Category Archives: sentence structure

Parental expectations for ELL can be too high

How long should it take for an English Language Learner (a student learning English as a second language) to read at grade level?

Longer than many parents want.

I am working with an ELL fifth grader from another country.  I tested her by having her read a list of basic English words, all of which she said she knew.  Then I had her read passages at a second, third and fourth grade level, and answer questions.

What I noticed is that she could score 100% on the second and third grade questions, providing the questions were multiple choice.  If she had to write a definition, she could copy what the passage said, but she could not paraphrase the words.  If she had to write sentences in her own words, she couldn’t do it.  If she could say the sentences aloud rather than write them, she couldn’t do it.

This is typical.  Multiple choice responses are easiest since the answer is provided; you just have to identify it.  Putting ideas into your own words is harder because you must rely on vocabulary which might not be in the passage and you must create sentences, a task which calls on so many skills—vocabulary, grammar, syntax, subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, articles—the list goes on and on.  A person can learn to read English without learning to speak or to write, but in the US students are tested verbally and in writing, and of course both skills are needed for 21st century success.

Another factor to consider when judging how long learning to read will take is whether English is spoken at home.  For this student, it is not.  She cannot ask a parent what a word means.  She cannot hear proper pronunciation.  She is on her own.

Still another factor is the student’s motivation to learn English.  My student is motivated.  She focuses for the full hour we are together and completes her homework.

The mother of this student hoped that her daughter would learn to read quickly enough to be ready for fifth grade state exams in three months.  I told the mother that is unlikely, watching sadness fill her eyes.

Could it happen?  Yes, for an extremely intelligent and motivated learner living in an enriched English environment.  But is it likely?  No.  Becoming fluent in a language takes time, more time than many parents want.

How can writing improve reading?

When educators combed research on the writing / reading connection in 2010, they found three writing activities which improve reading comprehension.


  • Having students write about the stories and texts they read by writing personal responses, analyses, or interpretations; by writing summaries; by writing notes; and by answering or asking questions in writing about what they have read.
  • Having students learn about the process of writing; about how texts are structured; about how paragraphs and sentences are put together; and about how to spell.
  • Having students write  frequently.

All of these writing activities improve students’ reading. In future blogs, we will look at why these activities improve reading, and how these activities can be incorporated into a student’s schoolwork or work at home. We’ll start in the next blog with the last idea, that students should write more to improve their reading.

Meanwhile, for more information, see Writing to Read.  At this site you can read the full report, Writing to Read; evidence for how writing can improve reading by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert for the Carnegie Corp. of NY, 2010.

You might also enjoy reading Shanahan on Literacy, a blog about reading by an expert in the field. In his current blog, Dr. Shanahan comments on ideas in this report.

What does sentence difficulty mean? I’ve read that Lexile scores predict the difficulty of a reading passage based on two things: word difficulty and sentence difficulty.

The number of words per sentence can be a measure of sentence difficulty. Sentences written for beginning readers usually contain a handful of words while sentences written for more proficient readers contain one, two or even three dozen words.

Stone Soup book cover• For example, take the first page of Spectacular Stone Soup, a novel often read in first grade. Here are the first page’s sentences and the number of words in each sentence:

Stacy Arrow hung her jacket on a hook. (8 words) Next to her Jiwon took off her coat. (8 words) Stacy pointed to a sweater on the floor. (8 words) “Whose is that?” (3 words) “No one’s.” (2 words) Jiwon shook her head. (4 words) “It’s been here all year.” (5 words)

• Now compare that novel for beginning readers to a novel for more advanced readers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Here are its first paragraph of two sentences:

Harry Potter book coverThe two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. (16 words) For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction. (32 words)

The type of sentence (simple, compound or complex) can be another measure of reading difficulty.

• In the Spectacular Stone Soup selection, each sentence is a simple sentence with one subject and one verb. Some of the sentences have a prepositional phrase; some have adjectives; some have pronouns, but because of the short length of the sentences and the way each sentence limits itself to one idea, comprehension is easy.

• In the Harry Potter selection, the first sentence is a simple sentence but there are two prepositional phrases and an adverb phrase. The second sentence is a complicated compound sentence. Its first clause begins with a prepositional phrase followed by a subject, verb and two adverbs, followed by a noun phrase and a prepositional phrase. Its second clause (after the semicolon) begins with a participle phrase and a subject, but then begins one predicate with a verb, direct object and prepositional phrase and then begins another predicate with a verb, gerund, adverb and prepositional phrase.  Each sentence contains more than one idea.

Word order can be a measure of difficulty.

• In Spectacular Stone Soup, all but one sentence begin with a subject followed by a verb, the usual word order in English. The exception is a sentence which begins with an easy prepositional phrase.

• In the Harry Potter selection, the first sentence begins with a subject and a verb. The second sentence begins with a prepositional phrase, but the second clause in that sentence begins with a participle phrase.

Pronoun antecedents can be a measure of difficulty.

• The Spectacular Stone Soup selection uses the word “it” to refer back to the sweater used two sentences earlier.  It also uses the word “her” to refer back to each girl, but that pronoun is stated in the same sentence as its noun antecedent.

• The Harry Potter selection in the second sentence uses several pronouns (they, their, other’s) to refer back to the noun (men) used at the beginning of the first sentence.  The pronouns are father apart from their noun antecedent.

Parts of speech used can be a measure of difficulty.

• In Spectacular Stone Soup, the words are nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns and prepositions. Most are one syllable words but a few are two syllables.

• The Harry Potter selection includes the same types of words, but additionally uses a participle used as an adjective and as a gerund. The passage contains a three- and a four-syllable word.

Coupled with word difficulty, sentence difficulty can make reading passages easy or hard to understand. Authors consider their audiences and their reading abilities carefully before deciding how long to make sentences, whether to make sentences quite simple or complicated, whether to use pronouns or to repeat nouns and whether to write sentences in typical subject-verb word order.

As we mature we want more complicated vocabulary and sentence structure to entertain us. In fiction the story comes first, but how much we enjoy the story depends on the crafting of the sentences by the author. In nonfiction, the facts come first, but again, how willing we are to read those facts depends on the skill of the author in using the components of language, including sentence structure.