kitchen table math, the sequel: desperately seeking anaphora

Friday, September 7, 2012

desperately seeking anaphora

At Morningside Academy I learned that many students have difficulty understanding anaphora, which I am (presently) defining as any expression in a text that:
  • refers back to something earlier in the text (the antecedent)
  • often possesses a meaning that can't be found out by looking the word or words up in a dictionary
But shortly afterwards both Androcles and the Lion were captured, and the slave was sentenced to be thrown to the Lion, after the latter had been kept without food for several days.
source: Tales of Wonder From Many Lands: A Reader for Composition by Howard Canaan and Joel N. Feimer
"Latter" refers to the Lion, and a dictionary can't tell you that.

Yesterday, in class, I found that most of my students were thrown by this passage. I assume the same has been true of students in all of my previous classes, but I never picked up on it. (aaarggh)

This sentence was a problem, too:
Some holidays are greatly overrated, Valentine's Day is one of them.
source: Hunter College Reading/Writing Center Grammar and Mechnics
Nearly all of the class thought this sentence was correctly punctuated, and not because they had no idea what a complete sentence (or clause) is. (I was pleasantly surprised on the 'what is a complete sentence?' front.)

My students easily pegged "Some holidays are greatly overrated" as a complete sentence, but they vehemently denied that "Valentine's Day is one of them" could be complete because it doesn't make sense on its own. I do mean vehement. I had the same reaction from the rising 8th grader I worked with last week.

From the get-go, two falls ago, when I returned to the classroom, I've been trying to teach my students how to write cohesive prose. Writing cohesive prose means connecting sentences to one another, and connecting sentences to one another means using anaphora.

But now I'm going to be paying close attention to anaphora in reading comprehension, too.

Meanwhile, turns out Erica M. has been dealing with this issue forever:
Catherine, that is EXACTLY the kind of sentence my students have trouble with. That's why I do so many "is it a sentence or not?" drills with my students. They can't tell. Even kids at $40,000/year Manhattan private schools (especially kids at $40,000/year Manhattan private schools!) just can't figure it out. They can't separate grammar from context. That's why they write endless comma splices. I have one student right now, a very bright rising senior at a notoriously progressive Manhattan private school, whom I recently spent an entire session just doing "is it a sentence or not?/punctuate the comma splices" with, and the next practice SAT she took, she still got loads of them wrong! I'm going to keep having to write her drills. I bet that in her entire education, no one has ever made her do this. What disturbs me, though, is that her teachers have apparently looked past the problem for years.
and see:
All good writing consists of good sentences properly joined.


Allison said...

I'm skeptical that you've found the source of the problem.

Do these students have problem with pronouns? Sentences with pronouns don't make sense by themselves either, and you can't look up "he" and see the referent.

But shortly afterwards both Androcles and the Lion were captured, and he was sentenced to be thrown to the Lion, after it had been kept without food for several days.

are they thrown by the above?
is "he was sentenced to be thrown to a lion" a sentence to them?

isn't it more likely they didn't know Androcles was a man and a slave, and didn't know "latter" and "former"?

"see those donuts? I want that one." vs. "see that donut? I want it."

are both just as confusing? is "I want it" recognizable as a sentence?

"see that tree? That's where he is." is the second one a recognizable sentence to them?

SATVerbalTutor. said...


I think it's a combination of the two problems: context and grammar. My students definitely do have problems with pronouns and antecedents (interestingly enough, I think Catherine and I have been talking about the exact same thing, it's just that she's been calling it "anaphora" and I've been calling it a grammar problem.) Even when the antecedent would seem to be totally clear from the context of the sentence, they still sometimes have an inordinate amount of difficulty figuring it out. They just can't seem to think logically about relationship (again, high-achieving kids). It's very strange, and I'm frankly not always sure what to do about it. The lack of contextual information just confounds them more.

One common stumbling block for kids on SAT Writing is the inclusions of unfamiliar authors/political figures/scientists, etc. in sentences. They don't pay enough attention to the news to know who those people are, and if they haven't been taught phonics, they can't sound the names out! So they'll sit there staring at the word, trying to figure out what it says, and the grammar aspect will just go straight out the window. Then they'll blame the test for being "tricky."

I'm not sure they'd recognize "I want it" as a sentence. Some would, some wouldn't. A lot would probably think it was too short or didn't make enough sense out of context. They get thrown by pronouns because no one's ever taught them that a pronoun and a noun are grammatically equivalent, and so when they see something that doesn't make sense on its own, they assume it can't possibly be a sentence.

Catherine Johnson said...

Do these students have problem with pronouns?


"Them" is a pronoun.

My students don't think "Valentine's Day isn't one of them" is a complete sentence.

Yes, pronouns are a huge problem.

The Morningside remedial reading curriculum first teaches anaphora to fluency, THEN teaches central idea.

Catherine Johnson said...

isn't it more likely they didn't know Androcles was a man and a slave, and didn't know "latter" and "former"?


They knew that Androcles was a man; they knew that Androcles was an escaped slave. They knew what a lion was.

(To be fair, one student in the class didn't follow the story.)

The problem was the word "latter."

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm changing my definition of "anaphora," by the way. Thinking about it today, I realized that it's not correct to define 'anaphora' as a word whose meaning can't be found in a dictionary. That's true of pronouns & words like "the latter," but not of all anaphora.

Catherine Johnson said...

"see those donuts? I want that one." vs. "see that donut? I want it."

My students have no trouble with anaphora in the context of conversation.

They have trouble with anaphora in the context of prose.

Talking is easy, writing is hard. Reading is hard, too.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think Catherine and I have been talking about the exact same thing, it's just that she's been calling it "anaphora"


We have!

Here's the sequence for me.

First of all, I had never given a single second's thought to anaphora in general, nor to pronouns specifically.

I had no idea what anaphora meant, in fact.

Then I attended the Morningside Institute, where I discovered that the remedial reading curriculum Morningside uses (SRA's "Reading for Success" by Bob Dixon) trains students to fluency on anaphora before it teaches main idea.

First: Anaphora
Then: Central idea

Then I came back and....worked with the student I've mentioned....and discovered that, lo and behold, he didn't think "Valentine's day is one of them" is a sentence.

Somewhere in there I had lunch with Erica, who told me that her students have trouble with pronouns!

I was gobsmacked.

BUT...the more I read about talking vs. writing, the more it makes sense to me.

Another thing: since I began teaching composition, I've been intensely focused on cohesion. What is it, and how does one teach it?

Well....cohesion is all about anaphora.

To discover that the Morningside people teach reading comprehension by focusing on anaphora, and that Erica's students have difficulty with pronouns....was eye-opening.

It's all the same issue.

How do individual sentences stick together to make a meaning that transcends the individual sentences?

It's the 'binding problem' for writing and reading.

Anaphora really key.

SATVerbalTutor. said...


My guess is that your students had trouble with the word "latter" because figuring out what it meant required a level of precision that they're not accustomed to. In order to figure it out, they had to 1) read *backwards* in the sentence, which they're probably very unaccustomed to doing; 2) sift through the information in the rest of the sentence to identify the two elements listed (Androcles and the lion); and 3) match the word "latter" to the second element.

For most educated adult readers, that progression occurs so naturally that they aren't even aware that there is a process, but for a kid struggling with comprehension, even realizing that those steps are involved is a big deal. The usual reaction? But that's HARD! How would you know to read BACKWARDS in a sentence? They haven't practiced the individual steps to the point of fluency, so putting the three together is overwhelming. It seems like way too much work.

Catherine Johnson said...

Yes! Yes!

I've just become aware that anaphora means backward reference; there's a whole separate word for forward reference.

I would have been waaayyy better off if someone had taught me all this stuff back before I became a writer...

Catherine Johnson said...

Does anyone know whether Jeanne Chall looked at sentence structure in her study of SAT score decline?

Everyone seems to have focused on the decline in vocabulary used in textbooks.

I bet there's an equally striking decline in sentence complexity.

I ***know*** there's a decline in sentence complexity; all you have to do to see it is pick up a copy of a 6th grade McGuffy's reader.

Or Charles Dickens.

Those sentences are HARD -- and I'm pretty sure they weren't hard for Dickens' vast audiences when he was alive.

ChemProf said...

I don't think there's any doubt that sentence complexity has declined. My sister is a Louisa May Alcott nut (as in she speaks every year at the Alcott conference at Orchard House), and gets asked about whether Little Women is a good book for a preteen girl. These days, she tells them no -- most 10-12 year olds can't read it. That's one of my personal goals -- to have my kids able to read late 19th/early 20th century literature when they are about that age. After a discussion at KTM, I started reading Beatrix Potter to my three year old, just to get that complexity into her ear.

Take one of the lexile score calculators, and type in a little classic children's lit. Peter Rabbit is at seventh grade level, by modern standards.

Allison said...

--They haven't practiced the individual steps to the point of fluency, so putting the three together is overwhelming. It seems like way too much work.

Even this is a bridge too far.
It is too much work for them, and that's after you've described the steps. Without you, they have never been told explicitly what to do to understand what they are reading, just as they were never taught grammar or rhetoric.

It's precisely the same problem in pre-algebra and beyond. Students read problems, don't immediately understand what is being asked, and then seize up. They simply don't know that the problem contains all of the information necessary to find the solution, if they just start breaking it apart into what's known and unknown.
They don't even understand what reading the problem can tell them, because they've never practiced those skills. And in face of that immediate void, they don't try to figure out what to do because they don't even have useful heuristics in hand..

Catherine, do you teach grammar? When I was in 9th grade, we used Warriner's to learn grammar. We were expected to identify all of the elements of a sentence on demand, to explain what was being said. I don't know if it was merely good or excellent, but it was competent back then, in an edition from the mid 80s.

ChemProf said...

I am reminded of a Russian friend of mine who told me he gave up trying to figure out articles when he realized that "I saw the dog. A dog barked." and "I saw a dog. The dog barked." implied different numbers of dogs. As Allison said, he just saw it and gave up. He'd write his memo and just sprinkle in articles until it looked right (but often that meant things like "turn on the Ocean Street.")

palisadesk said...

Consider the early 19th-century American novel, Last of the Mohicans, a tremendous best seller at the time (well before public education in most of the U.S.), and try to imagine today's factory workers, McDonald's servers -- or even professionals -- working through these passages as a leisure-time activity:

While, in the pursuit of their daring plans of annoyance, the restless
enterprise of the French even attempted the distant and difficult
gorges of the Alleghany, it may easily be imagined that their proverbial
acuteness would not overlook the natural advantages of the district we
have just described. It became, emphatically, the bloody arena, in which
most of the battles for the mastery of the colonies were contested.
Forts were erected at the different points that commanded the facilities
of the route, and were taken and retaken, razed and rebuilt, as victory
alighted on the hostile banners. While the husbandman shrank back from
the dangerous passes, within the safer boundaries of the more ancient
settlements, armies larger than those that had often disposed of the
scepters of the mother countries, were seen to bury themselves in these
forests, whence they rarely returned but in skeleton bands, that were
haggard with care or dejected by defeat. Though the arts of peace were
unknown to this fatal region, its forests were alive with men; its
shades and glens rang with the sounds of martial music, and the echoes
of its mountains threw back the laugh, or repeated the wanton cry,
of many a gallant and reckless youth, as he hurried by them, in the
noontide of his spirits, to slumber in a long night of forgetfulness.

(paragraph chosen at random from p. 5)

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