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The part of teaching effective writing (which everyone hates) is addressing all of the mistakes. Developing editing skills is an essential part of good writing and the core of placement tests, but teachers who mark papers to inform students of their errors are now viewed as prehistoric dinosaurs dripping blood (their red pens) as they attack the poor student. An effective teacher is not damaging egos when he/she helps a student understand the reasons for the marks, and that more often than not, the frequency of marks in the paper is the result of the same mistake.
A typical scenario for a grammar lesson is to read the lesson aloud with the class, discuss the examples, assign the lesson, check and grade the lesson with the class, and then move on to the next. The problem is that students can read a rule, such as, "A pronoun agrees with its antecedent in person, number, and gender," and not know what any of those words mean. These same students can do the exercises fairly well because they speak the language rather well. They only miss one or two sentences and are happy with their 80% or 90%. Unfortunately, these missed sentences are not mastered, yet they are the ones on placement tests and represent the errors that occur in the students' writing.
Another typical practice in language arts instruction is to fill time with worksheets on various grammatical problems. This approach is very prevalent with newer teachers because they have been taught that direct instruction in grammar is ineffective, and they themselves have had little training. In this approach the information is haphazard and lacks any sense or connection to writing and becomes the least effective method while reinforcing the belief that grammar instruction is a waste of time.
Peer editing is another popular approach in which students discuss each other's writing to discover and correct errors. Peer editing has its place but is an inefficient method because it does not guarantee coverage of problems. For example, students are tested on appositives, but how many students' writing samples contain them? And sadly, peer editing can become an exercise in the blind leading the blind while the teacher sits at his/her desk. If any of these approaches sound familiar, this is why grammar instruction is failing.
How does one effectively teach all of those errors? By direct instruction and chunking! There is an immense difference in handing out worksheets and covering grammar in a haphazard fashion and doing worksheet practice after direct instruction and chunking. Following direct instruction, group work becomes a scavenger hunt, a game to find the errors, and the students now have mental lists of the "treasures" to acquire and edit.
In order to chunk the information, the teacher has to have mastery of the editing skills, an understanding of the specific errors that occur on placement tests or in students' writing, and a method of delivery. In other words, the teacher must master the SUM of all those errors. The SUM addresses only the editing part of the writing process, not revision, and certainly no other aspects of the product. Yet make no mistake, the lack of that editing skill is what wrecks a paper and costs most students high marks on SAT and ACT placement tests. And, like what I say or not, the reason mastery seems to elude most students is because no one, neither teacher nor student, likes the drill.
I would argue that all teachers should understand their language, and although K-5 teachers would not necessarily directly teach the SUM to their pupils, they should have mastery of the information themselves because they are then aware of internal structures within their students' own language as well as the external structures in the reading material they are encountering. The task of raising scores and developing more mature writing falls on the middle school teachers. Middle school students can and should master this material prior to high school. The system underestimates what the sixth to eighth grader can learn and bores them with repetition of material ineffectively and repeatedly delivered. What this book offers is a method of delivery for mastering editing skills with the purpose of raising test scores and improving the editing aspects of writing with the added bonus of empowerment that results from the confidence of knowing that what one says and writes is "correct."
The acronym SUM is the name of the framework for chunking the editing skills. It also serves as a mnemonic device to recall the steps for editing one's writing. As students embark on the scavenger hunt for all of those errors in a writing selection, theirs or others, they are searching for the SUM: syntax, usage, and mechanics. The term grammar is ambiguous because it conjures up different definitions for students. For some students, grammar means punctuation or mistakes. Others think of that noun "stuff." In order to create an effective method of instruction, teachers must agree on the terminology. Therefore, it is better to avoid the word grammar and use more specific terminology.
S: Syntax means word order in sentence structure. Although understanding sentence structure certainly improves writing by increasing sentence variety, with respect to editing, the focus is only on structural errors including fragments, run-ons, and comma splices. When students understand sentence structure, they are better able to identify these structural errors and are not dependent on some intuitive understanding common in verbally talented students. Understanding syntax also improves the comprehension of the usage and mechanic rules in English that are covered later. The correct use of the expression you and I as opposed to you and me makes perfect sense if the speaker/writer understands the difference between a predicate noun and a direct object. A mechanics rule stating to use a comma in a compound sentence does not make sense if the student does not know what a compound sentence is.
U: Usage technically refers to such problems as when to say less than or fewer. (Less than for quantities like sand; fewer for items one can count like oranges.) However, texts lump many errors under the usage heading, and in this method, these errors are chunked into four categories: pronoun errors, subject-verb agreement errors, verb errors, and modifier errors. Notice how dependent these problems are on syntax! How does a student correct subject-verb agreement if he or she cannot find the subject and verb in a sentence? Teachers argue students acquire good usage by good modeling and practice. Good modeling and practice, over time, accomplish the goal—for good students. Unfortunately, most students, and even very good students, are now practicing, voraciously, as they text in substandard English.
M: Mechanics chunks punctuation and capitalization errors. Most students are overwhelmed by these rules because they view them the same way they do spelling. There seem to be too many variables and exceptions and no end to them. In fact, by the time a child reaches middle school, the number of rules needed for improved scores and reduced errors is a finite, very manageable number. Then, by chunking and connecting these rules to syntax, the underlying sentence structure, real comprehension and mastery become possible.
Higher test scores and improved editing skills in writing are dependent on understanding sentence structure. It is time to teach that basic skill again. Begin with syntax, the analysis of what a sentence actually is, and many problems in writing correct themselves, and later, the revision skill of sentence variety is more easily addressed and achieved.
Introducing the Syntax Unit
How a teacher ultimately introduces or teaches a lesson is dependent on that teacher's creativity. The following models lead to mastery of the concept, but what a teacher adds or deletes after that mastery depends on his/her situation. I begin the syntax unit with a reference to the film, Karate Kid. Although some students may not have seen the film, with today's technology, a clip of the scene would introduce the unit. Using a film clip is a more palatable introduction than, "Open your books to the chapter on nouns." The scene is between Mr. Miyagi and Daniel. Daniel wants to learn karate, and as Mr. Miyagi is tying Daniel's headband, he explains that if Daniel wants to learn karate, he must do everything that Mr. Miyagi says. No questions, no arguments. Isn't this the tacit agreement between every coach and player, every teacher and student, every mentor and learner? Teachers always learn from their students, but first they teach. There are endless examples to choose: Rocky, Hoosiers, etc. I tell my students at the end of the clip that we do not have time for explanations, arguments, etc. They must do what I tell them to do, when I tell them to do it, and the way I tell them to do it, and in the end, they will master the task, and all questions will be answered. Point out to the students Daniel's frustration and discontentment with waxing on and waxing off. It is a long way from the noun "stuff" to good writing; it is work and may not initially make sense to them, but you are Miagi, and the process is nonnegotiable. If you are using this book as a student, then the same goes for you, my reader. If you keep thinking, this doesn't work or do not follow the process, then the method will fail. You must trust the teacher, agree to our "contract," (just as Daniel does) and then proceed.
Learning syntax is like working a jigsaw puzzle. How do you do a jigsaw puzzle? What is the first thing you do? You look at the picture. In learning syntax, you need to know what the picture is. Where are you headed? You are after a real understanding of what a sentence is. Students, most students, know when they write a sentence or not, but they do not know how to define it. They really do not understand its structure. Therefore, the overall goal is to comprehend sentence structure. The picture is the sentence. If you cannot explain what a sentence is, then there is something to learn.
What is the next step when you work a jigsaw puzzle? You put the pieces into categories: the edges and the various colors. You apply the same strategy with the pieces of a sentence. You must arrange the pieces into categories to form a framework for study, a framework for the sentence. We will call this framework of the elements of syntax The Chart. The Chart is the foundation for mastering syntax. (Appendix I)
The framework model is based on Bloom's Taxonomy, the original version. Bloom's Taxonomy functions as the theoretical model of the learning process and as a means for students to measure their own learning and progress. The levels are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Students begin, of course, at the beginning level of knowledge. I firmly believe that one of the most flawed directions in education is the idea that memorization is a waste of time and the lowest form of learning. Students who are memorizing information are not engaged in levels of higher thinking, and that concern leads to the erroneous conclusion, therefore, that memorization is wrong. I would argue, however, that memorization is a necessary step to build the foundation for the development of higher thinking in any discipline. Over thirty-five years, I have observed students who have difficulty in math because they have not memorized number facts. Gifted students often have trouble because they have never had to memorize information and lack the discipline to do so when they finally encounter the task. Isn't a memorized alphabet the beginning of learning to read and write a language? In fact, isn't everything we know really what's remembered or in other words, memorized?
Learning syntax begins as a vocabulary lesson requiring memorization. By memorizing the vocabulary, students and teacher are beginning to develop a common terminology to later apply to all subsequent language discussions and writing. The approach to this vocabulary development is based on the theory that vocabulary progresses along a continuum. (Blackowicz) The following chart illustrates this progression and serves as the means for teacher and students to measure progress. (Appendix II)
The continuum consists of four levels. In Level I, the students knows the term and can correctly spell it. In Level II, the student learns the definition of each term. In Level III, the student identifies the terms in given sentences. In Level IV, students give their own examples of each term in sentences.
Mastering the framework builds the necessary foundation for learning syntax. These terms are just vocabulary words along the continuum. An entire universe is built on slightly more than ninety elements; the infinite varieties of sentence structure are built on slightly more than thirty syntactic structures. I am aware that memorizing the definitions does not mean comprehending them and that learning syntax does not mean good writing. We are talking about the beginning steps in a process—only. However, real comprehension depends on knowing vocabulary. For example, ask students what a fraction is or what pi is. They will give you an example of a fraction such as ½ or say 3.14159.... Only the very best student can define the terms.
Defining noun is the best way to illustrate the continuum chart and the progression through the thirty or so terms. Ask the class, "What is a noun?"
Almost unanimously the class will respond, "A person, place, or thing."
To which you respond, "No. That is incorrect. It is a good thing we are working together."
The class will throw a fit, protest loudly, and decide that you are incompetent. They will also listen, eager to prove you wrong. Ignore this and remind them you are Miyagi, the syntax master. To learn the chart, they will master each term like noun. First they must know the term. Everyone in the class has already done that. They know it, and they can spell it. Encourage them. Level I is completed.
Now they must master Level II on the continuum, the definition. They must "unlearn" person, place, or thing, and substitute that a noun names. What is a noun? A noun is a word or group of words occupying a slot in a sentence pattern that names. For the moment, students only have to learn what a noun does in a sentence. What is the definition of a noun? Names.
Now, students proceed to Level III. They must identify a noun in a sentence. In the sentence, "The dog barked," the students identify dog as the noun because dog is the word that names not because dog is a thing.
Finally, they are on Level IV. Real comprehension means a student can provide an example of the term. They will be able to use a noun in a sentence without difficulty. Being able to give an example of all of the terms in the chart is the objective of the unit. They have already finished one term. Review. Students have now completed an example of how the continuum works and how they are to approach each term for real, lasting comprehension. They are ready to begin Level I of The Chart.
The objective of Level I is to memorize all of the terms in the chart. They must memorize the entire chart in order with every term spelled correctly. They are not concerned with definitions, only the terms in the correct order and spelled correctly. Remind them that they are building the framework: the categories and colors in a language jigsaw puzzle. They are only at the knowledge level of Bloom's Taxonomy, and they are not working on definitions and comprehension until they are comfortable with just knowing the words. They have never even heard the word participle and have to learn to say it and read it before they can understand it.
Excerpted from Mastering Grammar by Carole Loffredo Copyright © 2012 by Carole Loffredo. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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