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Readers Can Struggle at Any Age. Here’s How Teachers Can Help (Opinion)

Today’s post is the latest in a series offering strategies to support older students experiencing reading challenges.

You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here.

‘Juicy Sentences’

Toni Faddis, Ed.D., previously a bilingual teacher, Reading Recovery specialist, and principal, is now a full-time professional consultant.

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University is also the dean of Faculty Affairs at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego.

Diane Lapp, Ed.D., is Distinguished Professor of Education at San Diego State University and an academic coach at Health Sciences High and Middle College:

Readers may struggle with comprehension when sentences contain referents that appear as easily readable words, such as it, she, they, them, which, who. Authors use them so the same words and phrases aren’t repeated. They expect readers to make connections between ideas. You just did that as you read this paragraph; your brain used syntactic knowledge to make a connection between an idea (referents) and a corresponding pronoun (them) and again between the noun “authors” and the pronoun “they.”

A referent may appear before or after a subject, so mental processing of semantic features while reading is necessary for comprehension. Struggling readers may be able to read the words but fail to make the necessary connections between ideas and referents (Goodwin, Petscher, & Reynolds, 2022). When this happens, they lose the meaning of a text.

Being able to make syntactic connections is an important part of language and reading comprehension because they help the reader to create meaning and coherence in sentences and paragraphs. High-coherence text in which authors draw explicit connections between subjects and referents may foster comprehension because the reader is more easily able to follow the author’s message.

Low-coherence passages, conversely, often require readers to be taught how to spot and connect the referent to a word or phrase in context, so they understand the overall meaning of the text (Shanahan, 2022).

Grammar, while similar to syntactic knowledge, is the set of rules that govern how words are combined to form sentences. Teaching grammar through traditional methods, such as diagramming sentences and other memorizing parts of speech out of context, aren’t effective approaches that foster language comprehension. Instead, explicit instruction that develops students’ abilities to make connections when reading low-coherence texts builds syntactic knowledge, which in turn aids language comprehension (Ozuru, Dempsey, & McNamara, 2009).

We suggest three instructional strategies using mentor sentences that we find effective to build students’ syntactic knowledge at the sentence level, which then can be transferred to multiple sentences and paragraphs.

1. Juicy Sentence Protocol. Wong Fillmore (2012) developed the Juicy Sentence Protocol to help students make sense of complex language. The protocol involves analyzing and discussing chunks of a “juicy sentence”—a sentence that is rich in meaning and complexity—to help students understand the different ways language is used to convey meaning. The table below provides an example sentence, chunked by phrases in the left column, with the corresponding questions for analysis and meaning in the right column.

Juicy sentence: When large-scale deforestation and habitat loss are left unchecked, they can lead to the extinction of keystone species, which can have a cascading effect on the biodiversity of entire ecosystems.

Using your knowledge of syntax, select a juicy sentence in an upcoming text that will be sufficiently difficult for your students to comprehend but will provide rich meaning and build students’ syntactic knowledge when phrases are decomposed and analyzed. This can be done as direct instruction, or by students in collaborative groups, or as independent practice. Check out this lesson idea from The New York Times Learning Network for sentences that have been selected from mentor texts and convertedinto digestible bites for analysis.

2. Sentence Combining. Sentence combining and reduction has also been shown to improve reading comprehension (Neville & Searls, 1991; Wilkinson & Patty, 1993). This is the process of joining two or more simple sentences to form a more complex sentence. This technique provides students with opportunities to practice syntactic skills, including adding referents, while paying attention to the clarity, conciseness, and sophistication of ideas. We model this strategy below:

Present Sentence Chunks

  1. Cells are the basic unit of life.
  2. They are made up of smaller parts called organelles.
  3. Organelles have specific functions including keeping cells alive.

With students, create a combined sentence:

Cells, which are the basic unit of life, are made up of smaller parts called organelles. These have specific functions to keep cells alive.

In addition to curriculum texts, many websites, including CommonLit and ReadWorks, offer grade-level passages in all content areas that teachers can use to identify sentences that align to students’ interests and passions. These include passages that relate to Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History, art and music, among many others. Teachers can identify an interesting, complex sentence and reduce it to three choppy sentences so students can combine them and use referents to construct a more robust and sophisticated sentence. Instruction that builds students’ syntactic knowledge can be a 10-minute segment of class, a few times per week. This is a perfect activity to promote partner conversation.

3. Sentence Imitation. Students can also practice and deepen their syntactic knowledge by crafting their own version of a mentor sentence. Mimicking a writer’s style requires students to attend to the structure of the sentence and make meaning of it before composing a similar version.

Author Anne Lamott (1980) reminds us that we naturally take on someone else’s writing style, using it as a prop as we find our own voices. Working in pairs, students could first determine the meaning of a sentence by discussing and agreeing on the most important word. Then they could start drafting their own version of the sentence by mimicking the author’s style. Here’s an example from Sunrise Over Fallujah:

Sample sentence: “While they waited for the order to attack, the soldiers huddled together in the shadows, their faces grim and determined.”

Student-created version: As they waited to attack, the soldiers huddled in the shadows, their faces set in grim determination.

Using a mentor sentence for reading and writing causes students to slow down and really grapple with the meaning as well as the semantic features used by the author. For additional ideas that foster the reading-writing connection, the National Council of Teachers of English offers several tips and examples.


Mentor sentences work especially well to build students’ syntactic knowledge, and comprehension, through the analysis of sentence structure. Importantly, students must gain and apply these skills using authentic sources. While there are mountains of grammar-focused worksheets available, these resources often fall short because of their “drill-and-kill” nature. Instead, identify a few mentor sentences in an upcoming unit of study that will provide students with meaningful opportunities to decompose, analyze, and combine sentences in ways that will transfer to other courses and settings in their lives.

Thanks to Douglas, Diane, and Toni for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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