Friday, 4 August 2017

Literacy Newsletter

Reading Signs
July 2017 Newsletter #3

Literacy at Tamaki College

Functional Writing Instruction and Waka Reading

One definition of a functional analysis of society maintains that elements of a society fulfil a need in that society. Let us consider elements of the waka using functionalism.

Tauihu and taurapa, the prow and stern of a waka have a purpose. The figure on the bow was often Tuumatauenga, the god of war. He pokes out his tongue as a warning to Tanagaroa, the god of the sea, that humans are crossing. The gods’ arms project backwards to protect the occupants of the canoe. But the prow also has a more practical function. It acts as a map and,  just like a speaking stick, has images which can be read by the navigator.
Lengths of feathers dangle from the top of the figure and trail in the sea, they represent the beauty of the creatures of the sky. If possible, albatross feathers were used because they had a function. The sky was the realm of the gods and as such the albatross feathers created a powerful link between the realm of the gods and the realm of humans. This spiritual aerial sought the protection of the gods because when you’re navigating the rough coastal waters of Aotearoa, you need all the help you can get.

Speech Into Writing

Whenever the term grammar is mentioned in a secondary teaching environment there is often an almost audible gasp as teachers express a sigh which sounds something  akin to ‘not I’. Don’t worry you’re not alone, as it was way back in the mid sixties that educators adopted the non-grammar teaching position. Unfortunately for me, I went to a conservative school and at least one of those teachers didn’t quite get the message. As a result, I often claim to be the only pupil left in this suburb to have been physically chastised for not identifying an adverbial clause in an early morning parsing skills test. There may be a lot of hand wringing now about the lack of grammatical knowledge found in our students, but nowhere near as much hand wringing as was experienced back in 1970, when you were sent, by Brother Reginald, to the cupboard at the front of the classroom, key in hand, to fetch the cane.

The decision to move away from teaching formal grammar skills as a subject can be traced back to the 1900s with the likes of Steiner and Montessori, but the major impact on education came about in the 1960s when linguists like Noam Chomsky promoted the concept known as Progressivism in education. The Progressives argued that language acquisition was innate and we are predisposed to the grammatical structure of a language. Eventually these ideas became policies in education and we know them today as ‘whole language’ and ‘immersion’ learning.

Question: Why were the Star Wars films released 4,5,and 6 followed by 1, 2, and 3?
Answer: In charge, Yoda was.

Ok, its an old joke but it highlights what happens if you put the verb at the wrong end of a sentence and young children know from a very early age that Yoda has problems with his sentence constructions.

Children do acquire spoken language and the grammar of a language through immersion but despite our impressions, children are inefficient learners and they get endless instruction from parents, siblings and their teachers. Children may be like a sponge when they pick up every single swear word you’ve ever uttered but they are very slow at learning their first language.
The pyramid district of Teotihuacan near Mexico city is surrounded by numerous villas. Most belonged to the elite members of that society, the priests and the princes. Many of the walls are covered in detailed murals where hundreds of figures are shown engaged in various ritual and mundane activities. The one on the left shows an individual in the middle of a speech act and this is depicted as a speech scroll emanating from his mouth.
Written language is very different from spoken language. It’s organised differently in terms of structure, grammar and purpose. Our speaking is usually unplanned. It often lacks structure, so we speak in strings of clauses which are usually joined by lots of conjunctions: so, and, but, when, because. We determine the importance of the ideas we want to communicate, simply by repeating them, by creating emphasis through a change in tone and sometimes volume. Writing, on the other hand, is hierarchical and we generally state the main idea first and follow up with supporting ideas and examples.

Children start their writing education by creating recounts, the genre which most closely resembles spoken language. As children mature, their writing uses more mature or abstract forms which are often noun-based. Time bound conversations are replaced by an emphasis on verb tenses.  The point here is, students need explicit grammar instruction if they are to learn these features and thus improve their fluency. This lack of written fluency is often the cause of the loudest teacher lamentations, especially in secondary schools where senior students require fluency in writing to complete Achievement Standard tasks.  

In the mid-nineties researchers analysed the written examination scripts of first year university students. They looked at exam scripts from the early sixties and compared them with scripts from the nineties. They measured the number of grammatical mistakes found in each and discovered, in spite of all the cries of the back to basics movement of that decade, very little difference in the rate of grammatical mistakes. This was a wonderful snapshot because it spanned the period where traditional grammar was taught and the period where formal grammar skills were not taught.

What does this tell us?
  • that teaching traditional grammar does not result in a rapid improvement in written fluency
  • that many young people leave school without being fully literate

But this has always been the case. As they move through their twenties and into their thirties most young people continue to make rapid improvements in their spelling, their use of grammar and their reading skills. Some of this has to do with maturity but also with tertiary and occupational demands. The cycle continues until you reach your fifties and sixties where you start complaining about all the school leavers who just don’t seem to be able to write a bloody grammatical sentence.

H. Douglas Browne (who wrote many ground breaking tomes on the teaching of language)  was often quoted by Dorothy Brown (who taught the TESSOL Dip. for many years at Auckland University) when she exclaimed to diploma students, “Written English is nobody’s mother tongue.” What Dorothy was alluding to here, is a middle ground between traditional grammar instruction and the non-grammar position. Known as Functional Grammar, it first made an appearance in the late 70s and was promoted by the writings of the Australian, M A K Halliday. There seems to have been a lag between the adoption of the non-grammar position and Hallidays publications but it should be noted that the Australians have lead the world in the functional approach to the teaching of writing and there are now dozens of school texts which show which grammatical language features we need to teach students in order to help them write a fluent  explanation, a science report or a simple description.

First you need to know which way round to hold your cuneiform tablet and just like a modern device they don’t work very well if you drop them. Unsurprisingly for an early form of writing there is no syntax or grammar, just strings of clauses.
I can still hear ‘not I’ but there is good news. I have a wonderful copy of a Manual of English Grammar by J.C. Nesfield, 1913. It was owned by Olive Ellian, a student in 5 Spls. St Cuthberts, Mt Eden, probably during the 1920s. It’s laced with her personal notes and marginalia and if you stop, concentrate and listen you can hear the instructions, “Girls, take out Nesfield turn to page 114. I want you to start parsing lines 74. to 83. The one that starts, ‘They drowned the black and white kittens’. This text runs to over 400 pages and covers an amazing range of grammatical features but the functional grammar basics from Knapp and Watkins, Genre, Text, grammar  are covered in about six pages and requires us to master only half a dozen practical features.

We can each make a start by putting examples of  language forms on the screen or wall and by highlighting our exemplars with the verbs, the nouns, and the modals. Those statements which express opinion or degree (See the table below). We can’t just leave the teaching of these skills to the English Department. Firstly, the  three or four hours of instruction allocated per week to the English department just isn’t going to do it. Secondly, the writing tasks in your subject have their own particular language forms and your students need help developing written fluency in your subject area.

Subject Based Language
These are the basic language features of description writing.  Developing student awareness of these basic features will help them improve their written fluency. For example, having an awareness of relational verbs is the first step. Asking which verb I should use for this writing task is the next step. As fluent writers, we use these language skills automatically but many of our students do not and these features need explicit teaching.

1)  Display it

First step, display the six language features below. If we can master them, we can provide examples for our students.

Language Awareness

Relational verbs
 things have
 things are
Dj Rod has a critical perspective ……
Dj Rod is in his early 50s ….
..she was basically the leader
Alice is one of the cooks

Mental verbs
-feelings, attitudes and ideas
Rod was nervous
A social justice point of view
She believed
He decide to travel

Action verbs
He went to see Pastor Steve
He chose to go and talk
He lived with his family

Saying Verbs
Dj Rod replied with a comment saying
..he quoted  
..that Alice could say…..
Britney told her story as she says…..

-expressing opinion in formal writing
-opinion sounds like a fact
a writer expresses
..she is a feisty lady
was at first against Jamie Oliver’s plan
she believed that Jamie was not capable
she didn’t support Jamie  
she always questioned
-she sometimes questioned
-she usually questioned
-she occasionally questioned
-she never questioned
he will question everything Jamie did
Dj Rod makes things more difficult for Jamie
                                -a little more difficult
                                   -extremely difficult
                                   -exceptionally more difficult

-writers form nouns from verbs
Pastor Steve had already begun to pray in order to transform Huntington spiritually and physically.
Pastor Steve had already begun to pray for Huntington’s spiritual and physical transformation.

Lesley Wing Jan  Write ways : modelling writing forms  Read online at the Nat. Lib. of Australia

See also: Mark Anderson & Kathy Anderson,   Text Types in English 1,2 & 3
               John Collerson,   English Grammar a functional approach

Jamie says, if we want to make a change, we must first make a start.

An easy way to develop this awareness is to highlight the language features found in student exemplars, either directly on the whiteboard or in a table like the one below. Highlight specific language features and provide students with language lists, prompts and magic sentences.

2) Table it

The Grammar of Description Name:
My example
When describing technical things or facts, use the present tense verbs
Jamie Oliver is……

He is known for ……...

Past tense is used the most

Jamie Oliver wanted to help ...

He wanted to change ….. one believed in him, no one thought that he was able to achieve his plan …...

Relational verbs used to discuss qualities
No one thought he was able to achieve his plan

It was hard for him to change young children’s food choices

Action verbs verbs used to describe events and behaviours
He preached about how many people died from obesity …...

He started his work going to Primary schools

Mental verbs

Modal adjuncts
He believes

I could not believe

She didn’t support

Adjectives / modifiers
Noun Groups
..all the negative comments
has a critical perspective
unhealthiest and biggest people in America
Time indicators
He started …..
When he first arrived ….
-change verbs into nouns
He planned on doing what he’s going to do …….
 -the plan
the family have died from obesity
 -the obesity fatalities

3) Make it Fun.

These split sentences help students practise sentence construction while at the same time demonstrating present tense relational and modal verbs. Take any paragraph, cut it down the middle, rewrite it so the middle of the lines no longer match up.  Then ask students to recombine the words and phrases so each sentence make sense.
4) Label it

A simple way to model written language features is to annotate your exemplars. Label the who, what, when, where but also the time indicators and modal verbs.

5) Model it in a writing frame.
Mac grammar attack.
Writing frames are great but they need to be enhanced with writing models and the language features students must use to make their writing formal.

6) Model it on the page

Formal Writing:  Write an article for a teen magazine                                                                   

   Explain a good place for a Family Day or a Holiday
A great restaurant where you can get a quick and reasonably priced meal for the whole family is McDonalds. There is food for the whole family and “McDonalds mainly sells hamburgers, french fries, soft drinks, breakfast items, and desserts.” The best part about a trip to McDonalds is the speed at which they serve your food and most restaurants have a Drive-Thru lane, sometimes known as McDrive.
McDonalds is especially handy when you are away from home or it is too late to cook a proper meal. Many McDonalds also sell “salads and vegetarian items, wraps and other local fare.” The food is high in energy and some items are low in fat. If you are not in a hurry and want time to digest your meal, head for a restaurant with the indoor or outdoor playground. The children can safely amuse themselves in the crawl tubes or the ball pit while you tuck in.

Hands up all those who’ve ever seen a Huia bird?

Not decorative, functional.
If you want to display your mana, if you want to show your connection with realm of the gods, a feather through the ear is a good start. Sometimes, though something stronger is required and a whole bird is needed, even stronger still, use a live bird.

Trick question, the only one you're ever likely to see is in the Auckland Museum.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for such an interesting piece of writing. I saw the Zapotec ruins out of Oaxaca in Mexico, where the drawings were on tablets and they depicted early surgical drawings from what was a hospital. You have covered so much in your work and made it very readable,Great work.