Commas and subordinate clauses

Commas and subordinate clauses

Considering that a large part of my job revolves around grammar, I’m somewhat more laid-back about certain rules than one might expect. Or rather, like most people who traffic professionally in the English language, I have a set of rather idiosyncratic preferences that may or may not align with what most people imagine a member of the grammar police would take people to task over.

If, for example, someone assures me that they would never, ever end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive, my response is, well, “meh.”

One of my biggest pet peeves, however, involves dependent clauses—specifically, ones begun by subordinating conjunctions—and commas. Or rather, the lack thereof. (more…)

The Critical Reader Conversation with Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

The Critical Reader Conversation with Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

Photo credit: Tricia Koning Photography 

 

For this interview, we are happy to present Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein Graff, professors at the University of Illinois-Chicago. They are the authors of They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, one of the most widely used college composition texts in the United States. In addition, their work has had an incalculable influence on both the original version of The Critical Reader and the AP Language and Composition edition of that book. We are enormously grateful for their participation in this series.

Bio

Gerald Graff, a Professor of English and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago adn 2008 President of the Modern Language Association of America, has had a major impact on teachers through such books as Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education, and, most recently, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.

Cathy Birkenstein, who first developed the templates used in They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, is a Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She received her PhD in American literature and is currently working on a study of Booker T. Washington. Together Gerald and Cathy teach courses in composition and conduct campus workshops on writing. They live with their son, Aaron, in Chicago.

 

 

How did you come to write They Say/I Say? Did it develop organically from your teaching over an extended period, or were there specific incidents that inspired you to write it?

It was more of a slow process that developed over time in the 1990S as we compared our experiences as college teachers. What struck us most vividly at this time was our students’ widespread confusion over how to write an academic paper. To us, this confusion seemed largely unnecessary since, in our view, academic writing follows a rather conventional, elemental pattern that students could readily learn. As we thought about our own struggles with writing, and about what successful writers do, we came to believe that, despite its many moving parts, academic writing has one big constant: the move of entering a conversation, which is usually done by summarizing what other people have said or are saying about your subject and then using that summary to launch your own view, whether to agree, disagree, or some combination of both. (more…)

The College Board puts a number on adversity

The College Board puts a number on adversity

Over the last few days, chatter about the release of the College Board’s new “adversity index”—a number designed to encapsulate the amount of socioeconomic disadvantage applicants have faced—has finally eclipsed talk of the college admissions scandal (well, mostly).

As the NY Times reports:

The College Board announced on Thursday that it will include a new rating, which is widely being referred to as an “adversity score,” of between 1 and 100 on students’ test results. An average score is 50, and higher numbers mean more disadvantage. The score will be calculated using 15 factors, including the relative quality of the student’s high school and the crime rate and poverty level of the student’s neighborhood.

I think I may be the only person having this reaction, but honestly, I think that this is a whole lot of fuss over what is in some ways a nothingburger. Not a complete nothingburger, mind you—there are some genuinely concerning implications—but also a smaller deal than many people are making it out to be. (more…)

“Sight words” are not just “little words”

“Sight words” are not just “little words”

Dipping my toe gingerly into the “whole language vs. phonics” debate again. I was scrolling through my Instagram feed the other day when I came across an image that made me stop and do a double take (and not in a good way):

Now, I’m admittedly not an expert in reading pedagogy for young children, but even I can tell that there’s something wrong with this picture.

It seems obvious that is should be treated as a sight word because, well, it’s one of the most common words in the entire language and because it follows a semi-irregular phonetic pattern that most beginning readers won’t have mastered.

Had is a different story altogether. Yes, it’s short, and yes, it’s super common, but the differences end there. There are a lot of words that end in -ad and that follow the exact same phonetic pattern:

Ad
Bad
Dad
Fad
Mad
Lad
Sad

To name just a handful.

If teachers are actually requiring students to memorize had without ensuring that they master its component sounds, they are passing up an opportunity to help children identify scads (!) of common words—on their own, even without obvious context clues.

To me that just seems like common sense.

Now, to be fair, in a blog post for Scholastic, veteran kindergarten teacher Brian K. Smith makes the point that a teacher might choose to initially treat certain more complex phonetically regular words as sight words in order to help students read slightly more challenging texts. He advises, however, that teachers make clear to students when they are doing so, and why, because otherwise:

Telling students they simply need to memorize these words can create misconceptions and mistrust. For students who struggle with reading, these misconceptions can create even more misunderstanding of the code that words follow.

That strikes me as an entirely reasonable approach, one that an experienced teacher can adapt to the particulars of the students involved. But that is a best-case scenario, managed by someone who knows how to look at the whole picture and head off problems before they begin. Suffice it to say that an increasingly small number of teachers have the expertise for this kind of global thinking.

Moreover, in this case the logic doesn’t hold up: had is far too simple to get treated as a sight word for the sake of pushing students ahead. Furthermore, -ad is a such a high-frequency ending that children probably aren’t at the point where they can really read books independently at all until they know it.

I actually wonder if there’s a sort of categorization problem going on here with teachers, similar to something I used to observe in my ACT students.

Let me explain: one of the most commonly tested errors on the ACT involves the incorrect placement of a comma before a preposition. In order to identify this error securely—as opposed to just thinking “that sounds weird” or “you don’t need to pause there”—it is of course necessary to know what a preposition is.

I didn’t learn much grammar in elementary school, but one of the few things I did learn was what prepositions were: “location” or “time” words. To figure out whether a word was a preposition, we were encouraged to place it before the tree, e.g., in the treeon the tree, around the tree, etc. Using that little trick, I was able to form an abstract category called “prepositions” and easily determine whether new words fit into it, without ever having to memorize long lists of words individually.

When I started tutoring, however, I quickly discovered that many of my students (though not all) had an inordinate amount of difficulty with that task: they did not seem able to form a general category for prepositions. As a result, I was forced to spend ridiculous amount of time drilling them on individual prepositions.

I really disliked doing this, and it struck me as a hideously inefficient way to teach, but because they could not reliably apply a big-picture, conceptual understanding of prepositions to terms we hadn’t explicitly discussed, or had discussed in another context, it was the only way I could get them to correctly answer questions involving commas and prepositions. (Luckily, most such questions involved only 10-12 or so common examples. But still.)

The difficulty, from what I could eventually gather, lay in the length of the words. Prepositions were usually short, but then again, so were other kinds of words, like, say, conjunctions. You could say to the tree, but you could also say and the tree. So why wasn’t and a preposition? To make matters worse, some prepositions also doubled as conjunctions. Trying to recall an abstract categorization like “position” when differentiating between to and and was too much of a strain on their working memories, given how many other new concepts they were also trying to digest.

Essentially, they had difficulty distinguishing between appearance and function.

I suspect that something roughly comparable may be going on with teachers and sight words.

One website I looked at pointed out, for example, that “oftentimes the terms sight words and high-frequency words are used interchangeably.”

If that’s in fact the case—and I’m going to assume it is—then there’s a real conceptual muddle being promoted. Essentially, “short and common” is being confused with “phonetically irregular.” But those are two completely different things.

In any case, if new teachers are writing in to random education websites asking what sight words are, then it’s fair to assume that there’s a lot of really, really poor training going on. (Balanced Literacy in practice, not theory.) And if teachers are selling/buying sight-word worksheets with had on Teachers Pay Teachers, that’s a very concerning sign. Curious about this, I checked with Richard McManus of The Fluency Factory, and he confirmed that yes, things are actually are that bad.

One of the things I eventually learned to do as a tutor was to focus on concepts that could be transferred to the greatest number of other questions, and to more or less ignore those that applied only to the particular question at hand.

For example, I spent a huge amount of time going over questions that tested things like subject-verb and pronoun agreement (concepts that, once mastered, could be used to answer many new questions) and almost no time on questions that tested things like idioms (you either know them or you don’t, and there’s no way to transfer the knowledge).

I would also regularly ask students to explain to me how else a question might have been asked, the point being that could be tested in many possible ways and that they were responsible for understanding the underlying ideas well enough to apply them regardless.

When I trained tutors, however, I almost invariably noticed that they had a tendency to get caught up (over-)explaining questions with very low general applicability. The result was that they wasted a lot of time on material that could not be transferred to other situations, or explained answers in ways that did not emphasize their applicability to other questions. The entire discussion remained focus only on the particular question at hand.

I confess that watching this drove me positively up the wall.

It would not surprise me in the least if novice kindergarten/first-grade teachers—and probably some more experienced ones as well—were falling into a similar trap. They’re looking at individual common words but not thinking about what else students can get out of learning them.

So, words that are short and common may be phonetically irregular, like one or door were, but they may also be perfectly regular, like sad or mad. However, it may not even occur to an inexperienced teacher that the question when determining what should count as a sight word should not be, “Is this word short and common”? but rather, “Will learning this word help students learn lots of other words”? (Or, more simply, “Is this word phonetically regular with lots of rhymes”?) They may not even realize that the question needs to be asked.

And if they don’t, children are essentially being asked to treat phonetically regular words—easily decodable words—the way my former students treated prepositions: as discrete, isolated units, disconnected from the larger universe of sounds and words.

What exactly is Summit Learning? (And why can’t billionaires pay for their own materials?)

A couple of days ago (4/21/19), the New York Times ran an article about a Kansas community’s rebellion against the Summit Learning platform, a controversial ed-tech initiative funded in large part by the Chan-Zuckerberg foundation.

Normally, I try to hold myself at as much of a distance as possible from the ed-tech world, but in this case, I seem to have acquired an inadvertent stake in things: last school year, while looking at my analytics (see, I’m data-driven!), I suddenly noticed that I was receiving regular traffic from summit.org and that, moreover, the number of daily referrals from that site corresponded almost exactly to the number of hits on my “how to use a dash” post.

Obviously, a link to the piece had been incorporated into the Summit platform.

When I first discovered this, my curiosity was piqued, and so I spent some time on the main Summit website trying to figure out where my blog was linked to. (Is it just me, or is the ransom-note motif not positively creepy?) Predictably, aside from a handful of vague, weak sample lessons that could be downloaded, I was unable to access anything more substantive. Still, I assumed that more real lessons—even really poorly constructed ones—had to exist…right? At that point, I didn’t really have the time or the inclination to investigate further.

Then, as I was reading the Times article, I came across this:

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