kitchen table math, the sequel: Speaking of 'instructionism'...

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Speaking of 'instructionism'...

...which I was doing a couple of hours ago, Chris's best friend from NYU was here today, in need of a brief session of instructionism himself.

Chris had been telling me his friend -- D. -- "can't do commas."

(I don't absolutely know Chris can do commas, by the way, though I think that, on the punctuation front, he's pretty much arrived. Will have to ask Ed, who's been advising Chris on history papers this year. Suffice it to say Chris knows enough about commas to be able to copy-edit D's papers.)

UPDATE 1/12/2014: Ed says Chris's punctuation is fine. It was basically fine by the time he graduated high school.

Anyway, I'd been mulling D's situation, and had decided I could probably fix all of D's comma problems in a couple of weeks, max.

The reason I was pretty sure all of D's comma problems could be remedied in a couple of weeks is that I've just about got sentence punctuation boiled down to the absolute, bare minimum of things you need to know in order to punctuate declarative sentences in college papers, and guess what?

There are only 8 basic sentence punctuation patterns.

That's not very many, eight.

To learn the 8 patterns, you need to know:
If you are a native speaker (D. is), you already know these things nonconsciously (though I'm not sure that's true of the distinction between restrictive versus nonrestrictive modifiers), no matter how random your commas.

So I figured I could simply tell a smart kid like D. how to use commas in sentences, and he would know. His writing is good -- I've seen it -- it really is just the commas that are the problem.

So today Chris and D. did Hunter College's Exercise B, and I looked it over.

Turned out D. had never heard of "comma splices."

Or dependent clauses.

Never, in 13 years of public-school English class and 1 year of writing instruction at NYU (tuition $48k).

His only tactic for deploying commas was to listen for pauses as he wrote. Listening for pauses is a good idea as far as it goes, but, as D. pointed out, it's not going to fix comma splices. It's going to cause comma splices.

I suspect that listening for pauses may have caused both of the mistakes he was making:
  • He was hearing the pause between sentences loud and clear, and was inserting naked commas* between sentences he wanted to join. 
  • He wasn't hearing the pause between opening dependent clauses and main clauses -- or, more likely, he was hearing the pause but was experiencing it, correctly, as softer than the pause between sentences. So he was failing to place commas after "introductory elements."
The instant I explained to D. that, generally speaking, in college prose you're not supposed to use  commas to join sentences, he got it. He correctly punctuated the last four sentences on the page without further ado. 

I'm pretty sure he instantly got introductory subordinate clauses as well. I told him that, with "introductory elements," you can just listen for the pause and use a comma or not, depending. 

I'm pretty sure that observation is true (once someone tells you that introductory elements are usually followed by commas). At least, it seems to be true with my students, but take it with a grain of salt. Somehow, for native speakers, hearing introductory elements appears to be natural even for students who have never in their lives placed a comma after an introductory dependent clause. So it seems to me. 

In any event, D. was having no trouble hearing the pause. He heard the non-pause that results when you move the dependent clause to the end of the sentence, too:
  • When you get to the corner, turn right. [slight pause between clauses]
  • Turn right when you get to the corner. [no pause between clauses]
We didn't have time to get into restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses, which is a challenge for my students.

D., by the way, is very smart. Had all 4s and 5s in multiple AP classes; wrote his friends' college admission essays. And didn't know what a comma splice is.

Someone should have just told him. It simply is not the case that smart people -- or good readers -- "pick up" punctuation by osmosis. We're not built that way. We're built to register the gist of a sentence, not the particulars.

Plus which …. there's nothing magical or even important about commas versus semicolons. Using semicolons instead of commas to join sentences is a convention; twenty years from now comma splices will probably be  correct. So just tell students what the convention is and move on.

But somehow, telling is not possible.

Not even at the college level, not even in a full year of college-level writing instruction.

* "naked commas" meaning commas unaccompanied by a coordinator (and, but, or, so, nor, yet, for: the FANBOYS)

10 comments:

allison said...

My second grader is using some grammarish text in school.

He has come home with worksheets on nouns, verbs, and adjectives; rules for capitalization, commas, periods, quotation marks. It is better than nothing. Maybe.

Typically, there is an error or a misleading example once per worksheet. E.g. a worksheet on nouns listed words and the student was supposed to circle the nouns; one of the words was "orange". Another example was a worksheet on changing a verb to an -ing ending. One example was a verb but another was a gerund.

Setting aside the errors, my son is learning the rules. He corrects the book's error often. So if you can teach a second grader, there is no excuse for not teaching someone older. But he isn't learning anything deep. Is it typical for second graders to cover this? Is the problem that they just never see it again at a later age when their knowledge of sentences would be deeper? Do the schools think it was remembered since 2nd so no need to re-teach?

SteveH said...

How would one discover punctuation rules? Do "they" want something like "invented spelling" where you just do what you think is right before learning the rules? Do they think that first learning the rules precludes any critical thinking after that point? As with learning the piano, once you learn something wrong, it's incredibly difficult to fix it after that point. However, the "rote" ability to fluently do scales translates into beautiful music in the context of sonatas and etudes.

This is really not about discovery. It's about low expectations - for the student and the teacher. If you talk about "nature" enough, then you can just claim that it should work by definition.


Catherine Johnson said...

It is better than nothing.

It's way better than nothing, IMO!

These things really are 'conventions' in the sense that we conventionally agree, as a people, to capitalize names, use commas to separate items on a list, enclose speech in quotation marks, etc.

All of these things need to be automated, and that's what worksheets do.

You raise an interesting question, though, in terms of a 2nd grader circling 'orange' as a noun …. and it's something I hadn't thought about for that age.

Off the top of my head, I would say that from the very beginning you should maybe start with nouns and adjectives --- AND give kids worksheets showing that the same word can be both depending on the context.

That said (and I hope Katie weighs in here), I'm not sure I would start with words at all.

I might start with sentences. Two-word sentences like 'Rex barked,' my particular favorite.

Where-to-start is a constant conundrum, for me, when it comes to teaching grammar, writing, and punctuation.

Catherine Johnson said...

How would one discover punctuation rules?

I actually discovered most of them myself BUT I'm the exception that proves the rule. I used to say I was the Grandma Moses of punctuation, and that turned out to be true. When I was hired to teach writing, and had to finally learn grammar & punctuation consciously, I found that I was in fact punctuating nearly everything straight by the book. (Not quite, but close.)

The fact that I learned punctuation by osmosis says nothing about other people; I wanted to be a writer from the time I knew what writing was. I taught myself to read (by 'osmosis'), and I undoubtedly taught myself to punctuate the same way.

D. is a very good reader, but he did not 'pick up' either the rule against comma splices or the rule for commas after introductory elements.

Again, we're not wired to see the particulars of writing; we are wired to get the gist and to filter out the means by which the gist was created.

Catherine Johnson said...

How would one discover punctuation rules?

I actually discovered most of them myself BUT I'm the exception that proves the rule. I used to say I was the Grandma Moses of punctuation, and that turned out to be true. When I was hired to teach writing, and had to finally learn grammar & punctuation consciously, I found that I was in fact punctuating nearly everything straight by the book. (Not quite, but close.)

The fact that I learned punctuation by osmosis says nothing about other people; I wanted to be a writer from the time I knew what writing was. I taught myself to read (by 'osmosis'), and I undoubtedly taught myself to punctuate the same way.

D. is a very good reader, but he did not 'pick up' either the rule against comma splices or the rule for commas after introductory elements.

Again, we're not wired to see the particulars of writing; we are wired to get the gist and to filter out the means by which the gist was created.

Catherine Johnson said...

Steve - I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the question you've posed.

Here's what I come up with, in no particular order:

………….

"Educationists" seem to have a particular animus against punctuation per se. The writing center at NYU explicitly tells students that writing tutors will not address punctuation.

Can you imagine? The university recruits Asian students for whom English is a second language, then refuses them help with punctuation. I find that absolutely shocking.

Last year Ed taught a freshman course for the first time in many years. He was spending his time teaching punctuation to Korean students!

This is a senior member of the faculty, and an administrator, who has research to do and books to write, and he's teaching punctuation to South Korean students because the Writing Center refuses to do so.

If we want to talk Institutional Insanity, there it is.

(Ed was glad to help his students with punctuation, but it's crazy nevertheless.)

………..

Which brings me to my second thought…..

I don't think teachers today probably have any idea at all how to teach punctuation and grammar. They were never taught punctuation and grammar beyond the basics of capital letters and periods, and while they may be able to punctuate correctly themselves, they have no idea how to explain what they know.

I was in exactly the same boat when I started teaching English 109. I could write. I could punctuate. But I had no idea how I was doing what I was doing.

I've been scrambling for 3 years now to figure it out, AND I've been bugging Katie Beals to explain things to me, and I'm getting there.

How many teachers are in my shoes?

I can afford to teach just ONE course while turning down other courses, and I have a friend (and now writing partner) who has a Ph.D. in linguistics. Plus, having been a nonfiction writer all my life, I am extremely good at figuring out what I don't know & where to go to fill in the gaps.

How many people have that set of circumstances?

Probably no one. I am probably an n-of-1.

So imagine you're teaching grade-school grammar, and you've never been taught grade-school grammar yourself, and you're working full-time, and you have a couple of little kids at home….and you have zero access to a decent book that would explain it all to you QUICKLY and SUCCINCTLY….

Put it all together and it's a miracle kids are learning as much punctuation and grammar as they are now.

………..

The problem students have learning sentence punctuation is that sentence punctuation is based in sentence grammar, and nobody teaches the grammar of written sentences.

There's a related issue, I suspect, which is that native speakers all know how to SPEAK proper sentences … nobody mixes up subject and predicate, or uses a non-finite verb when what they want is a finite verb.

But nobody has to insert commas and semicolons and periods in speech, and therein lies the rub.

The result is that students can write perfectly grammatical prose that is punctuated all wrong. D's prose is grammatical, and his reading is good. He just had no idea that you're not supposed to use a comma to join sentences.

…………..

Getting back to teachers who were never taught grammar and punctuation themselves….I have found, over and over, that I need far more knowledge of grammar and punctuation than I'm actually going to teach my students.

So, here again, K-12 teachers are up against it. Many times I have thought I had things 'boiled down' only to find that I couldn't explain things clearly or give my students proper practice.

I'm making it sound easy here -- all you have to know is subordinate clauses -- but the teacher actually has to know a lot more than that.

…………

Long story short: I think that, for native speakers, learning to punctuate sentences, including long and complex sentences, should be quite easy.

But teaching students how to punctuate long and complex sentences is hard.

momof4 said...

I'm willing to bet that most ES teachers, and many MS teachers, have never taken a serious grammar course, let alone know how to teach grammar. It's also likely to be true of many HS teachers. I know my youngest son's young, 6th-grade teacher (in '92) freely admitted that she had never diagrammed a sentence and she thought that was fine. (Her writing made me think of red pencils) When I was in college, in the '60s, all English majors (minors, too, IIRC) were required to take both Structure of the English Language and Stylistics (in that order)and get at least a B in both - and those were the two hardest courses in the department; taught by one of the toughest graders. In the ed school, neither course was required, even for secondary ed majors. Some of the most ambitious secondary ed English majors did take Structure; I remember my roommate sweated blood over it and she was a very strong student. Unfortunately for future students, she had had all of the education BS and babble she could tolerate and has never taught at all.

I am fortunate to have had Normal School grads for my 1-4 teachers who believed in explicit instruction, including in grammar and composition. We started with copy work and dictation before we were expected to compose our own sentences.

Allison said...

Of course the teachers don't know grammar. And so it is as with math: the teachers are afraid of it, can't teach it sequentially and coherently, don't have the depth of knowledge to understand what should come first and what is predicated on what, and have no explicit, precise vocabulary for the reasons behind the rules.

A lot of knowledge must be regained to fix the loss, plainly not doable in a few years in any systematic way. it is now a generational problem.

Hainish said...

Catherine, I once had to teach (as a TA) an introductory college writing course for engineering majors. It was a terrible experience. I had students of varying ability, many of whom did not grasp basic sentence mechanics, and I could not devote a lot of time to the topic because the syllabus was set by the course coordinator (who had her PhD in Lit, IIRC . . . or, at least, that would explain all the group work).

Also, even though I knew all the rules of grammar and punctuation implicitly (thanks to explicit instruction in 7th grade!), I really did not have the vocabulary to address my students' errors. I would look at a paper and think, This is disfluent and seems to have been punctuated nearly at random. However, I didn't have terms like "introductory element" or "restrictive clause" ready at my disposal.

I did later take courses in style and grammar, which helped me a lot. I'm much better at specifying what is wrong with a piece of writing, instead having of the nebulous and inchoate sense that it's wrong in *some* way. Of course, I don't teaching intro writing to engineers anymore, but I would love to teach grammar.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I've taught writing to engineers (a lot—a dozen years of teaching a tech writing course for engineers, a couple times teaching a senior thesis seminar, several engineering courses with substantial writing components).

I think it is easier to teach writing to engineers than to English majors or to elementary ed teachers. For engineers, the purpose of writing is to communicate (which is not the purpose of writing for most lit majors), and engineers are willing to learn what they need to to be somewhat better at it. The engineers are generally willing to accept that there should be grammar rules and that they should learn them. They are also open to learning writing heuristics like "old info -> new info" and applying them.

I've found Huckin and Olsen's book
Technical Writing and Professional Communication for Non-Native Speakers
http://www.amazon.com/Technical-Professional-Communication-Non-Native-Speakers/dp/007030825X
to be an excellent resource for explaining some of the harder parts of English grammar (like correct use of definite and indefinite articles).