Decoding English Sentence Structure
Everything begins with identifying the verb. Then we ask who or what before the verb and who or what after the verb, or we can ask where?, when?, why?, or how? after the verb.
Writers place words before or after nouns to tell us more about the noun. These words or groups of words, called adjectives, give us answers to questions we ask about the noun such as what kind of noun? which noun? or how many nouns? Writers also place words before or after verbs to tell us more about the verb. These words or groups of words, called adverbs, give us answers to questions that we ask about the verb such as when, where, how, or why?
When the sentence is complex, we must find the verb in each clause and determine which clause is independent or can stand by itself as a sentence. This main clause becomes our focal point. Everything around it is interpreted as answering either adverbial or adjectival questions about the main or independent clause.
English sentences consist of a noun and a verb that make complete sense together. Every other word or group of words adds more information by answering questions about the main noun, or the main verb, or the main clause itself.
How can grammar help to improve your reading comprehension and writing skills?
The link between reading comprehension and grammar is clear: Every word or group of words-- every part of the sentence-- is telling you something. The question is, "What is that word, or group of words, or sentence part saying? What is it telling you that you need to know?"
The answer to that is found by going to the verb and main nouns, or by going to the verbs and nouns, and asking them questions. The verbs and nouns will give us information about what every other part of the sentence is saying or doing. When we ask questions, when we ask the verb and the noun questions, when we interview verbs and nouns, they tell us what each part of the sentence is doing. They tell us what every other part is doing, or they tell us what part each word or group of words is playing in the sentence.
Each word or group of words plays a key role in giving us information. In order to find out what information each part or group of words is giving to us, we need to ask the verbs and nouns questions. Answers to those questions will allow us to see what each word or group of words is saying, or helping the sentence to say, or rather how each word or group of words is helping the writer to communicate her meaning to us. So in order to improve both your reading comprehension and writing, you must first master your sentence comprehension skills.
Why textual complexity matters
Textual complexity refers to the level of difficulty a text poses for its reader based on a combination of challenging vocabulary and sophisticated grammatical structures.
Mastering textual complexity helps students to understand source documents or fundamental and primary writings. It allows them to drink and to think from the fountain of those documents for themselves. Otherwise, they must rely on someone else's interpretation of those documents. Any attempt to rephrase founding documents usually creates a secondary interpretation. The primary becomes secondary.
Imagine a simplified, modernized, dumbed down version of the Declaration of Independence: "We believe the following things--all men are created equal; all men have gifts from the creator; all men have rights that can't be taken away; they are rights such as life, liberty, and the chance to do what you want to do in life."
Jefferson’s poetry becomes third rate prose.
Textual complexity is a great tool for training young minds to grasp difficult and complex subjects. Students can grow their mental muscles by exercising them on texts that require tenacity, thoughtfulness, and focus. This is the same manner in which young musicians become better by having to work hard at understanding compositions by Beethoven or any of the masters. Now it should go without saying that complexity must be age-appropriate. No one should be asking a third grader to read Federalist 10 and explain its principles in a comprehensive fashion. However, we should ask students from fourth grade onwards to begin delving in to complex texts so that they can begin developing the skills they need to read those texts. Needless to say, all of this should be done incrementally. But it must be done. Students should be exposed to difficult subjects expressed in complex ways as early as possible.
This will also require training in semantics and syntactic analysis as early as possible. Morphology and sentence analysis are the true keys to comprehension. Grammar and vocabulary should not be relegated to the earliest grades in worksheet form: No! They should be taught systematically and intensively and excitingly to students of all ages. We should not ask our students to eat the meat of complex texts without first equipping them with the cutlery of language arts and reading skills. When we equip students with the tools of learning, then they can practice those tools on textual complexity and begin feeding themselves as independent learners.
Grammar is the key to success on all standardized tests.
Grammar comprises the rules and conventions that allow us to communicate clearly. It is the study of how we use the way words function and marks of punctuation to communicate clearly and correctly.
The ACT and SAT (and nearly every standardized test) are filled with complex passages and sentences. These passages test your ability to determine whether the writers are using the agreed-upon rules and conventions of English correctly and whether they are organizing the parts of speech to communicate ideas in the most logical ways.
What are the parts of speech?
The parts of speech are the eight categories or types of words that we use when we write or speak. They are the eight ways that words or groups of words can function in sentences. For example, "noun" is a word that we use to label every word that names a person, place, or thing. Everything that can be named is categorized as a noun. Pronouns substitute for nouns (he, she, it). Adjectives modify or add more information about nouns (pure water). Verbs are the category for every word that we use to say what we are doing (running, sleeping) or being (am, is, are, was, were). Adverbs modify or tell us more about verbs (ran quickly). Prepositions show position or time (over, under, during). Conjunctions connect words and groups of words (and, for, but, nor, or, yet, so). Interjections convey emotion (wow, ouch!). They are the last of the eight categories and, unfortunately, are relatively useless for comprehension or composition.
Why is it important to study the fundamental grammatical structures of sentences? Why not just focus on tips, tricks, and shortcuts?
Short term test preparation consists of strategies, tips, and tricks. These are great—if you have mastered the knowledge that is being tested. But they are a complete waste of time if you lack the fundamental grammatical skills you need to understand everything you read. Great piano teachers begin by helping their students to learn notes and scales. They do not begin with seven easy ways to play Tchaikovsky. Success on the ACT and the SAT requires that you understand the notes and scales of the English writing system. The test makers are testing your understanding of the written code that all writers use to communicate.
But here's the good news: the code is not difficult to understand. There are only eight parts of speech (or eight ways that words or groups of words can function in a sentence). As importantly, the parts of speech have natural relationships with each other: they fit together. For example, the noun-adjective relationship means that adjectives are always talking about nouns. They are connected. Writers place adjectives right next to nouns to show that relationship. "The hot soup filled my empty stomach." Notice that the word "hot" describes soup, and the word "empty" describes the stomach. These are adjectives because they are telling us more about the nouns "soup and stomach." Did you notice, also, that the adjectives and nouns are right next to each other? That is one of the relationships you will see consistently in sentences. Now on the ACT and SAT, this relationship looks more complex because the test-makers use longer strings of words as adjectives, but they're always going to be next to the nouns they are describing or modifying. Both exams will test your ability to judge whether adjectives are near the nouns they are modifying. But if you don't know what an adjective is or what a noun is, then learning a quick tip is meaningless.
Learning the parts of speech is important because writers create meaning by organizing them in their natural or logical order. Once you learn the basic relationships between the parts of speech, then you can recognize how writers put them together in sentences to make sense. You can decode the sentence puzzle by knowing its parts and how the parts fit together to create the whole meaning.
The parts of speech are the building blocks of all sentences. They are the tools that writers use to construct meaning. Master these tools, and you will learn how to quickly analyze or take sentences apart to get to the core of the writer's meaning. When you master the parts of speech, you will be able to do what the test makers are requiring: You'll be able to read with a writer's mind by always looking for ways to edit the text for greater clarity, conciseness, and accuracy, and you will be able to write with the reader in mind by always looking for ways to convey ideas more clearly and precisely. Comprehension and composition will become much easier.
Rev. Vieira is a former high school master teacher, and the founder and president of ScholarSkills Learning Center.