kitchen table math, the sequel: 9/9/12 - 9/16/12

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.

palisadesk remembers being taught how to read pronouns

On the subject of pronoun instruction in reading class, palisadesk writes:
I remember being explicitly taught about pronouns and antecedents -- 8th grade, I think. We had to memorize the rule, "a pronoun refers back to the nearest noun that agrees with it in gender, number and case" (or something like that). Then we had lots of assignments where we had to circle or underline the pronoun, go back and find the noun it referred to and circle that, and then draw an arrow arc connecting the two.

It seemed tedious at the time but it cleared up a lot of misconceptions, such as why wasn't a noun nearer the pronoun the antecedent, as in examples like, "Phil passed the ball to Anton. Later, he scored the only goal for the team." "He" has to be Phil, not Anton, b/c both are nominative. Of course if you wanted the goal scorer to be Anton you could connect the two sentences with "who" and delete " he."
Fascinating! I don't remember ever being taught how to understand pronouns in writing.

I think today a writing instructor would probably have to tell students that the "he" in the sentence "Later he scored the only goal..." is unclear. No one teaches the nominative rule today, no one learns it, and no one knows it, including me. I'm pretty sure composition textbooks caution against this kind of reference, and I myself wouldn't use it!

Now that I read palisadesk's comment, I wish I could.

Is this a case of writing conventions changing in reaction to changes in reading instruction?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

major news from the Fed

Scott Sumner on the Bernanke press conference:
1. Bernanke emphasized that monetary stimulus is not like fiscal stimulus, it actually reduces the budget deficit. That’s right.

2. He said it was an 11 to 1 vote. The Fed is clearly behind him and hence the policy has credibility.

3. He kept talking jobs jobs jobs. And he emphasized that the Fed would do pretty much whatever it takes to get some progress on the employment front. Of course by itself that would be a bad policy. But when combined with the 2% inflation target (which he said had equal weight) it’s getting pretty close to NGDP targeting.

4. Speaking of NGDP targeting, Bernanke brought up the idea (without any prompting by reporters) and talked about Woodford’s plan for NGDP level targeting. He didn’t endorse it (how could he when the Fed only recently adopted a 2% inflation goal) but he certainly wasn’t critical of Woodford. I had the impression that if he wasn’t constrained by being head of the Fed right now, he’d be pretty sympathetic to Woodford’s proposal. And why do I have to call it “Woodford’s proposal?”

5. I’ve gotten a lot of criticism from people, even my friends in the blogosphere, for going too easy on Bernanke. Talking about how he’s well-intentioned, etc. I think this press conference shows that my comments were justified. A commenter named Mark C recently sent me a survey by Bloomberg that showed that the vast majority of economists did not think money was too tight, and only 1 out of 66 thought money was far too tight. Even though Bernanke is a Republican, he’s to the left of the mainstream of a profession that votes 70% Democratic. His call for doing whatever it takes to get more jobs was clearly sincere.
Thank God the Bernanke/Woodford policy has failed!
One down, two to go
I think Ben just did it
Is the Fed Really Causing the Sustained Drop in Interest Rates?
Federal Reserve Finally Working Expectations Channel with Open-Ended QE
Build That Apartment Building Now

The Great Recession: Market Failure or Monetary Disorder? by Robert Hetzel
Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History by Milton Friedman

Bernanke press conference

Michael Woodford reacts
David Beckworth: Money Still Matters (Fed measure is wrong) - growth in Germany's M4 Divisia money supply compared to M4 Divisia growth in Eurozone & US

Ben Bernanke Put On An Ingenious Performance Today — Here's What Just Happened by Joe Weisenthal

Rortybomb: Monetary Policy Explained with Animated gifs

PWN the SAT Math Guide Review

The main idea of the book is that "The SAT is not a math test." The implication is that the reader already does well in math and probably wants to get above 600 on the SAT (about 13 errors out of 54). Although students at all levels can learn from the book, it doesn't spend much time on the basics. This is a book for those who want to see what it is about their traditional math education that is not going to get the job done in time. In fact, the SAT specifically tries to get you to solve problems using your traditional (too slow) tools. This means that many of the problems are special cases. Instead of solving equations for x and y, you may have to solve for x+y. Instead of simplifying, you have to know how to manipulate equations into other forms. Instead of pulling out nPr and nCr, it may be easier to revert back to basic counting principles or listing all of the choices. The book does a good job of explaining these other non-traditional approaches, especially plug-in and backsolve.

"PWN the SAT" is not filled up with full practice tests. You are referred to the Blue Book for those, but it gives you a breakdown of each Blue Book question on each test. This is invaluable. You have to practice with real questions and timing, but you need to have a way to analyze what you did right and what you did wrong. The book does, however, give you many practice questions and four 20-question drills at the end. It took me less than a week, a few hours here and there, to do every question with follow-up analysis.

One interesting section is on how to "Be Nimble". I wish he would expand on that because I think you can codify the process better. The idea is that those who automatically dive into a traditional math approach may not have the quickness to come up with alternate approaches. However, I had cases where I immediately knew how to do the problem with a traditional approach (perhaps a little slowly), but spent too much time looking for the shortcut. "Nimble" (changing directions) takes time and that extra time has to be built up from other problems. It would be nice to see a section on how to be faster on the easier problems. These are things like immediately converting from one side to another for a 30-60-90 right triangle. It's easier to be nimble if you have extra time.

I highly recommend this book. Given that you are starting at a reasonable score level, you don't need anything more than this book and the official Blue Book. Beware of third-party tests. You can't "PWN the SAT" using proxy tests. You need to dive right in with the real thing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Pick a number between 1 and 10.

OK, 10.


Is there an official mathematical definition of "between" somewhere when it comes to integers versus reals? I just got caught on a SAT question when it asked for the number of integers between two points of a sequence. I included the end points. Of course, the choices included both with and without the ends. Also, I got caught on another problem when I selected the wrong choice even though I had the right answer. It's kind of a variation of mis-bubbling.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9th grade students and pronouns

from "The Grammars of Reading" by Eileen Simmons (English Journal Vol. 95, No. 5 May 2006):
One thing I know about my ninth grade students: They come to high school with an extensive background in formal English grammar. They have spent countless hours in elementary school and middle school singing songs and doing worksheets. I'm confident that they passed their grammar tests.


My students were actively making meaning from their reading [of The Odyssey] by using rhetorical grammar;* they were engaging with the text, making connections among words and phrases, and making powerful inferences....

But the progress students were making by charting action and character for difficult passages was not carrying over into their reader-response journals. In spite of my constant admonitions and frequent modeling to "use context--before and after your passage--to read for the answers to your questions," the students were still generating lists of questions without any indication that they were reading for the answers....

In desperation, I pulled out some passages for a directed-response exercise. I gave them a two-column sheet--text in the left column, with a blank right column--and asked them to write their responses in the right column. Once again I told them, "Don't just write questions. Read to find the answers to your questions. That means finding the passage in your book, reading into and out of the passage.** When I read their responses, I was appalled. Their responses had only a tangential connection to the reading.

Curious, I went back through the stack of papers and a lightbulb went on.

Pronouns. They weren't connecting the pronouns to their antecedents.

Back in the classroom, I announced my discovery and asked students to list personal pronouns I didn't want case, person, or number--just a list of pronouns In all four ninth-grade classes, the room became deathly still. Students looked at me with terrified eyes. Grammar 4 was rearing its ugly head.

"Think about the grammar songs you learned in middle school," I said.
Reading Ms. Simmons' article, I am making my own powerful inference, which is that apparently, inside K-12 English classes, "reader response" means "generating" a list of questions because the teacher told you to.

In this case, generating a list of questions about a work of literature -- The Odyssey -- you can't begin to fathom.

Here's the way things worked back on my home planet:
  • Teacher assigns reading
  • Students do reading 
  • Teacher asks comprehension questions
  • Students answer comprehension questions
  • Teacher checks answers & makes sure students understand the reading
  • Students ask questions about things in the reading they don't understand
  • Teacher answers questions about things in the reading students don't understand 
  • Serious discussion and analysis begin when the preceding activities have been successfully completed
I don't remember how home-planet teachers handled pronouns and antecedents. Wish I did. I'm guessing teachers didn't handle pronouns and antecedents at all. Instead, teachers gave students reading passages geared to their reading level, and students just gradually and naturally picked up the connection between pronouns and antecedents as they went along. (Did teachers explicitly teach pronouns and antecedents to students who didn't pick the connection up naturally? I'm guessing most did not, but again I don't know.)

The students in Ms. Simmons' class clearly are not prepared to read The Odyssey. I'm not prepared to read The Odyssey, and I am a person who scores 800 on SAT reading. I read The Odyssey along with Chris, the summer before he entered his Jesuit high school. I loved the book, but I didn't have an easy time of it.

* By "rhetorical grammar," the author means picking out the 'action verbs' in a passage (mostly, but not always, the action verbs in the independent clauses) and figuring out who (mostly who, not what) performed the action. 

** Do students know what this means?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

5+2: the canonical sentences

source: John Seely's Grammar for Teachers, a short, succinct, clear, and useful distillation of Quirk and Greenbaum.

Teaching English composition, I now start with these three 'canonical' sentence patterns:


For the SVC and SVO patterns, I use Phyllis Davenport's ur-sentences:

SVC: Something (or somebody) is something.
SVO: Something (or somebody) did something.

For my 'core' SV examples I like:

Rex barked
Jesus wept.*

From the first three, I move on to:


And from there to:


Spelled out, using John Seely's examples:

SV: Subject+Verb
Elephants exist.

SVO: Subject+Verb+Object
Elephants like grass.

SVOO: Subject+Verb+Indirect Object+Direct Object
Elephants give children rides.

SVC: Subject+Verb+Complement
Elephants are animals.

SVOC: Subject+Verb+Object+Complement
Elephants make children happy.

SVA: Subject+Verb+Adverbial
Elephants live here.

SVOA: Subject+Verb+Object+Adverbial
The elephant thrust him away.

In these sentence patterns, all "sentence slots" -- S, V, O, C, A -- must be filled. If a slot is not filled, the sentence becomes "grammatically incomplete."

I've written "5+2" because the final two patterns - SVA and SVOA - are, in Seely's words, "much less common": "They only occur with a very small number of verbs, but they are important."

Seely's book is fantastically helpful. I've been using the iPad version, but I may order a hard copy, too.

* John 11:35