Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Balanced literacy or balanced sentences?

Finally a New York Times Op-Ed piece critiquing an education fad. In "The Fallacy of ‘Balanced Literacy’," author Alexander Nazaryan writes:

Now the approach that so frustrated me and my students is once again about to become the norm in New York City, as the new schools chancellor, Carmen FariƱa, has announced plans to reinstate a “balanced literacy” approach in English classrooms. The concept’s most vociferous champion is probably Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar. In her 1985 book, “The Art of Teaching Writing,” she complained that most English teachers “don’t know what it is to read favorite passages aloud to a friend or to swap ideas about an author.” She sought a reimagination of the English teacher’s role: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” a joyful exploration unhindered by despotic traffic cops.
(One has to wonder whether Calkins has ever been coached by a sports coach: since when is this a "joyful exploration" that doesn't involve despotism and "presenting information"?)
Ms. Calkins’s approach was tried by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, but abandoned when studies showed that students learned better with more instruction.
...
My students craved instruction far more than freedom. Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.
It's striking that Nazaryan, who believes in "the pedagogical value of a deep dive into sentence structure," is not a native-born American:
I am somewhat prejudiced on this issue, for my acclimation to the English language had nothing balanced about it. Yanked out of the Soviet Union at 10, I landed in suburban Connecticut in the English-as-a-second-language classroom of Mrs. Cohen. She taught me the language in the most conventionally rigorous manner, acutely aware that I couldn’t do much until I knew the difference between a subject and a verb. Mrs. Cohen was unbalanced in the best possible way.
Mrs. Cohen is, in fact, unusual; here in American, where we are more ignorant than anywhere else of the grammars of other languages, Grammar Denialism is the norm, and balanced literacy, to some extent, is as much a symptom as a cause.

But knowledge of grammar and sentence structure is, indeed, key to improving writing. Consider some excerpts of Calkin's latest book (Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement):
We can regard the Common Core State Standards as the worst thing in the world. Frankly, it can be fun to gripe about them. Sometimes we say to the to the educators who convene at our Common Core conferences, "Right now make your fact into a curmudgeon's face. As a curmudgeon, think about those standards—the timing, the way they arrived on the scene, their effect on your school."
One can improve this choppy paragraph using techniques found in books that teach the grammar writing in the way that Calkins renounces: for example, creating cohesive sentence topics via sentence combining and rearranging.
We can regard the Common Core State Standards as the worst thing in the world, and, frankly, it can be fun to gripe about them. At our Common Core conferences, we sometimes say to educators, "Right now make your fact into a curmudgeon's face. As a curmudgeon, think about those standards—the timing, the way they arrived on the scene, their effect on your school."
Here's another paragraph from Calkins' book that could use some syntactically-informed revision:
The entire design of the standards is based on the argument that the purpose of K–12 education is to prepare K–12 students for college (the rhetoric touts preparation for career as well, but this is not reflected in the standards). Because the standards were written by taking the skills that college students need and distilling those down through every single grade, kindergarten children, for example, are expected to “use a com-bination of drawing, dictating and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book."
These overly long sentences can be rearranged and broken up for much greater readability, maintaining cohesion, in part, via a wh-cleft structure:
Informing the design of the standards is the notion that K–12 education exists to prepare students for college. (True, the rhetoric also touts career preparation, but the standards don't reflect this). Essentially, what the designers did was take the skills that college students need and distill these down through every single grade. The resulting expectation for kindergartners, for example, is that they “use a combination of drawing, dictating and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book."
A small subset of people have a natural ear for language and do enough attentive reading to learn these techniques, implicitly, on their own. For everyone else, including many published authors, improving prose requires deliberate instruction--of the sort found nowhere in the joyful explorations of Writer's Workshop.

4 comments:

momof4 said...

In my opinion, the only kids likely to "catch" grammar (per Lucy Calkins)are very advantaged kids who also are voracious readers of high-quality fiction and non-fiction, including academic writing. In other words, a rare few.

FedUpMom said...

I'm no fan of Lucy Calkins, but I like her paragraph better than yours. I find Calkins' style to be idiomatic and conversational; basically, easy to read. Her long sentences don't bother me a bit (I've written longer!).

By contrast, your proposed first sentence ("Informing the design of the standards ...") seems very clumsy to me.

I've been seeing a lot of that kind of structure recently -- beginning with a subordinate clause (I think -- I'll check with Sainted Linguist Husband when he gets back) -- and it always reads as backwards and non-idiomatic. "Important is the availability of running water." Nobody talks like this, and if they do, I don't want to hear it.

I don't like your use of "informing", either. It's confusing because it means too many things. If I see "informing" at the beginning of a sentence, I expect a usage like "Informing the local authorities is the first step when planning an addition to your house". "The entire design of the standards is based on ..." is a much clearer start.

FedUpMom said...

To clarify, as an English speaker, when I read a sentence that has the pattern "Thing1 is Thing2", I expect Thing1 to be the subject of the sentence, and Thing2 to be some kind of description.

For example, "The apple is red" sounds natural to me, but "Red is the apple" does not. "Red is the apple" might be OK in 19-th century poetry, but it doesn't sound conversational at all.

Your sentence, "Informing the design of the standards is the notion [that ....]" has the same pattern as "Red is the apple." The subject of the sentence is "the notion", but it's been pushed to the "Thing2" position.

I had to read your opening sentence twice to understand it. I didn't have that problem with Lucy Calkins' sentence.

Lucy Calkins' opener begins with the subject in two senses; that is, it begins with the grammatical subject of the sentence ("The entire design of the standards"), and it also begins with the logical subject of discussion. It's much clearer.

Anonymous said...

I liked Katharine's paragraph better.