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Reading for Grammar Awareness
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In my last post, I suggested a set of threshold concepts about grammar that could support a “reading for grammar” pedagogy; in such a pedagogy, grammar is explored inductively and descriptively through interactions with complex and challenging texts. The concepts I proposed address the nature of grammatical systems and the critical importance of those systems in meaning-making activities. Those activities—and the choices of readers and writers engaged in them—have implications for identity and social positioning.
However, practically speaking, how does this translate into classroom practice? I think it begins with noticing—simply bringing syntax and the conventions of written language into the students’ range of attention. My hunch that noticing initiates growth in grammatical awareness comes from years of interacting with students who, in reading class texts or their own work, responded to questions about specific linguistic features in this way: “I didn’t see that.” And while it is easy to attribute that response to carelessness or laziness, I don’t think that fairly captures the task students face in reading, particularly students who have not been afforded extensive reading opportunities (except for perhaps the mind-numbing readings assigned in the preparation and completion of standardized tests). After years of teaching composition (and with training in linguistics), I am certainly going to have a different experience with a text than my students do. I have developed an awareness of multiple linguistic features; my eyes scan for these automatically, and I interpret them rapidly. But I am not so adept in understanding how to “read” a soccer match, for example. Hundreds of details immediately evident to my students—aficionados of fútbol—escape my notice. “I didn’t see that.”
My soccer analogy reminds me that I cannot push students headlong into noticing during our first encounter with a text, just as I wouldn’t try to pay attention to intricate player formations at my first soccer match. I would need to settle in at the stadium, figure out how to get to my seat, match teams and uniforms, and make sure I could see the goals at either end of the field. Students also need time to situate themselves as readers of a text.
But once we have spent some time with a text, I can invite my students to notice how the author is using grammar. I try to select an interesting grammatical feature of the text: subject-verb agreement, commas, parallel structure, subordinate clauses, colons, use of quotes, verbal complements, verb tenses—anything that contributes in some way to our understanding of the text. Then I ask the students to notice that feature (having chosen only one). I might point it out in a couple of paragraphs, and then ask students to notice where else it is used and annotate those instances.
My temptation is always to rush through this noticing; it would be easier for me to point out the instances and move quickly into explanation and practice (activities that I will discuss in future posts). But I am learning to resist this temptation and give my students time to notice for themselves, without moving in to correct what they “didn’t see.” (Even with something that seems as obvious as periods as markers of terminal sentence boundaries, students may not be adept at noticing quickly. To combat the “5 sentences per paragraph” pseudo-rule that some students have been taught, I will ask them to count the number of sentences in one or two paragraphs of a reading we have done. Invariably, students do not agree on the number the first time. As they check their counts with others in the class, I hear the phrase again and again: “Oh! I didn’t see that.”)
Noticing and annotating take time, and given the hectic pressure of accelerated courses and packed syllabi, it can seem that we don’t have luxury for these activities in class. But I think noticing is essential for the development of close reading skills, grammatical awareness, and the ability to revise and edit one’s own work. I have found as students practice, an important shift takes place: not only do they notice the textual features I have asked them to see, but they also begin to notice other characteristics of the text—and lexical and syntactic awareness increases.
In the next post, I will look at activities that build on noticing. In the meantime, your comments and questions are welcome.
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