “Mommy, don’t go,” or “I don’t want Mommy to go.” Syntax is not taught explicitly to typically-developing children – they generally learn it intuitively. But a child with an underlying spoken language disorder may not have picked up on all the syntax cues.
How might this affect reading? Children with typical understanding of spoken syntax encounter familiar sentence structure in early reading, and this helps them to form expectations about which words will follow others. For example, look at the sentence: The exhausted mother came home from work. The word exhausted is the most difficult to decode. A child with a good understanding of syntax will be able to read the rest of the sentence and guess that the tricky word before mother should describe or be related to the mother, thus limiting the options for what that unknown word might be: maybe exhausted, excited, excellent. But a child who struggles with syntax may not have this information to help her figure out the tricky word. For this child, the unknown word could just as easily be expect, extremely, or exit – whereas a child with understanding of syntax would rule out these options because they don’t make sense with the word order of the rest of the sentence.
Syntax clues are important to apply when reading, and a weak understanding of syntax puts a child at a disadvantage for reading text successfully. In our next article, we will discuss the underlying process of semantics (word meanings) and its effect on reading development.
Speech Language Pathologist