kitchen table math, the sequel: The Secret Life of Pronouns and a pop quiz (part 1)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Secret Life of Pronouns and a pop quiz (part 1)

We've been talking, off and on, about students having trouble understanding anaphora.

Come to find out, pronouns, along with conjunctions, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs -- the so-called "function words," or "style words," as James Pennebaker calls them in The Secret Life of Pronouns -- are processed in a different part of the brain from "content words."

Function words are quite different from content words. For one thing, function words, according to Pennebaker, are almost impossible to perceive in speech. Which I assume means they are invisible in written texts as well.

Moreover, function words are extremely difficult to learn after the age of 12. Learning the content words of a foreign language is doable; learning the function words, not really.

And, last but not least, function words are highly 'social.' The meaning of a function word depends upon social context, and damage to the part of the brain that handles function words results in damage to social skills, too. Damage to the part of the brain that handles content words leaves social skills intact.

What might these findings mean for students who have difficulty understanding anaphora in written texts?

I don't know the answer to that, but I think it may mean, in part, that novice readers in college don't experience written text as written speech in the way fluent readers do.* The act of reading academic prose isn't for them a social exchange between a writer who is speaking and a reader who is listening  (a point that may be related to the argument Gerald Graff has been making for lo these many years).

Do students hear the 'voice' of an academic text? It's possible many do not. I can read Spanish and French fairy well, but I've never heard a voice in either language -- is it the same for English-speaking students who've read very little academic prose?

Do they know that academic text has a voice?

I wonder.

In any event, it seems clear to me that understanding pronouns in speech does not lead automatically to understanding the same pronouns in prose. And this problem cannot be solved by teaching vocabulary (although for reasons I'll get to later I think vocabulary instruction would help). Function words take their meaning from context.

I'm wondering whether the difficulty students have understanding anaphora inside academic prose works like this, at least in some cases:
  1. Students don't experience the reading of academic prose as a social exchange. 
  2. So students don't automatically interpret the anaphora used in academic text in terms of other words in the text, but instead assume that the meaning must be lodged outside the text somewhere
This may be a stretch. Still, reading Pennebaker in the wake of attending Morningside's Summer School Institute, I am coming to think that function words are an important piece of the reading comprehension puzzle.

Students who have no problem understanding function words in a face-to-face exchange do have problems understanding the same words in text.

Pop quiz:

How many function words exist in the English language?
How many of the words we use each day are function words?

The Psychological Function of Function Words by Cindy Chung and James Pennebaker
* Written prose isn't written speech; spoken language and (most) written language are radically different. But a good reader experiences written prose as a form of speech. A good reader hears a 'voice' in prose.


Auntie Ann said...

I've found reading what I've written out loud is invaluable. You can hear the clunk, even if you can't see it.

Jean said...

Oh wow, this explains a lot! When I was a teenager, I lived overseas for a year. The prepositions were by far the hardest thing to learn. When I took German and Russian in college, those words were the killer; prepositions were impossible and those other function words nearly as bad.

This also implies to me that grammar really is a skill to be learned young. Tackling in it high school is too late; we have to do it when students are in elementary school and make sure that they understand certain things before they leave.