Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The imperiled pleasures of parsing Austen, III

In my post last week on Michael Godsey's article in the Atlantic ("The Value of Using Podcasts in Class"), I worried about whether audio narratives deprive students of the motivation to practice parsing hard sentences. With the intonation and pausing of a good audio rendition, much of the work of parsing a sentences is done for the listener. "Already," I lamented, "Fewer and fewer kids are reading works with sentences like these with the care they deserve, let alone doing the hard work of parsing them grammatically. If we increasingly rely on a cadre of good readers to do the parsing for us, are we failing to develop a skill we still care about?"

But I signed off before justifying my claim that fewer and fewer kids are reading syntactically complex sentences with the care they deserve. Here's why I think this:

1. Fewer works with syntactically complex sentences are being assigned: class textbooks have ever fewer subordinate clauses; class fiction is ever more "relevant" (i.e., modern and conversational). For the harder stuff, SparkNotes are a click away.

2. Kids, we know, are choosing to read less overall, and, I'm guessing, disproportionately less in the way of Austen, James, Shakespeare, and Chaucer.

3. Fewer foreign language classes require kids to engage with complex sentences in other languages:

First, there is less reading of challenging foreign language prose, especially with today's "world languages" curriculum that encourages kids to take beginner courses in several languages rather than reaching an advanced level in any. 

Second, there are fewer courses in languages (Latin, Greek, German, Russian) whose syntax differs in complex ways from English. The popular languages--Spanish and Chinese--are, syntactically speaking, relatively easy for native English speakers.

But perhaps, with the decline in the global use of German and Russian, the second death of the dead languages, and the rise of universal translation and audio recordings, parsing complex sentences is idle mental acrobatics--fun for some people, but pointless for most?


Auntie Ann said...

If you look at the Lexile scores of YA books, few even hit 900, much less 1000, with the Common Core standards leaving 900 behind by 6th grade. Lexile might not be a great measure, but it does show how few of the books marketed to teens have challenging grammar or vocabulary.

Anonymous said...

Not pointless at all, and much more enjoyable than some of the complex syntactical tasks that I think we engage with in the 21st Century that are equivalent: struggling through a user's guide written by risk managers; hoping to get to the end of a Help function for a software we're using; trying to understand the fine print on a jury summons notice. I could go on . . . .