An understanding of syntax, how sentences are constructed and semantics, how words and phrases are related, are required skills for students to become proficient readers. The ability to make the text cohere or stick together is not always natural. Readers must be able to make connections between and across words, phrases and sentences. Just because a student can decode all the words on the page does not mean that he will comprehend what he reads.
Students can get lost when reading complex sentences that contain many ideas or text that contains a lot of pronouns and phrases.
Syntax is basically the grammar of language. Consider the following example:
A dog is a mammal.
If a student understands the syntax of the sentence, even if he cannot decode the word mammal, he knows that the word has to be a noun because it follows an article and is the last word in the sentence. He would be able to answer this literal question without decoding the word mammal: What is a dog?
Semantics is an understanding of how the meaning of a word or phrase can change depending on the language around it. Consider the following examples:
We can fish.
Depending on the other words around this sentence it could have different meanings.
Visiting strangers can be dangerous.
Are the strangers that are visiting us dangerous or does the sentence mean, the act of visiting strangers is dangerous?
Students must know how to use the surrounding language to clarify the meaning.
John is a snake in the grass.
Does the author mean this literally – John is the name of a pet snake, or metaphorically – John is a deceitful person?
After work, Trisha and Claudia went to the store to get supplies for Ed’s birthday party. Although it was just down the street, they decided to drive because the celebration was less than an hour away.
What does it refer to? What is the celebration? When did Trisha and Claudia go to the store? Who are they? What role does the word although play in the sentence?
It is easy for students to get lost in the phrases and references included in sentences. They have to understand that words do no work in isolation and are always connected to other words in some way.
Project Manager, Progress in the General Curriculum Network
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