What is 2%?

I’m back in touch with Carolyn Johnston! (Carolyn and I started the original Kitchen Table Math together.)

Carolyn used to write about the fraction issue in math education. When they hit fractions, students fall off the math cliff.

(How well do I remember the summer after C’s 8th grade year, or maybe it was the summer before, when we discovered he couldn’t figure a 10% tip!)

I remember Carolyn talking about nursing students who had washed out of their programs because they couldn’t do fractions.

So I thought of her yesterday when I saw this:

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What we do and do not learn without trying

Useful line from Katharine’s last post:

…the conventions of written language, unlike those of spoken language, are not picked up incidentally by most native English speakers…

For some reason, I find the question of what we learn incidentally endlessly fascinating.

In my case, I actually did pick up most of the conventions of writing incidentally. I wrote by ear.

But how did I acquire an “ear”?

I’m sure my path to incidental learning of “school grammar” was obsessive reading. I was a bookworm: I read the backs of cereal boxes at the breakfast table; I read books when we had company; on vacation trips I read Agatha Christie mysteries as  my family walked along seeing the sights. [1/11/2020 – UPDATE: Had a conversation with Katharine yesterday re: learning to write without being taught to write. I’m not so sure now that obsessive reading was the ticket.]

At some point, I gained the ability to hear what I wrote.

Nevertheless, I would have been much better off if some teacher had sat me down and taught me the principles Katharine and I cover in Europe in the Modern World.

While we’re on the subject of fading rules…

Another 20 years from now, comma splices won’t be comma splices.

They’ll just be commas.

That’s my prediction.

Twenty years from now comma splices will be correct because:

a) no one under the age of 30 (or thereabouts) knows what they are 
and
b) no one over the age of 30 (or thereabouts) has any idea how to teach them. 

Also, comma splices don’t exist in French.

French !

The French have a whole Académie dedicated to “fix[ing] the French language, giving it rules, rendering it pure and comprehensible by all,” yet they don’t have a rule that says Don’t use a comma to join two independent clauses.

Well, I say: If French people don’t have to care about comma splices, neither do we. 

And see:
Académie française
Participles that may be on their way out 

How hard is it to learn English?

(Test prep and writing instruction in Paris next month)

Quite a few of my students are L2 writers, and now that I’ve immersed myself in language apps I’ve been thinking even more than usual about the challenge of needing to be fluent in a second language in order to go to school, find work, etc. Those of us born in Anglophone countries are incredibly lucky not to have to do what my students must do–if only in terms of the opportunity cost. The hours my L2 students spent learning English can’t be spent learning something else.

I should stress that I’m not remotely saying English-speaking students should stick to English and leave the language learning to other people.

Not at all !

I think English-speaking students should learn other languages, and should do so as early in life as possible. (This was a chronic bone of contention in my erstwhile school district, where parents have spent decades lobbying for early foreign language instruction and still don’t have it.)

I’m saying only that any child who is born into a family of native speakers of English has an advantage in not having to learn English as an adolescent or adult.

That’s all.

Here is Michael Skapinker on the question of how hard it is to learn English (behind a paywall):

At first glance, English looks an easy language to learn. Anything that is not obviously male or female is “it”. There is no need to worry about the gender of “phone” or “stapler” or “stupidity”. (Lloyd’s List, the shipping newspaper, stopped calling ships “she” in 2002.)

Adjectives remain the same regardless of the gender of the associated noun: a brave woman, a brave man, a brave new world. Apart from the -s in the third person singular present tense (“she sings”), verbs do not change, no matter what their subject is (“he ran”, “they ran”).

The word “friend” remains the same whether you say “he’s my friend”, “hello, my friend”, “I kicked my friend” or “it’s the house of my friend”. In Greek, as I discovered in my Piraeus days, these require an array of noun endings, which differ depending on the gender of the friend.

But there are aspects of English that are devilishly complex. The spelling fails to provide consistent guidance to pronunciation. Consider “cough”, “through”, “bough”, “though” and “hiccough”.

There are the irregular past tenses: arose, became, fell, swore, and many more.

There are also phrasal verbs — verbs followed by prepositions, with wild swings in meaning. Learners have every right to feel put out when they put up someone for the night, only to discover that they can’t put up with them. They may want to put off learning English for another time.

My guess is that the new language-teaching apps, not to mention sites like forvo.com, will be a huge help with pronunciation and listening comprehension.

They certainly are for me.

And see: How hard is it to learn English, part 2

EGGs and NEGGs: teachers need bad student sentences

A core principle in precision teaching — in any effective teaching — is that instruction must begin by teaching the novice to discriminate good performance from bad.

Correct from incorrect.

This principle is true of conceptual learning as well as procedural: in order to know what a concept is, the student must also know what the concept is not.

That’s where you start.

“Yes/no” knowledge comes first because we can’t know whether we’ve done something well if we don’t know what doing something well looks like. We all have an internal inspector who judges performance, and our internal inspector must be trained.

To learn the difference between correct and incorrect, students must be given examples and nonexamples. EGGs and NEGGs in precision-teaching parlance.

EGGs alone won’t do.

When it comes to teaching writing, the need for NEGGs is a problem because examples of bad student sentences are surprisingly hard to come by. I’ve spent hours scouring the web, looking for the genuine article. There’s not much out there.

Sure, your own students write bad sentences, but using students’ own work to illustrate bad sentence writing is rude. At least, it would be rude for me; I can imagine there are instructors out there who could pull it off with humor and esprit de corps.

And even if you do use your own students’ sentences to illustrate what bad sentences need like, you still need an organizing principle.

What different kinds of bad are there?

Bad student sentences in creative writing

After yet another hour this afternoon, I’ve come up with this list of “worst student sentences,” reportedly saved by a professor of creative writing:

Worst_student_sentences_-_imgur_-_10_21_png 5
The sentences on this list sound like they were written by real students to me. I’m sure they were if only because it’s quite difficult to write a bad student sentence on purpose.

I can certainly write bad sentences of my own. Everyone can.

But I don’t make the same mistakes students do, and I don’t understand their mistakes well enough to be able to imitate them.

What makes a bad sentence bad?

Another problem: this particular list doesn’t really include the type of bad student sentence we instructors see in nonfiction college writing. I’m thinking of sentences that start off fine, but then go off the rails as the word count adds up. During my first semester teaching, I took to calling these constructions train-wreck sentences, a metaphor that had no instructional value whatsoever. Very frustrating.

We need a robust, teachable collection of bad student sentences, and we need a corpus linguist to analyze them for us.

Writing instructors need a taxonomy of student error.

In the wake of today’s Google expedition, I see that there exists a field of written-language study called “error analysis, as well as a body of work on automated scoring of writing. They may have something useful to offer.

But if so, it’s going to take many more hours to ferret out.

Cat and lizard

One of the first things I do, teaching English composition, is to give my students Whimbey and Jenkins’ “Cat and Lizard” to chew over:

A cat chased a lizard. The cat was big. The cat was fat. His fur was thick. The lizard was tiny. The lizard was a chameleon. A chameleon can change color. The color will be whatever the lizard touches. The lizard ran. It ran from place to place. It ran so fast. The colors even became confused. It was green. It should have been brown. It was red. It should have been grey. It was polka-dotted. It should have been striped. The lizard ran under the steps. It was safe. It would rest in the shade. The cat was frustrated. He yawned. He stretched. He curled up. He would sleep in the sun. This game would continue. It would continue the next time the cat saw the lizard.

Whimbey, Arthur and Jenkins, Elizabeth. Analyze, Organize, Write. Revised ed., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1987.

Students always know something is horribly wrong with this piece of writing, and they can tell me what’s wrong, too, whether they’ve ever heard the word “choppy” applied to writing or not. (Usually they haven’t.) That’s what makes “Cat and Lizard” so useful as a starter assignment: they get it. And, of course, since the solution to Cat-and-Lizard’s horrible writing is sentence combining, and I teach sentence combining, all the better.

So I always look forward to Cat-and-Lizard day, and I am never disappointed.

This year, though, one of my students offered up the single best off-the-cuff analysis I’ve ever heard and ever hope to hear.

What’s wrong with “Cat and Lizard”?

“Too many periods.” 

Brilliant!

When things changed

BEST - LINES REMOVED - compressed Table 2 - Robert_Connors_-_decline_of_sentence_rhetorics__2_

I’ve had a running joke, at Kitchen Table Math and elsewhere, that something happened in 1985.

Either we were hit by a meteor and we’re all dead but we don’t know it.

Or we were hit by a meteor and knocked into a parallel universe but we don’t know it.

Or — and apparently this one has a number of fans — we’re actually living inside a computer simulation and the programmer changed the rules but we don’t know it.

Anyway, preparing for tomorrow’s class on graduate research and writing, I took a look at Robert Connors’ “The Erasure of the Sentence” (which Katharine writes about here) and discovered that Connors dates the moment when things changed to just two years before I do: he puts it in 1983.

In an astonishing reversal of fortune for sentence rhetorics, [interest in teaching sentences] . . . died away after 1983 or so. The articles on sentence issues fell away radically, and those that were written were more and more about applications to learning disabilities, or English as a second language, or special education. Erstwhile syntactic rhetoricians turned to other issues….

The few general articles that were published after 1986 came more and more to be critical, but even the criticisms died away. After the mid- 1980s, the sentence rhetorics of the 1960s and 1970s were gone….

 

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)