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The Career of “When” as a Verb

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There’s an essay link up on Arts and Letters Daily today that sort of ties in with this:


But at the moment, I want to point out, again, that this is the beginning of the term, and the beginning of the term brings with it…something. 

It’s too early for despair.

A couple of days ago, somebody posted a long status on Facebook about the fact that her students couldn’t write a decent paper, or even a decent sentence.  I would have responded to this post if I’d been anywhere near a real computer, but I was out and about and all I had was my phone.  What I had to say was too long to be manageable on my phone.

From what I remember, the responses to this status were what you’d expect:  the problem was high stakes testing, or the fact that the kids didn’t read. 

I don’t have a problem with high stakes testing myself–if you want to make sure students learn something, you test, and you make the consequences significant–but I’ll vouch for the fact that students don’t read.

But the real reason students can’t write a decent sentence is that nobody teaches them to do it.  In fact, from what I can tell, students no longer study grammar at all. 

My students arrive in my classroom completely unaware that there is any such thing as a “part of speech.”  They don’t know what a “subject” or a “predicate” is.   They don’t know what a “preposition” is, and they don’t know that a word this is part of a preposition phrase cannot be the subject of a sentence. They don’t know that there are forms to verbs, and they don’t know how tenses work.

They don’t know these things because nobody has ever taught them. Nobody has ever taught them directly, and nobody has ever taught them indirectly.

Virtually all grading of essays on the high school level these days is “holistic,” which specifically FORBIDS correcting for grammar, punctuation and spelling.   Instead, teachers are supposed to read through the entire piece and get a “feeling” for its overall quality.

And the high stakes tests don’t help, because those are graded “holistically” too.

So are the qualifying tests  for being tracked into regular or remedial classes on the college level. 

That is, they are unless the college uses a computer tests like Acuplacer, which seems to be a multiple choice type of thing that’s concentrating on a lot of stuff, but not if the student knows what a verb is.

Aside from not knowing the parts of speech or the basic mechanics of an English sentence,  most of my students quite literally are unable to read.

Somebody in the postings and comments on the FB status said that people were functionally illiterate if all they could do was read maps and directions–but it’s worse than that.

The functionally illiterate CAN’T read maps and directions.  They can sound out the words of various pieces of low-level writing, but they have no idea what they mean.

In this system, being able to follow a bus schedule is all it takes to make you “literate.”

My students by and large don’t read, but that isn’t surprising–they can’t read, because they do not have any idea how writing works.  They do not know that the first person narrator of a novel is not the author himself.  They don’t know how to decipher sentences with clauses, or follow a train of thought.

The reading they have been given in high school has been chosen from what teachers think is “relevant” to them, what supposedly follows their own “interests.”

By and large, though, they have no interests, only diversions they’ve picked up on television, the Internet and the radio.  They have no cultural context at all, so they not only fail to understand the references in what they are asked to read, they fail to understand them in the movies and music they supposedly “like.”

I’ve said before–yeah, yeah, I repeat myself a lot–that I think the Harry Potter phenomenon is a direct result of this inability to read.  Childrens books are, by definition, easier to read than those written for adults.  They have smaller vocabularies, fewer complex sentences and usually a near dearth of writing techniques that, if you don’t already know about them, might be confusing or ambiguous.

There is only one way to fix this–require the schools to stop all holistic grading, to teach solid eighth grade grammar, and to grade for spelling, punctuation and grammar even in non-English courses.

The problem is, I don’t know if this is even possible.

I’ve got an increasingly strong feeling that this generation of teachers doesn’t know these things, either–that they were themselves “holistically” graded, that nobody ever told them what a verb was, that their reading comprehension level tops out at children’t books.

And  no, I have no idea, this morning, what we’re supposed to do about it all.

Written by janeh

September 27th, 2012 at 9:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'The Career of “When” as a Verb'

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  1. This generation of teachers probably doesn’t know grammar.

    Keep in mind that I grew up in a part of the world in which we used to joke – sometimes bitterly – that we got all the educational fads from the US, 5-10 years late, and sometimes they were being hailed as new and revolutionary marvels here when they were being debunked in the US.

    I graduated from high school in 1970, just ahead of the big change in English instruction. The younger sibling of a friend of mine had a Grade 8 teacher who taught them basic grammar, saying that they weren’t supposed to be learning this any more, but they needed it anyway,

    Four or five years later, I ended up in Quebec trying to improve my French. In a strongly French class on translation, not terribly Anglo friendly, I gravitated to a younger girl who was not only one of the few Anglos, but came from the same province as I did. Because she didn’t know what a preposition was, or even whether it took an object, she was at a complete loss as to understand why she made certain mistakes, which made them rather hard to avoid in the next exercise. Grammar is useful.

    Now, there are plenty of younger people who use perfectly good grammar, and maybe even a few who have deduced or learned some of the rules. I’m willing to bet they’re the same people who learned to enjoy reading young and read a lot, because they didn’t get much in school. And it’s just the luck of the draw if one of them taught your students – and ignored the official curriculum, which can, around here, be a firing offence. Not fulfilling the contract you made with your employer, or something like that.


    27 Sep 12 at 11:51 am

  2. Canada is 5 to 10 years behind the US? That’s strange. We used to say that Australia is 2 years behind the US!

    I graduated from high school in 1954 and clearly remember being taught to diagram sentences before high school. I can’t comment on what is being taught now but will say that the grammar and spelling of computer programming languages are very strict.


    27 Sep 12 at 7:01 pm

  3. As late as the high school class of 1970, parts of speech and diagramming sentences were still being very seriously taught in the Midwest. No doubt we were behind the educational times. But as Cheryl says, I don’t see how you can teach a foreign language without it. (Small children may learn a foreign language. They are not taught one.)

    A friend of mine who recently retired as a middle school English department head told me that toward the end he was having a difficult time finding new hires who could do non-holistic grading. This is encouraging in a way, because it means some of them could. And as long as some people know any skill, it can be taught. What is lacking is the will to insist that English teachers teach grammar and other grade papers for English deficiencies. Will can be found. Once it is, much can be done. Until it is, nothing will be done.

    That said, don’t forget sampling error. People–even young people–DO read, and sometimes even learn to write well. Work, hobby or friendship, those are my people. The only people I know who don’t read fluently and well are some of my family.

    I will repeat my customary observation: if you give a young person a piece of writing which holds his interest and is at the upper level of his ability, he will read it, and his ability will grow. In fact, if you’ve chosen well, he’ll go out and read MORE than is required. But if he is consistently presented with works that do not engage his interest, the only thing he’ll learn is that reading is to be avoided. I do not say the student should dictate the reading. I say the tastes of the students should be taken into account and a very wide variety of tastes catered for. The student who loves romances and reads Meggin Cabot’s THE BOY NEXT DOOR will understand the epistolary novel and different points of view by the end of it. The same student assigned FRANKENSTEIN may, but is more likely to watch the movie instead.

    I refuse to comment on the link. Dirda sometimes writes intelligently, so I’m giving him a pass this one time. And if I start commenting now about Hofstader’s conviction that everything in America would be fine if only the conservatives would just roll over and die, I’ll be ranting all night.


    27 Sep 12 at 7:58 pm

  4. jd

    27 Sep 12 at 9:47 pm

  5. Bah, humbug! Brooks has been too long at the NYT sleeping with the enemy, and wouldn’t recognise a real economic conservative if he saw one.


    28 Sep 12 at 12:26 am

  6. With Mique on this one. The NYT and the WaPo believe in rear-view mirror conservatism. Conservatives might have had some legitimate concerns about the New Deal. They might have been right about the Cold War. They had a point about the Sixties, and in rejecting Carter. But they can’t possibly be right THIS time. THESE conservatives are nothing like those previous ones, having gone completely off the deep end. The WaPo and the NYT have been pushing this notion since at least 1960.

    And Brooks is their hired gun–every liberal’s favorite conservative, paid handsomely to explain why this time the liberal candidate must be elected and the liberal program enacted. There’s a word for Brooks, and it’s a Norwegian name.

    In this particular instance, a real conservative would have pointed out that every impulse destroying public education, from self-esteem and holistic grading to “look-see” English instruction and the demise of the core curriculum has come from the left and only those non-existent social conservatives have fought for rigorous public schools, which are surely our best hope of raising families out of poverty.

    Off to work.


    28 Sep 12 at 5:40 am

  7. re the Brooks article. I was interested in the distinction he drew between “economic conservative” and “traditional conservative”. I am definitely in the traditional school.


    28 Sep 12 at 5:49 pm

  8. I have been teaching some graduate students–more every year–grammar. When you do an individual educational evaluation of a child, you do evaluate their grammar and spelling. Many of my students these days can’t even understand the instructions in the manual for how to grade a sentence or essay for grammar. Of course, they are literate and quite bright, so they pick it up quickly once they need to know it.

    I have a very clear memory of a group of us petitioning our 10th grade teacher to teach us grammar because we knew we needed it. That would have been 1974 or so in a good school district in Connecticut. And I read a LOT and had studied foreign languages, so I had a pretty good handle on grammar on my own.

    Cathy F


    30 Sep 12 at 7:47 pm

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