kitchen table math, the sequel: Using sentence combining to improve reading scores

Monday, September 20, 2010

Using sentence combining to improve reading scores

from Arthur Whimbey and Myra Linden:
Let us now examine the problem mentioned at the beginning of this chapter: the difficulty that some students have comprehending textbooks containing sentences with relative clauses. Here is a paragraph from the Encyclopedia Americana.
Infectious diseases are the only ones that can be transmitted. They may be spread by infected animals, infected people, or contaminated substances, such as food and water. Infectious diseases that can be transmitted to humans from infected animals are known as zoonoses. Zoonoses may be transmitted by carriers, such as insects; by the bite of an infected animal; by direct contact with an infected animals [sic] or its excretions; or by eating animal products.

College freshman were asked to read this paragraph and then answer the following questions.
Zoonoses are:

a. insects that carry diseases.

b. infected animals that transmit infectious diseases to humans.

c. infectious diseases that man gets from animals.

d. carriers that transmit infectious diseases.
College students with weak reading skills often pick alternative b. When asked why they picked b, some reply that zoonoses sounds like zoo and animals are kept in zoos, so they figured zoonoses are animals. This explanation reflects the thinking style of nonanalytical readers. They base their conclusions on superficial associations among bits of information rather than on careful step-by-step interpretations of chunks of information and gradual reconstruction of total meaning.

Other students who chose b explained that they got this answer from the last six words of the third sentence: infected animals are known as zoonoses. This, too, reflects the thinking style of weak readers. They read a little bit here, a little bit there, and then jump to a conclusion.

The correct answer is based on the third sentence, which reads:

Infectious diseases that can be transmitted to humans from infected animals are known as zoonoses.

This sentence contains the following relative clause:

that can be transmitted to humans from infected animals

Good readers work step-by-step through the sentence in obtaining its correct meaning. They begin with the subject: infectious diseases. Then they go on to the relative clause, an essential relative clause that indicates the type of infectious diseases being considered; those that animals can transmit to humans. Finally, they come to the predicate: are known as zoonoses. Therefore, in answering the question they pick alternative c.

Research studies have found that students with weak analytical skills can understand only simple sentences, just as they can solve only one-step math problems. They have difficulty understanding complicated sentences, just as they have difficulty solving multi-step math problems. In other words, they can handle just small chucks of information because they have not developed skill in working step-by-step through complicated information. They can understand sentences such as this:

Some infectious diseases are known as zoonoses.

But they cannot understand Sentence 3 in the paragraph.

Other research studies (reviewed in Why Johnny can't Write: How to Improve Writing Skills) have found that having students construct complex sentences from simple ones improves their scores on standardized reading tests. these studies have not explored whether having students add relative clauses to sentences improves their ability to comprehend specifically sentences with relative clauses. They have only found that constructing various types of complicated sentences from simpler ones (using the types of exercises shown in this book) improves overall reading comprehension ability, with the weakest readers making the greatest gains. As the P-C Approach* is used more widely in our schools,** we can expect the average reading comprehension ability of the nation to improve. And as this improvement becomes evident, researchers may conduct additional studies to determine exactly how and why having students manipulate, construct, and write sentences improves their reading skills.

Teaching and Learning Grammar: The Prototype-Construction Approach
pp. 90-92

Teaching and Learning Grammar: The Prototype-Construction Approach

*prototype-construction method
** I'm not holding my breath


Katharine Beals said...

Very interesting. I've witnessed these problems first hand with readers. The explanation here rings true, but raises a key question: do the students have the same problem understanding relative clauses in spoken language?

My guess is that the addition of the auditory cues that often (though not always) accompany relative clauses in speech makes a significant difference for comprehension.

Comprehension errors may also result from skipping over key function words--e.g., the word "that" in the problematic sentence above. Listeners are less likely to skip over words than readers are.

If so, then reading out loud might also aid comprehension.

Katharine Beals said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katharine Beals said...

To be more precise, one way in which the problematic sentence could be misread is if the reader allows the word "that" to float to the latter part of the sentence, yielding:

Infectious diseases can be transmitted to humans from infected animals that are known as zoonoses.

I've seen this kind of word-floating occur; not sure what the research shows, but it seems to me that some readers have trouble keeping up a linear scan and allow their eyes to jump around a bit, picking up a word here and re-inserting it there.

Catherine Johnson said...

My guess is that the addition of the auditory cues that often (though not always) accompany relative clauses in speech makes a significant difference for comprehension.

That's my guess -- but I can't support it at this point.

reading out loud might also aid comprehension

That's my hypothesis, and I'm having students read out loud.

I need advice.

Should I have students read the same passage 2 or 3 times until they can read with 'expression' -- ?

I'm thinking yes....

I'm also wondering about having them read out loud together, choral style.

Catherine Johnson said...

Katharine - is there research on college-level reading??

Anonymous said...

I was very relieved that my dyslexic 9th grader got the question right.

Catherine Johnson said...

wow - that's great!

I've typed it up & will give it to my 2 classes & see what happens.

Anonymous said...

My dd attended a Private School over one month of the summer where for 3 hours a day, they did Direct Instruction in several elements of writing. One of the things they did EVERY DAY was sentence combining. The school, Morninside Academy in Seattle. They totally rock, and they understand what B.F. Skinner noticed a long time ago, that direct instruction and incremental improvement produces lasting results.

PS. As a math teach and math tutor, I LOVE reading this blog!

Catherine Johnson said...

oh my gosh!

You sent your child to Morningside??!!

You MUST tell us more!

I love that school.

From afar, of course.

Catherine Johnson said...

Could you tell whether they were using sentence combining to improve reading as well as writing?

(I'm guessing that since your child is dyslexic, the emphasis was on reading - right?)

I'm SO impressed that dd got this question right.

Catherine Johnson said...

I gave this question to one of my classes today.

12 students were present.

4 chose b
2 chose 3
6 chose c (correct)

We're going to be spending a lot of time doing sentence combining exercises with relative clauses.

Anonymous said...

Hi Catherine,

We only went to Morningside (which totally ROCKED for my dyslexic DD) for Writing, so I don't know if they use Sentence Combining for reading as well. My daughter felt VERY successful for the first time in her life, and I have proof that her writing improved LOADS. If you want to see, I scanned pictures of her writing before and after. She was able to write an essay for the FIRST TIME IN HER LIFE, and they broke down all of the steps to make it easy for her. We are going back next summer.

Fluency was a key word there. One of the reasons its hard to write is that some children also have dysgraphia and have a hard time mechanically writing. They do short, fun speed drills to improve writing accuracy and speed.

Her teacher was great, and let me observe during High Performace Writing time. I will watch during sentence combining next year and report back.

Also for Dyslexic Kids, I totally recommend A Workbook for Dyslexics ( This book rocks, and my dd likes it enough to work through it with me without tears. The book works through spelling much better than AVKO Sequential Spelling, and is more well rounded. You say words outloud out of context, you learn rules, you write words and you write dictated sentences. Overall, a good and thorough program.

Catherine Johnson said...

oh my goodness - I'm just seeing this - I would LOVE to see scans of your daughter's before-and-after writing!