In the middle of an Internet treasure hunt for …. what?

Was it danglers I started out Googling before a bunch of other stuff came up?

Whatever it was, I’ve just come across a favorite:

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

-Douglas Adams


Until this moment, I’d never had the experience of forgetting what I was looking for on the Internet. 

It’s one thing to walk into a room and not remember what you’re looking for.

But walking into the Internet and not remembering what you’re looking for — yikes.

That whooshing sound in my ears is getting louder.

Teacher’s lament

I’m going to be working with a graduate level research class next week, and in the process of trying to track down papers on the relationship between writing and thinking, I’ve come across a fabulous passage, quoted in Exploring Literacies Theory, Research and Practice by Helen de Silva Joyce and Susan Feez:

Bringing up the question of learning to read and write reminds us of the comment by the primary-school teacher who remarked, ‘It’s lucky we’re not responsible for teaching them to talk. If we were they’d never learn that either’. Nevertheless, a surprising number of people do become literate, mostly through being taught.
(Halliday 2009/1978: 178)

Halliday and Hasan are two of my favorites. Our writing curriculum is strongly influenced by their work (which I have yet to read in full, I should add).

I don’t post this passage to malign teachers, by the way. Not at all.

Being good at teaching isn’t enough. To teach well, teachers need a field-tested curriculum.

But instead of providing teachers a proven curriculum, schools expect them to Google lessons and posters on Pinterest, purchase them from Teachers Pay Teachers, or stay up till all hours of the night writing curriculum themselves.

I personally have spent what feels like years of my life Googling lessons, handouts, and worksheets, and in the end what I have to show for it is a massive heap of digital stuff (some of it fantastically helpful, to be sure) that doesn’t cohere and isn’t a curriculum.

Teaching freshman writing via conlanging (part 2)

Speaking of conlangers, here is Stanley Fish on his approach to teaching freshman composition:

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions — between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like — that English enables us to make.

You can imagine the reaction of students who think that ”syntax” is something cigarette smokers pay, guess that ”lexicon” is the name of a rebel tribe inhabiting a galaxy far away, and haven’t the slightest idea of what words like ”tense,” ”manner” and ”mood” mean. They think I’m crazy. Yet 14 weeks later — and this happens every time — each group has produced a language of incredible sophistication and precision.

How is this near miracle accomplished? The short answer is that over the semester the students come to understand a single proposition: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships.

Devoid of Content | New York Times | May 31, 2005

And see:
Conlangers are a thing (part 1)

Conlangers are a thing (part 1)

I’ve just discovered an entire category of people:


Conlangers make up languages for fun.

I had no idea!

I knew there was one conlanger on the planet: the guy who invented Dothraki.

I had no idea there were others, let alone multiple others.

Turns out there are so many others they have their own conlanger societies, listservs, wikis, software, and books.


And see:
Teaching freshman writing via conlanging (part 2)

Testing, testing

I’m posting Katharine’s comment about how to tell that phrase “at which point” turns a sentence into a fragment because it brings up a technique I discovered while looking for help teaching freshman composition: intuitive grammar tests.

Most native speakers, I assume, use intuitive tests from time to time. The one everyone seems to know tests whether “I” or “me” is correct in sentences like:

They’re coming with Jane and I.

The test: eliminate “Jane.”

They’re coming with I. WRONG

They’re coming with me. RIGHT


They’re coming with Jane and me. RIGHT

Turns out there are all kinds of useful tests, but nobody ever tells you what they are.

Katie’s test for “at which point”: insert a comma after “at which point” and see how it sounds.

The rules for what sorts of words can modify complete sentences seems somewhat arbitrary–i.e., not based entirely on meaning. “However” can introduce a complete sentence; “though” can’t. “At that point” can; “At which point” can’t. One way to test for this is to see if it works to pause–-or add a comma–-after the phrase in question. Cf:

“However, I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.” (fine)

“Though, I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.” (weird)

“At that point, you realize that it doesn’t express one more advantage…” (fine)

“At which point, you realize that it doesn’t express one more advantage.” (weird)

This may relate to where the intuitive ear comes in.

This is why we need a linguist

Well, this is why I need a linguist.

I’ve just read Katharine’s “Can you spot the sentence fragment?” post.

For me, the first fragment is easy:

Though I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.

That’s a fragment because “though” is a subordinator. Coming before “I did snap at friends…” it turns a complete sentence into a subordinate clause:

complete sentence I went home
subordinate clause (or fragment) although I went home
complete sentence I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed
subordinate clause (or fragment) though I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed

But I’m having a big problem with the second fragment, which is that it “feels” like there are two other fragments in Katie’s post, not just one.

First fragment:

From this weekend’s New York Times Magazine

That’s obvious (no verb) — but, to me, this sounds like a fragment, too:

At which point you realize, say, that it doesn’t express one more advantage to Adderall, but rather that it brings up the first of three downsides.

I say “sounds like a fragment” because I write by ear — never learned formal grammar beyond 4th grade or thereabouts (and, no, learning grammar in Spanish class doesn’t help. Not really.) So my rule for complete versus incomplete is whether a string of words sounds complete or incomplete.

At which point you realize, say, that it doesn’t express one more advantage…” sounds incomplete to me, and the reason it sounds incomplete to me is that opening “at which point.”

But why?

Is “at which point” a subordinator, too?

And if it is, how do we know?

Katharine knows the answers to all these things.

It’s a very strange thing, trying to make unconscious knowledge conscious.

The minute you try, you lose your sense of conviction.

Always happens with spelling. If you really think about how to spell a word — consciously think about it — it slips away.

Try it.

Try consciously thinking about how to spell “Hoover v— cleaner” instead of just writing it down, on automatic pilot, the way we normally do.1

Now that I’ve thought about Katie’s at which point sentence, I’m completely mystified.

Very annoying.

1. OK, I admit: I can’t spell vacuum unconsciously, either, not with any reliability. But I really can’t spell it if I think about it. 

Can you spot the sentence fragment?

From this weekend’s New York Times Magazine:

Adderall wiped away the question of willpower. Now I could study all night, then run 10 miles, then breeze through that week’s New Yorker, all without pausing to consider whether I might prefer to chat with classmates or go to the movies. It was fantastic. I lost weight. That was nice, too. Though I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed. When a roommate went home one weekend and forgot to turn off her alarm clock so that it beeped behind her locked door for 48 hours, I entirely lost control, calling her in New York to berate her. I didn’t know how long it had been since I’d slept more than five hours. Why bother?

Something may look like a complete sentence because it contains a main verb, goes on for a bit, and sports a certain amount of complexity (e.g., an embedded clause). But, as Catherine and I discuss in our book–and in those forthcoming fluency exercises that Catherine mentions below–that doesn’t make it a complete sentence. True, sentence fragments can be effective. But sometimes–as this one did for me–they lead you down the garden path to the edge of a cliff. You expected more words, and here you are at the end of a sentence, having to go back and re-read it. At which point you realize, say, that it doesn’t express one more advantage to Adderall, but rather that it brings up the first of three downsides.

Speaking of advantages and disadvantages, did you spot my sentence fragment? Did I bring you up short and confuse you?

Programming and writing

Katharine writes:

Good writing requires logical organization; computer programming, even more so. Even though a disorganized program can, in principle, run properly, it’s awfully hard to debug or upgrade—let alone for a new coder to make sense of.


For me, this tends to be one of those people-don’t-understand things.

Back when Temple (Grandin) and I were writing one of our books, we got so far behind (OK, I got so far behind) that she wrote a chapter herself and, as I recall, wanted to write a second chapter. I asked her not to write the second one because trying to rejigger her chapter into the form of all the other chapters took more work than just writing the chapter from scratch, which is what I think I ended up doing.

I’ve had the same issue with my possibly-doomed ‘basal ganglia’ project. It’s gone through a number of iterations, and each time we all try to figure out how to fix it, I get told, more or less, just to cut out the good sections and put them together.

That sounds logical, but it basically can’t be done. The good sections depend on the bad sections (and the bad sections depend on the good sections), and when you take out the bad, the good sections don’t cohere any better than they did before you lost the bad. If anything, they cohere less.

The single best piece of advice I got came from Debbie Stier, who said: “Take out a blank piece of paper and start fresh.”

20 hours to fluency

Until I re-read our rationale for the writing curriculum, I had completely forgotten that fluency in sentence composition can be reached in as little as twenty hours.

I’m pretty sure I got that figure from Kent Johnson’s Response to Intervention and Precision Teaching: Creating Synergy in the Classroom, but since we’ve moved and all of my books are still packed, I’m not going to be fact-checking myself any time soon.

I need my books!

Precision teaching, fluency, and training the “inspector”

A section of the rationale Katharine & I wrote for Oxford explaining what we wanted to do:

Fluent performance means we can perform a skill quickly, accurately, smoothly — and automatically, with a minimum of conscious effort.

Fluency is the hallmark of expertise in any realm, physical or cognitive. In an academic discipline or profession, fluency requires years to develop. But fluency in the more basic skills that underlie complex tasks — composing sentences, in the case of writing — can be acquired much more quickly. Fluency in sentence composition, for instance, can be reached in as little as twenty hours of practice. #faf5f1

Good writers are fluent in at least three essential skills:

  • Instantly identifying (or “discriminating,” as learning theorists would say) grammatical errors in their own or others’ writing, often “by ear”
  • Instantly identifying (or discriminating) many stylistic flaws in their own or others’ writing (dangling modifiers, long chains of prepositional phrases, unclear pronoun antecedents, etc.), often by ear
  • Instantly writing grammatically correct sentences. Copy editing and revision can consume many hours, but the process of simply getting a single grammatically correct sentence down on paper is automatic. Fluent writers never have to consciously ask themselves, for example, “Where does my dependent clause go in relation to the independent clause?”

It is often thought that students can learn to write simply by writing a lot and/or by reading a lot. In fact, this approach rarely works. The reason most students do not learn to write by writing is that they cannot ‘hear’ what they write (or what they read). Their ability to discriminate a good prose sentence from a bad one has not been trained.

Fluent discrimination is important because all performance depends upon our internal “inspection” of results. When we read words out loud, for instance, we are actually doing two things: reading out loud and listening to ourselves read out loud, inspecting our performance for error.

Of course, if we are uncertain what the words on the page sound like, we can’t function as effective monitors of our own performance. By the same token, students who have difficulty distinguishing a fragment from a complete sentence cannot inspect their writing for mistakes in grammar, style, or cohesion – at least not efficiently.

In particular, students who have had little exposure to academic prose (most students, it seems) can’t hear themselves as they write—nor can they tell whether readers will understand what they’ve said.

“Precision teaching” is a method that develops fluency and trains the inspector.

The Supplement gives students a sequence of exercises that develops the inspector and trains them to write sentences and paragraphs fluently. Once students reach fluency in sentence and paragraph composition, they will be prepared to move on to the next step: marshaling evidence and pursuing an argument throughout an entire college essay. #faf5f1

Precision teaching and writing

A few summers back, I attended Morningside Academy’s Summer School Institute, which pretty much changed my life. A slight exaggeration, but still.

Morningside is the only school I’m aware of that guarantees its work:

The school promises that your child will make two years’ progress in one year’s time, in his or her most challenging subject, or tuition is refunded.

Their guarantee covers reading (and writing) as well as math, which brings up one of life’s mysteries: why aren’t charter schools, which tend to produce better results in math than reading,1 beating a path to Morningside’s door?

Why isn’t anyone beating a path to Morningside’s door, for that matter?

If you were ever inclined to think that success breeds imitation in the education sector, Morningside is proof that it doesn’t.

It’s worse than that, actually: successful techniques like sentence combining and sentence-level rhetorics have gone missing.

Our writing curriculum was inspired, in part, by the precision teaching I watched and practiced during my two weeks at Morningside. I want to stress the word “inspired“; the lessons aren’t a proper precision teaching curriculum complete with slices, fluency aims, and celeration charts. But the philosophy of teaching a component skill — sentence writing — to fluency is key.

Here’s how we explained our project to Oxford.

1. [I don’t know whether this situation has changed with the publication of Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered and the headway Core Knowledge has made in convincing at least some charters that knowledge is key to reading comprehension.]