Monday, May 2, 2016

Common Core-inspired grammar fallacies, and why we need paper graders

An article in a February issue of Edweek, Will the Common Core Step Up Schools' Focus on Grammar?, repeats the false choice I blogged about earlier between isolated grammar lessons and unstructured reading and writing assignments:

Determining the best approach for teaching grammar and semantics is now once again a critical conversation topic. Should teachers dedicate time to stand-alone grammar lessons and tasks---diagramming sentences, for instance, or memorizing the differences between adjectives and adverbs? Or can students learn the language system through broad writing and reading?
Later on in the piece, however, author Liana Heitin acknowledges that the Common Core, at least accordingly to some interpretations, has taken a middle ground, appearing to embrace what I’ve called “applied syntax”:
“The standards do, however, focus more on grammar application than most previous state standards, some say—which could encourage more authentic grammar work.
On the other hand, the standards (and their professional interpreters) still fall for Fallacy II: failing to factor out those aspects of grammar that native English speakers already know:
the grammar skills in the content standards don’t differ too much from most previous state standards… For instance, they ask students to ‘use an apostrophe to form contractions’ and ‘form and use regular and irregular verbs’—benchmarks that shouldn’t much surprise teachers. 
“Whereas before it was OK for a kid to identify nouns, now, it’s that they actually have to be able to use them and use them correctly,” said [one teacher].
Native English speakers do need to learn written conventions like when to use an apostrophe; they don’t need to learn how to conjugate English verbs and how to use English nouns. The latter skills belong in Common Core Standards for ESL, not Common Core Standards for ELA.

However willing teachers are to teach native speakers how to conjugate verbs and use nouns, Liana Heitin and the teacher she quotes have reservations about embedding grammar instruction in the feedback-on-multiple-writing-drafts approach I suggested earlier:
The realities of classroom management can make teaching grammar through writing tough as well. “Ideally, you wouldn’t have to teach [basic grammar skills] in isolation—you’d be having students writing a paper and then correcting it,” said Meghan Everette, a 3rd grade teacher…. “But it doesn’t really work out that way.”  
“Young students need a lot of direction in learning new skills, she said. And managing that kind of individualized task with 20 or 30 students is just too time consuming.”
Yes, as I noted earlier, marking up a stack of student papers is one of the most tedious teaching tasks out there. And yet, teachers used to do that regularly. If that’s too much to ask of today’s teachers, then let’s try something similar to the classroom teacher vs. classroom management labor-division I suggested in my last post. In addition to classroom teachers, let’s hire paper graders—akin to those we find in in large college classes. Again, we can safely offset the cost of the added personnel by increasing average class size.

Not all of the student self-correction process needs to be labor-intensive for teachers. Many errors needn’t be explicitly pointed out in order for students to fix them. Sometimes it’s just a matter of requiring students to actually re-read, and proofread, their papers—something that fewer and fewer seem to be in the habit of doing.

Teachers can also motivate careful revisions with minimal time expenditure by harnessing the tremendous editorial power of the Word Limit. As anyone who has faced one of these can tell you, cutting out words without sacrificing content generally involves drastically improving your prose. So why not ask students to reduce their word count, say, by 50%, without eliminating any content, from penultimate to final draft?


GoogleMaster said...

As a reader of many online news outlets and blogs, I think native English speakers could benefit from explicit instruction in the proper conjugation of irregular verbs. To pick an example that seems to be trending, the past tense of "to lead" (e.g. to lead a company, to lead an army into battle) is not "lead" but "led". Another timeworn example: lie/lay/lain vs. lay/laid/laid.

Katharine Beals said...

The "lead"/"led" mistake is an error of written language (spelling): linguistically speaking, spoken language is primary, and, in speech, people properly speak the correct past tense of "lead." The lain/laid example is one of just a handful in which native speakers make systematic mistakes with irregular verbs. (We all occasionally blurt out the wrong form of particular verbs, but not consistently so). So, while spelling indeed does need to be taught to native speakers, the general conjugation rules for irregular verbs do not.

Auntie Ann said...

Teachers, schools, and curriculum writers can't necessarily assume that classrooms don't have non-native language speakers. In many urban districts, in particular, a large portion of the student body could be English language learners--with a multitude of primary languages.

If these students are mainstreamed into regular classes, and if the school systems don't want to single out the ESL kids in a separate language track, then some of the basic grammar rules would need to be incorporated into the general curriculum.

Katharine Beals said...

If those are the conditions, then we also need to teach basic syntax and basic vocabulary to all students. For example, we'd need to teach all students, native speakers included, what words like "computer" mean, and that you need to add the auxiliary verb "do" when you form a negated sentence: "I learn a lot in English class"-> "I don't learn a lot in English class."

FedUpMom said...

Language changes over time. Here's some changes I see, and while I don't like them, I doubt any of us can stop them:

1.) "Gift" is now a verb, completely replacing "give" in the sense of "give a present". (I have yet to hear of someone "gifting" someone the flu, but it could be the next step.)

2.) The past tense of "lead" will be written "lead", because people overgeneralize from "read/read".

3.) "Breathe" is now written "breath", although there's still a pronunciation difference.

4.) "Reticent" is used to mean "reluctant."

There was a time when English was spelled pretty much however people felt like it -- maybe we're going back to that system. I was working on Malory's "Mort d'Arthur" once and discovered he spelled "marvelous" 8 different ways.

Anonymous said...

My Webster's Collegiate dictionary says that "gift" as a verb dates to 1550. Granted, that's a bit later than the 12th century origin of the noun gift, but that hardly makes it a new development.

Barry Garelick said...

Then there's the use of "anymore" in the affirmative context, as in ""Anymore we watch videos rather than go to the movies." That's currently in use and likely to be increasingly accepted.

Anonymous said...

At our school, even our teachers say "times it" instead of "multiply it," and "minus it" instead of "subtract it."

We have a huge English-as-a-second-language population, which might be influencing why the teachers don't use "multiply" and "subtract." But our neighborhood, city, state and nation also has a huge Spanish speaking population, so this change could very easily be going on at a more national level.

The other day, my daughter told me that 3 out of 4 of the 6th graders in her group didn't have any idea what "arithmetic" meant.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous May 6, 2016 at 9:29 AM

Multiplication in Spanish is "multiplicación". Why would such an obvious cognate be difficult to learn in English?