Micro-comprehension: Sentence Structure Processing

Inspired Writing with Shurley English.jpg

In this series about developing micro-comprehension I have discussed how students need a good vocabulary in order to create accurate mental models of the stories they read or hear. We also know that those mental models are affected by the way the brain fills-in missing information, called gap-filling inference. Next up is sentence structure processing.


Students who can recognize how a sentence is organized have a great advantage. They can tell by the word arrangement if a clause is telling something, asking something, commanding something, or exclaiming something. In Shurley English, we teach students to understand the four basic sentence types early in the curriculum:

  • declarative

  • interrogative

  • imperative

  • exclamatory

Once students can readily recognize these sentence structures, they have a better foundation for building better sentences. Strong mental models result if students know what kind of sentence they’re dealing with.


To give students practice with sentence structure processing, I used to show them how to reconfigure sentences by simply writing the same basic sentence four different ways. I called it The 4-Way Sentence Strategy.


Step 1: Teach them that a declarative sentence just tells something.

A declarative sentence doesn’t ask anything of anyone. It doesn’t command a person to do anything, and it doesn’t demonstrate excess emotion. Because a declarative sentence just tells the reader something, start with that and teach them to write a basic declarative sentence. Look at the example below.

Example: I like to jump on the trampoline.

This declarative sentence simply states an idea. No questions. No commands. No strong emotions.


Step 2: Teach them how to convert the sentence into a question (interrogative) sentence.

Students become pros at sentence structure in no time by moving words around. They soon notice how the point of view changes to second person and how the helping verb at the start of the sentence converts the sentence into a question. This kind of sentence now seeks an answer—because it asks a question.

 Example: Do you like to jump on the trampoline?


Step 3: Teach them how to convert the sentence into a command (imperative) sentence.

I show students how to take the same basic sentence and convert it again—this time they change it into a command, like this:

Example: Jump on the trampoline.

Once again, by directly teaching sentence structure, you call attention to the word arrangement needed to change the structure and meaning of the sentence. The structure of the sentence dictates its type. When students read an imperative sentence and begin to recognize the “understood subject pronoun YOU,” they can make these conversions easily.


Step 4: Teach them how to convert the sentence into a strong feeling (exclamatory) sentence.

Have students notice the arrangement of the words, especially the words “how” and “what.”


What fun it is to jump on a trampoline!

What fun to jump on a trampoline!

Wow! What fun the children had, jumping on the trampoline!

Jumping on a trampoline—what fun!

Jumping on a trampoline—how fun!

What fun I am having, jumping on a trampoline!

How exciting it is to jump on a trampoline!

How fun jumping on a trampoline can be!

How fun to jump on a trampoline!

Many kids enjoy Step 4 the most because it truly unleashes their creativity. Just make sure you work with your kids on the nuances of meaning and the punctuation requirements.


I hope you can see how important it is for kids to understand sentence structure from these examples. When your students make these cognitive leaps, they are free to be as creative as their brains will allow.


When we visit micro-comprehension again, I will discuss how to help students learn to allocate attention to the major meanings in a sentence and to filter out less significant information. It’s called allocation of attention; don’t miss it!

(This post is part of a series on Micro-Comprehension. To start at the beginning, click here.)