Archive for the ‘Teaching Practice’ Category

Morphemic Analysis as a Vocabulary Approach: Science or Art?

On 10/3/2014, my colleague Phil Sloan and I had the honor of co-presenting to The 2014 TYCA Midwest conference in Grand Rapids, MI. Our presentation was entitled Reconsidering Our Pedagogical Foundations: Sonic Literacy and Morphemic Analysis.

My half of the presentation was a cross-disciplinary work entitled Morphemic Analysis as a Vocabulary Approach: Science or Art? In the presentation, I drew on research from formal linguistics to argue that applying morphemic analysis to authentic texts is as much art as science. I also analyzed whether textbooks for developmental reading suggest to students that morphemic analysis should be applied artfully, or whether it is applied with a scientific precision.

I’ve posted the eight-page handout for that here:

Handout for Morphemic Analysis as a Vocabulary Approach: Science or Art? (PDF Document)

If you want to know even more about using morphemic analysis in your reading classroom, I see my literature review and annotated bibliography on the topic.


Subjects and Predicates in Language and Logic

January 6, 2014 2 comments

Grammatical terms mislead us; I’ve argued this case previously: Exhibit A and Exhibit B. Too often, non-linguists read too deeply into the names of terminology, drawing conclusions that conclude too much. As Exhibit C, I present a case study with the terms “subject” and “predicate”:

Recently, I was teaching a Critical Thinking course with a unit on class logic and set theory. Things were going swell—all Venn diagrams and syllogistic reasoning—until my unfortunate students stumbled into this textbook passage:

Categorical propositions, and indeed all English sentences, can be broken down into two parts—the subject and the predicate. These terms are shared by both grammar and logic, and they mean the same thing in both disciplines. The subject is that part of the sentence about which something is being asserted, and the predicate includes everything being asserted about the subject. (Writing Logically, Thinking Critically, by Sheila Cooper and Rosemary Patton, 7th edition, p.161, emphasis mine)

Reviewing this passage with my students, I explained my nuanced position:


First, imagine students trying to get their brains around Cooper and Patton’s final sentence. Isn’t every part of every sentence a part about which something is being asserted? Is every part of a sentence a subject?

Where does Cooper and Patton’s claim originate from? I’ve got my hunch. The analysis that grammatical subjects/predicates are equivalent to the logical ones traces back to Aristotle. In an Aristotelian analysis, we see the sentence

1. Socrates is mortal.

(In this example sentence and others, the grammatical subject is colored blue, and the grammatical predicate, orange.)

analyzed such that “Socrates” is both the logical and grammatical subject, and something like “(is) mortal” is the logical and grammatical predicate. In set theory, this means that the individual “Socrates” belongs to the set of individuals that are mortal.

Aristotle’s analysis—one of the first recorded analyses of the semantics of human language—lags behind the state of the art by a couple millennium. In fairness, though, if we’re only analyzing tidy sentences like #1, the logical terms and the linguistic terms line up nicely. But when we analyze more complex sentences, things get messy.

Cooper and Patton’s analysis suggests that a grammatically active sentence and its passive counterpart have different meanings:

2. John hit Mary. (active)

3. Mary was hit by John. (passive)

In fact, #2 and #3 are logically synonymous—each holds true (or false) in exactly the same situations as the other. #2 and #3 differ crucially in their pragmatics. #2 is a more natural answer to

4. What did John do?

while #3 is a more natural answer to

5. What happened to Mary?

Cooper and Patton’s analysis hits another problem with sentences where the grammatical subject does not refer to an entity:

6. There’s a problem.

7. It rained.

In #6, “there” acts as filler material, occupying the grammatical subject position of what linguists call an existential construction. (This assumes a reading where #6 posits the existence of a problem, as opposed to the location of a problem). In #7, “it” is similarly used to fill the grammatical subject position of the meteorological verb “rain.”

As Cooper and Patton would analyze #6 and #7, the entity “there” would probably belong to the set of entities that “is/are a problem,” while the entity “it” would belong to the set of entities that “rained.” But these “meanings” don’t compute.

Cooper and Patton’s analysis grows even more problematic when we examine certain expressions of quantification:

8. Not everyone slept.

If you believe Cooper and Patton’s analysis, this sentence would mean that the entity “not everyone” belongs to the set of individuals who slept. Probably not the right semantic analysis. The sentence is better translated into set theory as follows: at least one person does not belong to the set of individuals that slept.

So what exactly is the relationship between the grammatical subject/predicate and the logical ones? Actually, a couple of these terms have gone obsolete, and we should examine each separately:

The grammatical subject: To linguists, this is a purely syntactic position, largely independent of semantics. In English, the subject is identifiable by a number of syntactic and morphological features. Most notably, it’s a noun-phrase in a pre-verbal position. Typically, the subject and verb agree in number. A number of other tests can pinpoint the grammatical subject of a sentence, but the two above are most reliable.

The grammatical predicate: amongst linguists, this term has long disappeared from usage. It still lingers in English textbooks, where its definition tends to be muddled. Some textbooks define it in negative terms—it’s every part of the sentence other than the grammatical subject. In practice, such a definition approximates what linguists might call a “verb phrase.”

The logical subject: the term “subject” isn’t really used in logic or set theory. (I’ve seen it in literary theory, but that’s a separate usage.) Semanticists and logicians tend to speak instead about individuals or entities.

The logical predicate: this term defies easy definition, but it’s used in set theory and predicate calculus (a logical language). A predicate is a semantic relation that applies to one or more arguments. A one-place predicate would be “(be) green.” A two-place predicate takes two arguments. For example, the two-place predicate  “hit” involves both at hitter and the entity being hit. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives all correspond to semantic predicates.

As teachers, we must remember that a human language like English differs fundamentally from a logical language. Human language is messy, littered with vagueness and ambiguity. With time, usage and meaning drifts. Humans misunderstand and re-interpret. To skirt these problems, logical languages are crafted. Terms in logical languages are supposed to be defined carefully. An expression of logical language carries one unambiguous, unchanging meaning. Writing teachers will always be puzzling over the meanings within student essays, but a computer program will never puzzle over how to interpret a particularly complex line of code.

Three Fun Videos on Grammar

In a prior post, I discussed how to keep your sentence-level instruction fresh and fun. In addition, you can also break up the usual classroom routine with some YouTube videos on grammar topics. As a bonus, videos appeal to students with varied styles of learning.

Here are my three favorites:

Victor Borge’s Phonetic Punctuation

A student of mine showed me Borge’s video when we were discussing the differences between written and spoken English. I had been pointing out that writers who write how they talk tend to mix up different punctuation marks, since punctuation marks all sound the same—like silence.

Borge’s comedic routine leads us to a similar point much more cleverly. He starts from the premise of a spoken language where each punctuation mark is pronounced with its own distinct onomatopoetic flamboyance. From there, it just gets goofier.

The shtick had me laughing so hard that at first I overlooked Borge’s questionable implication that written language prevents miscommunication better than spoken language. Most writing teachers would take issue with this implication, especially after trudging through a particularly bewildering stack of student essays.


Schoolhouse Rock’s Conjunction Junction

This Schoolhouse Rock animation is a classic. In fact, can hardly finish my lesson on conjunctions without some student singing the Conjunction Junction refrain.

The catchy, repetitive tune succinctly explains the function of conjunctions. By today’s standards, the animation is clunky, but students get a kick out of that too.

As a teacher, I appreciate that this video gives students another way to conceptualize how the pieces of sentences fit together—like boxcars in a train. As a linguist, I instinctively want to point out the inaccuracies of this metaphor for sentence structure, but by the time the video finishes, many of my students look like they’re ready to start dancing!


College Humor’s Grammar Nazis

On the topic of metaphors, this College Humor video extends the metaphor that people that self-righteously correct your grammar resemble Nazis. This parody of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds addresses the troublesome details of English usage, including the “dangling modifier” and the “double negative,” as well as the case marking of conjoined personal pronouns (“me and her” versus “she and I”).

This video can be used in a variety of ways. It offers a good jumping off point for distinguishing important issues of usage from the distraction of prescriptive “rules.” It also raises the issue of why people have such Nazish zeal in their beliefs about issues of usage. Of course, logically we all know that a slip in linguistic usage differs fundamentally from a real atrocity like the holocaust. But why do some get more irked by linguistic slips?

Since the dialogue unfolds quickly, it helps to transcribe key exchanges onto the board. From here, the usage issues can be examined and teachers can address the pseudo-logic that motivates many of the prescriptive “rules.”

Warning: the video is ends with graphic violence that’s not appropriate for all classrooms, but that part can be skipped without loss.

Ten Ways to Keep Grammar Relaxed and Fun

February 19, 2013 Leave a comment

To too many teachers and students, the term “grammar” is synonymous with “boredom.” Further, Patrick Hartwell has suggested that teachers use grammar instruction to assert power over students.[1]

But it doesn’t have to be so.

I was recently asked how I keep my sentence-level instruction relaxed and fun for students. Here are ten ways:

Did you know that ancient Greek manuscripts contained no punctuation? Be thankful English isn't like that.

Did you know that ancient Greek manuscripts contained no punctuation? Be thankful English isn’t like that.

1. Don’t play the drill sergeant.  Teachers easily default into drill-sergeant mode when discussing grammar, trying to explain every detail with confident authority. I avoid this. For one, most rules (or “rules”) aren’t as clear-cut as is suggested by the cocksure writers of handbooks. Things change over time. When we look carefully, we see countless exceptions and countless areas of controversy in the language where attested usages disagree and where respected writers also disagree. Yes, you should generally avoid starting a sentence with “and,” but who cares if you do it every now and then?

2. Ask students to read a paragraph without any punctuationYou can take this to the extreme: no capitalization and no spacing between words!  Not surprisingly, students struggle with the reading. But this struggle helps them understand that punctuation  wasn’t invented for English teachers to torture their students; it serves a real purpose for readers.  (I sometimes accompany this activity with a picture of an ancient Greek manuscript, which shows that the convention of no punctuation was once widely accepted.)

3. Discuss slang and neologisms. When I was recently discussing parts of speech and the discussion moved to articles, I not only gave the standard examples (“a,” “the,” and “each”), but I also added “hella.” (it’s the way youth in northern California make “many” superlative.) When we arrived at verbs, I mentioned “chilax,” and asked a knowledgeable student to define it for the class. When we talked about verbing nouns, I mentioned mention the act of “Tebowing.” When students hear these examples, they light up.

4. Make fun of silly prescriptive “rules.”  These “rules” were invented by 18th-century grammarians who worried that English was a degenerate version of Latin sullied by “false syntax.”[2]  The classic example include the “rule” against splitting and infinitive and the “rule” against ending a sentence in a preposition, both modeled on Latin grammar. Yes, in Latin and the romance languages, you truly can’t end a sentence this way or split an infinitive (because it’s one word). It’s unattested. But English isn’t Latin. It’s not even a Romance language. So the “rule” against ending a sentence in a preposition makes as much sense as applying to English the patterns of Sanskrit or Swahili.

5. Contrast the conventions of school writing with texting. This is a subject where students have so much to say. Most students are keenly aware of the difference, especially when it comes to spelling and punctuation. I ask them about the impacts of texting on their writing. Students are shocked to find out that—contrary to what many assume—texting probably won’t destroy their language skills.

6. Question what we assume about people based on their linguistic habits. These assumptions relate to one’s morals, intelligence, and  manners—as pointed out by Patricia Dunn and Kenneth Lindblom. I ask students if these assumptions are based in logic, prejudice, or both. Again, students have tons to say about this rich topic for discussion, in part because many have themselves been judged based on their linguistic habits.

7. Make fun of the ridiculousness of language. Every language, when carefully examined, contains patterns that are the antithesis of intelligent design, as I’ve written in this post. For instance, we drive on a “parkway” and park on a “driveway.” Uh? Also, English very logically uses the same suffix to pluralize nouns as it does to make present tense verbs agree with third-person, singular subjects. Why? Because.

8. Use memorable or goofy example sentences. Many of my teachers, a long time ago, used goofy examples to prove a grammatical point that still sticks in my head. These sentences featured death metal and violent zoo animals.  Too often, we default to sentences about Dick and Jane. Yawn. The best examples are ones that you’ve designed in advance, rather than generating them on the spot. Quotes of politicians putting their feet in their mouths work well. So do sentence with pop-culture references. I’ve written about good examples sentences in this post and also in this one. A good pair of example sentences often illustrates a point much better than a long-winded technical explanation.

9. Play the typo game. This game reverses the usual power dynamic: usually the teacher catches student errors. For the typo game, the students catch the teacher’s errors. Whenever the teacher makes a typo on the chalkboard or a handout, the first student to bring it to the teacher’s attention gets a point. At the end of the term, the top point-getters receive extra credit. The typo game helps students see that yes, even English teachers make mistakes, and it teaches them to shed their paranoia about the tiny mistakes we all make and instead focus on what’s important.

10. Admit what you don’t know. Just like in Psychology, Astrophysics, or Medicine, the study of language contains many mysteries and idiosyncrasies that defy easy explanation. Some questions about grammar I truly don’t know how to answer, or might require research. For instance, when students ask me whether certain compound words are written as two words, one word, or a hyphenated word, I often confess that I don’t know, more than one way might be accepted, and we could use Google to research what actual writers are doing.

[1] Patrick Hartwell. 1985. Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar. In Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Second Edition. 2003. Edited by Victor Villanueva. P. 228.

[2] Brock Haussamen. 1997. Revising the Rules: Traditional Grammar and Modern LinguisticsP. 14 – 19.

Is Reading Aloud the Secret to Proofreading?

November 7, 2012 1 comment

Recently I began re-teaching myself the trumpet, after a brief break of twenty years. I fancy no ambitions of being the next Miles Davis, only the ambition of unwinding between grading essays, planning lessons, and responding to the usual student emails about their grandparents—dead and dying.

Trumpet, Mouthpiece, and Bucket Mute.

How quickly old skills come back! After a few days, I was lighting up the house with the brassy tones of Kumbaya and When Johnny Comes Marching Home. As is, the trumpet is a loud instrument. Our house’s hardwood acoustics amplified things to the point where my wife politely insisted I shove a practice mute in the horn.

At the local music shop, I spoke with a clerk whose main qualification was a Jim Morrison haircut. He couldn’t answer my questions about which mute to buy. Instead, he stood baffled by the store’s selection of mutes, contemplating them the way a stoned teenager contemplates the rainbow reflection off a DVD. Annoyed, I purchased a practice mute with a midrange price, and vowed never to return.

A mute works like a car muffler. This mute’s cork seal lodges into the bell of the horn. Air escapes only from two holes drilled into the mute, each the diameter of a BB. Even when I blew hard, only the faintest sound escaped, tinny and muffled. Against the noise from the street and the ambient hum of household electronics, I could barely hear myself play. Gone was the enjoyment.

Gone also was my feedback loop. I couldn’t hear which notes I was flubbing and which I was nailing. And this meant I couldn’t figure out what I needed to work on improving.

A similar feedback principle holds with writing. Typically, the writer’s feedback loop comes from re-reading what they’ve written, or getting the response of peers, tutors, or teachers. But how often are the words of a student’s essay actually read aloud?

I’ve begun to wonder whether we are asking students to do something akin to playing a horn plugged with a mute. What do students miss when their writing remains silent? When we read aloud the words we write, the language becomes not just textual but acoustic. We hear the music of language. And there’s something different, something richer and more moving, about how we process language we hear.

The crucial way that written and spoken language differ:

Most fundamentally, our facilities with spoken language are intuitive and inborn. In fact, the psychologist/linguist Steven Pinker has referred to our facility with spoken language—rightly—as The Language Instinct. We all have been speaking our native tongue from our earliest years, with no explicit instruction required, and we are geniuses at it before we reach ten. (If you don’t believe me, try teaching a dog or a chimp to understand or speak any sentence that comes out of a kindergartner’s mouth.)

Written language, though related to spoken language, is something else entirely. It’s against nature. It’s something that we produce only after many years of rigorous instruction in the classroom. Even then, many people never get very good at it.

Evidence also suggests humans’ facilities with language are linked to our facilities with music. For one, all cultures have spoken language and music, and just as with language, all normal individuals possess extraordinary talent with music. (If you don’t believe me, try teaching a kindergartner to hum a tune, and then try teaching a chimp or a dog to hum the same tune). Even people with severe intellectual disabilities or brain damage often have remarkable abilities with music and spoken language.

The link between language and music appears to run deeper. Neuroscientist Anirudhh P. Patel argues that both spoken language and music share a hierarchical structure and both “overlap in important ways in the brain” (674). Other psycholinguistic research from the Max Planck Institute shows that when listeners heard a musical sequence with a dissonant chord, brain imaging recorded neural activity in some of the same regions where we see neural activity if a person hears an ungrammatical sentence.

Confession: I myself struggle with proofreading.

When I’ve browsed back through prior blog posts, I’ve noticed them blighted by more than a few mechanical errors. (The irony of the writing teacher making grammatical errors on a blog about grammar teaching doesn’t amuse me as much as it should; I’m a perfectionist.) Before those posts went up, I had proofread them obsessively, and then had a colleague proofread them once more for good measure. What happened?

We both proofread silently.

After the incident with the trumpet mute, I switched to proofreading aloud. I sometimes feel like a lunatic talking to myself, but I was catching three times as many errors in a single read-through.

Was I on to something that could help my students?

I had always instructed students on proofreading strategies, but the results too often left me disappointed. I covered the handbook’s advice on proofreading (the sort of conventional wisdom that’s become obligatory for handbook authors) and reminded them throughout the semester to budget ample time in their writing process for proofreading.

In my experience, many teachers take a product-centric approach to proofreading (“These are the errors to look for”), rather than the process-centric approach I favor (“These are the steps to go through, and this is how much time it takes.”) Many students were following my advice. Many forgot to budget the necessary time. Still, too many essays—even ones where students put in the time—read like marvels of shoddy proofreading.

I recently suggested that my developmental students try proofreading aloud. When students turned in their first essays, I asked for a show of hands to see how many followed this advice and how many found it helpful. About half of the class proofread aloud and about a third of the class found it helpful. Several students vocally endorsed proofreading aloud. But the striking evidence emerged from the final product—essays much more mechanically polished than usual for this point in the semester.

Of course, this evidence falls short of scientific, but it suggests a future experiment: measure what happens when two otherwise similar classrooms of students are given different guidance about whether to proofread aloud or in silence.

Proofreading aloud helps a lot, but I don’t expect it to be a panacea, for the following reasons:

1. It obviously won’t work with in-class writing.

2. English words are spelled in ways that correlate only loosely with the phonetic sequences that issue from our vocal tracts, so it won’t necessarily help with certain spelling errors (including homophones and anti-phonetic spellings).

3. Some students’ teachers have told them to put commas wherever a pause seems natural—a gross oversimplification. Many speakers randomly pause, only because they hesitate in thought. Also, many speakers briefly pause after they finish pronouncing the grammatical subject of a sentence, especially a long subject, even though it’s widely accepted as ungrammatical to separate the subject and verb with a single comma.

4. Punctuation errors are tough to catch reading aloud, especially errors where students are confounding commas and ending punctuation. Both of these sound the same—like silence. Apostrophes, likewise, are silent.

5. Some students, when they read aloud, only loosely scan the lines they read, glossing over written errors and pronouncing what they think they see, rather than focusing on the letters on the page. This problem is exacerbated when students proofread at the computer, where the optics encourage this “scanning.”

However, proofreading aloud does especially help in certain situations. It helps students notice sentences where the syntax muddles in circles, the sentence rambles out of control, or the different phrases don’t quite fit together as a complete sentence. It makes choppy transitions more salient. It also works better when students track the word they’re pronouncing with a pencil, in order to prevent “scanning” past errors.

Why do we catch more errors when proofreading aloud?

Jan Madraso suggests that when students proofread aloud, it relieves the burden on their short-term memory and it forces them to proceed more slowly (32 – 33). I would add, as mentioned earlier, that working with spoken language is easier, since it’s more natural, more intuitive, and hard-wired in the human mind.

Then we should consider the role of prosody (that complex pattern of stress, rhythm, and intonation that voice synthesizers struggle to replicate). When we read aloud, we are forced to map onto the words a prosody. A large body of linguistic research shows that the prosodic structure of a sentence depends heavily on its syntactic structure. So if the syntactic structure of a sentence is malformed, sprawling, or difficult to parse, when you try to pronounce it, your tongue gets tied.

Another body of linguistic research shows that prosody depends on a variety of semantic and pragmatic factors about the discourse. For instance, stress patterns change depending on whether words represent items that are new to the discourse or familiar to the discourse. Similarly, we use a special intonation when we contrast two elements with one another, convey sarcasm, read the items in a list, or transition to a new subject. Thus, when a reader can easily map a prosody onto words, it signals that the text is comprehensible.


In the end, I exchanged that practice mute for a “bucket mute” that muffled the sound much less. Practicing the trumpet grew more enjoyable.

The experience also taught me to appreciate the sound of writing. Written words, by comparison, seem more lifeless. I now ask students to read excerpts from texts aloud in class. It appeals to the auditory learners, and brings the classroom alive with the music of language.

And the Best Dictionary for our Students is…

August 5, 2012 1 comment

When a young slave in Maryland named Frederick Douglass was covertly teaching himself to read and write, he wanted to find out the meaning of the word “abolition.” He writes, with dry sarcasm, that the “dictionary afforded me little or no help. I found that it was ‘the act of abolishing,’ but then I did not know what was to be abolished” (36).

Perhaps the dictionary’s white 19th century editors bleached this definition for political reasons, but we’ve all run into a similar frustration. Douglass’s anecdote points to the importance of every student of English having a good dictionary. But what exactly makes for a good dictionary for our students?

Do we really need so many choices in life?

In this post, I discuss how writing teachers can make a thoughtful, informed recommendation. I’m not going to shill for any particular dictionary; instead, I’ll lay out the steps to find the dictionary that fits the needs of a particular group of students.

When left to their own devices, I discovered that most of my students used, but not for any good reason. They were drawn simply because that site was free and ranked atop the search results. This worried me, not just because is over-run with tracking software, but also because it evinced unreflective thinking. After that, I began to recommend to students the same dictionary that I used, a popular collegiate dictionary.

One day, in a developmental writing class where students were reading an essay in small groups, I realized my recommendation was as unreflective as the students’ decision to go to I observed as all but the strongest students struggled to comprehend the dense language used in definitions of this collegiate dictionary.

The lesson: don’t assume that the dictionary that works for you works for your students.

Like bibles or credit cards, dictionaries are now niche-marketed in dizzying variety, so there’s clearly no one-size-fits-all recommendation. “Learner’s” of “basic” dictionaries are less comprehensive and use simplified prose in their definitions. These work well for ESL students and basic skills students. The more scholarly “collegiate” dictionaries include more complex prose in their definitions, more definitions of names and places, and more detailed etymological and usage notes. Visual dictionaries appeal to visually oriented students and children. To make things more complicated, publishers release the “same” dictionary in different bindings, print sizes, and levels of comprehensiveness—unabridged, abridged, and pocket. I even found a dictionary for fans of Garfield.

To know which to pick, you need to understand the needs of your students. You may even end up recommending different dictionaries to different students in the same class.

Once you have a sense of their needs, run the following experiment: peruse your assigned readings and compile a list of a dozen vocabulary words that you expect to challenge your students. Include a mix:

  • abstractions: “solipsism”
  • technical terms: “allele”
  • dated words: “sweetmeat”
  • biographical names: “William Lloyd Garrison”
  • loanwords: “manga”
  • neologisms: “blogroll”
  • phrases: “bury the hatchet”

Then go to the library/bookstore, and find several dictionaries that look like they might fit the needs of your students. For each word on your list, compare how each dictionary handles it (or whether it’s even included). This side-by-side comparison tells you infinitely more than the reviews on the web or the marketing blurbs on the cover.

What to Look for

When comparing, consider the following three criteria, listed in descending order of importance:

Frederick Douglass would be pleased with this definition. Your ESL students probably won’t, since they may struggle with the phrasal verb “do away with.” (From Webster’s New World Student’s Dictionary, 1996)

1. Complexity of Language Used in Definitions: this criterion is key. What is the reading level of your students? How dense is the language used to define words? Do the definitions contain difficult words or expressions? How complex is the syntax? Dense language often is briefer, but it frustrates students with modest vocabularies to begin with. You don’t want students looking up half the words in the definition.

2. Example Sentences: consider students’ learning styles. Some think more logically and literally. They tend to learn what a word means by reading the definition. Others learn more by example, through seeing how the word is used in a variety of sentences. Most students fall somewhere in between. For this reason, I prefer dictionaries that don’t just define the word well, but also show a diverse sampling of how it is used in actual English sentences.

This definition, which is geared towards ESL learners, provides definitions with simpler language than usual. (from Merriam Webster’s Essential Learner’s English Dictionary, 2010)

Furthermore, example sentences illustrate grammatical constructions in which vocabulary words tend to occur, and the affinity for one word to be used in combination with another. Knowing vocabulary means knowing not just what a word means, but also knowing its syntactic patterns. When students know both, they can more effectively use the word in their own writing.

For example, many students need to see that a word like “inseparable” is frequently followed by certain prepositions (“from”), but not others (“of” or “to”). Further, it frequently is found in collocation with nouns like “friends” or “pair”.  At the same time, nouns like “recommendation” are categorized as count nouns, which means they can be pluralized, while non-count nouns like “information” cannot be pluralized. Because these idiomatic tendencies bedevil ESL students, they especially benefit from seeing lots of example sentences.

3. Comprehensiveness: how many entries does the dictionary contain? Be careful. To calculate, some publishers play a mathematical trick. The cover will advertise that the dictionary contains something like 500 zillion words, but they gloss over their methodology of counting “jump,” “jumps,” “jumping,” “jumped,” and “jumper” as separate words. Some words, though, do legitimately have multiple entries, such as “bank,” which can mean the side of a river or the place you store money. Instead of comparing the number of words, compare the number of entries. If the cover doesn’t provide a count, you can estimate by counting the entries on a typical page, and multiply by the number of pages.

This Definition contains many examples that illustrate idiomatic syntax, but how many students really need these detailed etymological notes that fill this 8-pound dictionary? (from The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2001)

Comprehensiveness also refers to the level of detail in each entry. For each word, how many different senses are listed? Do definitions sound clipped, or leisurely and expansive? Extremely clipped definitions leave out the connotative nuances of meaning (consider the differences between “sarcastic,” “ironic,” and “sardonic”), and can frustrate students, just as Frederick Douglass was frustrated by the definition of “abolition.”

In the end, comprehensiveness is a trade-off. When a dictionary contains fewer entries, it’s quicker to find any given word, but it’s less likely to help students with obscure words and semantic nuances. At the same time, consider portability. If you require students to regularly bring their dictionary to class, do you want them lugging around a 10-pound tome?

What’s Less Important

Here are two criteria I’m less concerned with:

1. Being up-to-Date: the publishers of Merriam-Webster’s are notorious for launching a PR blitz when they release a new edition and add the latest neologisms, but for most purposes, students rarely need the latest-and-greatest. Obviously, a dictionary from the 1980’s is problematic, but most dictionaries still in print have been updated in the past decade.

Yes, new words are constantly being coined and meanings are constantly shifting, but we should resign ourselves to the fact that no print dictionary can keep up. Keep in mind, too, that most readings in popular anthologies predate the linguistic innovations of the past decade.  (In fact, a newer dictionary might be worse, since the editors have purged out antiquated words that might still appear in some older readings.) If students cannot find the occasional neologism in their dictionary, I just let them know that the internet will magically point them to the definition.

2. Pronunciation Guides: in an ideal world, these would help students learn acceptable pronunciations, and sound more articulate in class discussion. Unfortunately, I’ve found that most students have a hard time making sense of the phonetic symbols (which are unintuitive and inconsistent across different dictionaries). The pronunciation guides help more for showing students how a word breaks into syllables and which syllable to stress. Many electronic dictionaries now contain audio clips of the word being pronounced, which is far superior to phonetic symbols.

What about electronic and online dictionaries?

Over the next decade, the hard-copy dictionary will clearly be inching towards obsolescence, as smart-phones and tablet PCs become ubiquitous. Some e-book readers now even allow readers to see the definition of a word simply by clicking on it. Keep in mind, though, that electronic dictionaries are usually based off of some print dictionary. It’s still too soon to predict exactly where the technology is headed, but huge numbers of students are looking up words online, so we need to know how to guide them.

Generally speaking, electronic dictionaries have four primary advantages: they are extremely portable, their visual layout is less cramped, they better show how words are pronounced (with sound clips), and—most crucially—they look stuff up lightning fast. This minimizes the time students spend disrupting their process of reading comprehension by thumbing through the dictionary.

Are your students’ electronic dictionaries actually Trojan horses to introduce this into the classroom?

Now the one major drawback: internet-enabled devices seriously tempt students with distractions as they read. They open up the world of Facebook, text messaging, and other time-wasters. For this reason, I seldom allow students to use these in class. Further, for reasons of academic integrity, most teachers prohibit electronic devices during in-class exams.

Using the Dictionary Effectively

It doesn’t matter what dictionary students have if they use it ineffectively. If you’re teaching basic skills or developmental students, assume that many need to be taught how to use it effectively. For starters, they need to be reminded simply to have the dictionary on hand while doing assigned readings. Too often, students bluster through readings without the dictionary. Second, when students find a definition with multiple senses, they often just go with the first, even if it doesn’t fit the reading. Finally, students benefit from habitually annotating the definitions of words they look up into the margins of assigned readings, which helps reinforce their learning the meaning.

On the other hand, students need be shown the problem with using the dictionary to look up every single word they find slightly unfamiliar. Such constant running to the dictionary disrupts the fluency of their comprehension. Students are better off reading at a fluent pace with 90% comprehension, than at a choppy, tedious pace while striving for 100% comprehension. Before they turn to the dictionary, I encourage students to employ skills to infer meaning, like using context, breaking a word into roots, or sounding long words out. It’s surprising how often they can make an accurate guess at meaning without ever opening the dictionary.

Writing teachers: what dictionary do you recommend to your students and why? Send me a comment.

Three Key Mistakes Teachers Make with Workbook Exercises on Grammar

Every writing teacher embarrasses themselves badly when they first enter the profession: disastrous lessons, student revolts, class discussions that lead nowhere.

The teacher who claims it didn’t happen to them is either lying, or lacks the ability to self-reflect.

My first big embarrassment came when I was teaching issues of sentence combining and using correct punctuation in a developmental writing class. Having two Linguistics degrees and nearly another Master’s degree in English Composition, I figured I didn’t need to invest much time in lesson planning. I’d just stick closely to the structure of the workbook and fall back on my expertise.

Big mistake.

When I explained the relevant concepts to the class, I got only looks of boredom and confusion. When I assigned workbook exercises, many students couldn’t even get past understanding the directions. When I solicited answers from the class, the same two hands went up over and over, and I later realized that these students had already learned the material in a prior class.

Now I might have been able to live with this, except that I saw zero evidence that students were applying the grammar skills to the essays they turned in.

It is teaching disasters like these that lead many to the oft-repeated conclusion that “grammar teaching is a waste of time.” I was tempted to say the same, but because of my training, I reflected on whether the problem originated in how I was teaching or how the workbook presented the material.

In sum, I discovered I was making three big mistakes:

  1. I was moving through the material far too quickly. I began to see all the assumptions and hidden complexities within the material that had seemed to me so straightforward.
  2. My teaching was centered too much on the modality of me reading aloud from the workbook and then soliciting responses from students.
  3. My teaching drew no connections between the workbook exercises and the essays students were writing.

Since then, I’ve observed many other teachers and I’ve seen them make these same mistakes.

After some classroom experimentation, I found that students learned more quickly and understood more deeply when I adjusted three things about my teaching:

  1. I slowed things down and carefully sequenced out each step of how I presented the workbook content.
  2. I made my teaching multi-modal, meaning it appeals to students who have a variety of learning styles.
  3. I constantly reminded students to apply the grammar skills when they proofread.

In the rest of this post, I’ll cover the details of how I now do this as I teach, so you don’t have to embarrass yourself like I did.

In advance of the grammar lesson, I assign as reading the relevant pages of the workbook. I expect few students to read and fully understand the explanations in the workbook on their own; I simply want everyone to enter the classroom lesson with a vague familiarity with the concept, rather than being blindsided by the unfamiliar.

On the day of the lesson, I begin by quickly reviewing related grammar concepts covered in prior classes. For instance, if the lesson were to cover semi-colon usage, I’d briefly review concepts like ending punctuation, periods, commas, and independent clauses. This review helps activate students’ cognitive schemata, and makes it easier for them to assimilate the new information.

Then I will ask a student to read aloud the relevant parts of the workbook on the topic. As they read, I stop them frequently to answer any student questions or to highlight the important points. This creates a back-and-forth conversation between me and the class, breaking up the monotony of what could be a lecture.

While the concept is fresh, I want students to practice applying the skills through workbook exercises. But before students begin work on the exercises, I demonstrate for the class how I would do the first couple problems, explaining my reasoning step by step. Doing so not only shows students how to execute a particular skill and models my thinking for students who learn through detailed examples, but it also ensures that students understand the directions (not a trivial issue!).

I then have students work on the rest of that exercise in small groups. This appeals to students who learn cooperatively, it builds community and cohesion amongst students, and it allows strong students to help out students who struggle. The struggling students benefit from the extra help, while the stronger students reinforce their knowledge by teaching their classmates. As groups work, I circulate the classroom, keeping groups on task and clarifying any confusions.

When most groups finish, I call on individual students, proceeding sequentially from one desk to the next. I want more than just the strong students to speak up, and I want to check up on the understanding of as many students as possible. Students have already completed these exercises in advance with the help of their group, so they aren’t being put on the spot. And if they absolutely don’t want to answer, a student can pass.

When called upon, students are asked to do three things: read the sentence aloud, say what the error is, and say how they corrected any errors. Doing all three of these is important, since it appeals to auditory learners, and because it focuses the attention of the class on the current workbook problem. Were each student to simply announce their corrections, the discussion would move too quickly for everyone to follow. Also, when students have to say what error they’re correcting, they often catch themselves before they try to correct imaginary errors.

Throughout, this activity incorporates a digital component. I project copies of the uncompleted workbook exercises on the smart classroom projector in word processor format. When a student proposes an answer, I type it into the word processor for the class to visualize and evaluate. With these grammar activities, many students—especially the visual learners and ESL students—follow the discussions of grammar and mechanics easier when they can actually see and compare both the correct and incorrect edits to the sentences that the class is discussing. Additionally, presenting the material digitally saves much time, when compared with writing on the chalkboard.

Before I assign homework on the topic, I ensure that most students have achieved a moderately high level of accuracy in completing the exercises in class. It’s not enough to simply introduce a grammar topic and throw students a couple practice exercises. If students never learn to correctly execute the skill in class, when they do their homework, they will mostly reinforce making mistakes.

Ideally, the homework I assign will push the students further than the exercises in class. For instance, homework exercises might introduce added complexities or ask students to apply skills not just to isolated sentences, but to whole paragraphs or their own compositions.

When students turn in the homework in the next class, I often briefly go over parts that I expect will be particularly challenging to students. This gives me one more chance to check students’ understanding before I decide to move on to the next concept, and it serves as a springboard for them to raise questions that came up as they worked at home.

Finally, I remind students throughout the term to integrate the grammar skills I teach into their essay writing. No teacher aims to get their students good at merely completing workbook exercises, and it’s too easy for students to disregard all the grammar teaching when they write their essays. In practice, this means that they need to be reminded not just that they should proofread, but how they can do so.

When I do all this, most students do an impressive job of applying relevant grammar concepts to their papers. It comes at a cost though. Going through all these steps requires that I invest a significant investment of classroom time. You can’t cram these lessons into the last ten minutes of class. Of course, some other topic will have to be excluded, and students who learn quickly may feel as if the issue is being belabored.