Improved reading comprehension is the ultimate goal of all models of reading development and programmes of reading instruction. Syntax, or sentence structure, plays a key role in reading comprehension. Syntactic complexity has been consistently identified as the most important determinant of text readability.
But how students draw on their awareness of syntax in their reading remains unclear; the mechanism is even more ambiguous in bilingual students. The research by Dr Tong Xiuhong, Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology (PS), The Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK), explored learners’ understanding and awareness of sentence structure – whether and how syntactic awareness supports reading comprehension both within and across first-language (L1) Chinese and second- language (L2) English for Hong Kong bilingual readers.
The study evaluated the direct and indirect contribution of syntactic awareness on L1 and L2 reading comprehension among 227 Hong Kong Chinese–English bilingual fourth graders. The researchers designed language-shared and language-unique tasks of syntactic awareness, assessed reading comprehension in both Chinese and English, and took other reading-related cognitive and metalinguistic measures. The broad goal of the study was to determine how syntactic awareness supports reading comprehension. It addressed this goal with two research questions: (1) whether syntactic awareness is directly and/or indirectly related to reading comprehension in both languages of bilingual students: L1 Chinese and L2 English; and (2) whether and how syntactic awareness contributes to reading comprehension across languages in these bilingual students.
The study measured nonverbal intelligence, phonological awareness, morphological awareness, vocabulary knowledge, syntactic awareness, word reading and reading comprehension in both Chinese and English.
The researchers found a statistically significant direct effect of syntactic awareness on reading comprehension in both L1 Chinese and L2 English, along with indirect effects via word reading. Moreover, in both their English and Chinese reading comprehension, students drew on awareness of syntactic features that are shared between English and Chinese more than those unique to either language. The students were also generally more accurate with language-shared than language-unique items, further pointing to the possibility of transfer.
The authors concluded that together these findings from analyses of variance and modeling of within- and cross-language effects takes us a few steps closer to identifying a mechanism that might drive the transfer of syntactic awareness, as the experience of bilingualism appears to build up knowledge of language-shared sentence structures.
Turning to theories of reading comprehension, the findings encourage the inclusion of syntactic awareness as a direct supporter of reading comprehension, and an indirect one via word reading. There are also educational implications of the findings. Since learning to read in L2 can be challenging, the findings suggest that instruction helping bilingual students become more aware of sentence structures that occur in both languages could scaffold learning of L2 syntax via L1 syntax. This teaching might benefit reading comprehension in both L1 and L2.
The study was conducted together with Dr Joyce Kwan Lok-yin, Assistant Professor at PS of EdUHK; Dr Shelly Tong xiuli, Associate Professor in the Department of Human Communication, Development, and Information Sciences at The University of Hong Kong; Professor Hélène Deacon in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the Dalhousie University.