kitchen table math, the sequel: follow-up to Katharine on "Writing Revolution"

Saturday, November 3, 2012

follow-up to Katharine on "Writing Revolution"

from Katharine's post on "The Writing Revolution":
- 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.


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?
As it happens, I've been thinking about "although" and "despite" for months now: I've been thinking about "although" and "despite" ever since reading William Robinson's 1995 article "Syntax and Grammatical Dependency in Adverb Clauses."

I'm very interested to hear how the passage below jibes with Katharine's knowledge of language development.

Robinson writes:
I want to focus on ... the assumption that our students need to write fewer simple sentences and more compound and complex ones ....

[Kellogg Hunt] (Grammatical Structures Written at Three Grade Levels) examined the grammatical features of the writing of students at grades 4, 8, and 12 and, for comparison, articles (not fiction) in Harper's and The Atlantic.  Among the schoolchildren, Hunt found that the 4th graders produced 37% more compound sentences than the 12th graders and the 12th graders 23% more dependent clauses than the 4th graders. So far, this would indicate that while increased compounding at the sentence level is not desirable, the increased use of dependent clauses is. However, the "superior adult" writers, as Hunt termed them, wrote only 5% more compound sentences than the 12th graders and only 6% more dependent clauses. In short, the high school seniors were using coordination and subordination at al most the same rate as professional writers of superior ability.


Despite showing that 12th graders use dependent clauses at about the same rate as do superior writers, Hunt provides some interesting data in the details of the kinds of clauses they use. To introduce their adverb clauses, they rely overwhelmingly on three words, if, whenr and because. While both the 4th and 12th graders use because at about the same rate, the 4th graders use many more when clauses and the 12th graders many more if clauses (82). But dependent clauses of contrast and concession are virtually absent from the writing of both groups. Although and even though appeared 2 times in the writing of the 4th graders (when appeared 101 times and if 30 times) and 5 times in that of the 12th graders (where when appeared 53 times and if 73 times). The contrastive whereas appeared only twice among the 12th graders and not at all in the earlier grades, and while appeared 13 times in the writing of the 4th graders and 5 times in that of the 12th graders, an indication that it was probably being used to indicate time rather than concession or contrast.
As far as I can tell, people virtually never use the words "although" and "even though" in conversation. (See, e.g.: Serving chili and A sample stretch of talk.)

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I'm thinking meteorologists and New Jersey governors don't use "although" and "even though" sentences, either.

(I cracked up reading Katharine's hurricane sentences -- "Although the hurricane won’t hit for a couple of days, you should start getting ready for it now." Believe it or not, I now possess an entire page of sentences transcribed from one of the weather people on TV the night of Hurricane Sandy. Great minds think alike.)

Back on topic: my experience of "basic writers" jibes with Kellogg's findings.

In my experience, "basic writers" don't use "concession words."

How well basic writers understand concession words inside academic prose, I don't know. I'm certain my students would understand Katharine's hurricane sentences.

The "although" sentences students write at New Dorp (2nd page - scroll down) sounded like a great idea to me the minute I read about them -- but, in line with Katharine's observations, possibly for different reasons from the school's.

I have the impression that New Dorp requires students to write "although" sentences in order to give them practice writing sentences with subordinate adverbial clauses.

In my experience, Basic Writers have very little difficulty (if any) writing subordinate adverbial clauses. My impression is that Basic Writers have very little experience learning how to punctuate adverbial clauses, either, but I could be wrong.

As far as I can tell, Basic Writers don't write "although" sentences because they aren't used to qualifying their statements or to conceding points. They aren't used to writing academic prose or thinking academic thoughts.

In fact, just before I read Peg Tyre's article I had arrived at the (tentative) conclusion that my students would profit from consciously and purposefully writing "although" sentences as thesis statements -- a subject for another post.

In the meantime, check out this beautiful two-sentence pair written by one of my students.


Catherine Johnson said...

I'm thinking relative clauses are 'where the action is' --- and for a number of reasons.

As far as I can tell, academic prose is INTENSELY "noun-y" --- academic writers (and professional writers in general) write complicated noun phrases & clauses, not complicated adverbial clauses, necessarily.

Relative clauses live inside noun phrases & noun clauses, and my sense is that they're quite challenging to master ---- for reading and for writing.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Interesting about the relative clauses -- interestingly, a lot of my students have a very difficult time recognizing them within sentences (really, really important on the SAT when they're parenthetical b/c they're used to distract from subject verb agreement). If they see a sentence with two commas, they'll often just cross out what's in the middle without considering whether the information is parenthetical in the first place. My REALLY weak students have difficulty even figuring out when a sentence makes sense when they cross out the parenthetical clause. Don't even get me started on relative clauses not set off by commas...

Bingo on the "noun-y" bit. Professional writers use abstract ("compression") nouns non-stop. "This notion," "This assertion," "This concession..." There's a constant interplay between specific ideas and their restatement in abstract terms. Because teenagers haven't usually read a lot of material that contains such constructions (!), and certainly haven't been taught to use it in their own writing, they often have a very hard time deciphering it.

MagisterGreen said...

Apart from the standard difficulties my students exhibit when I'm working with them on relative clauses in Latin (such as the idea that the relative pronoun has an entire existence within its own clause that is independent of its antecedent), I've noticed something similar with my upper level students in regard to abstract pronouns. We're reading Caesar this year in AP and he uses abstract pronouns "These things", "These men", etc... constantly and I have to stop and ensure that everyone is keeping up with all the "these" and "those" and "them" as we read. Frequently they want to treat these pronouns as true relatives; referring back to a specific word in a preceding clause. The notion that a single pronoun can refer collectively to an entire paragraph, or a single idea encapsulated in a phrase, can stop them at times. It's an interesting problem I'd not given much thought to before now.

Catherine Johnson said...

Both comments - fabulous! Very helpful. will try to get both pulled up front tomorrow. I've got to post the fantastic cohesion exercise one of my students did, too. There's just one problem, & that is a problem w/his relative clause.

I need advice on explaining it & giving practice.

"these things" applied to a whole paragraph are Death.

Great story (to me, at least, but I think you guys will Like it). The other day I had something up on the board that a student mistook for something else, & she said, "I thought that was an anaphora!"

She was annoyed, & the word anaphora rolled off her tongue as if she'd been saying it all her life.

I thought that was cool.

Linda Seebach said...

Lucy Ferriss, at Lingua Franca, has a post up about students' difficulty with "this" as a term for something unspecific they've just been talking about.

forty-two said...

Lucy Ferriss, at Lingua Franca, has a post up about students' difficulty with "this" as a term for something unspecific they've just been talking about.

That article summed up just what I was thinking as I read this post+comments. I've had just the experience she talks about - being tempted to use "this" by itself because I can't find the right word to describe what "this" is referring to. I agree with her conclusion - it is definitely a thinking problem for me: I can't find the words at least partly because I don't actually know what I want to say :doh.

Katharine Beals said...

Are sentences involving "but" considered concessive? I'm thinking of Sentence-"but"-Sentence combos, as in "The storm hasn't hit yet. But we should start getting ready for it now."

I'm guessing that what's challenging about "although" isn't just the complexity of thinking "concessively", but also the demands on working memory. Unlike the clauses in Sentence-"but"-Sentence combos, "although" clauses can't stand alone and have to be held in working memory.

I think a lot of what's challenging in reading and writing, including the problems with anaphora, are the strains on working memory--particularly challenging for those who rarely read complex prose and perhaps haven't learned effective "chunking" techniques(?).

And I think that one thing that makes the "although" prompt exercises good is that they are, in part, exercises that involve practice with careful reading and with working memory/chunking.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I teach my students (mostly grad students and college seniors) not to use "this" by itself, but only as a modifier ("this method", "this result", "this anomaly", …). It isn't that the pronoun use of "this" is ungrammatical, but that the use of "this" by itself often masks a vagueness of thought.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Linda - Thanks so much for the reference ---

Unfortunately I don't have the brain power to read it at the moment.

I **think** she's talking about 'unreferenced' this's and that's, and if so, I presumably disagree with her point. (I will find out whether I do or do not disagree when I actually read the piece -- !)

I remember being shocked when I discovered, a couple of months after I started teaching composition, that using an unreferenced 'this' or 'that' is illegal according to the books. I've used them all my life.

For a while there, I thought I should change, but then I mentioned the rule to Katharine who practically snorted. I think her exact words were: "That's ridiculous!"

On Katharine's authority I have carried on as before.

Back to reading, as opposed to writing, since real writers use unreferenced this's and that's all the time, students have to be able to figure out what the unreferenced referent actually is.

Catherine Johnson said...

(I see she's talking about thinking ---- & will just have to wait 'til tomorrow to read --- )

Catherine Johnson said...

I can't find the words at least partly because I don't actually know what I want to say :doh.

Very interesting.

I don't remember having that experience --- but it maybe be because 'cuz I didn't know the rule about not using an unreferenced This or That!

Catherine Johnson said...

I think a lot of what's challenging in reading and writing, including the problems with anaphora, are the strains on working memory

I don't have 'good thoughts' on the subject of WM at the moment (or on the subject of anything else) BUT there's an issue beyond WM (or that encompasses WM) having to do with .... academic socialization??

I'm thinking of They Say / I Say by Graff & Birkenstein.

Here's part of the blurb:

The book that demystifies academic writing, teaching students to frame their arguments in the larger context of what else has been said about their topic–and providing templates to help them make the key rhetorical moves.

Freshmen students don't tend to have a concept of "academic argument" --- and certainly not a concept of 'qualifying' a statement, or thinking constantly about everything they write from the perspective of a skeptic.

Thinking in terms of contradiction - and doing so intentionally - is pretty unusual, I think. Maybe even unnatural (in a good way).

In any event, students come out of high school accustomed to saying "One Thing," and trying to say it clearly.

They aren't trained to 'make concessions.'

Best example I have of concession in academic writing/thinking: this passage from a speech by Ben Benanke.

Catherine Johnson said...

Are sentences involving "but" considered concessive?

That's a good question.

So far, whenever I find people talking about concession & concession words, they are talking about adverbial conjunctions. Period. Not coordinating conjunctions.

I'm sure a 'but' clause could be used to make a concession but, at the same time, (but!) there really does seem to be something 'different' about subordination v. coordination ---- ????



I just checked the list of 'Concession words' I put together for my students. I pulled these words from zillions of Writing Center handouts.

"But" is on the list, but as part of a phrase: "but still."

There's something about subordination that 'feels' more sophisticated to me .... and more academic... but I'm out of my depth here.

Catherine Johnson said...

For all you grammar novices out there, 'coordination' means "compound sentences" and "subordination" means "complex sentences."

I'm still trying to understand the distinction.

Here's a " Subordination and coordination" quiz from UCL.

SATVerbalTutor. said...


When I first started tutoring the SAT, I'd mention to kids that if they could fit it in, they should try to stick in a brief counter-argument somewhere in their essay. Silly me, I assumed they knew how to make concessive statements. It turned out that they didn't -- not a single kid I've ever tutored has been able to really flesh out a counter-argument in the space of a few sentences. It's almost completely foreign to them, and they just don't have the tools. I pretty much never say that anymore -- if they need more than a session or two of tutoring period, they probably can't handle a counter-argument. Even if they can understand the concept, they don't have the technical skills to present one lucidly in five or so minutes (although one might certainly argue that lucidity is NOT a key ingredient for scoring well on the SAT essay! How's that for a concession?!) The ones who did try couldn't get past, "While some (quixotic) people might think x, in reality y is clearly true..." It took me a while to realize that most of them had zero exposure that that kind of argumentation.