Simplify Complex Sentences for Better Comprehension

Sometimes emerging academic readers find it hard to understand a passage they’re reading because of the complex syntax academic writers sometimes use. Take, for example, this trio of sentences in one of my favorite articles to read with first-year writing students, “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics” by James Paul Gee (1989 J. of Education 171.1).

How does one acquire a Discourse? It turns out that much that is claimed, controversially, to be true of second language acquisition or socially situated cognition (Beebe, 1988; Dulay, Burt, & Krashen, 1982; Grosjean, 1982; Krashen, 1982, 1985a, 1985b; Krashen & Terrell, 1983; Lave, 1988; Rogoff & Lave, 1984) is, in fact, more obviously true of the acquisition of Discourses. Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction (even less so than languages, and hardly anyone ever fluently acquired a second language sitting in a classroom), but by enculturation (“apprenticeship”) into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse (Cazden, 1988; Heath, 1983).

To the expert readers of the Journal of Education, this passage – larded with citations, editorial asides to a specialized audience, and field-specific jargon – is readily intelligible. But it presents quite a challenge to first-year students who wonder what those names and dates mean. Or who must stop to look up field-specific words such as “socially situated cognition” or extended vocabulary words like “overt.” Combined with the very complex sentence structure needed to pack all this information into a concise passage, these challenges can overwhelm first-year student readers. In my experience, many simply pass their eyes over the passage and move on hoping for help in class.

Here’s the help I offer them – Understand your reading situation and simplify the sentence structure by stripping it of inessential clauses and information that isn’t necessary for your reading situation.

Understand Your Reading Situation

As first-year readers, my students aren’t the target audience of this ground-breaking article. Gee is writing to change two foundational terms in education and linguistics: literacy and discourse. The educators and linguists likely to read his article in the Journal of Education have deep knowledge of their fields that Gee can count on them using to decode the signals in his densely-packed sentences.

My students don’t have that deep knowledge to draw on, but our goal in reading the article in first-year composition is not to understand Gee’s contributions to education and linguistics. It is to understand the process by which people acquire new social and linguistics competencies, which is precisely the process they’re going through in their college years.

Because they don’t need to understand the nuances of Gee’s argument to understand the enculturation process they’re undergoing, they can skip much of the citation and framing work Gee does for his field-specific audience and just focus on the essential ideas in the sentences.

Simplify the Sentence Structure

Much clarity can be gained in this situation by simplifying the sentence structure of complex passages. Here’s how I do it:

  • Identify the main (independent) clause of the sentence by locating the subject noun and principal verb. Temporarily cut out modifying or qualifying language that separates the subject noun and principal verb
  • Recognize correlative conjunctions, such as not this…but | either…or and be sure to follow the connection they signal
  • Temporarily strip out unnecessary subordinate (dependent) clauses – especially embedded ones
  • Strip out citations, asides, and (temporarily) voice markers (“controversially” and “in fact”)

Here’s what our simplified Gee passage looks like after applying some of these simplifications:

Here’s the passage with the edits stripped out:

“How does one acquire a Discourse? It turns out that much that is claimed…to be true of second language acquisition or socially situated cognition…is…more obviously true of the acquisition of Discourses. Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction, but by enculturation (“apprenticeship”) into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse.”

With the sentence structures simplified and clarified, the passage is considerably easier for first-year students to read. And, considering the reading situation I explained earlier, the conceptual richness of the passage hasn’t been compromised in a way that distorts Gee’s meaning.

The next time you encounter a passage that’s syntactically complex, try these simplifying strategies.

If you’d like help applying these strategies, book a Reading Support appointment with SASC’s Eric Drown or Megan Grumbling.

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