School Improvement in Maryland
English/Core Learning Goals
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GOAL 3 CLARIFICATION

Controlling Language

Many research studies indicate that formal grammar instruction, as practiced in the past, did not lead to improved student writing and speaking. However, given carful planning and attention to those specific grammar concepts that have a direct impact on student communication, the study of grammar can play a role in improving writing and speaking. Goal 3 was developed to provide students with the language knowledge and skills they need to communicate effectively to a variety of audiences. The Core Learning Goals focus on the grammar concepts shown to have a direct relationship to improving writing and speaking. Since students know a great deal about their native language, although they often do not know, or cannot apply, grammatical terms to it, it is most productive to tap students' underlying knowledge of their own language, which was learned long before formal schooling began, and base instruction there, rather than to take a more abstract linguistic approach.

Nature of Language

The purpose of language is to communicate and to enhance thought. One form of language is words (written or spoken) used to communicate an idea. Language is dynamic; it changes to meet new social requirements and new phenomena. The language of a culture carries the history of that culture. According to Max Muller, “Language is the autobiography of the human race.”

Structure of Language

The structure of the English language is often difficult to describe because it has feature of both Germanic and Romance languages. It contains both positional and inflectional features, which are often confusing to students in the abstract. Students seem to find study of the structure of language less confusing when they analyze their own written and spoken language than when they deal with the “rules” and vocabulary of linguistic study in a more abstract way.

Grammar Concepts and Skills

Grammar is conceived of and discussed in may ways. At times the word “grammar” is used as a synonym for the nature of language or the structure of language. At other times it is used to refer to the rhetorical or semantic content of communication. And frequently the focus of the discussion is on the syntax of the communication in question, including discussion of parts of speech, parts of sentences, and how they are used. All of these definitions of grammar are useful at times, but the overriding concern in our classrooms should be on applying the understandings of grammar gained through instruction in the student's own writing, speaking, and thinking.

Classification of Words by Meaning, Position, Form, and Function

The meaning, position, form, and function of a given word of phrase are related in complex ways. For example, look at the forms of the word “grade” in the following sentences:

  • A stack of graded papers gives many teachers a feeling of satisfaction.
  • Our teacher always grades our papers fairly.
  • The grade of the highway was quite steep.
To derive the meaning of the word “grade” in each sentence, a reader must understand that “grade” can function as more than one part of speech, that a clue to the particular word meaning lies in the position of the word in the sentence, and that the form of the word “grade” used in each sentence also helps the reader determine the word's meaning. It is more helpful for students to learn to explain the classification of words by their function in a real communication than in an isolated grammar “exercise.”

Complete Sentences/Non-sentences

Students who are native English speakers already know what a sentence is operationally, if not definitionally. Students need to be shown how to use that knowledge of “sentence” in their own work. Every sentence, no matter how complex, has two boundaries: the beginning and the end. Differentiating a sentence from a non-sentence depends on identifying those two boundaries. In .his book, Grammar and the Teaching of Writing, Rei Noguchi suggests three strategies students can learn to find those sentence boundaries and to identify those sequences of words that fall short of being a sentence—that is, a non-sentence. He calls these strategies the use of tag questions, the use of yes-no questions, and sentence embedding. Once these strategies are learned, students can apply them to their own work as part of self-editing.

Subjects and Predicates

Teachers can also capitalize on students' knowledge of sentences to help them find subjects and main verbs in sentences. This ability is important since many problems require the identification of the subjects: subject-verb agreement errors, unnecessary shifts in person, and over-use of the passive voice. In the same way, locating main verbs is necessary in order to avoid or correct errors in tense, subject-verb agreement errors, improper tense shifting, and nonstandard dialectal forms. Two of the strategies mentioned above (tag questions and yes-no questions) are also effective in locating the subjects and verbs in sentences.

Modifiers

Modifiers can be a word, a phrase, or a clause used in a sentence to clarify or enhance the thought being communicated. Labeling the modifiers in others' work is of little importance, but the effective use of modifiers in original composition is one of the sign of syntactic maturity. Guided revision activities and sentence combining activities focused on incorporating modifiers help students acquire greater control of their own written and spoken language.

Connotative and Denotative Meanings of Words

If a reader or listener is puzzled or offended by certain words or phrases and their connotations, the communication is ineffective. Therefore, students need to use language resources like dictionaries and thesauruses (print or electronic) to be sure that the words they choose for their communication do, in fact, denote what they intend. Students should be encouraged to keep a personal dictionary of words whose denotations they find problematic (e.g., effect/affect). For all communication, they should also be concerned about the connotations words carry and carefully choose the word or phrase which best conveys the thought.

Reader/Listener Response

Identifying the purpose of a communication and the intended audience for the communication is of primary importance. It is not only the composer's intention which is important, but also the reader or listener's response to the communication which must be anticipated and planned for. Students need to learn how to make conscious choices about form, format, medium, and language use to obtain desired responses from a reader or listener. Students need to see models of communication which evoke desired responses, and can benefit from peer and teacher responses as they learn how to make wise choices independently.

Editorial Choices

Writers and speakers often choose to use nonstandard English for specific purposes, just as they may use unconventional spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and sentence structure. Students should be aware that this is an author's decision and that the decision must be supported by the work itself.

Selected Bibliography of Professional Readings

Cook, Lenora and Lodge, Helen C., eds., Voices in English Classrooms: Honoring Diversity and Change, NCTE, 1996.

Killagon, Don, Sentence Composing, Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 1992.

Lindemann, Erika, A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Noguchi, Rei, Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: Limits and Possibilities, NCTE, 1991.

Shaughnessy, Mina, Errors and Expectations, Oxford University Press, 1977.