Monday, September 15, 2008

Metacognition for tiny tots

Margart Wente, in the Globe and Mail on Sept 12, explains that some poor unnamed Ontario teacher has been having lots of success with phonics, "but her approach is no longer acceptable." Instead, Wente claims, teachers must fill the time teaching students metacognition (both the practice and the term). She blames it all on the Ministry of Ed, which is "dominated by progressive educators who regard it as a crime to teach children how to read the traditional way, through scripted phonics programs."


As far as I know, students in grade one are still encouraged to solve unknown words using "graphophonic (phonological and graphic) cues (e.g.,blending and segmenting of individual sounds in words; visual features of words such as shape and orientation; sound-letter relationships for initial,final,and medial sounds; onset and rime; common spelling patterns; words within words).” In other words, phonics. The wording is straight from the Ontario Language Curriculum for grade one, section 3: Reading with Fluency.

Reflecting on reading skills and strategies is section 4, and here you'll find metacognition. Teacher prompts are: "What do you do to get ready to read a new text?” “What do you do if your reading doesn’t make sense to you?” “When you come to a word you don’t know, what do you do?” “What strategies help you the most when you are reading?” Notice that the terms 'schema' and 'inference' are not suggested, despite claims to the contrary in Wente's article.

I can't speak for the schools she mentions, but certainly where my kids go to school, phonics is very much taught. And from what I can tell, they're just following the curriculum. Perhaps Ms Wente should have a look at it.

Friday, September 05, 2008

"Grammatically speaking" wrong again

Richard Firsten writes a column for TESOL's Essential Teacher magazine. In the past, he has provided much grist for my blogging mill. His September column is no different.

Dear Richard,

I find the following passive sentences rather strange:

1. We were explained this theorem by our new math teacher.

2. He was conferred an honorary degree by MIT.

3. He was administered the oath yesterday.

Do you find them well formed or natural?

Best regards,

Narsu K. Nihalani

Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India

Dear Narsu,

Your first sentence is not ungrammatical, but it's a perfect example of forcing the use of the passive voice when it shouldn't be used. Of the three potential subjects that the sentence contains (we, this theorem, our new math teacher), the subject of least importance is we. To my way of thinking, that's why the sentence comes off as so unnatural and almost silly. The whole point of the passive voice in such an instance is for the speaker or writer to show which person or thing is the focus. If it’s the theorem, the sentence should be in the passive voice:

This theorem was explained to us by our new math teacher.

And if it's the math teacher, the sentence should be in the active voice:

The new math teacher explained this theorem to us.

I can argue a case for saying We were explained this theorem by our new math teacher if the speaker or writer needs to focus on himself and his fellow students, but it certainly is an awkward way to express this idea.

As to the other two sentences, because the agent—the doer—is not mentioned, those sentences look and sound perfectly fine.
Firsten's grammaticality judgements may be fine, depending on your dialect, but his explanation is way off. He explains that foregrounding we is odd because it's the potential subject of least importance. This is nonsense plain and simple. The sentence can easily be rephrased as
  1. We listened to our math teacher's explanation of the theorem.
The importance of a potential subject depends entirely on what you want to say. The potential problem with these sentences has to do with whether the verbs allow indirect objects or whether they require a prepositional complement. In other words, do you find the following acceptable

1A. Our new math teacher explained us this theorem.

2A. MIT conferred him an honorary degree.

3A. They administered him the oath yesterday.

4A. They gave him the medal of honour.

or do you only accept

1B. Our new math teacher explained this theorem to us.

2B. MIT conferred an honorary degree (up)on him.

3B. They administered the oath to him yesterday.

4B. They gave the medal of honour to him.

For some people, all sentences are grammatical, for others only the last five are. Personally, I'm in between. I find 2A and 3A marginally acceptable, but 1A is out of the question for me. If you find any of the A sentences acceptable (4A is beyond reproach), you'll find the corresponding passive acceptable as well. But if you accept only the B sentences, then in the passive, the direct object has to be fronted, not the object of the preposition. Thus, you would get:

1. This theorem was explained to us by our new math teacher.

2. An honorary degree was conferred (up)on him by MIT.

3. The oath was administered to him yesterday.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Why study grammar

My mother has been asking me to explain why anyone would study grammar and my rhetorical questions (why do you bother to learn the names of all the plants in your garden) weren't cutting it anymore. I've put off writing this because I'm afraid that it will get out of hand, but here goes:

Emancipatory purposes
Grammar has an elitist tinge to it. Having "correct grammar" is generally seen as a good, if perhaps snobby, thing. As a result, people who use dialects or languages that don't obviously conform to grammatical norms are often looked down on, their language disparaged or even banned. Instances can be as trivial as radio hosts getting complaint letters about their perceived errors or as grave as deaf children being forbidden to use sign language. Scientific studies of grammar can help us put the lie to the prejudicial beliefs behind such practices. By describing the complicated grammar behind sign languages for the deaf, by showing that expressions such as he be workin' and he workin' are not sloppy variants of he is working but rather two standard (within the dialect) forms that convey distinct meanings, and by demonstrating that singular they has an impeccable pedigree, the study of grammar can open people's eyes to the real problems of racism, elitism and ignorance that are masked by false justifications based on grammar.

Language learning
Linked to the above is the need to help people learn a second language. This works two ways: immigrants need to learn the dominant language of their new land and the rest of us are bettered by studying other languages. Either way, there is a great deal of evidence showing that, on average, in otherwise comparable situations, learners who study the grammar of a second language acheive higher levels of proficiency than those who don't. Obviously learners need teachers or textbook writers who have a good understanding of grammar.

The law can turn on the placement of a comma or the meaning of a word. Careful study of grammar can help us adjudicate such questions. It can assist us in identifying forged documents and separating real confessions from other more benign utterances.

Artificial intelligence, machine translation, and information retrieval
The cost of translating documents can be stupifying. If we could develop high-quality translation software, the savings would be imense. Natural language search is a problem that has obvious application to everyone who can't find what they're looking for on the internet. Humans want to be able to communicate with machines through natural language rather than buttons switches and typed commands.

In general, most AI is moving away from hand coded rules towards probabilistic heuristics based on massive corpora, but I would say that there is still a need for people working on such systems to have a deep understanding of grammar.

Understanding ourselves
Some people who suffer a brain injury discover that the grammaticality of their speech is affected, and different injuries have different effects. An understanding of grammar can help us to understand the brain.

The grammar of any natural language is a terribly complicated thing. People who like puzzles will often be intrigued by its nuances and will yearn after the chance to discover something that had previously escaped notice. In other words, many people study grammar for fun.

The above is overly simplified and there are many other reasons besides, but hopefully this will be enough to prod my mother and others into considering what they might be.

Monday, September 01, 2008

2008 Language Learner Literature Awards

The Extensive Reading Foundation today announced the winners and finalists for the 2008 Language Learner Literature awards.

The awards:

Young Learners

Dorothy by Paola Traverso
  • Illustrated by Alida Massari
  • Earlyreads Level 1
  • Black Cat Publishing
  • ISBN 978-88-530-0709-4
  • Judges' comment: Reading this captivating fantasy is like having a beautiful dream.

Escape from the Fire by Richard Brown
  • Illustrated by Mike Spoor
  • Macmillan English Explorers 3
  • Series Editor: Louis Fidge
  • Macmillan Education
  • ISBN 978 14050 6018 9
  • Judges' comment: There is breathtaking suspense and excitement in this journey through time.

The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen
  • Retold by Sue Arengo
  • Illustrated by Andy Catling
  • Classic Tales Beginner 1
  • Series Editor: Hannah Fish
  • Oxford University Press
  • ISBN 978-0-19-422552-6
  • Judges' comment: Children will love this humorous, delightful, and beautifully illustrated fairy tale.

Adolescents & Adults Beginners

Horror Trip on the Pecos River by Paul Davenport
  • Illustrations: Niels Roland
  • Teen Readers Level 2
  • Series Editors: Ulla Malmmose and Charlotte Bistrup
  • Aschehoug/Alinea
  • ISBN 978 0 8504 8400 7
  • Judges' comment: This teen thriller keeps you guessing. Engaging and fun.
Grizzly by Sue Murray
  • Illustrated by Sarah Davis
  • Developed by International Language Teaching Services.
  • Hueber Lektüren Level 1
  • Series Editor: James Bean
  • Hueber Verlag
  • ISBN 978 3 1900 2971 6 (Package) 01.2971 (Book)
Tim Burton's The Nightmare before Christmas by Daphne Skinner
  • Retold by Coleen Degnan-Veness
  • Artwork by Mikel Santos 'Belatz' and Javier Gomez
  • Penguin Active Reading Level 2
  • Series Editors: Jocelyn Potter and Andy Hopkins
  • Pearson Longman
  • ISBN 978 1 4058 5210 4
Adolescents & Adults Intermediate

Billy Elliot by Melvin Burgess
  • Retold by Karen Holmes
  • Penguin Readers Level 3
  • Series Editors: Jocelyn Potter and Andy Hopkins
  • Pearson Longman
  • ISBN 978 1 4058 5000 1
  • Judges' comment: This story has strong adult themes told from the viewpoints of several of the characters.
River of Dreams by Philip Voysey
  • Illustrated by Elizabeth Botté
  • Developed by International Language Teaching Services.
  • Hueber Lektüren Level 5
  • Series Editor: James Bean
  • Hueber Verlag
  • ISBN 978 3 1912 2971 9 (Package) 13.2971 (Book)
  • Judges' comment: A well-written, interesting and exciting story with an unpredictable plot.
Bookworms Club Gold; Stories for Reading Circles
  • Editor: Mark Furr and Jennifer Bassett
  • Oxford University Press
  • ISBN 978 0 1947 2002 1
  • Judges' comment: A very well edited collection of stories carefully adapted from some old favourites.
Adolescents & Adults Advanced

Body on the Rocks by Denise Kirby
  • Illustrated by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall
  • Developed by International Language Teaching Services.
  • Hueber Lektüren Level 6
  • Series Editor: James Bean
  • Hueber Verlag
  • ISBN 978 3 1920 2971 4 (Package) 21.2971 (Book)
  • Judges' comment: An exotic locale and varied characters spice this page-turner.
How's the Weather? Contributing writers: Colleen Sheils, John Chapman
  • Production and Design Services: Studio Montage
  • Footprint Reading Library Upper Intermediate
  • Series Editor: Rob Waring
  • Cengage
  • ISBN 978 1 4240 1121 6
  • Judges' comment: Non-fiction that models good principles in writing for language learners.
Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith
  • Retold by Kathy Burke
  • Penguin Readers Level 5
  • Series Editors: Jocelyn Potter and Andy Hopkins
  • Pearson Longman
  • ISBN 978 1 4058 5002 5
  • Judges' comment: Ripley's Game is fast-paced and full of surprises.