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Learning Grammar by Exploring the Nature of a Language: Can It Be Done?

One Latin Teacher’s Quest to Find Out

Amanda Waltermire

Hoosier Writing Project Summer Institute

June 2011

Inquiry: How would exploring the nature of language help students understand the underlying

grammatical structures of it and motivate students to learn a second language?

Context: I decided to focus on a language based question rather than a strictly writing based

question because my passion lies in the intricacies of grammatical structures and the infinite combinations created by them. I am looking for the most effective way to teach English grammar (namely parts of speech and their functions) to Latin I students as a precursor to diving into the study of the Latin language. My primary focus up to this point has been on pedagogical methods of reviewing parts of speech and finding engaging ways to create a learning environment that challenges all of my students. With my research question, I am taking the focus off of specific grammar instructional techniques and allowing students to see the nature of language in ways that they possibly haven’t before. For my purposes, I am only referring to written and spoken languages in this study.

Rationale: My demonstration will walk participants through mini-lessons that will be taught

over three class periods and will explore topics such as: What is language? How do language and grammar differ? What is the objective of a language? The purpose of these mini-lessons is to engage students in critical thinking about the English language before delving into learning a second (or possibly third) language—Latin.

I am structuring my opening year activities in this way based on Constance Weaver’s research that teaching grammar out of context (as I taught it last year) is not effective. Ultimately I want my students to be able to manipulate grammar as a useful tool of self-expression through language.

Noam Chomsky’s research has also impacted my thinking because he believes that the ability to produce language is innate and each language conforms to an underlying structure. I also believe that language is innate and must be experienced to be effective. This is consistent with other research on second language acquisition—the best way to learn a language is to be submerged in it. Since I cannot submerge my students in spoken native Latin, I hope to submerge them in English on a level of critical thinking that they have never used before.

Resources:

“Jabberwocky” By Lewis Carroll

“English is a Silly Language” By Unknown Author

Outline: The first day’s focus question is “What is language?” This is a very important topic; one

that most people do not consider because they have been using this language their entire lives.

Day 1 Procedures:

1.

2.

Freefall write on the question: What is language? [3 min]

Discuss freefall write responses. [5 min]

3.

4.

5.

Read “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll silently to self, then aloud. [5 min]

Draw the action of this poem in a cartoon panel stanza by stanza. [10 min]

Share what you drew with a partner. [5 min]

6.

Whole group discussion: What is language??? How were you able to draw the action of this poem without knowing what these words are? [5 min]

The second day’s focus question is “How do language and grammar differ?” These words are often used synonymously, but they are actually quite different.

Day 2 Procedures:

1.

Freefall write on the question: How do language and grammar differ? [3 min]

2.

3.

Discuss freefall write responses. [5 min]

Show these examples of grammatical errors. [5 min] a.

Rule: Don’t split infinitives. i.

To boldy go where no man has gone before… b.

ii.

iii.

You are allowed to partially correct your answers.

Those who are rich find it easy to freely give money.

Rule: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. c.

i.

ii.

Where’s the party at?

Whom did you go with? iii.

Where are you going to?

Rule: Don’t use two negative words. i.

ii.

iii.

I didn’t not like him.

You haven’t never seen that before!

He doesn’t know nothing.

4.

5.

Tell how Latin impacted these grammatical rules, which were arbitrarily made up in the

1700s. [5 min]

Wrap up discussion: What are the implications of grammar on language? (useful, limiting, necessary, etc.)

The third day’s focus question is “What is the objective of language?” This main question spawns many other questions and allows us to explore the shortcomings of language.

Day 3 Procedures:

1.

2.

3.

Freefall write on the question: What is the objective of language? How does language meet or fail to meet that objective? [3 min]

Discuss freefall write responses. [5 min]

4.

Read “English is a Silly Language” by unknown author and discuss any initial impressions

(agree/disagree/other examples of English’s silliness). [5 min]

Send everyone to the whiteboard. Give examples of ambiguous statements. Participants will draw the first image that comes to their mind. Look around at other people’s

5.

pictures. [10 min] a.

Ambiguous statements: i.

I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. ii.

iii.

The chickens are too hot to eat.

Students hate annoying teachers. iv.

They hit the man with a cane.

Wrap-up discuss of language in general. [5 min]

Standards: World Language 9.7: Learners understand the nature of language and culture

through comparisons of the languages and cultures studied and their own.

Bibliography:

Belanoff, Pat, Betsy Rorschach, Mia Rakijas, and Chris Millis. The Right Handbook. Portsmouth,

NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1996. Print.

This book explores some common myths of language, including the idea that English is

“corrupt.” In truth, language is always changing to adapt to the needs of its speakers. The authors also point out the insecurities associated with language usage. People often feel anxious about using words correctly, speaking in proper form around authority figures, or masking their own dialects in order to alter perceptions of them. They also talk about the problems with grammar handbooks in the past. And indeed their handbook takes a backwards approach to traditional handbooks—it starts with paragraphs and explains the process of writing before going on to answer some detailed grammar questions.

Chomsky, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969. Print.

Chomsky is a leading linguist on the way grammar is interpreted. In this book, one of his early works, he developed a theory of transformational grammar that “revolutionized the scientific study of language” according to The Columbia Encyclopedia. Chomsky’s research explores the human brain related to language acquisition and states that the capacity for language is innate. In addition, he declares that all intelligible sentences follow a basic underlying grammatical structure specific to that language.

Fennell, Barbara. A History of English: A Sociolinguistic Approach. United Kingdom: Blackwell

Publishers, 2001. Print.

This textbook offers a comprehensive guide to the English language, starting with the periods of change to the language: Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and

Present-Day English. Although this book was published in the United Kingdom, there is a section of the book that focuses on English in the United States. Fennell also addresses the globalization of the English language in many countries all over the world and the universal concerns of all language speakers, such as dialects and language shifts.

Gunnery, Slyvia. Just Write! Ten Practical Workshops for Successful Student Writing. Markham,

Ontario: Pembroke Publishers Limited, 1998. Print.

While Gunnery offers ten practical ideas for writing workshops, the one that interests me the most is her idea of “freefall” writing. I have previously thought of this as free-writing, but I like the idea of freefalling. It creates an image of just diving into the writing and seeing what happens. This type of writing helps students get ideas on paper and start to discover their

own voice. If students are writing in English in the Latin classroom, then I am having them write with a specific purpose. They are not truly “free-writing” but rather “freefalling” into a topic.

Gunnery also has a great way to introduce this type of writing: have students compile a list of all the things they have always been told are important in writing (spelling, punctuation, paragraphs, etc.) Then tell students to throw all of that out. The only rule of freefall writing is to never stop writing.

Lowth, Robert. A Short Introduction to English Grammar: With Critical Notes. London: Publisher

Unknown, 1775. Print.

Although I have not been able to locate a copy of this book, Lowth delineates the rules of English grammar based on the rules for Latin grammar in this piece of grammar history. The guiding philosophy of this grammar book and many others of the time is that “if Latin can’t do it, then English shouldn’t do it.” English, French, Spanish, and other romance languages were viewed as imperfect forms of Latin and should therefore be more like Latin with their structures. Some of the rules Lowth establishes include: don’t split infinitives, don’t use a double negative, and don’t end a sentences with a preposition.

Noden, Harry. Image Grammar: Using Grammatical Structures to Teach Writing. Portsmouth,

NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1999. Print.

An article about image grammar is what inspired me to pursue a language-based inquiry question. Noden compares the craft of writing to paint brush strokes. He breaks down the main areas of writing into these five categories: painting with participles, absolutes, appositives, adjectives shifted out of order, and action verbs. These brushstrokes help writers improve drafts. Since Noden is a middle school English teacher, he says that students do not need to be bogged down with terms for grammar; they just need to know how to use them in order to enhance their writing. He offers practical uses for the teaching of grammar also, such as a checklist of common grammatical errors and a grammatical income inventory.

Olson, Carol Booth. The Reading/Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in

the Secondary Classroom. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc, 2003. Print.

Although this book explores every area of reading and writing in secondary schools, I choose to focus on the grammar aspect, since that is most relevant to my own research. Olson agrees with and cites Constance Weaver many times on the “grammar debate” of when and how to teach grammar. She agrees that it must be taught in context in order to be meaningful.

She also offers some practical ideas for teaching parts of speech, including a Dada poem in which students categorize parts of speech from another text and rearrange them into a poem.

Sentence expanding is another useful activity in which students start with a very basic sentence and then add more details. Adding a visual representation component to this would also be helpful.

Weaver, Constance. Teaching Grammar in Context. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers,

1996. Print.

This book is absolutely full of information about leading research on teaching grammar, including second language acquisition. Weaver gives twelve guidelines for teaching grammar that focus on the writing and revision process. Multiple research studies are cited that reinforce

“the general conclusion from ninety years of research: that teaching grammar in isolation, as a school subject, does not seem to have much effect on the writing of more than a few students”

(181). She continues by giving many practical examples of lessons to teach grammar as a tool to improve writing.

Demonstration Reflection

After presenting my demonstration with the leading inquiry question “How would exploring the nature of language help students understand the underlying grammatical structures of it and motivate students to learn a second language?” I believe that my ideas would be successful in the classroom to help engage students in a discussion of the nature of language. I received some very valuable feedback from the audience members of this demonstration, which I have broken down by each activity. My demonstration actually consists of several days’ worth of material for students.

On the first day, I plan to use “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll to show that language is intuitive and innate. The students will be able to understand the language well enough to create a visual representation of the action in the poem. An extension that I would like to do towards the end of the unit would be to revisit “Jabberwocky” and have students label the parts of speech directly. As this activity was organized during my demo, I believe that it lacked enough structure to be fully effective. After consulting my colleagues, the format will be much more effective to have students draw the action of the poem in a comic-strip style with one picture per stanza. This will allow students to take a deeper look at the text and the unfamiliar words rather that just drawing a boy with a sword and a beast. They will think critically about how to condense the action of the poem into snippets. I am choosing to have students draw because drawing is less intimidating for some, and specifically my students at Herron use visuals often to express themselves.

I would extend this activity to connect to Latin by showing students the Latin sentence:

“Roma est in Italia” and have them guess what this sentence means in English. Most students

will be able to translate this sentence “Rome is in Italy” perfectly while others will understand a couple words. This will help bridge the gap and show students that although Latin is currently unfamiliar, it is not impossible to translate.

On the second day, I will have students explore common grammatical mistakes. From the demonstration, I realized that many students many not know what a split infinitive is. I need to do more research to find more common errors that are based on the Latin language. I presented these “grammatical errors” according to what prescriptivists say are wrong, not necessarily what I believe. I do not want students to feel judged by these errors. I think students will be intrigued to find out why we have strict grammar rules.

The conversation about how our grammatical rules were formed in the 1700s will spark an interesting discussion about language related to social standing because that is the prevailing reason why these rules were created. I could extend this lesson into another lesson about language and power. I originally planned to give students’ Harry Noden’s income inventory, but as colleagues pointed out, some students already feel self-conscious about their language usage and already know that they live in a circle of poverty. Perhaps the implications of using this income inventory will actually undermine my intentions. I have decided against using the income inventory. I need to do more research to find another source that will drive home the point of this lesson. I also need to make connections to Latin, perhaps by giving examples of the types of language various classes spoke.

On the third day I will be exploring how ambiguous English is. Everyone seemed to find the poem and drawing activities insightful. This is an activity that I have used before with students in Etymology. Even more important than the activity though is the ensuing discussion

about language and its objectives and shortcomings. I do not plan to make any adjustments to this day, except also guide the discussion into talking about Latin. I am not sure how I will frame this conversation and connect it to Latin since students still have not delved into a formal study of Latin at this point.

Another extension activity I would do, which I have successfully done before, comes after the ambiguous language lesson day and segues perfectly into the study of Latin. I call it

“Latin is NOT dead.” I write the statement “Latin is dead” on the whiteboard and have students freefall write about it for 5 minutes. Then we discuss their responses and see if there is a consensus in opinions. Then we mutually agree upon a topic that all students can relate to

(perhaps the first day of ninth grade, school lunch, etc.) I give students a massive list of Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes, and they write six sentences without using any Latin elements in their writing. They write their sentences on the board, and we all laugh at how ridiculous and simple they sound. A discussion follows about why Latin is important and why it is studied today. I have a handout that states how admission officers feel when they look at transcripts with Latin on them. I would like to find another more relevant study or article that also shows how Latin is useful or “makes you smarter” (as is popularly perceived).

One question that emerged from my demonstration is how I can discuss social status and let students know that their language empowers them without dividing the class into social groups and making them feel self-conscious. I know from my first year at Herron that the students are incredibly diverse. Because Herron is a charter school without a true district, students come from all regions of Central Indiana, making them ethnically, socioeconomically, and educationally diverse. I have been tossing some ideas around about role playing. I could

divide the class into groups of three and have them pretend to be Roman citizens. I would give each group a scenario to role play, and they would create dialogue that would reflect the reactions from low, middle, and upper class citizens. The group would then choose one of their scenarios to present, and the rest of the class would cast a vote to see if they could determine whether this was a low, middle, or upper class response to the situation.

I realize that stereotypes of the different social classes would come up, but I think it is very powerful to address stereotypes because they are always based on some truth of how certain groups are perceived, which would make a valuable learning experience. Then I could segue into some of the things that Romans actually said according to class. I need to do research though to see how differently the Romans actually spoke according to class. I think I will find that the same stigmas of language are true now as they were in ancient Roman times.

Another question that has emerged is whether this inspires critical thinking about language and whether this will actually spark more interest in the study of Latin. My demonstration seemed to spark interest among my colleagues; we had some very heated discussions about language, and one participant even remarked that she was disappointed that she didn’t get to learn any Latin. Hopefully my Latin I students will feel the same way. My biggest disappointment is when I lead an activity that the students think is fun but does not create a true learning experience for them. Keeping them busy is not my goal; keeping them thinking is my goal.

A constant concern that I face is how to engage all students, regardless of ability level.

Based on observations of my students last year, I can modestly estimate that I have students who easily fall two grade levels above or below their target grade levels in writing, reading, and

thinking abilities. I believe that these activities, or at least most of them, are varied and high interest enough to hit almost all students. I need to find a structure with this beginning of the year activity that challenges Honors and supports reluctant learners.

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