I still need wrap up my Structured Word Inquiry series (from last November!) with at least one more post, but some of the more recent twitter chatter on SWI has brought up a broader issue that I thought I’d address first. That would be the question of which aspects of grammar actually need to be taught to students who are native English speakers.
To address this question, it’s useful to draw a distinction between “basic grammar” and “school grammar.”
Basic grammar is the stuff that native speakers, assuming they don’t have language impairments/autism, pick up incidentally without formal instruction. This includes everyday vocabulary, word order, and word endings (morphology), and syllabification. Absent language impairments, native speakers, do not, for example, need to be taught that “crumb” and “crumbs” and “do” and “does” are related, or that we say “no bananas” rather than “no banana”–contrary to what some SWI proponents have suggested on twitter:
The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.
And, I would add, much of the logic of a sentence comes from its grammar.
But grammar brings us more than logic; it opens up worlds of possibility. Were it not for the various tense-marking and mood-marking verb endings and auxiliary verbs, for example, we’d mostly–whether we’re conversing, reading, writing, or even thinking–be stuck in the here and now.
Mr. Shandy (senior), in a disquisition on auxiliary verbs that concludes the 5th volume of Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, puts it nicely:
Now the use of the Auxiliaries is, at
once to set the soul a going by herself
upon the materials as they are brought
her; and by the versability of this great
engine, round which they are twisted,
to open new tracks of enquiry, and make
every idea engender millions.
The verbs auxiliary we are concerned
in here, continued my father, are, am;
was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suf-
fer; shall; should; will; would; can; could;
owe; ought; used or is wont. — And these
varied with tenses, present, past, future, and
conjugated with the verb see, — or with
these questions added to them, — Is it?
Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May
it be? Might it be? And these again
put negatively, Is it not? Was it not?
Ought it not? — Or affirmatively, — It is;
It was; It ought to be. Or chronologi-
cally, — Has it been always? Lately?
How long ago? — Or hypothetically, — If
it was; If it was not? What would
follow? —- If the French should beat
the English? If the Sun go out of the
Now, by the right use and application
of these, continued my father, in which a
child’s memory should be exercised,
there is no one idea can enter his brain
how barren soever, but a magazine of
conceptions and conclusions may be
drawn forth from it.
— Didst thou ever see a white bear?
cried my father, turning his head round to
Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:
— No, an’ please your honour, replied the
— But thou could’st discourse
about one, Trim, said my father, in
case of need?
— How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle
Toby, if the corporal never saw one?
— ‘Tis the fact I want; replied my father,
and the possibility of it, is as follows.
A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen
one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever
to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one?
Or can I ever see one?
Would I had seen a white bear? (for
how can I imagine it?)
If I should see a white bear, what
should I say? If I should never see a
white bear, what then?
If I never have, can, must or shall
see a white bear alive ; have I ever seen
the skin of one? Did Iever see one
painted? — described? Have I never
dreamed of one?
Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt,
brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear?
What would they give? How would
they behave? How would the white
bear have behaved? Is he wild?
Tame? Terrible Rough? Smooth?
…at what they’ve just written, and at the squiggly lines that word processors generate under questionable word choices and grammatical errors, this is an example of what you get:
(From a recent student paper.)
Actually, most of my recent students have been good about proofreading. Examples like this one stand out to me partly because they aren’t that common, but partly, also, because I don’t understand why they happen at all. That is, I can’t imagine what it takes to turn something in without (a) noticing these markings, and/or (b) caring to address them.
Until recently–more recently than I care to admit–I would have said: “Words.”
Writers use words.
Writers do use words, but that’s not the right answer.
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ”Do you think I could be a writer?”
”Well,” the writer said, ”I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?”
The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ”I liked the smell of the paint.”
Re: teaching grammar to raise scores on SAT/ACT language tests, Jean writes:
….I should think there are not many students who can identify a clause. I couldn’t, until I put my two kids through Rod & Staff English, where they tell you all about clauses every year. (I put my kids through R&S because I had never been taught any grammar except nouns, verbs, and adjectives. It seems to have paid off; my 17yo got a 790 on the SAT verbal.)
Jean smoked me out!
I was tempted, in my earlier post, to say that until I started teaching freshman composition a few years ago, I couldn’t identify clauses, either.
Not long after she took the June ACT, we had good news: her practice scores held! On English, she scored 34 (out of 36).
From the 85th percentile to the 98th in 1 month.
Her June reading score, on the other hand, wasn’t as high as I think it should be. On practice tests, she was scoring 32; on the real thing, she scored 30 (89th percentile, presumably). I’m hoping she’ll reach 32 in September.
That said, her weakest reading score put her at the 66th percentile, so technically her reading gain was higher than her gain on writing.
“M” made most of her gains in the second two weeks of our work together.
I’ve become a pretty effective classroom teacher, I think, at least judging by my students’ results on exit exams. But I’ve been teaching the 5-paragraph essay, not ACT/SAT reading and language, and I have a semester to work with my college students, not 4 weeks. So with M., I was feeling my way.
Two weeks in, we were pretty much exactly where we had been on Day One–and this with a highly intelligent, focused, and disciplined student. A lot of teens don’t do test-prep homework, and they can be scattered when it comes to keeping appointments. But M. did all her homework and showed up, and still we weren’t getting anywhere.
I was worried.
Then, pretty much from one day to the next, everything turned around.
On the reading front, I figured out Debbie Stier’s approach, which she developed while tutoring her daughter, and began using it religiously with M. (Debbie had actually explained her technique to me going in, but I hadn’t understood the essential feature.)
That was a game changer. M’s scores on practice sections jumped up and stayed up.
I needed to stop teaching commas and start teaching grammar.
That was the breakthrough.
As soon as I began filling M. in on subjects and finite verbs, I discovered that she had no idea what a clause was. She didn’t know what phrases were, either, and had once inserted a comma in between a preposition and its object. (That’s another issue–punctuating-by-pause–that I’ll get to in another post.)
She’s a native speaker; her spoken grammar is perfect.
But nobody uses punctuation when they talk, and to use punctuation properly you have to know where clauses begin and end.
You have to know where phrases and sentence slots begin and end, too.
My interest in the teaching of grammar began in the 1970’s, when I was a graduate assistant at Cornell University. I taught Freshman Composition in the context of Russian literature. . . . My students were having problems with the use of semicolons, and time, and time again, I tried to explain that a semicolon is used to separate two main clauses with contrasting ideas — “He went swimming; she did the dishes.” The lessons never took, and it was not until after a semester was over, and I was discussing the problem with a student from one of my classes that I learned what the problem was. “We can’t,” she told me, “identify clauses.”
Nature abhors a vacuum—particularly when it comes to to-do lists and worries. No sooner did I complete the big SentenceWeaver upgrade and deal with (at least for now) the various bugs that have sprung up during beta testing than I found myself worrying about a whole new issue: one that potentially undermines the entire program. This issue stems from a certain shadowy, world-wide organization that has the power to cause widespread disruption to websites.
No, it’s not Korean hackers. As far as hacking goes, I’m not particularly worried. My content is copyrighted; my code is encrypted; whole directories are blocked off from all IP addresses except mine. Then there are my web host’s gatekeeping algorithms, which are so risk-averse that they recently started blocking the IP address of my main beta-tester. A few of the thousands of words he’s typed in, as it turns out, appear on my host’s list of key words that could theoretically be used in attacking the website.
(This list includes “from” and “where”: words that appear regularly in the sentences that users input as part of their grammar training. The offending sentence, the one that got my user backlisted, was “The boy and the girl will wash the car three days from now.” Once I became aware of the issue, the solution was a simple string substitution before and after the php calls to the database.)
No, the shadowy world-wide organization to which I refer is the World Wide Web Consortium, aka the W3C. This is an organization of organizations, founded at the MIT lab for Computer Science “with support from” the European Commission and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Its member organizations, which must be “reviewed and approved” by the W3C, range from businesses to universities to “governmental entities.”
The W3C’s mission, according to Wikipedia, is:
to foster compatibility and agreement among industry members in the adoption of new standards defined by the W3C. Incompatible versions of HTML are offered by different vendors, causing inconsistency in how web pages are displayed. The consortium tries to get all those vendors to implement a set of core principles and components which are chosen by the consortium.
In service of this goal, the W3C has adopted new standards for HTML5, the latest version of HTML that all browsers are eventually expected to use (think psychiatrists and the DSM V). One of these new standards involves “deprecating,” or no longer supporting, any HTML code that the W3C views as purely “presentational” in nature (think Asperger’s Syndrome).
One of these deprecated elements of HTML code is the lowly font tag—the tag used to specify aspects of font text like font type and color. In the words of the W3C’s website:
HTML5-compliant websites are instead supposed to be handling color via Style Sheets.
If your website’s presentational elements are static, that’s fine. Indeed, in most websites, things like font type, font weight, and font color don’t change when you interact with the site. But one of the things that makes SentenceWeaver special—and is, in fact, an essential part of its Feedback Algorithm—is dynamically generated font color, as we see in this video below.
The prospect of my entire program, within the next few years, losing an essential part of its functionality, first kept me up at night—and then propelled me towards a workaround. Implementing it took me about a day and a half, and though the changes in code, in the end, probably summed to just a few extra lines, it was a kludgy pain in the neck.
One of the problems with shadowy, unrepresentative organizations inflicting rigid standards on the rest of us is their tendency to forget about unintended consequences. What we see here with the W3C, in particular, is a failure to imagine all the creative ways in which web tools can be used. Deprecate something, however lowly and insignificant it may seem to you, and suddenly algorithms you never thought to think about stop working, perhaps requiring many hours and kludges to rewrite.
The best defense of the W3C’s rigidity has to do with accessibility for people with special needs. The more rigid the standards for webpages, the easier it is to plug in accessibility tools like screen readers. But in my world, this is yet another example of accessibility at all costs—of ignoring the tradeoff between accessibility and remediation.
In my writings on disability in the classroom, I’ve worried that the emphasis on accessibility—along with the proliferation of assistive technology—has diminished the urgency of actual instruction. If students can communicate all urgent messages via picture buttons on tablets, why invest so many hours in teaching them to communicate with words?
The W3C standards put a different spin on this tradeoff: in prioritizing accessibility over website dynamics, they’ve undermined at least one program that caters to special populations as much in terms as instructional needs as in terms of accessibility.
I forgot that the most egregious ones in my collection were hiding in my iPhone notes!
During this field experience, it was the first time I saw an autistic support classroom in action.
In Ms. X’s classroom, she teaches math and reading.
When observing the speech therapist and teacher, they would show just how dedicated they are to their jobs.
Sentence 3 illustrates another hazard of not revising such sentences (a hazard far worse than loose structure and wordiness): some of these modifiers, however innocently they start out, can end up as danglers.