Word Order


By Gerald P. Berent, Ph.D.
Department of Research
National Technical Institute of the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

English typically uses a strict SUBJECT VERB OBJECT (SVO) word order in simple sentences, as in Students (S) read (V) books (O). This SVO word order becomes altered in many other English sentence types. For example, in WH-questions in which the beginning WH-word represents an OBJECT, a sentence can reflect an OVSV word order: What (O) have (V) the students (S) done (V)? In a sentence that begins with a VERB-ing form, a sentence can reflect a VOSVO word order: Finishing (V) the book (O), the student (S) completed (V) the assignment (O).

Research has shown that deaf students are generally more successful in producing and comprehending English sentences that conform to the basic SVO word order pattern and less successful in producing and comprehending English sentences that deviate from SVO word order. In fact, the more a sentence deviates from SVO word order, the greater the difficulty it poses for deaf students. This difficulty can have a major impact on students' reading and writing skills and therefore a major impact on academic success.

This module provides an overview of English word order, demonstrating the various structures that exhibit non-SVO word order. It provides a summary of research on deaf students' knowledge of a variety of word order patterns. It offers guided practice in identifying various English word order patterns and in judging relative difficulties among word order patters. And it provides action steps for teachers for addressing the challenge that certain English structures pose for their deaf students.


  1. Language structures have specific properties that make them inherently more or less difficult for language learners.
  2. Without full access to the sounds and intonations of spoken languages, many deaf persons do not perceive certain English language structures in the same ways that hearing persons do.
  3. Inherently more difficult English language structures are often processed differently (incorrectly) by deaf students, which can have a major negative impact on English comprehension and written expression.
  4. English structures that exhibit the basic SUBJECT VERB OBJECT word order are the easiest structures for deaf students to process.
  5. Structures that deviate in certain ways from the basic SUBJECT VERB OBJECT word order are problematic for many deaf students.
  6. Structures in which the basic SUBJECT VERB OBJECT word order is interrupted in certain ways are problematic for many deaf students.
  7. Structures that involve "long movement" of words from their logical positions are problematic for many deaf students.
  8. Under specific circumstances, teachers can paraphrase or simplify reading and testing materials that contain challenging structures in order to enhance deaf students' comprehension of those materials.
  9. A basic understanding of the characteristics of English structures that deviate from SUBJECT VERB OBJECT word order can improve teachers' delivery of instruction to deaf students.
  10. With a basic understanding of the facts of English word order, teachers can help students to master some of the more difficult English structures.