kitchen table math, the sequel: What matters most in "The Writing Revolution"

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What matters most in "The Writing Revolution"

Peg Tyre’s recent article in the Atlantic, "The Writing Revolution,” provoked controversy among educators, many of whom find direct instruction in writing, particularly at the level of sentences, to be unnatural, ineffective, joy stifling, and creativity-crushing (despite compelling evidence to the contrary).

The article should instead have provoked controversy among linguists.

It implies, among other things, that:

-Many under-privileged children, even in high school, don’t know how to use basic conjunctions like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so, and basic connectors like although and despite, and that the remedy includes teaching them the parts of speech.

-Such students also don’t understand that “the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”

The problem is that, except for severely language impaired children (and non-native speakers), these basic facts about the English language are among the things that children do pick up incidentally, without formal instruction, and master well before high school. (Mastering the written aspects of language, including the conventions that are specific to writing, is a different story).

Does anyone seriously think that typically developing native high school students, however socio-economically underprivileged, don’t know how to use and and or?

As for although and despite, while it’s possible that these specific words don’t figure much in the everyday speech of socio-economically underprivileged children, how likely is it, if you said something like “Although the hurricane won’t hit for a couple of days, you should start getting ready for it now” or “Despite the fact that we haven’t lost electricity yet, we might still lose it later,” they wouldn’t understand what you meant? Has anyone even bothered to test this?

The notion that the students in question don’t know these crucial function words comes partly from observations about their written language: “the students’ sentences were short and disjointed” and deficient in function words; partly from their performance on a “quick quiz” that required them to use these function words; and partly from their performance on a task that combined reading comprehension and writing: reading a passage from Of Mice and Men and then writing a sentence based on the passage that began “Although George...”

In this last task:
Many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”
As a linguist who specializes in grammar, reading comprehension, and the mechanics of writing, I’d like to suggest an alternative explanation for what Tyre and others are observing here: these students are showing a combination of difficulties with reading comprehension, difficulties with writing conventions, and difficulties sustaining attention.

These high school students know perfectly well what for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so, although and despite mean, and how to use them. And, as the article observes, “the students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences.”

However, the article provides no evidence about their reading comprehension—and how many of them, for example, comprehend at the level of Of Mice and Men. While they surely understand the basic function words of their native language, perhaps they don’t understand all of nouns and adjectives used by Steinbeck. Perhaps (especially if they encounter words they don’t know) they aren’t able to sustain attention across some of his longer, more complex sentences. And while they surely could use the word “although” correctly in oral speech, perhaps they haven’t been instructed in the basics of punctuation and sentence fragments vs. complete sentences. All this could result in a fragment like Although George and Lenny were friends. when what the teacher was looking for instead was Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

And all this is consistent with the efficacy of the remediation program adopted by the school that the article profiles:
The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children … are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.
Prompting children to use certain function words, and also appositives, prompts them to practice writing longer, more complex sentences. Helping students comprehend paragraphs improves their ability to write responses to reading passages.
By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject. So in chemistry class in the winter of 2010, Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although.

Although ... “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.”

Unless ... “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.”  
If …  
This was a hard one. Finally, she figured out a way to finish the sentence. If … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.”
Notice that what’s hard about this task isn’t the meaning of the function words and how to use them, but understanding the chemistry of hydrogen and oxygen well enough to know their relevant causal and contrastive properties. The issue is both reading comprehension and subject-specific mastery. But the task is still a good one, because what the although, unless, and if prompts do is to prompt Monica to review the lesson with the specific goal of finding the causal and contrastive relationships it discusses.
As her understanding of the parts of speech grew, Monica’s reading comprehension improved dramatically. “Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”
When you’re prompted to look in a text for the kinds of relationships expressed by although and if, you know that you should specifically be looking for words like although and if. This kind of focus may help students overcome difficulties sustaining attention, such that complex texts become something more meaningful than a “sea of words.”

The Hochman method is a great antidote to the current fads in writing instruction, but not for most of the reasons suggested in Tyre’s article.

(Cross-posted at Out In Left Field).


Mack Robert said...

Good info and explanation as usual. Thanks for sharing the info.

If you have no idea how to find a good job.. Click here management jobs India.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hey Katie - JUST reading this -- I think I sent you the Robinson article ... since I don't exactly have email at the moment (don't know how to access Verizon & your address is on Verizon, etc...) I'll try to post the salient passage.

My favorite part of the article was the instruction to write sentences beginning with although!

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm guessing Hochman based the 'although' sentences on Kellogg Hunt's research. Very interested to hear what you have to say about Hunt.