kitchen table math, the sequel: 10/28/12 - 11/4/12

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.

"teaching grammar doesn't work"

Camped out in the faculty lounge post-Sandy, reading articles on "basic writing":
At a recent workshop for high school and community college teachers, an earnest young high school teacher explained forcefully to an experienced community college teacher that grammar was of no use in teaching writing. The high school teacher cited the now-famous Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer quotation. She said that knowing grammar had no effect on writing ability, insisting that "all the research" counterbalanced any intuitive and experiential evidence the older teacher might have to offer. The young teacher had, however, misquoted the passage; it says: "the teaching of formal [emphasis ours] grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composi- tion, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing" (37-38).

Taking the words teaching of formal grammar to mean knowing grammar is a serious mistake. What the research cited by Braddock et al., indicates is that instruction in traditional grammar over a limited period of time (a semester or less in the research studies being discussed) showed no positive effect on students' writing. In fact, several research studies and much language and composition theory argue for certain types of grammar instruction, when effective methods are used for clearly defined purposes. When writers learn grammar, as opposed to teachers merely "covering" it, the newly acquired knowledge contributes to writing ability.

In separate essays on grammar, both Kolin (139) and Neuleib (148) point out that the often-quoted passage in Braddock et al. was preceded by "Uncommon, however, is carefully conducted research which studies composition over an extended period of time" (37). Few people seem to pay attention to the qualification, however. Also, another 1963 study, one that Kolin reviews, has attracted much less notice than Research in Written Composition. Yet that other study, by Meckel, is more extensive and thorough in its conclusions and recommendations than is the Braddock work. Meckel's work shows that major questions still existed in 1963 about the teaching of grammar.

Meckel points to three crucial issues (981): First, none of the grammar studies up to 1963 extended beyond one semester-"a time span much too short to permit development of the degree of conceptualization necessary for transfer to take place." Second, none of the studies had to do with editing or revising, that is "with situations in which pupils are recasting the structure of a sentence or a paragraph." Finally, none of the studies makes comparisons between students who had demonstrated knowledge of grammar and those of equal intelligence who had none.
Teaching Grammar to Writers by Janice Neuleib and Irene Brosnahan
So basically:
  • None of the studies checked to see whether students being taught formal grammar actually learned formal grammar.
  • None of the studies included students deploying formal grammar in an effort to copy-edit sentences of their own.
And on this basis, schools have been refusing to teach grammar for a good thirty/forty years now.

"Teaching grammar doesn't work."

still no power

Still no power; house is down to 51 degrees. We were set to move to a studio apartment at NYU tomorrow but have just learned that 90% of the town has power so school opens Monday. Andrew is desperate to get back to school.

Paranoid at the moment because we've heard endless reports about how there will be "pockets" of people who don't get power back for days and weeks --- wondering whether we just drew the short straw -----

Our power situation, btw, is galling because our power survived the storm.

Then Con Ed sent a team out to turn it off the next day.

We were on pins and needles the whole storm, as the lights flickered off and then back on again, and we were fantastically relieved to have made it through with power intact....

Pretty sure writing a post or two about grammar will make me feel better.

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).

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

the ocean in the air

We have power.

We also have trees. This morning I've relearned the lesson of Darwin: we've been through three 'Treemageddons' in the past 2 years, and the trees that were standing at the beginning of this storm are the trees that survived those onslaughts. They're still here.

Imagine what the scene would be like if none of those storms had happened.

Listening to TV... subways, buses, trains. All down. C was unhappy with us for summoning him home in the run-up to the storm, but when he learned last night that all the dorms had lost power -- and that most of the other Westchester students seemed to have gone home, too -- he was mollified. The Long Island kids, a much larger contingent, may have stayed put.

Still waiting to hear what's to become of his midterm tomorrow. I would really like NOT to be driving to the Village to deliver my child for a post-hurricane midterm that can't be rescheduled by even a day.

Later on, I'll try to post the video I took last night. The air sounded like the ocean. There was a soft, continuous roar that would periodically build to a loud, crashing din like the waves coming in --- and all this without a branch or a leaf so much as trembling. Perfect stillness on the ground, a roar in the air.

I must have been hearing the wind currents, right?

The wind currents or the gods.

Monday, October 29, 2012

how many pronouns?

re: the number of "function words" English has

Lights flickering here, so I'm getting this up. HBR: Why are function words so important?

James Pennebaker: In English there are about 500 function words, and about 150 are really common. Content words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and most adverbs—convey the guts of communication. They’re how we express ideas. Function words help shape and shortcut language. People require social skills to use and understand function words, and they’re processed in the brain di fferently. They are the key to understanding relationships between speakers, objects, and other people. When we analyze people’s use of function words, we can get a sense of their emotional state and personality, and their age and social class.


Function words sound like two-by-fours: They’re important but not meaningful in creating the overall architecture.
You might even think of function words as the nails. It seems natural to pay them little regard. If you type a sentence into Google, its algorithms disregard function words, because it’s interested in content. But these words convey important subtleties—“a ring” versus “that ring.” In foreign languages, function words often convey people’s status relative to one another.

If you listened to a job interview, what would the use of function words tell you?
It’s almost impossible to hear the differences naturally, which is why we use transcripts and computer analysis. Take a person who’s depressed. “I” might make up 6.5% of his words, versus 4% for a nondepressed person. That’s a huge difference statistically, but our ears can’t pick it up. But hypothetically, if I were to listen to an interview, I might consider how the candidate talks about their coworkers at their last job. Do they refer to them as “we” or “they”? That gives you a sense of their relationship to the group. And if you want someone who’s really decisive in a position, a person who says “It’s hot” rather than “I think it’s hot” may be a better fit.

Your Use of Pronouns Reveals Your Personality | Harvard Business Review | December 2011 | p 32-33

3rd time's the charm - remembering Treemageddon again and again

Treemageddon through the years

OK, message received. As soon as this one's over, we're buying a generator.

Also a week's stash of caffeine candy.

Hudson Independent Facebook page

This is the restaurant down the hill from us, the one we always go to. No rain yet, no real wind, and the Hudson is overflowing its banks. Already.

We're a good 35-40 miles from the mouth of the Hudson.

Storm still coming.

Meanwhile, back on topic, here's some math!

If the wind is 75 mph at ground level, it's 95-100 mph at the 30th floor, 125 mph at the 60th.