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)