How to score a 790 on SAT verbal…

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.

But I thought better of it.

Hah!

Funny thing is, when I returned to teaching I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’d been taught the difference between simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences as a child; I remembered it well. But I had no idea that I’d never actually understood it.

So there I was, staring down students’ mangled sentences, not having much idea what was actually wrong with them, and thinking I knew what a complex sentence was when I didn’t.

That was then.

How to score a 34 on ACT English

A while back, I mentioned my ACT student, the one who was scoring at the 85th percentile on English when we began work and had reached the 98th percentile just one month later.

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.

Eureka moment

“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 were 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.

On English, I had a eureka moment: sentence slots!

Sentence slots, clauses, phrases!

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.

I’ll close with a terrific paragraph from Ed Vavra’s KISS site:

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.”

A diminishing infection of casual speech by edited prose?

A colleague of mine once told me a story about the lingering effects of a psycholinguistics experiment on a college campus. Incentivized by the sticks and carrots of their department, the subjects of the experiment, naturally, were mostly undergraduate psychology majors. These subjects were induced, through subtle, ingenious prompting, to use passive voice constructions: to favor sentences like “I was induced by the clever prompts” over “The clever prompts induced me.”

Long after the experiment ended, its subjects continued–apparently subconsciously—to favor passive voice. Their habits spread like a contagious meme throughout the rest of the campus—and on into incoming classes. Years later, even after all the subjects had graduated, a higher-than-average use of passive voice could still be observed on this particular campus. Or so the story goes.

Apocryphal though it may be, it exemplifies a real phenomenon. Language, as a communicative system, also functions as a communicative disease. Before you can say “Jack Robinson” (does anyone say that anymore?), everyone is saying “impactful” or “yeah no” or “bad optics.”

Sources for these memes range from sitcoms to stand-up comedy to sports talk to management-speak to psycho-babble to political punditry. A smaller influence, but still significant, is written language. Though much of written language is more formal and complex than oral language, the vocabulary and language patterns we encounter in reading still potentially prime our word choices and phrasings in speech.

So what happens when reading habits change? What happens when your average person spends less and less time immersed in sophisticated, literary prose, thereby soaking in an ever narrower range of vocabulary and syntax? What happens when people spend less time reading carefully edited texts, where there are fewer mistakes in grammar and word choice than what is inevitable in spontaneous speech? Might this have an aggregate effect on oral language—on what all of us are collectively hearing and uttering and immersed in as listeners and speakers? Might the result be an impoverishing of vocabulary, a simplification of syntax, and a proliferation of linguistic errors in our everyday conversations–even among those of us who still spend significant time engaging with sophisticated texts?

It’s true that errors and simplifications have been around forever, but I wonder if they’re more common now than back when sophisticated, carefully edited texts reached more people. I wonder this when I see preposition disagreement and dangling modifiers and mangled phrases like “he beat me by a long shot” and “attribute hearing loss to language delays” everywhere.

I wonder this when I hear simpler words and word combinations replacing more complex ones: “reveal” for “revelation”; “fail” for “failure”; “push back” for “resistance,” “look-see” for “inspection,” and “nice to haves” for “desiderata.”

I wonder this when I hear “comparable” increasingly pronounced with the accent on the second syllable—compArable—making it more like the simpler verb form from which it derives, and evoking the way a beginning reader might read the word, especially if he has never heard it pronounced in what was once its standard pronunciation.

Again, errors and simplifications have been around forever, and these recent simplifications may simply be an innocuous continuation of a long-lived trend. After all, we’ve long had “move” for “movement,” “win” for “victory,” “find” for “discovery,” “dig” for “excavation,” and “talk” for “conversation.” But I’m wondering if what we’re hearing now is part of a bigger, more troubling trend: one that reflects the diminishing corrective influence on all of us of the kind of colorfully worded, precisely phrased, and carefully edited language that appears only in certain types of writing—and that depends for its survival on a critical mass of certain types of readers.

Accessibility vs. remediation: the unintended consequences of font tag deprecation

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:

The element is a non-standard element.

HTML5 classifies it as a non-conforming feature.

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.

Blogging out some thoughts around preposition agreement

Just as subjects and verbs can agree (“he walks”) or disagree (“he walk”), so, too, with verbs and prepositions. For example, we “bring up” a topic; we don’t “bring of” a topic; we “speak of” someone”; not “up” someone. Arbitrary though preposition agreement is, it matters. As with verb agreement, errors be hard on the ears.

How hard depends on what your ears have gotten used to. For decades now, “different than” has been edging out “different from”, and “based off of,” “based on.” Then there’s the gradual displacement of “about” by “around”—as in “issues around.”

The latter, I believe, is part of a larger, older trend that begin with the spatial meanings of certain prepositions. People used to look about the room; now they only look around the room. They also used to see things before them: now they only see things in front of them. For decades, the meanings of “about” and “before” have been shifting away from the concrete and spatial, narrowing towards the more abstract and temporal.

But now even the abstract meaning of “about” is in jeopardy, what with issues around identity and discussions around immigration. Meanwhile, “around” is broadening into some sort of all-purpose preposition, with people doing work around special education and the like.

Other recent examples of preposition displacement—or is it examples around preposition displacement?–include jargon: ”follow-on” for “follow-up” (“follow-on questions”), and the superfluous “out” of “share out” and “tweet out.” When I hear these, I also hear the faint echoes of consultants and commentators coining new phrases for old concepts.

Beyond the trendy, there the sloppy—the stuff that abounds, for example, in student papers:

  • There are different elements to the question.
  • She was the subject to an investigation.
  • He felt shame towards what he did.
  • It was made in bronze.

These seem like the byproducts of mental interference from (or is it mental interference around?) similar phrases in which the verbs and prepositions do agree:

  • There are different sides to the story.
  • She was subjected to an investigation.
  • He had feelings towards someone.
  • It was cast in bronze.

Then there’s plain old weird:

  • Another key criterion that distinguishes Asperger’s Syndrome to autism is…

Or the weirdly inverted:

  • She attributes the child’s multiple supports to his academic success.

I’m guessing that many of these errors would be evident to their authors, and readily corrected by them, if only they would carefully re-read and revise. But might today’s preposition disagreement also reflect a more general decline in attention to the details of sentences—not just in writing, but in reading?

However…

Emerging from a 10-week escape into the world of autism software engineering, I’ve been thinking about “however.” In a comment on my last post, Can You Spot the Sentence Fragment, I cited “however” as a word that introduces full sentences:

…something can contain a subject and predicate and still not be a complete sentence if it begins with certain function words. “Which” (and various which-phrases) is one example (see http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/can-you-start-a-sentence-with-“which).

So is “though” (http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/120981/using-though-at-the-beginning-of-the-following-sentence)–unlike “however”.

“However, he won” is a full sentence; “Though he won.” is not. And punctuating  “Though, he won” like “However, he won” only makes things awkward. (As I argue earlier, modifiers of sentence fragments don’t lend themselves to commas).

“However,” however, is actually ambiguous–as we see when we strip it of its comma:

However, he won.

However he won.

Re-read the second sentence, and you’ll see another meaning emerging: an incomplete proposition that could be completed, for example, as follows:

However he won, he did win.

This “however” belongs to a whole family of words ending in “ever,” none of which introduces a complete sentence:

Whoever voted for him…

Whatever he did to win…

Whenever he tweets…

And adding a comma only makes things worse:

Whatever, he did to win.

“Whatever,” though, is also ambiguous. Sometimes, like “though” in the previous sentence, it can be offset from the rest of the sentence with a punctuation mark. In which case it does introduce a full sentence–rather than a fragment like the one you’re reading right now.

Whatever,” you might be thinking at this point. “Language is a mess; we all have different ears for it.”

But if the (somewhat) arbitrary rules for what’s a complete sentence and what isn’t nonetheless intrigue you, stay tuned for a post on “whatever.”