Creating Contrasts: Reading for Grammar Awareness (part 2)

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In my last post, I looked at the value of dedicating time for students to notice grammatical and lexical features in a text they are reading. Students can make their noticing tangible by annotating: circling, highlighting, and underlining. But what follows? A well-marked text signals visible noticing—but without activities to prompt students to hypothesize about the functions of the features they have annotated, the noticing may soon be forgotten.


Hypothesis formation and testing is at the heart of inductive grammatical exploration, but in my experience, formulating a “testable” hypothesis about the purpose or rhetorical force of a selected word or grammatical form can challenge students, especially those who are uncertain of their own intuitions in the reading process (or their own vocabulary for articulating intuitions). Students may offer vague responses at first: “Well, he did this to emphasize his point,” or “It sounds good.” When I probe further—how so?—the students often seem befuddled. 


One tool for helping students verbalize and refine a hypothesis about grammar is to use the principle of contrast: contrasts in grammar or lexis illustrate the consequences of the choices we make. Putting contrasting variations of sentences side by side can help students discover those consequences and, in turn, find useful principles to apply in their own writing (given time, of course – I am not claiming that a few rounds of contrast-based activities will suddenly “fix” all issues of grammar and style!).


Here’s a simple example, taken from an essay by Steven Pinker that I use in introductory writing classes to illustrate elements of argument. In this first example, I might ask students to think about the purpose of the commas:


When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline.


The introductory comma (such as the one after “the 1950s”) is one my students very rarely use, so this example works well for them. To create a contrast, I simply remove the commas:


When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s crime was falling to record lows just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline.


What are the potential misreadings that might occur without the commas? A casual reader, for example, might see “1950s crime” as a single unit, not separating “crime” as the subject of the next clause. While advanced readers will correct the problem easily, that simple misreading could slow or stump readers the first time through. Similarly, without the second comma, readers might assume that the “just as” is a time clause describing when “crime was falling to record lows.” But “just as” actually introduces a comparison, and the comma helps the reader separate the clauses. 


Granted, students might not frame these contrasts as I have. But they do (usually) see the difference in the two versions and understand the value of the comma in each case. 


Consider the following example, from the same article:


Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying.


Here, I might want to illustrate verb tenses with my students. Having asked them to notice uses of the present continuous (or progressive) form of the verb, I might then have them consider what happens when we substitute the simple present (conversion to the simple present is also a good time to practice subject-verb agreement):


Yet discoveries multiply like fruit flies, and progress dizzies.


Once again, I might ask students a simple question: what differences do these changes in tense make? Do discoveries always multiply in this way? Are we always dizzied by scientific progress? Students usually see that the focus here is on the immediate present: this generalization applies NOW, in this moment. And that time reference is critical for Pinker’s argument that technology (rapidly changing now) is not an impediment to innovative or deep thought. Astute students will often ask at this point why we call the simple present “the present” if it doesn’t really refer to the present (or at least exclusively to the present time). This question can lead to some interesting discussions about grammar terminology (and whether or not knowledge of it is necessary for effective communication).


So in working with readings and grammar, I begin by having students notice and annotate what they see. From there, we can use contrasts to explore what I would call the “so what” related to the target grammar. When these activities work well—and I give them the time needed—students also build confidence in their abilities and the value of their linguistic intuitions.

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About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.