Category Archives: Textbooks

Making Grammar Memorable

I have been thinking a little too much about the differences between the students who get it and those who do not. I was reminded of this basic distinction when I was reading through another one of Jonah Lehrer’s posts on the nature of expertise and the research he cited by a few folks at various universities.

One of the behaviors that research pointed to as essential to learning well was the ability to tolerate boring and repetitive practice without distractions. Lehrer cited to work of K. Anders Ericsson at the University of Florida and Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania who have both done a great deal of research on memory development.

Ericsson has worked with music performers to find out why some excel while others languish in mediocrity, and Duckworth led research that focused on students in the National Spelling Bee to find out how some students nailed those impossible words while others made it there but received nothing more than a congratulation and a pat on the back.

Ericsson found that the best musicians tended not to be those born to perform but those who spent hours and hours in their rooms practicing by themselves. This reminded me of a story told by Paco de Lucia’s father about how the young Paco was not able to go to school, so he ended up staying in his room hour after hour practicing his guitar and listening to records of flamenco guitarists. For musicians, this ability to practice scales to the point of being able to go through them without thinking is part of internalizing complicated movements into something the brains considers to be a single motion.

Duckworth found essentially the same discipline in the top spellers at the National Spelling Bee. They were were not the ones who asked other people to quiz them, and, contrary to what many English teachers would like to believe, they were not the ones who read a great deal. They were the ones who were willing to put up with the drudgery of repetitive practice. They tended to practice even after they had already spelled the word correctly once or twice, and made sure they had, essentially, nailed it.

For anyone who has been following memory research, these findings are nothing new. They are quite consistent with what has been showing up in studies for decades. Research on chess players showed that the ones who were willing to practice hour after hour developed better memories for various strategies and the conditions under which they can be used. The research on chess players showed that practice and not intelligence was the key to being able to learn and employ the various strategies during matches.

In spite of all the mounting research on the utility of repetitive practice, I have not found many books or teachers who put this approach into practice. It seems grammar is already such a boring topic that making parts of it repetitive would push it over the edge and make teaching it a violation of the Geneva Convention.

The issue is determining which parts of grammar instruction should be drilled. According to Ericsson’s and Duckworth’s studies, only those materials that can be reduced to small segments of randomly accessed memory should be learned through repetitive drill. Doing this would allow students to focus on the structural elements without sweating over whether a certain word were a preposition or an article.

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Thinking in Linking Verbs–Actions Speak Louder When It Comes to Verbs, and That Is Not Necessarily a Good Thing

One of the misconceptions I run into each semester deals with the idea that verbs are actions. The idea that verbs are actions is, of course, partially true, but it is commonly thought of as being entirely true. The lowly linking verb gets short coverage or is left out of the discussion of verbs when textbooks or teachers are covering them.

Linking verbs are mentioned in most textbooks when verbs are covered, but they get substantially less attention than action verbs and next to no coverage in the exercises. The end result is that students develop no real concept of what linking verbs are and how they work.

The sad, sad part of this situation is that linking verbs are probably used more often than action verbs even though there are only a handful of linking verbs compared to the legions of action verbs. There are some eight to 15 linking verbs depending upon whose count you are using, but this handful of verbs includes “to be,”  “to feel,” “to get” and a few others that are so common that they would be difficult to avoid when writing a paragraph, let alone speaking with another person for more than a minute or three.

Action verbs are sexier and tend to take over a sentence whenever and wherever they are used. That is why everyone remembers the Verb superhero from School House Rock. He gets things done and, of course, looks like this:

Verbs Shirt

Linking verbs are not so sexy, and if they had a superhero, he would look like this:

Linking verbs do nothing but set up fairly simple relationships between a subject and its complement. My Latin professor, a woman who had also earned a degree in mathematics, taught us that the logic behind most usages of linking verbs was A = B, which is undeniably some of the simplest math around. This simplicity is, however, often used against linking verbs as a way of dismissing them for their actionable brethren who have this unearned reputation for being more specific and accurate.
If students follow the common advice to use action verbs wherever possible, they do not necessarily improve their writing. Writing “I am late for the party” would be revised to read “I arrived late for the party.” Yes, the second sentence seems more specific, but it might or might not work better than the first sentence in any given context.
What the linking verb does is to slow down the thinking and make the verb presence in the sentence less important. In the first sentence the fact that the speaker was “late” is the primary focus of the sentence, while in the second sentence the verb “arrived” takes center stage. That might or might not be an improvement in the writing.

The issue is not a matter of whether one verb type is better than another. Most people know that they both work fine grammatically. What has happened, however, is that a stylistic preference for action verbs has developed into a pedagogical blind spot that is causing a good deal of confusion for our students.

What success I have had with teaching verbs has only come by teaching that there are two types of verbs in this world, action and linking. This requires two distinct definitions of verbs and two distinct discussions of how each type works. Action verbs are, of course, what the subject does, but linking verbs are the connection between the subject and a complement. Those definitions are nothing new.

The problem with teaching teaching linking verbs is that when you add this new type of verb, you also need to add a new definition of subject to your teaching. You cannot say that the subject of a linking verb performs the action of the verb since there is no action in the first place.

So teaching verbs as both linking verbs and action verbs means teaching subjects as who or what performs the action but also who or what is described through the verb. These definitions of subjects and verbs are built upon each other and require that we clarify how they work rather than focusing on the verb form we prefer while leaving the other verb to be misunderstood as often as it is used.


Misconceptions and Refutations in Grammar Textbooks

Reading Research Quarterly has an excellent study from a group of researchers based at the University of Cyprus that examines the differences between expository and refutation writing for teaching college students about scientific concepts.

The study is fairly involved and has a number of nuances that are beyond the scope of this entry, but basically the researchers take two groups of students and have them read one of two different pieces about how energy works in physics. The researchers picked this topic because energy is something that students often have trouble understanding or come up with misconceptions to explain situations around them that seem to use energy. Many students, for example, see energy as akin to a natural force or believe it has mass that can be seen in a microscope or measured with a scale.

The first group was given an expository text written in much the way textbooks are written while the second group was given a refutation text written in much the same manner as the first but with refutations of common misconceptions about energy at certain key places. The refutation texts were slightly longer but they did not provide extra information, but instead simply debunked common misconceptions about energy.

The abilities of students to understand the core concepts regarding energy were essentially the same in both groups, but the students reading the refutation texts tended to be better at making inferences about energy and its application to situations. This difference was especially pronounced among students who were assessed as having very little knowledge about energy or as having knowledge that was made up primarily of misconceptions. The students who started the study with lower levels of knowledge about energy and physics in general were prone to making poor inferences and were easily confused by situations that required application of the knowledge to a concrete situation. Could you, for example, see the energy within sugar with a microscope?

To me, this was interesting.

Students of grammar come to class with a great number of misconceptions about how the language works and what learning grammar is supposed to involve. Misconceptions seem to be more common and more deeply rooted than actually understandings. There is, of course, the comma rule that is not a rule (“Put a comma wherever there is a pause”); then there is the clear and concise definition of a sentence that makes no sense (“A sentence is a complete thought”); and, there are many many others that students have picked up from well meaning family members and poorly educated English teachers. All these misconceptions add up to a great deal of interference when the students are trying to learn this messy language.

I see the research as having application to grammar instruction not only because of the number of misconceptions students bring with them but also because it showed how useful refutation writing is for developing the ability to make inferences. The reality is that knowing grammar is not all that impressive if it cannot be applied directly to writing more effectively.

Oddly enough refutations of common misconceptions rarely make it into the basic grammar books. There are plenty of books out there that deal with how silly many of the “rules” that English teachers have come up with over the years are, but the books are written by linguists for other linguists and never make it into the textbooks students use.

The teachers tend to use textbooks that answer certain questions and resolve the issues that students bring to class without taking the time to explain how arbitrary many of these “rules” actually are. There are plenty of books by linguists that blow holes right through these “rules” but there are no books that I am aware of that balance the need to teach students how to use the language but make them aware that these rules are really just useful conventions.

Knowledge of these misconceptions has been around for quite some time. Mina Shaughnessy, David Bartholomae, Joseph Williams and many others have written about the nature of “error” in student writing decades ago, but the students do not have their error patterns directly addressed in the textbooks themselves. A more direct approach to the misconceptions students have would make teaching them new concepts all that easier. No major rewrite of the grammar textbooks would be needed. Just a revision, a revision that would incorporate refutations of the many misconceptions students already have on the first day of class.