kitchen table math, the sequel: can you 'pick up' the grammar of writing through reading?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

can you 'pick up' the grammar of writing through reading?

I'm thinking the answer is 'yes.'

I was given almost no formal instruction in grammar at all as a child, and my years in Spanish class didn't make up for it. Yet when I finally began to learn formal grammar just two years ago, I discovered that nearly all of my writing follows the traditional prescriptive rules of written grammar, up to and including the prohibition against dangling participles.*

I learned all of the rules by reading. (And writing, but mostly, I think, by reading.)

The question is: if it was easy for me to learn applied grammar by reading, and I think it was, why isn't easy for most students today?

Have to catch a train, so more later.

* I didn't quite have the who-whom distinction, but close.

18 comments:

Jo in OKC said...

I'm not sure why it was easy for you and not for most students today.

However, I picked up vocabulary by reading. My daughter, who read easily at least as much as I did, did NOT pick up vocabulary by reading. (She'd fit an appropriate meaning into the sentence, but somehow didn't associate it with the word, so when asked about the word later, she had no idea.) We had to do explicit vocabulary instruction with her.

So, I'd say this is one of those cases when different students need different things.

MagisterGreen said...

Going back to ancient times, the Greeks and Romans taught their children not rules of traditional grammar but rather the works of the great poets and thinkers who had come before. In particular, emphasis was placed on memorizing and modeling one's own schoolwork on the works of past masters. If we accept that students can learn grammatical rules through exposure as opposed to explicit instruction (which I do accept), the fact that schools in general (public and private) refuse to teach, much less acknowledge, the works of "masters" would go a long way towards explaining why students today know so little of the rules of traditional grammar.

Randy Berkman said...

I agree. I was a keen reader from as a child and was able to "intuit" grammatical questions on the SAT Writing even though I received little grammar instruction. I remember reader an article in the Journal of Educational Psychology about transfer being bidirectional in reading and spelling. Maybe something similar happens with grammar.

As for childrens' poor grammar today, that might well be a result of poor reading instruction (i.e. little or no phonics or Core Knowledge).

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I'm not so sure that poor learning of grammar today is much more prevalent than it was 40 years ago.

Many people can learn grammar from reading, but it takes a lot of reading of stuff that follows the rules of the grammar. Not many students are reading that much, and not much of what they are reading is that carefully constructed grammatically.

Jean said...

I think many people--like you--can learn general grammar rules by reading. I am also one of those people, BUT I have always felt insecure in my writing. There are many fine points that I did not absorb and that I make mistakes in. I have also noticed that my daughter, who reads no more than I did at her age but who is made to do a rigorous grammar course, can read at a higher level than I could at her age.

Gasstation makes a good point; I am not sure that most people read *enough* to really absorb good grammar. I also agree that popular children's fiction may not use enough good grammar to really rub off on the kids who don't read much in the first place. Much of the current popular stuff reads more like speech: it's less formal, it uses a lot of sentence fragments and slangy construction, and so on. I don't mind that, but I wouldn't want it to be a child's only guide to grammar.

Catherine Johnson said...

Randy - hi!

Yup, I had your experience exactly, although there wasn't a grammar section on the SAT when I took it, of course.

Still, when I first encountered the SAT grammar section, I had no problem doing it.

Catherine Johnson said...

You have to know grammar 'by ear,' and I think that's probably just as true for writing as it is for speaking.

On the other hand, and I have to get a post up about this, actually KNOWING what the various sentence-combining options are, knowing their names, is a huge help and I wish to heck someone had clued me in to them BEFORE I became a writer.

Catherine Johnson said...

gasstation wrote: Not many students are reading that much, and not much of what they are reading is that carefully constructed grammatically.

That's my hypothesis at the moment. I assume that kids simply aren't spending enough time reading -- reading under the direction of a teacher -- to learn the grammar of writing incidentally.

And I'm now skeptical of the capacity of explicit instruction to make up for lack of time spent doing assigned reading.

Catherine Johnson said...

My daughter, who read easily at least as much as I did, did NOT pick up vocabulary by reading. (She'd fit an appropriate meaning into the sentence, but somehow didn't associate it with the word

Interesting!

Wow ----- hmmm. That's fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Are you really sure that you didn't receive any formal grammar instruction as a child?

I can tell you that I have absolutely NO memory of learning the standard multiplication and division algorithms. Nor do I have any memory of learning my multiplication tables. However, these bits of knowledge didn't spring forth into my brain from nothing. I was explicitly taught the multiplication and division algorithms. I'm sure that I must have been made to practice the multiplication tables. But I do not recall this.

Just because you don't remember being explicitly taught something, doesn't mean that you weren't explicitly taught something.

That being said, I do believe that many people's grasp of grammar is a function of their parents' facility with grammar. If you grow up around people who speak in a grammatically correct manner, you are going to learn to speak that way. If you speak in a grammatically correct way, you are more likely to be able to write in a grammatically correct way.

Yes, reading rich and varied texts also contributes to your facility with grammar.

Catherine Johnson said...

Are you really sure that you didn't receive any formal grammar instruction as a child?

I'm certain I had basic grammar instruction in grades K-6.

I didn't have anything beyond that.

I learned subject, predicate, noun, verb, adjective, adverb...capital letter & period & something about commas.

I'm sure I was explicitly taught those things and given practice in them, although I don't remember it.

Somehow I **do** remember those basic terms, and I associate the learning of those terms with grade school.

Catherine Johnson said...

That being said, I do believe that many people's grasp of grammar is a function of their parents' facility with grammar. If you grow up around people who speak in a grammatically correct manner, you are going to learn to speak that way.

You would think that, but it turns out not to be true!

When linguistics transcribe the conversations of highly educated professionals, they find the same thing they find in uneducated nonprofessionals.

Talking is radically different from writing.

The grammar of writing can only be found in writing!

Catherine Johnson said...

(And in prepared speeches .... )

cranberry said...

I refused to allow my kids to read Junie B. Jones books, because the one copy I saw was filled with poor grammar. My kids tended to learn things the first time they were presented. Presenting a bad model is a bad idea.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

I really didn't get that much grammar in English class: parts of speech, commas, FANBOYS, compound/complex sentences, parenthetical clauses. That was pretty much it for what we covered in class in high school. We were, however, handed a copy of Strunk and White the first day of ninth grade and told to memorize it...there would be a test later on in the year. Can you imagine any teacher doing that now? Just handing S&W to a bunch of ninth graders and telling them to go learn it themselves? We actually did, though, or at least most of us.

All of the tense stuff I learned in French class, though. It was drilled into us for so *explicitly* for so many years that there was just no way I could forget. My teachers weren't amazing or inspirational, but they were at least very competent.

As for the reading a lot/vs. explicit instruction, I really don't think it's one or the other. I read constantly and absorbed a huge amount of grammar and style that way; then when I learned the grammar formally, my typical reaction was, "Oh that's what that's called." Learning the grammar allowed me to put a name to what I'd be doing on my own for years. Interestingly enough, I could make the connection between theory and practice instantaneously -- a lot of my students will do things correctly when they work instinctively, but then when they learn the rule for something like, say, "have gone" vs. "went," they can't seem to apply it (although granted I do see plenty of grammatical problems in their actual writing).

More thoughts: I some tutor kids who read a fair amount but whose writing has lots of problems; they never just picked up the grammar on their own. On the other hand, I have students who don't read a lot of their own but whose writing doesn't have any major problems. It's not particularly sophisticated, but grammatically it's fine. For the first group, explicit instruction is really necessary, and they need a lot of -- drills and drills and drills on comma splices (which I have to write this week!); for the second, they need more exposure to good writing, and they need to be encouraged to take more risks stylistically (they're the ones who think using "for all" instead of "despite" is wrong). They need to learn that adult writers write in ways they might consider "weird" or "awkward" or too complicated.

I think the memorization of greek/latin classics probably helped immensely: it really does help to have a series of models for what good writing looks/sounds like. As I've said before, one of the things I try to get kids away from in terms of their academic writing is the idea that everything they write has to be wildly new and creative. Academic writing is formulaic. It just is. Clarity trumps pretty much everything. You can be creative when you've mastered all the rules, but until they, you need to pay attention to what people with more experience do and learn from them. (I think part of the problem is all the hysteria over plagiarism: of COURSE kids shouldn't be stealing other people's work, but they also need models! How else are they supposed to learn to write?) When they try to be creative, they write jumbled sentences and the like -- it's just a disaster.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

SATVerbalTutor, can you explain what you mean by 'they're the ones who think using "for all" instead of "despite" is wrong'? I'm having trouble coming up with a context in which "for all" is a suitable replacement for "despite".

cranberry said...

“Churchill for all his love of the present hour, his unquenchable appetite for new knowledge, his sense of the technological possibilities of our time, and the restless roaming of his fancy in considering how they might be most imaginatively applied, despite his enthusiasm for Basic English, or the siren suit which so upset his hosts in Moscow - despite all this, Churchill remains a European of the nineteenth century.”
--Isaiah Berlin

http://thinkexist.com/quotation/churchill-for-all-his-love-of-the-present-hour/379522.html

"For all his love of American politics, Ed Miliband has not flown to Florida to watch the Republican convention."
--Fraser Nelson

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/republicans/9509099/Cameron-and-Obama-could-soon-be-drowning-in-debt.html

Glen said...

When linguistics transcribe the conversations of highly educated professionals, they find the same thing they find in uneducated nonprofessionals.

Some features are the same; some are different.

Talking is radically different from writing.

So true...

The grammar of writing can only be found in writing!

...yet this doesn't quite follow, because speech is radically different in some ways but not others.

Educated speech contains most of the grammar of educated contemporary writing. It emerges in fragments of varying lengths. The average fragment length in speech is much shorter than in writing, but most of the same pattern exemplars show up occasionally. Kids pick up the simplest patterns first, then they begin to recognize and pick up patterns of patterns, with increasing sophistication and complexity that is limited by the sophistication of the input (and their ability to process it). They pick up these patterns from both speech and writing.

A lot of the grammar patterns in educated writing are learned from the speech of educated parents. (I'm mixing "educated" and "standard" here, which is not correct, but I'm going to let it go for now.) That's the main reason that kids like me had an advantage in English classes. The right answer on a grammar test was the one I could imagine my parents saying. The wrong answers sounded like my neighbors (I grew up in the South.)

Yes, writing extends that knowledge to a much broader range of usage patterns than are found in any set of parents, and if those usage patterns are also referred to as the "grammar" of writing then, in that sense, you can only pick up the grammar of writing from reading.

You can't learn to write well without a broad and deep exposure to high-quality writing. Your educated parents probably don't sound Victorian or Shakespearean or Biblical. You need exposure to all of those patterns as well. But you can learn most of the "grammar" of quality writing from the speech of educated parents.