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Learning about Phrases to Improve Fluency and Comprehension
About Phrases to Improve Fluency and Comprehension
by Susan Jones, M.Ed.
Even though each word we read or speak has its own meaning,
we generally don't read, speak or think of each word by itself.
We tend to group words together into phrases. We can have
entire conversations in phrases, and if we want to be sure
we're understood, we often pause to emphasize the most important
Understanding phrases while reading can help fluency and
comprehension. When trying to read something complicated that
doesn't seem to make sense, it's very helpful to go back and
read it one phrase at a time to figure out just where understanding
stopped. If you want to savor a book, or are having trouble
paying attention to something you're reading, you can read
one phrase at a time, imagining how it would sound, and you
can make a mental picture of it or re-phrase it in your own
You can make reading in phrases easier by lightly underlining
(usually with a slight scoop, as if drawing a spoon to hold
the phrase) phrases as you read. Re-reading a passage emphasizing
the phrases can make it easier to read smoothly and with feeling.
Repeated reading has long been known to help fluency and comprehension.
ACTIVITIES WITH PHRASES
Aside from practicing reading in phrases and underlining
phrases as you read, there are many written exercises that
will develop understanding of phrases. If the student is working
independently, make sure that she can read the words in the
exercise. Of course, any written activity can also be done
This is a very good exercise for learning to think of words
and ideas. It's also a fairly simple language exercise that
can be done independently by students who struggle with most
writing tasks, and it's easy to adjust for individual needs
and sometimes gives real insights into a student's thought
1. Pre- phrase language generation:
A good precursor to generating phrases is to generate lists
(especially for students who struggle with either writing
or word retrieval). These can be based on individual student
interests and can be easy or challenging.
Write a question on top of a sheet of lined paper, such
as one of the following:
What are 25 things you would find in a grocery store? (other
possibilities: shopping mall, in outer space, underground,
in the woods, in the city, at a dance, in the kitchen)
What are 25 kinds of furniture?
What are 15 things that are small and expensive?
What are 25 things you might eat for dinner?
What are 25 parts of a car?
What are 25 different animals?
What are 15 different animal sounds?
What are 15 different ways to get from place to place, with
or without machines?
If the student has difficulty with the task, some strategies
include visualizing the scene where the list items would be
found (the car, the woods), using a "zoom lens"
to imagine the scene close up or far away, thinking of large
and then small examples, or assigning other arbitrary categories.
Sample Exercise One
Blank lined paper
These are in PDF (Portable Document Format) which can be read
by Adobe Acrobat Reader. It's probably already on your computer;
if not, you can download it for free from the Adobe Acrobat site
2. Language generation with phrases:
Write an incomplete sentence at the top of a sheet of lined
paper, with a line where the final phrase would go. Instruct
the student to complete the sentence with different phrases
(either as many as they can' or a specific number),
but that all of the phrases should answer the specific question
specified and have some variety. I generally model several
answers that are fairly diverse (see the examples).
You can adjust the challenge of the task by adjusting the
number of phrases (and the nature of the sentence) and encouraging
the student to use variety in their phrases, to use descriptive
adjectives where appropriate, etc. I sometimes draw from academic
subjects or literature I know the student is reading for this
task, but make sure I don't assume background knowledge. I
generally have the student write only the phrase, and not
copy the first part of the sentence each time.
I found a quarter ___________________ (where?)
under the sofa
in my back pocket
stuck to gum under my desk
I did my homework _________________ (when?)
right before I fell asleep
while three cats ran in circles around me
John impressed his friends _________________ (how?)
by running five miles
by getting straight A's
with his new jacket
by not speaking for three days
Comprehension is the goal here; there are many right answers
and unless a phrase is clearly of the wrong type (such as
saying "I did my homework at the kitchen table"
instead of answering the "when" question) consider
This is an exercise that can also be done to varying degrees
of complexity. The task is simplest if the student is given
a list of phrases and two choices of questions that the phrase
answers that are clearly different, such as "where"
and "when." (See Example Two: What and Where). Other
readers will be able to start right into taking a sentence
and breaking it into phrases and figuring out what question
is answered from all seven. (See Example Three: Sentence division)
Sample Exercise Two: Choosing between Where and When
HTML (web page) version
PDF version This is
in PDF (Portable Document Format) which can be read by Adobe
Acrobat Reader. It can be downloaded for free from the Adobe
Sample Exercise Three: Breaking Up Sentences Into Phrases
HTML (web page) version
This exercise adds a hands-on element to phrasing. Pick a
sentence (I usually choose one from a book the student is
reading) and write its phrases on index card pieces. Make
other pieces of index card with the questions answered by
those phrases. I usually do this to three or four sentences,
clipping the card pieces for each sentence together and slipping
the whole thing into a bankers envelope. If I'm afraid the
pieces will get confused, I use different color index cards
for each sentence. The capitalized first word and period at
the end are, of course, a big help to the student.
The student's job is to sort out the pieces into sentences
and match the phrases to the question eac one answers. The
student can then copy the sentences, underline the phrases,
and write the question above each phrase, but the writing
can be skipped to reduce the writing demand. If this is work
that must be put away, the puzzle pieces can be glued (glue
sticks are great for this) to a piece of paper (but that does
make it harder to re-use the exercises). Have the student
read the sentences aloud at least once, with good expression
and fluency, emphasizing the phrases. Some students like to
use creative accents or be very dramatic when reading the
Challenge exercise: Ask a question
This exercise is challenging, but excellent for teaching
students to manipulate words and ideas in their minds. The
student is given a list of phrases; for each phrase s/he makes
up a question that the phrase could answer. For example, if
the phrase were "the broken light bulb," the student
might suggest "What did Frank cut his foot on?"
When I am introducing this exercise, I often supply the first
word (what, where, why, etc.), I model and do several exercises
orally with the student (so I may think of one question, and
ask the student to change something about it to make another
question), and I make sure that the phrases are vivid and
Sample Exercise Four & Five: Here's the answer, what's
What's the question 1:
HTML (web page) version
PDF (Portable Document File) version
What's the question 2:
HTML (web page) version
There are other phrasing exercises and ideas, and many,
many other helpful exercises to build reading comprehension
in Joanne Carlisle's Reasoning and Reading books, available
and Language Arts Center