kitchen table math, the sequel: all teachers should pay attention to anaphora

Friday, September 28, 2012

all teachers should pay attention to anaphora

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Morningside teaches students how to read anaphora, and that my own freshmen students seem to have difficulty understanding anaphora.

I saw another example this week (post here).
Some combinations of words are possible in English, while others are not possible. Every native speaker of English can easily judge that ‘Home computers are now much cheaper’ is a possible English sentence, whereas “Home computers now much are cheaper” is not, because they know that “much” is wrongly positioned in the second example. The ability to recognise such distinctions is evidence that in some sense native speakers already know the rules of grammar, even if they have never formally studied grammar….”
An Introduction to English Grammar by Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson
Most of my students did not know what the words "such distinctions" referred to. They did not know that the authors were alluding to the distinction they had just made, in the previous sentence, between ‘Home computers are now much cheaper’ and 'Home computers now much are cheaper.'

My students understood the first two sentences of the paragraph perfectly. That wasn't the problem.

They were having a specific problem with the words "such distinctions." They believed that the author had brought up a new issue referring to something 'out in the world,' and they were stumped because they couldn't tell what that new issue might be. What distinctions, out in the world, were the authors talking about?

So now we're focusing directly and explicitly on anaphora in the texts we read.

At the moment I'm thinking you could produce a huge jump in reading comprehension in an awful lot of students just by teaching anaphora comprehension explicitly and making sure students become fluent in reading and understanding anaphora.

I'm also thinking this may be a skill students can pick up quickly.

We'll see.


Anonymous said...
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SATVerbalTutor. said...

I don't know if this is purely an anaphora issue: the ability to relate the phrase "such distinctions" to what's just been talked about in the paragraph means that they have to realize that the previous sentence discusses a distinction. But since the word "distinction" doesn't actually appear -- the reader has to build the bridge between the transition "whereas" and the more abstract concept of "distinction" -- there's a cognitive leap involved. I don't know if that can be taught explicitly. The concrete-abstract problem is really the central issue that I face when teaching SAT reading, so I'd be very interested to know if teaching anaphora (or antecedent-pronoun) explicitly makes a real difference.

Catherine Johnson said...

I don't know if this is purely an anaphora issue: the ability to relate the phrase "such distinctions" to what's just been talked about in the paragraph means that they have to realize that the previous sentence discusses a distinction.


Teaching anaphora explicitly is going to make a difference simply in terms of cluing students in to the fact that the words "this," "that," "these," "those" and a few others almost always refer to something earlier int he text ----

It's an interesting question how the instantaneous knowledge that 'such distinctions' has to mean that a distinction has just been made then affects comprehension....

btw, my students definitely understood that the authors had just pointed out the difference between the two wordings.

I ***think*** they knew what the word 'distinctions' meant but I should have checked that more closely.

In any event, it seems pretty clear to me -- I guess I should say provisionally clear -- that quite a few students (across the country, not just in my class) aren't picking up on 'elaboration' inside paragraphs.

They're reading each sentence separately, as an entity that refers to something in the world.

I think this probably gets back to the conversation you and I had about the 'academic argument' inside academic texts.

Most students - and this includes students at the most elite colleges - don't realize that academic essays are part of a broader argument in the field.

(In the case of the broader argument, the text is often referring to another text, rather than to 'something outside, in the world.')

Katharine Beals said...

I believe this is an issue of spoken language comprehension as well. I'm guessing that if something like the excerpted paragraph had been delivered orally in a conversation (and in a more conversational manner) it could still pose the same challenge vis a vis figuring out the (discourse-based) antecedent of "such distinctions."

My impression is that, when it comes to taking in extended, connected discourse, listening comprehension is as much a problem as reading comprehension.

And that perhaps teaching anaphora resolution explicitly, as Catherine suggests, could address both.