Teacher providing feedback to bilingual students in a classroom setting.

Syntax errors can lead to misunderstandings, but their impact varies depending on the context and severity of the error. In my experience teaching Science to 5th-grade Spanish bilingual students, syntax errors do not always cause misunderstandings as frequently as other types of mistakes, such as vocabulary errors or mispronunciations. For instance, if a student says, “Photosynthesis is sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide,” even if the syntax is slightly off, the key terms provide enough context to understand the concept. Additionally, natural language is often redundant, allowing listeners to infer meaning even when the syntax is not perfect. For example, “Plants photosynthesis do” can still be understood as “Plants do photosynthesis” because of the familiar subject-verb-object relationship.

In a classroom setting, especially in subjects like Science, immediate feedback and clarification from the teacher can mitigate misunderstandings caused by syntax errors. According to best practices in bilingual education, providing feedback should be timely, specific, descriptive, personal, positive, and corrective. This means providing real-time feedback that is relevant to the learning goals and proficiency levels of the student. For instance, explaining the differences between the students’ first language (L1) and the second language (L2) regarding word order, sentence structures, and grammatical features can help clarify errors. Encouraging code-switching can help students connect both languages, develop metalinguistic awareness, and enhance their syntax understanding. Highlighting similarities and differences in syntax between L1 and L2 also deepens students’ understanding and facilitates knowledge transfer. These strategies collectively ensure that students grasp the correct syntactical structures and can apply them effectively.

However, syntax errors can become more problematic in written communication where immediate clarification is not possibleor when the errors are so severe that they obscure the intended meaning entirely. In such cases, descriptive and corrective feedback becomes crucial. Explaining what the student needs to do to correct an error and improve in the future helps in addressing specific issues related to syntax.

Importance of Syntax in Upper Elementary Grades

Syntax becomes a significant concern as early as the upper elementary grades, around 3rd to 5th grade. This period marks a transition for students from learning to read to reading to learn, as they engage with more complex texts and are expected to produce more sophisticated written and oral language. At this stage, students encounter more complex sentence structures in their textbooks and are expected to comprehend and use academic language accurately. Additionally, students are expected to produce longer and more coherent pieces of writing, where correct syntax is essential for clear and effective communication.

Assignments such as lab reports, research papers, and essays require students to organize their thoughts logically and use syntax accurately to support their arguments and explanations. Additionally, standardized testing becomes more prevalent in the upper elementary grades, assessing students’ reading and writing abilities, including their grasp of syntax. Mastery of syntax is critical for performing well on these exams, which can influence students’ academic trajectories. For bilingual students, mastering the syntax of both languages is vital. Differences in syntactic structures between languages (e.g., subject-verb-object in English vs. subject-verb-object/subject-object-verb in Spanish) need to be addressed to ensure students can switch between languages fluidly and accurately.

Strategies for Effective Feedback on Syntax Errors

Effective feedback on syntax errors should adhere to the following principles to maximize student understanding and improvement:

  1. Timely Feedback: Provide feedback as soon as possible after the error is made to reinforce learning in real-time.
  2. Specific Feedback: Make feedback relevant to the learning goals and proficiency levels, focusing on the exact nature of the syntax error.
  3. Descriptive Feedback: Explain what the student needs to do to correct the error and improve in the future, using clear examples.
  4. Personal Feedback: Tailor feedback to the individual student, considering their specific needs and learning context.
  5. Positive Feedback: Highlight the positive aspects of the student’s work to encourage and motivate them.
  6. Corrective Feedback: Explicitly correct errors and explain language rules, ensuring the student understands the correct structure.
  7. Implicit Feedback: Use recasting as a quick way to provide corrective feedback implicitly, subtly correcting the error within a natural response.

Addressing syntax errors in bilingual education requires a balanced approach that includes immediate and specific feedback, attention to individual student needs, and a focus on positive reinforcement. By implementing these strategies, educators can help students navigate the complexities of syntax in both their L1 and L2, ultimately enhancing their language proficiency and academic success.

  • Hamrick, P. (2014). A Role for Chunk Formation in Statistical Learning of Second Language Syntax. Language Learning, 64(2). https://doi.org/10.1111/lang.12049
  • Hartsuiker, R. J., & Bernolet, S. (2017). The development of shared syntax in second language learning. Bilingualism, 20(2). https://doi.org/10.1017/S1366728915000164


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