kitchen table math, the sequel: teach the sentence

Friday, June 10, 2011

teach the sentence

Close on the heels of Katharine's post about reform writing and Debbie's on the lost art of sentence diagramming, I came across this study mentioned on Language Log:
Research into grammar by academics at Northumbria University suggests that a significant proportion of native English speakers are unable to understand some basic sentences.


The project assumed that every adult native speaker of English would be able to understand the meaning of the sentence:

"The soldier was hit by the sailor."

Dr Dabrowska and research student James Street then tested a range of adults, some of whom were postgraduate students, and others who had left school at the age of 16. All participants were asked to identify the meaning of a number of simple active and passive sentences, as well as sentences which contained the universal qualifier "every."

As the test progressed, the two groups performed very differently. A high proportion of those who had left school at 16 began to make mistakes. Some speakers were not able to perform any better than chance, scoring no better than if they had been guessing.

Dr Dabrowska comments: "These findings are ground breaking, because for decades the theoretical and educational consensus has been solid. Regardless of educational attainment or dialect we are all supposed to be equally good at grammar, in the sense of being able to use grammatical cues to understand the meaning of sentences.


The supposition that everyone in a linguistic community shares the same grammar is a central tenet of Noam Chomsky's theory of universal grammar. The theory assumes that all children learn language equally well and that there must therefore be an underlying common structure to all languages that is somehow "hard-wired" into the brain.

Dr Dabrowska has examined other explanations for her findings, such as limitations to working memory, and even so-called "test wiseness," but she concluded that these non-linguistic factors are irrelevant.

She also stressed that the findings have nothing to do with intelligence. Participants with low levels of educational attainment were given instruction following the tests, and they were able to learn the constructions very quickly. She speculates that this could be because their attention was not drawn to sentence construction by parents or teachers when they were children.

Many English Speakers Cannot Understand Basic Grammar
ScienceDaily (July 6, 2010)
Turns out grammar needs to be taught.


Debbie said...

and on a related note.....I just opened my daily shipment of packages from Amazon, and lo and behold, my new sentence diagramming book arrived. It's a Workbook (was recommended in the comments here) and at first glance I love it so much I instantly wanted to order 2 more (one for each of the kids).

But I'm resisting the urge until I do it myself and make sure it's a fit.

I'm meeting with Erica from Ultimate SAT Verbal tomorrow for a grammar session and will bring along and see what she thinks too.

It looks like so much fun!

palisadesk said...

I've been flogging this point for years -- to no appreciable effect;-

This is a significant factor in the issue of "reading comprehension" vs. decoding skill, which Willingham, E.D. Hirsch, and Robert Pondiscio have had a lot to say about. They are of course correct that "reading comprehension" is not "a skill" in the sense of being a unitary, single entity. But they are absolutely wrong when they imply that it does not consist of component skills, many of which are teachable.

Besides vocabulary and background knowledge, which the above spokespeople discuss, factors such as grammatical and syntactical knowledge, as in the examples cited in this post, as well as fluency and endurance -- the ability to read rapidly and accurately enough to follow a complex line of argument to its conclusion without losing the plot, plus familiarity with academic English, which differs significantly from spoken language, and a number of other specifics are significant players in "reading comprehension" at past the primary grade level.

You can have students whose decoding skills are excellent, whose background knowledge and vocabulary are more than adequate, who founder where "reading comprehension" is concerned because of skill breakdown in some of these component areas, which can be addressed instructionally.

Seems to me we should have much more discussion and examination of these issues rather than sweeping them under the carpet. The fact that we don't only adds fuel to the fire of those who believe IQ to be determinative. IQ certainly prevails when needed skills are not taught.

Catherine Johnson said...

Debbie - which one did you get?

Catherine Johnson said...

Did I say this already?

I would be willing to bet a modest sum of money that students who have mastered sentence diagramming would have significantly higher scores on SAT writing.

I emailed with "PWN" yesterday, and he said he would **not** bet a modest sum of money against it!

Catherine Johnson said...

palisadesk - I absolutely agree!

Remember the Whimbey test?

Written English is VERY different from spoken English -- and I'm not sure anyone has nailed down what's different about it.

How do you learn what those differences are?

Schools - and, in this case, research scholars - assume that you simply 'pick it up' through reading.

Well, I am here to tell you that it is extremely difficult to pick up the grammar of Shakespeare or the Bible simply by reading. And I am a very good reader.

(side note: I've got some great posts from palisadesk stacked up to put up...)

Hainish said...

"But they are absolutely wrong when they imply that it does not consist of component skills"

I'm not sure that they do imply this, tho I'm willing to bet that many might infer it.

I think they would say that it would be less of a problem if students were tested on those teachable component skills, because it would allow what is actually taught (i.e., not background knowledge) to be assessed.

IOW, it's the lumping of those components into a falsely constructed skill--comprehension-- that's the problem.

palisadesk said...

Hainish, I expect that Willingham, at least, would probably agree that what we call "reading comprehension" is composed of component skills, some of which can be taught. However, when he discusses "reading comprehension" in some of his more popular recent pieces, he does not advert to this, and conveys to *many* readers (as I have observed in numerous reading fora) that reading comprehension skills cannot be taught.

I've read a couple of Hirsch's books and admire his work but have not observed him to get involved with instructional minutiae.

Pondiscio, however, has stated explicitly, and more than once, that "reading comprehension" is a function of background knowledge and vocabulary, and apart from providing a content-rich curriculum, we cannot "teach" reading comprehension skills (because they do not exist). That may be his opinion, but it is untrue.

Reading is a complex human behavior, and like other complex behaviors -- take many sports, arts or even driving as examples -- it contains identifiable subskills, and those components have components. We certainly have not identified them all, but we do know how to teach a number of reasoning skills and certainly the grammar and syntactical knowledge that factor into understanding written (and sometimes spoken) English.

The Morningside Academy people have done a lot of work on identifying components of reading copmprehension (and verbal and mathematical reasoning) and methods to teach and assess them. Engelmann's DI programs (some of them) also do this, and they do directly improve "reading comprehension."

I've got some sources and cites for the importance of sentence-level comprehension skills which I can dig up on demand.

What Willingham and Pondiscio have stated, that deserves recognition, is that teaching "reading strategies" instead of content knowledge (and, I would add, other components) does not significantly improve students' reading comprehension. They also rightly target the vapidity of much of our subject matter content at least through the middle grades.

APatentLawyer said...

"The soldier was hit by the sailor."

Seems to me the way we resolve this "reading" problem is that we force the author to write "better".

Anonymous said...

Rewriting "The soldier was hit by the sailor" as "The sailor hit the soldier" literally changes the subject.

This is an important, if subtle, distinction - and I hope that anyone whose living depends on the precise usage of language (as using the name "APatentLawyer" implies) clearly understands.

- Andy