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Home > Reading Comprehension > Learning about Phrases to Improve Fluency and Comprehension

Learning 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 phrases.

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 words.

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.


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 orally.

Phrase generation

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 processes.

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
during lunch

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 it correct.

Sorting exercises:

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 Acrobat site

Sample Exercise Three: Breaking Up Sentences Into Phrases
HTML (web page) version
PDF version

Sentence Puzzles:

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 sentences.

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 easily understood.

Sample Exercise Four & Five: Here's the answer, what's the question?
What's the question 1:
HTML (web page) version
PDF (Portable Document File) version

What's the question 2:
HTML (web page) version
PDF 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 from Reading and Language Arts Center




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