kitchen table math, the sequel: 9th grade students and pronouns

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9th grade students and pronouns

from "The Grammars of Reading" by Eileen Simmons (English Journal Vol. 95, No. 5 May 2006):
One thing I know about my ninth grade students: They come to high school with an extensive background in formal English grammar. They have spent countless hours in elementary school and middle school singing songs and doing worksheets. I'm confident that they passed their grammar tests.


My students were actively making meaning from their reading [of The Odyssey] by using rhetorical grammar;* they were engaging with the text, making connections among words and phrases, and making powerful inferences....

But the progress students were making by charting action and character for difficult passages was not carrying over into their reader-response journals. In spite of my constant admonitions and frequent modeling to "use context--before and after your passage--to read for the answers to your questions," the students were still generating lists of questions without any indication that they were reading for the answers....

In desperation, I pulled out some passages for a directed-response exercise. I gave them a two-column sheet--text in the left column, with a blank right column--and asked them to write their responses in the right column. Once again I told them, "Don't just write questions. Read to find the answers to your questions. That means finding the passage in your book, reading into and out of the passage.** When I read their responses, I was appalled. Their responses had only a tangential connection to the reading.

Curious, I went back through the stack of papers and a lightbulb went on.

Pronouns. They weren't connecting the pronouns to their antecedents.

Back in the classroom, I announced my discovery and asked students to list personal pronouns I didn't want case, person, or number--just a list of pronouns In all four ninth-grade classes, the room became deathly still. Students looked at me with terrified eyes. Grammar 4 was rearing its ugly head.

"Think about the grammar songs you learned in middle school," I said.
Reading Ms. Simmons' article, I am making my own powerful inference, which is that apparently, inside K-12 English classes, "reader response" means "generating" a list of questions because the teacher told you to.

In this case, generating a list of questions about a work of literature -- The Odyssey -- you can't begin to fathom.

Here's the way things worked back on my home planet:
  • Teacher assigns reading
  • Students do reading 
  • Teacher asks comprehension questions
  • Students answer comprehension questions
  • Teacher checks answers & makes sure students understand the reading
  • Students ask questions about things in the reading they don't understand
  • Teacher answers questions about things in the reading students don't understand 
  • Serious discussion and analysis begin when the preceding activities have been successfully completed
I don't remember how home-planet teachers handled pronouns and antecedents. Wish I did. I'm guessing teachers didn't handle pronouns and antecedents at all. Instead, teachers gave students reading passages geared to their reading level, and students just gradually and naturally picked up the connection between pronouns and antecedents as they went along. (Did teachers explicitly teach pronouns and antecedents to students who didn't pick the connection up naturally? I'm guessing most did not, but again I don't know.)

The students in Ms. Simmons' class clearly are not prepared to read The Odyssey. I'm not prepared to read The Odyssey, and I am a person who scores 800 on SAT reading. I read The Odyssey along with Chris, the summer before he entered his Jesuit high school. I loved the book, but I didn't have an easy time of it.

* By "rhetorical grammar," the author means picking out the 'action verbs' in a passage (mostly, but not always, the action verbs in the independent clauses) and figuring out who (mostly who, not what) performed the action. 

** Do students know what this means?


SATVerbalTutor. said...

Ok, Ms. Simmons might be flattering herself by believing that her ninth graders get what she means by "read into and out of the passage," but no way in hell do they 1) really understand it, and 2) have the skills to do it. I was an incredibly avid reader from the age of seven, had a huge vocabulary, scored an 800 SAT CR, etc. but there is no freakin' way I would have understood a statement like that until I was in college, where I learned to read closely for real (in French class, incidentally, NOT in English class). Ninth grade? Forget it. I wasn't even close. A kid who's struggling with antecedent pronoun stuff is not ready to analyze or interpret anything. They need to work on their literal comprehension skills first. You can't have the former without the latter. I'm really getting fascinated by this whole problem: I was talking to someone who teaches Greek and Latin the other day, and SHE said her students have problems with it too (esp. the not being able to tell whether something is an independent clause when it starts with a pronoun).

Catherine, re: comprehension questions. Yes, in ninth grade, you write questions because they're assigned, and that's pretty much it. There might be the rare kid who really gets into it, but so much of that book was way over my head when I read it in ninth grade -- AND I came in already knowing and loving the story.

palisadesk said...

Well, I remember being explicitly taught about pronouns and antecedents -- 8th grade, I think. We had to memorize the rule, "a pronoun refers back to the nearest noun that agrees with it in gender, number and case" (or something like that). Then we had lots of assignments where we had to circle or underline the pronoun, go back and find the noun it referred to and circle that, and then draw an arrow arc connecting the two.

It seemed tedious at the time but it cleared up a lot of misconceptions, such as why wasn't a noun nearer the pronoun the antecedent, as in examples like, "Phil passed the ball to Anton. Later, he scored the only goal for the team." "He" has to be Phil, not Anton, b/c both are nominative. Of course if you wanted the goal scorer to be Anton you could connect the two sentences with "who" and delete " he."

Anyway in those bygone days some did teach those things explicitly. We had a grammar textook, and a more thorough one that I still possess in tenth grade.

Anonymous said...


Off topic, but, whatever became of the write up you were going to do about your interview with Mary Hake about the Grammar and Writing textbooks?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I think I was explicitly taught pronouns and antecedents also, probably in 6th and 7th grade, when we did sentence diagramming. I don't have clear recollections of that long ago, though, so I may be mistaken.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Interesting that other people were actually taught pronouns and antecedents. I don't have any recollection of really studying those things in school, either elementary or high school. We were pretty much expected to pick them up on our own. I don't recall anyone I knew having much trouble with them, but then again, I wasn't really thinking about those things in high school...

Allison said...

I was taught pronouns and antecedents the same way as PalisadesK, having to circle and draw arrows. That was 5th grade, spring 1982. I was taught sentence diagramming (which means you must correctly name the subject and predicate, and independent vs dependent clauses) in 7th or 8th grade (same teacher, same classroom both years so I can't recall which) in 1984 or 1985.

I was taught that predicate nominatives were called that in 1986 in 9th grade.

Despite remembering that, I had forgotten that the reason
"he" refers to Bob in "Bob passed the ball to Tom. Later, he scored the winning goal." was agreement in case until PalisadesK reminded me. But 10 mins ago, my husband knew the rule and could define it, even though he claimed he rejected being taught grammar.

I wouldn't assume your lack of memory means anything one way or another per se.

Independent George said...

I have to admit - I always had trouble with the technical aspects of grammar (like remembering what antecedent meant), but I could always diagram sentences correctly and scored high on reading comprehension. I picked up on it instinctively, and actually got more confused by the grammar lessons.

johnpeterjohn said...

this blog was informative..
cool math

lgm said...

I was also explicitly taught about pronouns and antecedents in public school, 9th grade. In DoDDS (dept of defense school system overseas), in 6th-8th as grammar was a part of LA.

This subject does not appear to be part of the curriculum here in NY. The grammar worksheets my children have received are junk pulled off the internet, in comparison to the textbook publishers material that I pick up in B&N. The school district has never issued an English grammar textbook, in any grade level.

Cranberry said...

They have spent countless hours in elementary school and middle school singing songs and doing worksheets.

Spending a lot of time on a subject doesn't mean it was taught well. The worksheets may have been busywork.

I would take "singing songs" as a bad sign in relation to grammar, because I think it's a reference to Schoolhouse Rock. I like Schoolhouse Rock, but it isn't a substitute for coherent instruction in grammar. If a school teaches the SR songs as part of their grammar curriculum, they don't really have a grammar curriculum.

Both the independent schools my oldest two attended devoted significant parts of 9th grade English to grammar instruction. It may be that many middle school students aren't ready to think abstractly about sentence structure, so the countless hours of worksheets don't lead to a working knowledge of grammar.

If facts have been "presented" to a class, that doesn't mean the students have learned the facts.

palisadesk said...

The singing could also refer to Shurley Grammar which teaches grammar rules through songs, among other things. I have never seen it but it's popular with homeschoolers and charter schools.

See homeschoolers' reviews

Catherine Johnson said...

Off topic, but, whatever became of the write up you were going to do about your interview with Mary Hake

oh man, good question!

why don't I at least see if I can find the interview on my hard drive...

back in a sec

Catherine Johnson said...

I was taught that predicate nominatives were called that in 1986 in 9th grade.

I had never heard of a predicate nominative until 2 years ago.

Catherine Johnson said...

Or maybe one year ago.

Catherine Johnson said...

cranberry - I agree re: singing songs.

Mnemonic devices are fabulous, but they're just a way to remember the terminology, not to actually know what the terminology means in context.

otoh, I should add that I cheated slightly in excerpting Ms. Simmons' article. Eventually one student ventures the pronoun "I" as an example of a pronoun, and then all the students come up with the other pronouns.

They definitely knew all the pronouns in some kind of .... 'chained' way.... (i.e., if you start them off with one pronoun, they can come up with the others).

It's possible these students were just having one of those inflexible-knowledge moments, where they weren't making the transfer from Last Year's Class to This Year's Class.

Still and all, the fact that these students have apparently spent tons of time studying grammar in some fashion during middle school and yet do not realize, in 9th grade, that they should pay attention to pronouns in a text they are reading .... that makes no sense to me at all.

This is where the 'teaching grammar in isolation doesn't work' critique makes sense to me, especially with pronouns, which mean nothing outside of a text or a conversation!

If you're going to teach pronouns, you need to be teaching pronouns inside texts & conversations.

TerriW said...

I was taught that predicate nominatives were called that in 1986 in 9th grade.

I had never heard of a predicate nominative until 2 years ago.

We actually just covered predicate nominatives (and how to diagram them!) a few weeks ago in Peace Hill Press' First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind, Level 3.

Third grade! The WTM books are great for grammar hounds.

Anonymous said...

I find it fascinating that some people here were taught there are cases in English. I was taught cases in Latin (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative) and in Russian (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, prepositional), but never in English. As English is not an inflected language, I believe most people (first and second language learners alike) are taught there are no cases in English.

I wonder if you were all taught the same list of cases. Cases are not universal, and different languages have different cases. Which cases were you taught English has?

allison said...

I was taught nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive, but typically they were referred to by the parts of a sentence: subject, direct object, indirect object, and possessive.

Since seldom in English are there changes in the word or the article for these cases, they are less recognized, but it explains the pronouns. the sentence "he gave it to me" and "he gave me it" are expressing the same content, with me" being a dative pronoun rather than accusative in both cases.

l was taught cases along with transitive and intransitive verbs.