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Grammar Terminology and E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy

October 20, 2013 Leave a comment

For literacy educators, E.D. Hirsch’s dubious yet influential Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1988) is a must-read—partly because Hirsch often gets caricatured in graduate seminars as the stand-in for what Paolo Friere calls the “banking method” of education. But Hirsch also indirectly helps explain a key problem teachers encounter when we teach about grammar and mechanics, a problem which—in this post—I will focus on.

Yes, everything you'll ever need to know, all in one book!

Yes, everything you’ll ever need to know, all in one book! And as a bonus: the cure to our benighted educational system!

Hirsch’s thesis holds that the K-12 educational system leaves students with a low level of literacy because it over-emphasizes teaching general skills (word decoding, summarizing, or making text-to-self connections), and it under-emphasizes the importance of familiarizing students with the broad range of background knowledge shared by highly literate Americans; Johnny can’t read, according to Hirch, because he doesn’t understand our cultural symbols.

It’s hardly controversial that background knowledge helps readers more deeply understand a text. What English teacher hasn’t seen a class of students overlook crucial textual allusions to things that most teenagers know nothing about?—things like the filibusters, Sodom and Gomorrah, or Jim Crow. That’s why reading teachers, as part of a venerable pre-reading activity, build and activate students’ schemata.

But Hirsch’s undoing stems from the way the book exemplifies a genre that today seems all too familiar. This genre:

1. starts from the premise that the K-12 education system is failing.

2. focuses not on what students can do, but on what they can’t.

3. takes a glib approach to examining competing pedagogies.

4. presents the author’s prescriptions as a panacea.

When it comes to our sentence-level pedagogies, how are Hirsch’s ideas relevant? He infamously ends his book with a 65-page list of items titled “What Literate Americans Know” —everything from “abominable snowman” (152) to “Zionism” (215). Introducing the list, Hirsch professes that he’s describing and not prescribing, but his list betrays his prejudices, since it includes “a rather full listing of grammatical and rhetorical terms because students and teachers will find them useful for discussing English grammar and style” (146). (Hirsh holds a Ph.D. in English)

Here Hirsch implies that college writing teachers cannot assume all students enter college knowing common grammar terminology. He’s right. But this doesn’t mean our high schools are failing. It’s just an objective fact about our students.

A comparison: I once taught in a community college that served high schools dominated by whole-language instruction. In such contexts, many of my students sat mystified when I first mentioned terms like subject, verb, and preposition. Over time, I learned to presuppose that only one group of students was familiar with common grammatical terms—those with coursework in ESL.  That was in California. Now I’m in Illinois, and things are different: my current writing students mostly tell me that in high school they already learned grammar terminology. Neither high school system is inherently better; each chooses to emphasize different things.

When students enter our classrooms without background knowledge in grammar terminology, it constrains how much we can teach when it comes to sentence-level pedagogies. Conversely, when students bring such knowledge into the classroom, we’re enabled to do more. (And even when they have that background knowledge, their prior teachers may have used differing definitions for the same term, a problem I discuss in another blog post.)

A practical example helps: how do you address subject-verb agreement if most students don’t know what a subject or a verb is—not to mention related terms like noun, suffix, tense, grammatical number, auxiliary verb?

This obstacle certainly can be surmounted. I see two general approaches:

1. The traditional approach: you could start by explicitly teaching students the definitions of subject and verb. When we label the parts with jargon, the jargon makes the discussion easier to follow. But this approach has some pitfalls: it can bore students; grammatical definitions lack inherent sexiness. This also subtracts more instructional time from other topics. And you risk walking down the slippery slope of having to define many more grammatical terms.

2. The inductive approach: the concept of agreement can be taught through intuitive example sentences, while skirting the technical names of the sentence parts and thus saving time. I discuss the advantages of this approach here. The major disadvantage is that students do not acquire knowledge and definitions of grammatical jargon that they can use in the future.

Either way, it’s a trade-off.

My point is this: if you have an ambitious agenda when it comes to sentence-level pedagogies, think carefully about what your students already know. You might need to scale back your ambitions.

Out with “Teaching Grammar,” in with “Sentence-Level Pedagogies”

February 15, 2013 1 comment
Chalkboard at LeConte Hall, The University of California, Berkeley.

Chalk at LeConte Hall, The University of California, Berkeley.

After many years of thinking, I’ve decided the term “teaching grammar” is problematic. If I could control how English is used, I’d abolish this term from the vocabulary of writing teachers.

Here’s the problem: first, the term “grammar” is in many ways ambiguous, as I’ve discussed at length in this post and this one. It could mean anything from helping students learn to proofread for run-on sentences, to sentence diagramming, to rhetorical style, to teaching students Chomskyan transformational grammar.

If something doesn’t help us disambiguate, each speaker interprets “grammar” however they want. And often times each teacher has a different assumption guiding their interpretation. To most, the most salient interpretation holds that “grammar” means a rigid set of clear-cut prescriptions on the correct structure of English (whatever that means).

Now the common phrase “teaching grammar” carries all these problems, and more. “Teaching grammar” seems to entail the following:

  1. Students lack “grammar.”
  2. Teacher possess “grammar.”
  3. The act of “teaching grammar” is completed when teachers have deposited “grammar” in the minds of their students.

So when we say we’re “teaching grammar,” it seems to suggest we’re operating in some sort of authoritarian, anti-Freirean regime—contrary to what I think most intend. (Interestingly, if we talk about “teaching writing,” I don’t think it carries a parallel set of entailments.)

I propose replacing “teaching grammar” with the less explosive “sentence-level pedagogies.” Why? Because it more accurately captures the meaning I think most intend when they say “teaching grammar.” As a plural, it entails multiple approaches. It defines the domain it encompasses—everything that goes on inside the sentence—from spelling, to syntax, to mechanical correctness, to style.

The rest is left conspicuously vague. And that’s good! “Sentence-level pedagogies” suggests nothing about what the end goal is. It says nothing about the pedagogical methods used to reach the goals. It says nothing about whether our pedagogy is Freireian or the banking method. It practically forces teachers and scholars to clarify the rest.

To be fair, my proposal here will probably prove futile. For one, “sentence-level pedagogies” sounds clunkier. And If I followed my own advice, I’d have to change the change this blog’s URL. I’d also lose traffic from search engines. When I Google “teaching grammar,” I get over 400,000 results, compared with less than 1,000 for “sentence-level pedagogies” and “sentence-level pedagogy” combined.

But more broadly, communities of language users naturally resist schemes to replace one word with another. For a classic example, consider the countless failed attempts to artificially engineer a gender-free replacement for the expression “he or she.” These sorts of proposals only gain traction amongst the highly educated and self-conscious, and rarely for long.[1][2]

I’ll keep campaigning in favor of “sentence-level pedagogies,” but I’m just one teacher in California. In the meantime, I’d be happy just to see teachers and scholars clarifying exactly what they’re talking about when they’re talking about “teaching grammar.”


[1]  John H. McWhorter. 2001. Missing the Nose on Our Face: Pronouns and the Feminist Revolution. In Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. 2009. 10th edition. Edited by Paul Escholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. p. 373 – 379.

[2] The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. 1996. p. 172 – 174.

How a Linguist Teaches Writing

December 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Few teachers of writing hold degrees in Linguistics. It’s rare enough that a master’s degree in Linguistics doesn’t automatically satisfy the state of California’s “minimum qualifications” for someone like me to teach English in a Community College.

A railroad track in New York.

A railroad track, somewhere in rural New York.

I was once asked to explain how my training as a linguist informs how I teach writing. The preparation is excellent. The benefits of the training run deeper than just enabling me to help students learn the conventions of English grammar and mechanics; the training especially informs my pedagogical stance towards students at the first-year composition level and above.

In these course, I’m prepared for a common set of questions from students:

How many sentences does a paragraph need to have?

Can I use the word “I”  in an academic essay?

How do I know if I should quote or paraphrase?

When I began teaching, I would answer these sorts of questions by telling students to do whatever I would do if I were writing the same essay. Over time, I’ve come to read these sorts of questions deeper, to see them as vehicles by which students attempt to surrender authority over their writing in favor of receiving a confident proclamation of what’s “right.”

I try to avoid taking this bait.  Instead, I often find it more productive to respond by asking What have you heard? What do you think? What are the implications of doing it this way? I’m still surprised at how often students are already 90% of the way towards answering their own questions, and usually when I ask a couple careful follow-up questions, students willingly take ownership over their writing project.

This way of responding is grounded in my prior training as a linguist.  When analyzing how language works, the linguist is constantly tempted to posit definitive rules. But it soon becomes apparent that every “rule” of grammar is dogged by its exceptions, and those exceptions carry their own asterisks. In the face of such chaos, there can be no final human authority on how language works, a point I return to over and over in my teaching. All a linguist can do is ask questions and consider hypotheses, which are either refined or disproven through skeptical inquiry.

Along these lines, I aim for my first-year composition students learn to write in ways that acknowledge uncertainty. This goal is achieved well through Patricia Donahue and Mariolina Salvatori’s Difficulty Paper assignment, an assignment which asks students to begin writing about a reading, not by confidently asserting a thesis statement, but by exploring their own a confusion, struggle, or question—pushing students away from imposing canned closure onto complex issues.

A student once told me they found my ping-ponging their questions flustering, because they never knew where I stood. That’s okay with me. I care more about the reasoning skills students acquire, and their ability to reflexively interrogate that reasoning. My questions aim to make students meta-cognitively aware of the choices they make in their composing processes, so their thinking can continue to grow long after they’ve left my class. Ten years down the road, my students probably will have forgotten where I stood on the issue of using “I” in an academic essay. But I hope, if nothing else, that whenever they write, they still hear my voice echoing in their head, questioning every choice.

Of course, some situations demand that teachers assume leadership and take a more directive approach (for instance, developmental and basic skills courses). Though students learn best by exploring problems through their own volition, they cannot learn everything this way. Again, my training as a linguist shapes how I approach this sort of teaching. Linguists are trained to explain patterns of human language through parsimony—by developing the most simple, elegant explanation possible for a given phenomena. The idea is that, all else equal, the simplest explanation usually proves the best (Occam’s Razor). The same often holds true when explaining concepts to students. In the face of complex explanations and lengthy digressions, even the sharpest students glaze over. Faced with the myriad challenges of composing, students can only synthesize so much instruction at once.

Simplification doesn’t mean, however, that I dumb things down. It means I express sophisticated concepts in minimalist language chosen with care, while still acknowledging underlying complexity. Only once I am certain that students grasp my points, which takes time, can I look to introduce further complexities.

Parsimony also means focusing in depth on a small number of concepts, rather than trying to touch on everything (This is especially relevant in an inter-disciplinary subject like composition.). This principle holds for designing a course, crafting a lesson, or working with a particular student over a semester. For instance, I designed a first-year composition course that had students writing Difficulty Papers throughout the term, and incorporating Rogerian arguments into every major essay. Students benefit more when they learn to do one or two things in depth and well, rather than touching on a little bit of everything. They become experts on a subject and they become better positioned to learn with the same level of depth and focus, whatever they go on to next.

It’s a sad fact, but one that all writing teachers better acknowledge, that no one will ever design the writing class that teaches students, in one semester, anything close to all they need to know to write well.

Is Reading Aloud the Secret to Proofreading?

November 7, 2012 Leave a 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.

Epilogue

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.

Why Prescriptivism and Descriptivsm aren’t so Contradictory

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella discusses two general approaches to the grammar of the English language—prescriptivism and descriptivism. Whether or not you’ve heard of these terms before, the distinction matters, since your teaching of grammar is necessarily shaped by one or both. In this post, I’m going to discuss each, show their strengths and weaknesses, and advocate for how I believe teachers can combine the two to get the best of both when they teach issues of grammar.

Prescriptivism aims to dictate how people should be using the language. Put commas here. Don’t put semi-colons there. Say “different than” instead of “different from,” etc. Though “prescriptivism” has acquired something of a dirty name in many circles, the dictates that fall under the category of prescriptivism can range from the sensible and uncontroversial (capitalize people’s names), to the baseless and trivial (don’t end a sentence with a preposition).

Descriptivism attempts to describe how the language is actually used, without necessarily advocating that people have to be doing things in a certain way. Before making any claims, a descriptivist would examine existing writing, corpuses of spontaneous speech, or observations of how people around them use language. From this, they would draw generalization about the structure of the language, the ways things vary from one speaker to the next, and how things change with time, etc.

To make the conversation less abstract, consider how descriptivists and presecriptivists would each deal with an actual issue of English usage. Let’s say that you join together two clauses with a coordinating conjunction between them:

1. I ate the fish tacos but I’m still alive.

The issue here is whether to put a comma before the coordinating conjunction. According to the prescriptivist handbook Rules for Writers, you should put a comma before coordinating conjunctions (and/but/or/etc.) joining two clauses, unless the clauses being joined are “short.”[1] In a 1987 descriptive study, Charles Frederick Meyer analyzed 72,000 words of published writing, concluding that a rule like this prescriptive one is generally accurate, except that writers tended to omit the comma if the conjunction was and, while adding it if the conjunction was but.[2] In this case, the prescriptivist and the descriptivist use different methods to arrive at somewhat similar conclusions. (In reality, I suspect that many other variables influence whether a writer chooses to use a comma in these contexts, but such a discussion is beyond my scope here.)

In their most extreme forms, rigid prescriptivism and rigid descriptivism work poorly in the writing classroom. Extreme prescriptivists are ignorant to the realities of language, or they even betray prejudice against those who speak different dialects and registers. On the other hand, extreme descriptivists, when they teach writing, sometimes open themselves up to the criticism that their “anything goes” attitude conveys a lack of standards for their students that may even disempower linguistic minorities who wish to acquire the language of power. Both of these extremes, however, represent straw men; every experienced writing teacher I’ve known takes a more moderate position.

Although descriptivism dominates the field of Linguistics, writing teachers are oriented somewhat more towards prescriptivism. This shouldn’t surprise. After all, writing teachers aim to get students to write in a certain way (rather than to have students comprehend all the complexities of grammar). Our prescriptivism manifests itself when we correct students’ grammar in their essays, we refer them to handbooks that tell them how to punctuate, and we give them workbook exercises where the answer key gives one correct answer.

When we’re too heavily oriented towards a prescriptive approach to usage, it blinds us to appreciating the true reality of our language and how people actually resolve vexing issues of usage. For instance, consider the issue of how to express the third person, singular, epicene (neither male nor female) pronoun. What word goes in the blank here:

2. Someone left a car with its lights on in the parking lot, and ___ also forgot to close the windows.

In addition to s/he, he or she, prescriptivists have suggested over eighty possibilities, including himorher, hann, and ze, almost all of which are awkward and never catch on.[3] (Historically speaking, few prescriptive innovations, in fact, ever catch on widely beyond a small segment of educated, self-conscious writers.) Meanwhile, John H. McWhorter, a descriptivist, points out that the pronoun they has long been used as a singular, third person epicene.[4] But a descriptivist who points this out begins to sound like they’re making a prescription!

To Acocella, descriptivism and prescriptivism are at odds with one another—one’s stance is either prescriptivist or descriptivist. At the end of her article, she claims that if you espouse both, you’re contradicting yourself. Here Acocella operates within a false dichotomy that shows an incomplete understanding. The two approaches operate at cross purposes. Descriptivism is essentially a stance that’s geared towards inquiry, one that rightly sees human language as a naturally occurring phenomenon that can be studied and understood without drawing value judgments, much as a Biologist would study the structure of a cell. With prescriptivism, the goal is more oriented towards practical ends, to influence how others use language, often in certain formal contexts such as public speaking or academic writing, or even to alter the future development of the language.

Acocella overlooks how perscriptivism and descriptivism each tend to focus on separate issues within the language. Prescriptivists focus on those areas of the language where certain usages cause controversy or where novice writers tend to make mistakes. Descriptivists often see such issues as relatively minor, and take a broader focus. In fact, many of the generalizations captured by descriptivists are transparent to prescriptivists. What prescriptivist would bother with injunctions to put the article before its noun or the subject before its verb? It’s so uncontroversially part of English syntax that it hardly seems worth prescriptivists’ time, whereas a descriptivist would point out that other languages allow other word orders.

In practice, the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism grows fuzzy, since each approach readily co-opts the other. The prescriptive approach constantly masquerades in the guise of descriptivism. This is the common orientation of many handbooks. When they make sweeping generalizations about how to use grammar and how to punctuate, they imply that this is just how everyone does it, and you should too. But a closer reading reveals that these examples are rarely backed up by solid evidence—just an authoritative, imperative tone, the weight of prescriptive tradition, and a few example sentences manufactured to back up their particular claim. Conversely, Acocella points out that being a descriptivist can be a form of prescribing what people should do, in the sense that descriptivists tend to be laissez-faire about many issues of usage. The descriptivist prescribes that each person should do what’s natural to them.

When we teach, our teaching must be informed by both approaches to language. We must be prescriptivists, because that is what writing teachers are expected to do—we prepare students to write effectively in certain types of formal situations. Students would grow annoyed if we refused to advise them on how to deal with the conventions of usage and mechanics. At the same time, our prescriptions need to be better informed by accurate descriptions of the English language, and by what is pedagogically appropriate. This is not to say that our prescriptions should match perfectly with descriptive grammars, but only that we need to think carefully the relationship between the two.

When balancing prescriptivism and descriptivism, we must make a constant trade off between being empirically accurate and comprehensive on one hand, and being clear, simple, and brief with our students on the other. It’s impossible to do everything. The advantage to prescriptitivism is that it simplifies the boundless complexities of language and elides the murky areas of ambiguity. This makes it easier to teach, easier for students to digest, and easier for teachers to evaluate. The disadvantage is that prescriptive approaches sometimes line up poorly with English as it is actually used by respected writers. This is one of many reasons that grammar instruction confuses students. Their teacher tells them to do it one way, and they see the authors of assigned readings doing something else entirely. What message does this send to students?

A thoughtful writing teacher comes up with a prescription for their students that approximates the descriptive reality and that helps them express themselves effectively. It won’t be perfect, it won’t cover every exception and irregularity, but it will get students close enough. Students demand authoritative responses to their uncertainties, but thoughtful teachers can acknowledge that they don’t know everything about grammar. When students go on to their next class, they can work through the remaining complexities on their own.


[1] p. 292 – 293

[2] This study is described on p.154 – 155 of Revising the Rules by Brock Haussamen.

[4] “Missing the Nose on Our Face: Pronouns and the Feminist Revolution”. p. 373 – 380 in Language Awareness.

Coaching the Perfect Jump-Shot, Teaching the Perfect Sentence

Recently, I went to the gym with a friend to shoot hoops. After he crushed me 21-to-0 in a game of one-on-one, we decided to shoot around for fun. He observed my form, and he offered to coach me to improve my jump-shot

“Start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Shoulders over toes.”

I looked down. Good. I shot. Clank, off the rim.

“You’re twisting your upper body to the left as you shoot. You’re jerking your head away from the ball. Keep it straight.”

I tried again. Clank. He shot me a disapproving look.

I realized then how much shooting a jump shot shares in common with writing an effective sentence: when things go well, many, many things need to synch up seamlessly, and we often don’t even notice. With a sentence, you need to execute skills of organization, reasoning, transitioning, parallelism, agreement, word choice, word endings, punctuation, etc. With a jump shot, each part of the body needs to be moving fluidly in synch. Your knees bend and spring. Your core explodes upwards. Your eyes focus on the basket. The shooting forearm swings forward. The wrist flicks with just the right amount of force to put slight backspin on the ball. Each motion contains infinite subtleties. Being slightly off with one can turn the shot into a brick, just as a brief lapse into clunky grammar can derail an otherwise excellent sentence.

“You need to be jumping straight up and down as you shoot.”

I shot again. As I landed, I noticed my body drifting to the left. Clank.

“Okay. Imagine drawing a line from the tip of each big toe to the top of your sternum. It forms a triangle. Now chop the triangle in half. It forms a line, running through the floor up through the center of your body. As you shoot, your body should move up and down along this line.”

I tried to visualize it, but I got lost trying to follow the imaginary geometry bisecting my body. I shot again. Clank.

“When you start, do you see how you’re holding the ball off to the right? Hold the ball directly over your head as you shoot. You’re holding it too far off to the right.”

“But I can’t get it there,” I protested. “My shoulder isn’t flexible enough.”

I shot again. Clank.

“You need your shooting arm to move in an axis straight towards the basket. It can’t be drifting to one side.”

I shot again. If I made it, maybe he’d back off. Clank.

“Try doing it again, but when you jump, try to land in the same place where you start.”

I shot again. In-and-out.

“Try to do a jump shot, but don’t jump. Just spring from your knees and hips, up and down, but keep your feet planted.”

I shot again. Airball.

As I was trying to process all the guidance, I grew more and more overwhelmed. The more I tried to focus on the technical details and the imaginary lines, the more I tensed up, the more my focus wandered, and the worse my shot became.

And then I wondered: is this how lots of students feel in the face of well-meaning but overly complex grammar instruction?

Just as grammar instruction posits all sorts of abstract structures that lace together the words we can actually see, my friend’s guidance depended on all this invisible geometry that underlies the mechanics of my jumpshot. To an expert who learned it an early age, the invisible stuff seems obvious and fundamental—and so necessary to improvement. But experts often forget how difficult it can be for the novice to visualize the invisible, let alone utilize it to improve their skills.

Teachers must acknowledge the limits to how much instruction any of us can process at once, especially when we ask students to grapple with the abstractions of grammar. After all, no matter how concrete they seem in handbooks, the phrases, and the clauses that comprise our sentences and the parts of speech are all abstractions, and most students will look at a sentence and only see the bare words themselves. It is difficult to move beginning students beyond this level of analysis. This is not to say that we cannot explicitly teach students how to analyze grammatical structures or improve their writing at the sentence level; it means that we face serious limits to how much we can hope to do. In our instruction, we need to be careful not to overwhelm students with more information than they can digest at one time, or more than what they can actually incorporate into their own writing.

We also need to acknowledge that students improve slowly. No basketball player goes from a bench-warmer to Jordanesque in three months. Nor can we expect a clunky writer to guild New Yorker caliber sentences in the course of a semester.

At the same time, huge chunks of the skills that go into crafting effective sentences (or executing a perfect jumpshot) cannot be explicitly taught. It’s infeasible. There’s not enough time in a semester. Effective coaches and teachers are targeted in their instruction. They break it into small pieces that are easy to digest. With writing, students require exposure to good examples and plenty of time for imitation and trial and error. The same goes for basketball. You can learn so much just by spending an hour in an empty gym goofing around with your form or scrimmaging with good players and copying their moves.

What Back Pain and Grammatical Errors Share in Common

When you complain to your doctor of back pain, your doctor has the option of approaching the problem from many angles. They could approach it as a structural problem, in which case they order an MRI or physical therapy. They could approach it as a manifestation of a high-stress lifestyle: exercise more and work less. Is it as an issue of tissue inflammation? Take some ibuprofen and apply heat/ice.

When teachers find a grammatical error in student writing, the stakes are lower and the relationship less clinical, but we face a similar sort of decision. How we categorize the errors in student essays is neither trivial nor straightforward. It caries important implications for how we understand it and how a student addresses it.

To see this, try a simple experiment—read the following sentence, which closely resembles a sentence in a student essay I recently read, and then say what type of error it contains:

1. I don’t have much time to surf the internet like my little cousin, who’s on it for 10 or more hours per day, I have work and school to take care of.

Most people will classify this error as a comma splice between “day” and “I.” This is how I was inclined to mark it. But marking it as a comma splice is mainly the result of tradition.

If we leave traditional typologies of error aside, the error could have been labeled as:

  • A failure to insert a conjunction. Perhaps the student wanted to join multiple clauses together, but didn’t know how. This categorization would make sense in the context of a Christensen-inspired sentence-combining pedagogy.
  • An error with the punctuation of a non-restrictive clause. The phrase “who’s on it for 10 or more hours per day” is used non-restrictively, and students are often instructed to set these off with commas. Perhaps the student over-generalized that principle.
  • An error due to an oral-sounding sentence. When students’ speech influences their writing, they might sprinkle in commas where they “sound” right or mix up one type of punctuation with another (commas and periods). After all, in speech, commas and periods sound the same—like silence.

In another view, the error in #1 exists in our imagination only. Edgar Shuster notes that what are traditionally categorized as comma-splice errors do appear intentionally in professional writing.[1] Anecdotally, I have seen an increased incidence of comma-splices in the edited writing of the English teachers that I work with. Punctuation standards change. Twenty years from now, who knows if teachers will judge sentences like #1 as error-free?

There’s no “right” answer on how to categorize this error. Just as back pain is influenced by many factors and can be addressed in many ways, the same holds with student errors. With English grammar and the human spine, many complicated subsystems interact, and a student error often results when several things go wrong at once. Before a doctor chooses how to approach the problem, they need to learn more about the whole person. Likewise, the instructor needs to know something about the student’s background and the pattern of errors in the rest of the essay.

Many grammar errors might better be understood as the surface manifestations of “deeper” problems students are facing. Just as the back and neck muscles tense up painfully under psychological stress, a student who otherwise writes error-free prose slips into clumsy, ungrammatical sentences when they push beyond their zones of comfort, think through complex issues, or try to sound “academic” to their teacher—a point which has been made by Mike Rose[2], David Bartholomae[3] and Ian Barnard[4]. Students’ language processing centers overload when they try—all at once—to think through complex ideas, weave together elaborate syntaxes, and deal with all the other demands of writing and being human.

How you categorize an error strongly suggests to the student how to address it. Labelling the error in #1 a comma-splice suggests the student should change the comma to a period. Labelling it an error with a missing conjunction suggests the student should review the ways to combine sentences. And labeling it a speech-based error suggest that the student needs to more generally become more attuned to the differences between written academic English and the version English they speak at home and with friends.

Finally, let’s consider three less-directive alternatives to the categorizations of the error discussed above:

  • Maybe we don’t even need to bother with categorizing the error. Maybe the student already knows how to fix it. Sometimes students just need to be reminded to proofread.
  • It could be categorized simply as an “error,” with no finer-grained distinctions made. Smart teachers know when it’s futile to try to understand what was going on inside a student’s head. In this case, the student is left to figure out how to fix it. This implies a non-directive pedagogy where students take the initiative in improving their writing.
  • Or the teacher could have ignored the error and said nothing, which suggests to student that in the universe of issues to address in their essay, this one ranks low.

Doctors often respond this way to short-term back pain, essentially brushing it off. Like many student errors, it often disappears on its own with little to no intervention. Patients’ health faces a bigger threat from unintended consequences when the doctor over-treats the initial problem. And I’d argue that a parallel principle holds when teachers have to decide how to respond to a wide swath grammatical errors.