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I have been writing about ways to build grammar awareness through reading activities. I began with an exploratory look at threshold concepts for grammar in the composition classroom. I also addressed activities that encourage students to notice grammatical features in target texts. In the last post, I discussed applying a principle of contrast to texts so that students can construct and refine grammatical hypotheses.
Another strategy that can be applied to texts involves the creation of grammatical frames to illustrate critical grammar points. Consider the following example, taken from an editorial by Steven Pinker:
If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying.
The first of these two sentences is a counterfactual (also called unreal) condition, which follows a standard format: If + subject + past tense verb, subject + would + base form of the verb. The next sentence introduces the real or factual counterpart to the conditional; as a contrast, this sentence is introduced with “yet.” In combination, these sentences illustrate a useful grammatical pattern for argumentation, a pattern that students can employ for themselves. Provide students with a simple frame, and then invite them to play with the language in the context of their own ideas:
If _________ were _______________, (then) _______ would _________. But (yet) ______________________.
If ______________________ (verb in past), _______________ (use “would”) __________. But (yet) __________________.
Next, students could predict what the following sentence might logically contain. In this case, the next sentence could be a result clause beginning with “so” or “therefore.” Or the writer might choose to provide additional facts as a contrast to the conditional, as Pinker actually does (note his use of the words “other” and “likewise”):
Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a morning of work to the Web site Arts & Letters Daily can attest.
Patterns and frames can also be used to help multilingual writers and English language learners build lexical knowledge. One of the most challenging aspects of English language acquisition is verb complementation: whether a verb can be followed by a noun, prepositional phrase, gerund, infinitive, noun clause, or adjective – or some combination of these—is lexically determined. In other words, the individual verb determines what grammatical structures follow it. Vocabulary development for academic writing involves a growing awareness of which verbs occur in which patterns. Reading exercises can foster this lexical awareness. Consider the following sentence from Pinker’s essay:
Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths.
“Encourage” is one of several verbs which can be followed (among other patterns) by a noun or pronoun and an infinitive: encourage someone to do something. Students can begin to build a repertoire of verbs that follow this pattern, looking for additional examples in class readings (urge someone to do something, expect someone to do something, etc.). But instructors can also point out verbs students will not find in this pattern, such as “recommend” or “suggest.”
Whether the frames are invoked to illustrate a grammatical construct such as a conditional or a lexically-determined complement, invite students to play with language in the frames in low-stakes activities.
This use of frames or patterns is similar to the approach of Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say, I Say. Some have criticized the Graff and Birkenstein templates as formulaic or detrimental to the thinking process (as in this article by Phyllis Banay). My use of frames, however, differs from the They Say, I Say template approach in a couple of ways. First, frames are derived from course readings; they are not presented as a pre-determined list. Second, while frames may be connected to rhetorical moves (as in the case of Pinker’s use of counterfactual conditions to introduce evidence against a claim), the primary focus of the frames here is to build grammatical and lexical confidence. Finally, I would not require that students use a particular frame in a graded writing assignment; ultimately, my goal is to build student confidence to make grammatical choices—not dictate those choices for them.
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