Magazine article Perspectives on Language and Literacy

Syntax: Somewhere between Words and Text

Magazine article Perspectives on Language and Literacy

Syntax: Somewhere between Words and Text

Article excerpt

The 2007 meta-analysis Writing Next (Graham & Perin, 2007) raised awareness and alarm about students' writing proficiency. Three years later, Writing to Read (Graham & Hebert, 2010), another meta-analysis, stressed the reciprocity between learning to write and understanding what we read. Now, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS; Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010), a nationwide initiative to ensure that all students are college and career ready by the end of high school, provide a foundation for K-12 instruction and assessment, have operationalized this relationship through their emphases on reading and writing in English/Language Arts and in the content areas. Furthermore, the CCSS have incorporated another important variable in Standard 10 (CCSS, English Language Art Standards, 2010; ELA-Literacy), which emphasizes that students read text at increasing levels of complexity from kindergarten through twelfth grade. These reports and new standards demand that educators examine the factors that make text challenging and address the role that writing plays in helping students comprehend complex text.

What factors have an impact on reading comprehension? Several factors focus on the reader's skill at the word level: accurate and automatic (rapid) word recognition, as well as semantic and morphologic knowledge. Since the National Reading Panel Report (2000), these aspects of reading have been emphasized instructionally, along with developing the reader's background knowledge. Curiously, however, these factors omit one of the variables upon which most readability formulae are based-sentence length and structure. Sentences are one of the structural properties used to predict text difficulty (Shanahan, 2013). This omission is significant, particularly in light of the CCSS's emphasis on complex text and the use of readability formulae to calibrate text complexity (formulae such as Lexile, Degrees of Reading Power, and others. See CCSS, ELA Appendix A, pp. 7-8).

The Omission of Grammar and Syntax Instruction

Surprisingly, of the 11 elements of effective adolescent writing instruction cited in Writing Next only one-sentence combining-mentions the sentence. Unfortunately, this report is often referenced for its statement about the futility of teaching grammar. This stance on grammar reinforces the beliefs held by all too many educators, whose unhappy memories of grammar instruction are centered on mindless exercises identifying nouns and verbs by neatly underlining and coding them with "N" or "V." When taught this way, grammar instruction does little to improve writing, much less comprehension. Who wouldn't agree with this anti-grammar stance when such minimally useful tasks do little either to improve writing or to increase comprehension? However, that does not mean that knowledge of grammar is inherently useless. Rather, it signifies the pointlessness of ineffective strategies for teaching it.

Additional ambivalence about grammar instruction arises out of fear that stress on the mechanics of writing will stifle creativity. Perhaps this explains the preference for embedded grammar instruction in the milieu of Writer's Workshop (Calkins, 1994) in which the mechanics of writing are addressed within the context of writing. This brings to mind a personal experience. While I was studying piano as a teen, I heard a similar caution levied about learning music theory-too much theory will spoil creativity. Paradoxically, I found the opposite to be true. Knowledge of the theory gave me new insight about and appreciation for the music that I needed to learn. In other words, learning the underlying structure improved creative expression and understanding rather than squelching it. And, so it is too with grammar and syntax instruction for students: their reading becomes more conscious and appreciative, writing more creative.

Indeed, if we look more closely at the concern expressed in Writing Next, the important point captured in the criticism of grammar instruction is centered on the limited value of traditional grammar instruction. …

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