Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What matters most in the "Writing Revolution"

Peg Tyre’s recent article in the Atlantic, "The Writing Revolution,” provoked controversy among educators, many of whom find direct instruction in writing, particularly at the level of sentences, to be unnatural, ineffective, joy stifling, and creativity-crushing (despite compelling evidence to the contrary).

The article should instead have provoked controversy among linguists.

It implies, among other things, that:

-Many under-privileged children, even in high school, don’t know how to use basic conjunctions like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so, and basic connectors like although and despite, and that the remedy includes teaching them the parts of speech.

-Such students also don’t understand that “the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”

The problem is that, except for severely language impaired children (and non-native speakers), these basic facts about the English language are among the things that children do pick up incidentally, without formal instruction, and master well before high school. (Mastering the written aspects of language, including the conventions that are specific to writing, is a different story).

Does anyone seriously think that typically developing native high school students, however socio-economically underprivileged, don’t know how to use and and or?

As for although and despite, while it’s possible that these specific words don’t figure much in the everyday speech of socio-economically underprivileged children, how likely is it, if you said something like “Although the hurricane won’t hit for a couple of days, you should start getting ready for it now” or “Despite the fact that we haven’t lost electricity yet, we might still lose it later,” they wouldn’t understand what you meant? Has anyone even bothered to test this?

The notion that the students in question don’t know these crucial function words comes partly from observations about their written language: “the students’ sentences were short and disjointed” and deficient in function words; partly from their performance on a “quick quiz” that required them to use these function words; and partly from their performance on a task that combined reading comprehension and writing: reading a passage from Of Mice and Men and then writing a sentence based on the passage that began “Although George...”

In this last task:

Many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”
As a linguist who specializes in grammar, reading comprehension, and the mechanics of writing, I’d like to suggest an alternative explanation for what Tyre and others are observing here: these students are showing a combination of difficulties with reading comprehension, difficulties with writing conventions, and difficulties sustaining attention.

These high school students know perfectly well what for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so, although and despite mean, and how to use them. And, as the article observes, “the students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences.”

However, the article provides no evidence about their reading comprehension—and how many of them, for example, comprehend at the level of Of Mice and Men. While they surely understand the basic function words of their native language, perhaps they don’t understand all of nouns and adjectives used by Steinbeck. Perhaps (especially if they encounter words they don’t know) they aren’t able to sustain attention across some of his longer, more complex sentences. And while they surely could use the word “although” correctly in oral speech, perhaps they haven’t been instructed in the basics of punctuation and sentence fragments vs. complete sentences. All this could result in a fragment like Although George and Lenny were friends. when what the teacher was looking for instead was Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

And all this is consistent with the efficacy of the remediation program adopted by the school that the article profiles:
The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children … are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.
Prompting children to use certain function words, and also appositives, prompts them to practice writing longer, more complex sentences. Helping students comprehend paragraphs improves their ability to write responses to reading passages.
By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject. So in chemistry class in the winter of 2010, Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although.

Although ... “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.”

Unless ... “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.”  
If …  
This was a hard one. Finally, she figured out a way to finish the sentence. If … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.”
Notice that what’s hard about this task isn’t the meaning of the function words and how to use them, but understanding the chemistry of hydrogen and oxygen well enough to know their relevant causal and contrastive properties. The issue is both reading comprehension and subject-specific mastery. But the task is still a good one, because what the although, unless, and if prompts do is to prompt Monica to review the lesson with the specific goal of finding the causal and contrastive relationships it discusses.
As her understanding of the parts of speech grew, Monica’s reading comprehension improved dramatically. “Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”
When you’re prompted to look in a text for the kinds of relationships expressed by although and if, you know that you should specifically be looking for words like although and if. This kind of focus may help students overcome difficulties sustaining attention, such that complex texts become something more meaningful than a “sea of words.”

The Hochman method is a great antidote to the current fads in writing instruction, but not for most of the reasons suggested in Tyre’s article.


Auntie Ann said...

"Although" is our 10-year-old's favorite word. He will be sitting there thinking for several minutes, and then, when he starts talking, he usually begins with: "Although,..."

When writing, he does usually use it correctly.

More seriously, whether a kid picks this up or not (if they aren't formally taught it in school (our kids weren't,)) largely depends on their reading material--especially in the case of the how they write.

This is where I start banging my head against the desk, because so many of the books available for kids are so terribly dumbed-down and have such simplified grammar that they are useless. Our 10-year-old is currently reading "Kira Kira" for his 5th grade in-class "book club". It is a Newbery award winner; and Scholastic lists its "Interest Level" as 6-8, says it is appropriate for kids 12-18, and has a 740 Lexile rating. Scholastic's own website likens a 740 Lexile to 3rd grade...yet, this is a book which is supposed to appeal to 8th graders! (I typed some of the book into Word and got a 2.5 Flesch-Kincaid score as well.)

Opening the book and looking at a couple pages, it looked to me like it was one step up from "Magic Tree House." It may be a lovely book, but its writing level is seriously disappointing.

Schools focus on selecting reading that engages kids and turns them on to reading, but isn't reading something with such basic grammar on some level simply boring? Do we judge the engagement level that a book inspires solely on its plot and characters? Or does grammatical complexity, tricks, and flourishes add to it as well?

momof4 said...

Your son might like Rosemary Sutcliff's versions of legends (King Arthur, Odyssey, Iliad etc) and historical novels set in Roman Britain, with young male protagonists. The language and style are excellent. My kids loved them all. They also loved Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson and Bright Candles (kids and the Danish Resistence during WWII). Another favorite was the O Henry short story "Ransom of Red Chief".

Bright Candles and most of Sutcliff's are out of print, but available through Barnes&Noble's secondhand network. I have all of them; many were library culls. I wish I could think that they were replaced with anything of similar quality.

Many years ago, I read a comparison of various versions of one of Mark Twain's books - over a span of 50 years or so. The original phrase beginning "great, big, enormous, humongous..." was eventually reduced to "big" - all of the sense of size and the fun removed.

Anonymous said...

I am a high school English teacher who teaches at an affluent private school. I actually agree with many of Tyre's comments. Too many educators do believe that writing is "caught" as opposed to "taught." In order to "catch" writing and gain an intuitive understanding of how language works, kids need to read a tremendous amount. Unfortunately, many of my students do NOT read much, despite coming from affluent backgrounds. (There are too many technological distractions these days; books, it seems, just can't compete with screens.)If kids are not reading enough, then they have to be explicitly "taught" grammar and essay-writing skills. Furthermore, some kids just don't have an intuitive sense for language. Even if they have been read to as kids and given books to read, they haven't internalized an intuitive understanding of grammar and syntax. These kids often do wonderfully in our class discussions, but their papers are a mess. They can comprehend and orally discuss what they read, but they can't communicate their ideas in writing. Kids like this, and there are many of them, need explicit grammar and writing instruction.

The school I teach at has no formal grammar curriculum. We spend much more time getting kids to explore their feelings and write poetry than we do getting them to analyze text and write literary essays. I think this has to change because I see evidence all around me of how kids may understand coordinating and subordinating conjunctions in oral language, but they can't use them appropriately in their own writing. I am all for a formal grammar and writing curriculum that introduces conjunctions to kids so that they can not only recognize these words but also use them effectively to connect ideas. Unfortunately, most of my colleagues think that I have no understanding of "21st century learning;" most of my colleagues honestly believe that our goal as teachers is to "help kids express their feelings and find their voice" as opposed to helping them write a grammatically correct sentence. Don't get me wrong: I believe that it is very important for kids to find their voices and express themselves, and I love poetry. However, I'd much rather that my kids express themselves in grammatically correct sentences than in fragments.

Btw, I enjoy your blog posts. I don't always agree with everything you write, but I definitely see where you're coming from. I also think that in many schools the pendulum has swung too far towards "right brain" teaching, and that educators often expect kids to somehow teach themselves.

At the school where I teach, the parents do most of the formal teaching (particularly of Math) at home, and the teachers engage kids in fun games and constructivist activities in school. Teachers take kids on overseas trips and kayaking expeditions during the school year, and then kids attend Kumon classes and work through Singapore Math books with their moms during their summer vacations. It's a total reversal of what used to happen in the past. I know because I am also a parent in this system.

momof4 said...

Anonymous: Are you willing to say where you live? I'd be furious if I was paying for a private school that expected parents to do the real teaching. I know that happens regularly at public schools, which don't want to know about parents, tutors or Kumon. As long as "enough" kids get to the top math/science track by HS, they're deaf and blind to what happens at home. Those who struggle or fail are not sufficiently "engaged", too poor etc.