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.
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:
Just saw this in a New Yorker story on bullet journals:
He started writing down his thoughts in short bursts throughout the day and found that it calmed him, allowing him to see past his anxieties to their root causes. “When there’s a barking dog outside, you can’t hear anything else,” he told me recently, by way of analogy. “But when you go to the window you realize there might be something wrong, you think about it, you get the context. It’s barking at something. You actually get up and look. And, for me, writing is that process.”
The dog is barking at something. I love that.
Of course, in my own case, what with the two American Labs who weren’t bred to be “lifestyle dogs” and all, the real trick is training my adrenal glands not to launch a tsunami of cortisol every time the dogs explode into a frenzy of barking and hardwood-floor scrabbling over nothing at all.
I have an extremely reactive startle reflex. Medical science can do nothing to help (I’ve asked).
So the dogs we live with–Luke and Lucy–are the exact wrong dogs on that score. Roughly once a day I have the same bodily reaction to my own pets that I would to being caught in crossfire in Syria, say, or Yemen. Except there are no guns and no enemy combatants, quite apart from the fact that there is nothing in the yard that needs barking at.
Keeping a bullet journal, which I do, doesn’t help with any of this, sad to say. I already know, as I’m jumping out of my skin, what the context is and whether there’s anything either I or my insane dogs actually need to worry about.
In the last 24 hours, I’ve participated in two different but intersecting discussions on Twitter—one on phonics, the other on autism. Their point of intersection: the question of oral vs. written language.
The phonics discussion was one I couldn’t help jumping into. A distinguished education professor and specialist in reading instruction dismissed someone’s linguistically accurate observations about consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) patterns by telling them they should take a class in linguistics. I’ve taken many classes in linguistics, so I piped in as follows:
John Bogle on learning to write in high school:
“My love for Blair [Academy] is pretty close to eternal,” Bogle told students during a visit in spring 2018. “It was at Blair Academy that I learned to use the English language and how to write. My teachers spent so much time with me, mostly with a red pen. But I got better and better under their tutelage. The result is that my writing ability, among other things, enabled me to go to Princeton and start Vanguard and watch it grow into a colossus.”
Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard Group and creator of the index fund, dies at age 89, CNBC, 1/17/2019
Carolyn J., a mathematician who co-created the first Kitchen Table Math with me (currently offline awaiting a new URL address) told me a story about leaving academia with her husband, also a mathematician, and trying to find work in the private sector.
The transition wasn’t easy. Only colleges and universities pay you to do pure research in mathematics.
The company that eventually hired Caroline did so because she told the interviewer that she liked to write. That was true. She did like to write, and she was good at it.
After she was hired, the company hired her husband as well. Two new careers because one person knew how to write and liked doing it.
Being able to write is value-add.
I don’t know how to explain why this answer is right, so if you do, I would really appreciate your leaving a comment. (I had trouble with at least one other, so I’ll try to get that posted as well.)
Thank you !
Catherine’s spending Bastille Day getting back to the US; I’ll be spending it visiting Gettysburg. One of our traveling companions has equipped us with copies of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War. I finished it yesterday, and am now primed as can be for the theater of war and the dramatis personae: from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top; from Pickett to Chamberlain.
…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.
We’re still a long way from routine, sentence-level revisions!
With enthusiasts like Doug Lemov, the sentence is finally, after years of neglect, regaining its due. And this due is long overdue. After all, the sentence is the minimal unit of thought. It derives from Latin sententia, meaning “opinion” (and shares its root with “sententious”). As Catherine has cited J.S. Mill as saying, “the structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.” And, as I noted in my last post, it’s the smallest unit of prose that lends itself to multiple revisions.
Jostling me out of my grading groove this weekend was this item–another candidate for my collection of student sentences:
Shortly after writing about the pedagogical conundrums that arise when students don’t do the reading, I encountered this passage in Tristram Shandy—which suggests that it’s all part of one big, ever-repeating cycle:
Disclosure: I am a person who, when texting, likes to use exclamation points.
Lots of exclamation points.
I like using question marks, too, especially question marks in conjunction with exclamation points.
She *said* that???!!!
Good thing I don’t work for the FBI.
Anyway, where exclamation points (and question marks) are concerned, I like to do exactly what everyone tells you not to do if you want to have a job or a life or the respect of people writing articles complaining about too many exclamation points.
Which brings me to my actual point: French people write exclamation points and question marks differently than we do.
Specifically, they leave a space between the end of the sentence and the mark.
Au secours !
Sauve qui peut !
I love that. (I love that!!!!)
Somehow, for me, the space between the words and the mark gives the mark a dimension of poignancy it doesn’t have when it follows directly on the final letter. I don’t know why.
Poignancy or sobriety.
I’ve started leaving spaces, too.
I love that !!!!
Better, right ?
* It’s a really good thing. I once wrote a ticked-off email to a friend complaining about Ed refusing to sign off on my buying a new computer. He was cheap, I said. Then I sent the email to Ed, by mistake. I was in the room when he got it, and I still remember the look on his face. ↩
And see: More fun with exclamation points, part 2
I’ve just finished revamping my power point slides for this week’s installment of my Autism, Language and Reasoning class. In the process, I found myself back on the Common Core website–a place I hadn’t visited for a while.
This week’s class discusses the challenges that writing assignments pose to children with high functioning autism, most of whom are mainstreamed into regular classrooms. One of the strategies we consider is offering alternative, autism-friendly writing assignments.
But what do the Common Core English and Language Arts Standards have to say about that, I wondered. How much flexibility does the Common Core allow towards uncommon students? After all, only 1-2% of students are exempt–only those with the most severe cognitive impairments. Everyone else, including those with high functioning autism (like J), is held to the same calendar-age-based standards.
A quick scan through the ELA Standards shows a number that could double as diagnostics for autism. Consider:
- “collaboration with peers”
- “Use… dialogue… to develop characters.”
- “anticipate the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases.”
(From the Writing Standards).
Even better, from the Speaking and Listening standards:
- “Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions…building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.”
- “Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions (e.g., listening to others with care, speaking one at a time about the topics and texts under discussion).”
- “Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks”
- “Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives”
and, perhaps most effective of all:
- “use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.”
America’s Common Core architects appear to think they’ve landed on something that has eluded the world’s psychologists, neurologists, and therapists: a cure for high functioning autism! Namely, America’s Common Core-guided K12 classrooms.
Unless what they’re really after is a high school diploma that certifies that none of America’s high school graduates has more than a mild touch of autism.
I’ve entered a slightly obsessive state …. writing, rewriting, writing, rewriting, writing, rewriting … I’m stuck in a loop.
I don’t like loops.
Anyway, long story short, I haven’t read comments.
One of the best writing instructors I ever had gave some advice that, for many years, I took too much to heart. “Wordy,” “repetitive,” “you can reduce this passage by a third”—these were among Mr. C’s most frequent comments in the margins of our English papers. My takeaway: the number one priority in revising your work is to cut out as many words as possible.
To this day, I continue to cut. And even when I’m forced into virtual clear-cutting—say when my first draft is several hundred words over the limit—I’ve generally found what survives to be much improved: denser with active verbs and precise nouns, freer of fillers like “it” and hedges like “seems”.