Friday, 5 June 2020

This is not a sentence.

I have often shared a story in professional presentations about when I was 12 years old and doing my grammar homework one night (yes, I do realise that in educational epochs, as well as human years, this was a long time ago).  I looked up from said homework and asked my Dad “What’s syntax”? Without missing a beat, my mischievous Dad retorted “It’s what people have to pay when they go to a massage parlour”. Apart from the usual eye-roll that pubescent girls reserve for their parents, my Dad’s response probably did more for my semantic than my syntactic skills at that particular moment. However, the important point is that at 12 years old, I was grappling with the intricacies of how words go together and the mystery of the rules that govern this process.

Fast-forward a number of decades, and I am still thinking about the componentry of language: phonemes, graphemes, morphemes, vocabulary, syntax, discourse, and in particular, that most ubiquitous collection of words, the humble sentence.

“Sentence” is one of those value-added words in the English language that pays the rent twice by being polysemous – having two (superficially at least) unrelated meanings. It can obviously refer to a term of imprisonment (and/or the process by which a judge commits a convicted offender to a prison term), or it can mean a collection of words arranged together in a rule-governed way to form a clause, made up of a subject and a predicate.

Now some of you might already be thinking that this blog post is getting a bit technical and be zoning out, but stay with me. Why am I thinking about sentences on a wintry Friday night? Because I have spent the better part of the last week reviewing and grading first year university students’ essays and I am calling out the rot (another useful polysemous word) on the low functional literacy levels of students when they enter University.

Lest there be any temptation here to blame the University for accepting said students, let me emphasise that these students, in the overwhelming majority of cases, are school leavers who have successfully completed Year 12. In the case of Victoria, where I live, this means compulsory study, at Year 12 level of one of three English options. We don’t need to drill down here on the content of these subjects. The important thing is that all students have to complete 13 years of study in English, ranging from the basics of reading, writing, and spelling, to understanding and employing genre, and being able to understand and produce narrative, expository and persuasive text. So far so good, but Houston, we have a problem. 

These students cannot write in sentences. 

What do they do instead? They pretty much write as if they are speaking, connecting words in a rough stream of consciousness, adding punctuation (plus or minus capital letters) to taste. Some essays contain more sentence fragments than actual sentences. If you are not sure what a sentence fragment looks like, here’s some examples (with minor edits to prevent re-identification):

      Such as smells, eye contact, sounds, touches, and language. 
          Thus resulting in long periods of infant distress.
          For example, a child starting to remember a favourite book. 

      Many of the essays contain homophone errors (yes, we all make them, myself included, but not in the abundance I am seeing them this week). Think: effect / affect; principle / principal; their / there; to / too; roll / role; adolescents / adolescence.

And of course, we must not forget the inevitable star appearance of apostrophe errors. However, the stand-out feature for me is that these students do not have an explicit rule in their long-term memories that tells them what a sentence is.
My first conscious awareness of this problem was in the late 1990s when I supervised psychology Honours students for the first time. I found myself writing (yes, literally writing; with a pen) in the margins “This is not a sentence” over and over again. I still recall the exasperation of one student, “Gemma” in a supervision session when she told me:

“You know, when you write ‘this is not a sentence’, I stare at it and stare at, trying to make sense of what you mean. But I have no rule in my head that tells me what a sentence is”.

So – how do students acquire explicit grammatical rules that guide them in their learning? Some are fortunate to gain a working implicit knowledge about how sentence structure works, but they would struggle to articulate the rule. Others, like Gemma, have inadequate implicit knowledge and hence no rules and no problem-solving tools. Note here too, that I am not even trying to cover the more macro issue of overall text cohesion, because most students are stuck in the primary-school weeds of trying to write a grammatically complete sentence.

Words live in sentences and behave in rule-governed ways that are clearly mysterious and random to many University students. Obviously, the inner workings of sentences, just like the inner workings of words, need to be systematically and incrementally explained to students, in both primary and secondary school years, if they are to arrive at University ready for the challenges of higher education. 

Must we accept, though, that in 2020, many students  have to go to University to learn what a sentence is?
If so, we won’t have time to properly immerse them in the complex, beautiful, and challenging ideas that sentences, paragraphs and full texts embody. We will not be able to equip them to interrogate the major theories in their disciplines, let alone to prepare written critiques and develop their own well-argued responses and adaptations to those theories. 

If secondary schools cannot deliver Year 12 students who can reliably demonstrate the basics of mastery in their language, then students must pay tertiary fees to back-fill this content alongside (and in some cases instead of) their core content. In the case of students who are themselves studying to be teachers, it is difficult to see how they can both master their curriculum content and back-fill the gaps in the previous 13 years. Indeed, it seems hardly fair to ask them to do so.

A sentence in one sense of the word is a judgement. The world makes judgements on the sentences we produce in spoken and written language and employers understandably expect university graduates to have well-developed skills in these domains. 

My La Trobe University (Bendigo) colleague, Emina McLean recently published a related piece on her blog: The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children: Literacy in higher education and beyond. Emina points out that Whole Language and Balanced Literacy pedagogies create inter-generational erosion in the extent to which the inner workings of language are passed from one cohort of students to the next. 

The epi-genetic fall-out from 40 years of constructivist, discovery-based learning in the “language arts” has sentenced University academics to teaching content that, a mere generation ago, was consolidated in the primary and secondary school years. We are all the poorer for this sentence, in both senses of the word. 

(C)  Pamela Snow (2020)