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Presence Learning Therapy Tools Suite - November 2019

Struggling Adolescent Writers: Syntactical Characteristics and Considerations

Struggling Adolescent Writers: Syntactical Characteristics and Considerations
Lynne Telesca, PhD, CCC-SLP
December 4, 2020

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Editor's Note: This text is a transcript of the course, Struggling Adolescent Writers:  Syntactical Characteristics and Considerations, presented by Lynne Telesca, PhD, CCC-SLP.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to: 

  1. List characteristics of students who are struggling with the syntactic demands of written text.
  2. Explain why written language is so challenging for this population.
  3. Identify therapy practices/activities that target syntax for students who are struggling with the syntactic demands of written text.

Population - Definition

Since this course will focus on adolescents, let's define the population. Who is an adolescent?  An adolescent would be considered a person in the transitional phase of growth and development between childhood and adulthood. The World Health Organization defines an adolescent as any person between ages 10 and 19 years old. For the purpose of this course, we will be focusing mainly on adolescents who are in middle and high school.

Which Adolescents Struggle with Writing

Based on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the NAEP, students whose writing was at or above proficient or defined as solid competency was 27% for both eighth and 12th graders.  What's alarming is that means 70% of students at these grade levels are not proficient. On this same assessment, 95% of students with disabilities are not proficient in writing. Again, meaning that only 5% of these students are proficient. So, which adolescents struggle with writing? The answer is that most adolescents struggle with writing.

Having strong writing skills is important for adolescents for several reasons. First, adolescents are writing now more than ever to express themselves. Think about how often adolescents are using email, social media, or text messaging throughout their day. Second, adolescents must write to document the acquisition of their academic skills in school. In addition, adolescents use writing as a tool for academic learning.  They're learning by writing. Lastly, adolescents are expected to meet the writing requirements for state assessments, college entrance exams and applications, and even for future employment.

Why is Writing So Difficult?

Why is writing so difficult? There are three different reasons we will discuss. The first is that writing is a complex process. The second is that writing demands increase with each year of middle and high school. The third reason is that written language is very different than spoken language. 

Writing is a Complex Process

Writing is a complex process because it requires multiple skills to work together.  There are cognitive skills of attention and memory which consists of working memory and long-term memory. We also have organization and self-regulation. Writing requires the coordination of motor skills such as handwriting or typing. There are linguistic skills such as spelling, which is related to phonology and semantics, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics. Writing conventions include punctuation, capitalization, and paragraphing. Additionally, writing also has many stages. This is the planning, drafting, writing, revising, and re-editing.

Writing Demands Increase from Middle to High School

The second reason why writing is so difficult is that writing demands increase from middle to high school. During this time period, adolescents are required to write across multiple subject areas. For example, they're writing in language arts, science, history, and math. They may be writing in two different genres. Writing in the narrative genre versus expository genre is very different. Narrative would include a personal or fictional story and expository would include more formal, factual information or what would be considered nonfiction. Within the expository genre itself, there are multiple structures that adolescents have to use when they write.  One may be the use of descriptive or enumerative, which is describing or listing information. They are also writing about cause and effect, comparing and contrasting or problem-solving. Writing can also require cited evidence, in which the student must document where they got the information.  Finally, older students may also be expected to write persuasive or argumentative essays.

Written Language is Different than Spoken Language

A third reason why writing is difficult is because written language is very different than spoken language. Written language that is specifically related to academic text is markedly different from the spoken language used in our everyday lives, especially for an adolescent. Written language also has a very specific organizational structure and very complex sentence structures that are also not found in spoken language.

Written language requires a very specific organizational structure. The writer must convey their message without the spontaneity to change their message or the ability to repair any communication breakdown (Farrell, 2013). This must be achieved through written components such as:

  • Having clarity - an introduction, a body, and a conclusion so that the reader can understand their thought process
  • Paragraphing - organizing their thoughts into separate written sections in paragraphs
  • Use of transition words to help to connect their ideas
  • Appropriate use of capitalization and punctuation

Each academic subject will require its own organizational structure. The specific organizational structure for writing in English class, for example, would be very different than writing in science class.

Written language for academics may have a non-linear sentence structure. Written language is not always in a linear order, meaning the sentence structure may not be in the order of having a subject+verb+object or phrase. Also, written language may contain certain structures that are non-linear. For example, there may be increased distance between the main noun and verb clause due to embedded phrases or clauses. A second example could be the use of passive voice which is when the object is in the subject position of the sentence before the verb. 

  • Example of increased distance between the main noun and verb:  "Jane, who my brother used to date back in high school, recently moved to Paris."

The main noun is Jane and the main verb is moved. Notice that there are 11 words in between. A logical mistake for a student who struggles with syntax would be demonstrating difficulty distinguishing who dated Jane, who moved to Paris, or being able to convey that message in their writing, using this type of complex sentence structure.

  • Example of passive voice: "The experiment was conducted by the scientist."

The sentence begins with the object (experiment), then the verb (conducted), and then the subject (scientist).  Again, a student who struggles with syntax may not be able to answer the question, "Who conducted the experiment?" since the subject is not before the verb. They would have difficulty interpreting the written text and may have difficulty trying to convey this type of information using passive voice. 

The Importance of Syntax for Writing

All areas of language, of course, are important for writing, but since the focus of this course is syntax, let's discuss the importance of syntax for writing. For adolescents, written language requires students to be able to comprehend, organize, formulate, manipulate, and edit complex syntax. Those are a lot of different tasks in the written process. If the student struggles with one or more aspects of syntax, that may negatively impact their ability to write. These aspects of syntax can be specifically targeted in therapy.

Characteristics of Students Who Struggle With the Syntactic Demands of Written Text

Below are some characteristics of students who are struggling with the syntactic demands of written texts. These are the students that we would work with on written text and focus specifically on the syntax of their written text.

  • Use of short, simple or incomplete sentences
  • Use of run-on sentences
  • Issues with writing conventions such as punctuation, capitalization, or spelling
  • Omission of words or word endings (e.g., morphemes)
  • Overuse of the same conjunctions (e.g., "because”)
  • Difficulty with phrases and clauses
  • Less sensitivity to genre - not understanding the type of writing that they are doing
  • Less sensitivity to audience 

Therapy Practices/Activities that Target Syntax

What can we do to target these specific skills and syntax during therapy? There are six therapy practices or activities that target syntax specifically that I will discuss: 

  • Explicit instruction of syntactic rules IN CONTEXT
  • Explicit instruction of genre IN CONTEXT
  • Sentence Formulation IN CONTEXT
  • Sentence Manipulation IN CONTEXT
  • Use of the reciprocal process - listening, speaking, reading, writing
  • Use of a metalinguistic approach

"IN CONTEXT" is in capital letters because you are going to work on these goals while the student is working on writing during academic tasks. You don't want to work on it as a separate isolated non-contextual type goal. You want to incorporate it into academic text or have students bring writing assignments they're working on in class and do them as part of the therapy session. You could also take a writing task they've already completed and break it down and analyze it. This will help with carryover of these types of skills.

Explicit Instruction of Syntactic Rules IN CONTEXT

Again, you want to incorporate the rules of grammar within the context of an academic writing assignment. Start by discussing why the rule is needed, and more importantly, how using that rule affects the reader.  Some different rules to consider targeting are: 

  • Parts of speech - nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs-definitions-identification for discussion
  • Morphemes and their meaning - plurals, possessives, verb tensing - Pointing out why -s is needed at the end of a word, what does that signal to the reader? If -s is not included, the reader will be confused.  For possessive, there needs to be an -s so the reader knows the object belongs to that person. Even more important is verb tensing and remembering to add -ing because it's telling the reader that this is happening now. Remembering to put -ed at the end of a verb so the reader knows that it happened in the past.
  • Capitalization and Punctuation - Capital letters signify the beginning of a thought or a proper noun. Commas tell the reader here is a list or a comparison, or I want you to pause. Periods at the end of the sentence, let the reader know, "I'm ending my thought." 
  • Phrases & Causes - Provide a little more information within the sentence and why that's important for the reader.

It has been my experience when working with adolescents that if you make meaning of the rules, then they're more likely to use them. You are putting them in the power position of being the writer and controlling how the reader is going to interpret their writing. I've found that to be a very positive strategy and very motivating. You're taking rules that they have probably heard over and over again and may have difficulty remembering and giving them some control.  That makes them more willing to carry over the use of these rules.

Clauses.  Types of clauses that are challenging for adolescents include: 

  • Nominal (noun clause) - the noun of the sentence that is paired with the verb or action. For example, "Why you did that is a mystery." The subject of the sentence is "you did that"
  • Relative (adjective clause) - provides more about the noun or pronoun. For example, "He is the one that I used to date." The phrase, "I used to date" is telling you more about the pronoun subject, which is, "he".
  • Adverbial (adverb clause) - provides more information about the action. For example, "When she is angry, she turns red in the face." The phrase, "when she is angry" is telling you more about the verb, "turns" and specifically when it occurs.

Explicit Instruction of Genre IN CONTEXT

The second practice or activity is explicit instruction of genre IN CONTEXT.  Each academic subject or each academic genre will have syntactic differences, and these can be related to:

  • Person - who is speaking 
  • Structure - how it will be organized
  • Transitions - what connections need to be made
  • Clauses - what additional information is being provided 

Let's look at examples with language arts (ELA), science, and history (figure 1). 


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lynne telesca

Lynne Telesca, PhD, CCC-SLP

Dr. Lynne Telesca is an assistant professor of Communication Disorders at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Her research interests are writing and syntax intervention that helps all students, but especially struggling adolescents. Dr. Telesca is passionate about sharing knowledge and ideas that will make a difference in speech-language pathologists’ daily therapeutic practice.

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