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Teaching Tips 212


Prescriptivist or

Not so much a Teaching Tip this week but some reading & food for thought.

We've had past Tips on attitudes to language change - The Oxford Comma & Where to stick the grocer's apostrophe - check out:

So some holiday reading - the Guardian published an article by the well-known linguist Steven Pinker, 'Steven Pinker: 10 'grammar rules' it's OK to break (sometimes)', an article to promote his forthcoming book 'The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Allen Lane).

Here's the introduction to the article:

Steven Pinker: 10 'grammar rules' it's OK to break (sometimes)

'Among the many challenges of writing is dealing with rules of correct usage: whether to worry about split infinitives, fused participles, and the meanings of words such as "fortuitous", "decimate" and "comprise". Supposedly a writer has to choose between two radically different approaches to these rules. Prescriptivists prescribe how language ought to be used. They uphold standards of excellence and a respect for the best of our civilisation, and are a bulwark against relativism, vulgar populism and the dumbing down of literate culture. Descriptivists describe how language actually is used. They believe that the rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, say the Descriptivists, and people should be allowed to write however they please.

It's a catchy dichotomy, but a false one. Anyone who has read an inept student paper, a bad Google translation, or an interview with George W Bush can appreciate that standards of usage are desirable in many arenas of communication. They can lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.

But this does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Thistlebottom's classroom is worth keeping. Many prescriptive rules originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries.

How can you distinguish the legitimate concerns of a careful writer from the folklore and superstitions? These are the questions to ask. Does the rule merely extend the logic of an intuitive grammatical phenomenon to more complicated cases, such as avoiding the agreement error in "The impact of the cuts have not been felt"? Do careful writers who inadvertently flout the rule agree, when the breach is pointed out, that something has gone wrong? Has the rule been respected by the best writers in the past? Is it respected by careful writers in the present? Is there a consensus among discerning writers that it conveys an interesting semantic distinction? And are violations of the rule obvious products of mishearing, careless reading, or a chintzy attempt to sound highfalutin?

A rule should be rejected, in contrast, if the answer to any of the following questions is "Yes." Is the rule based on some crackpot theory, such as that English should emulate Latin, or that the original meaning of a word is the only correct one? Is it instantly refuted by the facts of English, such as the decree that nouns may not be converted into verbs? Did it originate with the pet peeve of a self-anointed maven? Has it been routinely flouted by great writers? Is it based on a misdiagnosis of a legitimate problem, such as declaring that a construction that is sometimes ambiguous is always ungrammatical? Do attempts to fix a sentence so that it obeys the rule only make it clumsier and less clear?

Finally, does the putative rule confuse grammar with formality? Every writer commands a range of styles that are appropriate to different times and places. A formal style that is appropriate for the inscription on a genocide memorial will differ from a casual style that is appropriate for an email to a close friend. Using an informal style when a formal style is called for results in prose that seems breezy, chatty, casual, flippant. Using a formal style when an informal style is called for results in prose that seems stuffy, pompous, affected, haughty. Both kinds of mismatch are errors. Many prescriptive guides are oblivious to this distinction, and mistake informal style for incorrect grammar.

The easiest way to distinguish a legitimate rule of usage from a grandmother's tale is unbelievably simple: look it up. Consult a modern usage guide or a dictionary with usage notes. Many people, particularly sticklers, are under the impression that every usage myth ever loosed on the world by a self-proclaimed purist will be backed up by the major dictionaries and manuals. In fact, these reference works, with their careful attention to history, literature and actual usage, are the most adamant debunkers of grammatical nonsense. (This is less true of style sheets drawn up by newspapers and professional societies, and of manuals written by amateurs such as critics and journalists, which tend to mindlessly reproduce the folklore of previous guides.)'

Pinker then goes on to look at the following language areas. Before reading what he has to say, with the link at the end, try to predict what he might say about the different points.

and, because, but, or, so, also
dangling modifiers
like, as, such as
preposition at the end of a sentence
predicative nominative
split infinitives
that and which
who and whom
very unique
count nouns, mass nouns and "ten items or less"

For access to the book this is all from:

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


And a couple of other books from Steven Pinker:

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)


The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Penguin)


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Left out

What have Pat Bonny, Paul Klee, Marilyn Monroe, Oprah Winfrey, Jack the Ripper, Paul McCartney, Nicole Kidman, Bill Clinton got in common?

Yes, they were/are all lefthanded. Not particularly startling you might think but this week we are going to use lefthandedness in some lesson ideas to coincide with Lefthanded Day, which is celebrated on August 13th. Did you know that 10% of the general population is lefthanded, although this is reduced to 0% in Japan due to the cultural stigma that has been associated with lefthandedness.

Very recently, scientists claim to have found the lefthanded gene:
Might well make an interesting article to use in class in addtion to or in place of the article that follows.

On 13th August it's Lefthanded Day so here are some ideas & materials to use in class:

Here is a procedure for part of a lesson you might like to use:

1. Put the famous people above on the board & get the students in pairs to come up with possible links.

2. Introduce the idea of Lefthanded Day. (Obviously find out if there are any lefthanded students in the class beforehand & explain there is lesson coming up on it.)
As a bit of fun, tell the students that they should write with the other hand for the remainder of the lesson.

3. Ask if the students do anything better with their left rather than with their right hands - if they are righthanded, of course. Give out the quiz to do individually & then discuss the answers.

From The Left-Handers Club:


We all, of course, know in which hand we hold a pen, but how far does this bias extend throughout your body? Are you left-eared? Left eyed? Here is a simple test you can apply to yourself.

1. Imagine the centre of your back is itching. Which hand do you scratch it with?
2. Interlock your fingers. Which thumb is uppermost?
3. Imagine you are applauding. Start clapping your hands. Which hand is uppermost?
4. Wink at an imaginary friend straight in front of you. Which eye does the winking?
5. Put your hands behind your back, one holding the other. Which hand is doing the holding?
6. Someone in front of you is shouting but you cannot hear the words. Cup your ear to hear better. Which ear do you cup?
7. Count to three on your fingers, using the forefinger of the other hand. Which forefinger do you use?
8. Tilt your head over on to one shoulder. Which shoulder does it touch?
9. Fixate a small distant object with your eyes and point directly at it with your forefinger. Now close one eye. Now change eyes. Which eye was open when the fingertip remained in line with the small object? (When the other eye, the non-dominant one, is open and the dominant eye is closed, the finger will appear to move to one side of the object.)
10. Fold your arms. Which forearm is uppermost?

If you have always considered yourself to be right or left-handed you will probably now have discovered that your body is less than total in its devotion to its favoured side. If you are right-handed the chances are that you were not able to be 'right' 10 times.

4. Tell the students some interesting facts about lefthanders:

From The Left-Handers Club:

Most left-handers draw figures facing to the right
There is a high tendency in twins for one to be left-handed
Stuttering and dyslexia occur more often in left-handers (particularly if they are forced to change their writing hand as a child, like King of England George VI).
Left-handers adjust more readily to seeing underwater.
Left-handers excel particularly in tennis, baseball, swimming and fencing
Left-handers usually reach puberty 4 to 5 months after right-handers
4 of the 5 original designers of the Macintosh computer were left-handed
1 in 4 Apollo astronauts were left-handed - 250% more than the normal level.
Left-handers are generally more intelligent, better looking, imaginative and multi-talented than right handers ( based on discussions among members of the Left-Handers Club! :)

5. Students in pairs brainstorm difficulties that lefthanded people might come up against in daily life eg. Desks, machines etc.. Get them to collate a list. Feedback with one list on the board - get a student up to the board to do this, reminding her/him to use the other hand to write with!

6. Reading - below is a rather old article, but still useful.
a) Put the title on the board & get the students to predict whylefthanders still feel left out - collate the ideas on the board.
b) Students skim the article to see if any of their ideas from the prediction or the problems mentioned earlier are mentioned. Alternatively, cut up the article into paragraphs & students sequence it as logically as they can, given the genre, & then discuss why they made their decissions, looking at the cohesive features of the text.
c) A more detailed comprehension task, for lower levels?

7. Language focus - pick up on some relevant language to your group in the text, a noticing task & then clarification & practiise. Don't forget the written record.

8. Response to the text - discussion - have they heard of lefthanders being discriminated against eg. in Spain I have heard in the past of school students having their left hand tied behind their backs so they had to use the right. This could lead on to a discussion of other discriminations in society & why they might exist.

Why left-handers still feel left out

Guardian, Thursday June 6, 2002

Over the centuries they have been beaten on the knuckles, locked up, ridiculed and prevented from reproducing in case they spawned freaks.

Now left-handers are facing another affront. A psychology professor told the Guardian Hay festival yesterday that society will never stop being biologically and culturally dominated by right-handers at the psychological expense of those who hold their pencil in their left hand.

Chris McManus, a professor of psychology and medical education at University College London, trawled thousands of years of the history of cells and culture - from "left-handed" amino acids, to stone age tool-making practices and Giotto frescos - and found that "right equals good and left equals bad" in common perception.

In his book Right Hand, Left Hand, he noted how expres sions for the word "left" had become terms of abuse in every culture - something that New Labour might already be aware of.

"Our society is organised according to right-handers. Left-handers are the last of the great neglected minorities," said Prof McManus, who is a right-hander with a left-handed mother and daughter.

In Britain around 13% of men and around 11% of women are left-handed, compared with 3% before 1910. Left-handedness coincides with high incidences of genius and creativity, and also autism and dyslexia.

"The one thing that will change the suffering of left-handers is to get engineers to see that for 10% of users, their designs are still back to front. Scissors, microwave doors, power saws and water gauges on the side of kettles are a constant reminder. Psychologically, left-handers still claim to have problems. The social consequences are immense."

Here are some links on lefthandedness to follow up for more material & classroom ideas:
The Left-Handers Club
Wikipedia page on left-handedness, including a list of famous left-handed people.
The Lefthanded Universe.
For righthanded people learning to write with their left hands.
Lefthanded Liberation Society

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Coursebook partner

Last week we looked at considerations for course planning in the Tip 'Planning Ahead:

This week we continue the topic & turn to putting all those considerations into a timetable/scheme of work.

I have always been wary of coursebooks, having begun my teaching by working from a structural syllabus, having to plan from almost scratch to provide communicative lessons. Coming to coursebooks later on, I found them hard to use as I was using someone else's ideas on how to go about teaching but I'm sure it was a good thing for me & helped me to develop my own ideas even more. The vast majority of teachers use coursebooks so they obviously have a lot going for them. Written by experienced teachers, we hope, they provide a readymade structure & materials which save us an enormous amount of planning time.

It is probably a good idea to assume that the coursebook does not cater to your students' needs. If you begin on this premise then you have a better chance of using the coursebook to the full. A mismatch between the coursebook & the students' language & skills needs, expectations, interests, learning styles etc are clearly going to be present. Happily there will also be many occasions when the two, the student & the coursebook, go hand in hand, but to assume they do so all the time is asking for trouble. This way you control the coursebook & not the other way round.

The next step is the timetabling one. The past Tip 'Saving Time' gives a procedure for this.

Timetabling is essential is you want to provide a balanced course. It enables you to reflect on the course & helps you to supplement the coursebook.

When reviewing your timetable to see that you are providing a balance, if you have trouble seeing the wood from the trees, on deciding what the main aim of an activity really is, a way of helping with this is to have a lots of cards a major area written on each of them - speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocab, function, discourse, pronunciation - & place them on the timetable over the different activities. This will enable you to see at a glance if you are creating a balance.

This would make a useful focus for an in-service seminar. Have several timetables available & ask your teachers to put the cards on top & decide if there is a balance, & if not, what would need including & leaving out.

It is also well worth involving the students in the planning process by consulting them on both the lessons & the coursebook. Looking through the next few units together can be illuminating & help you focus your planning more. The students can tell you which topics, language areas & materials they would like or not like to look at.

And it is also very worthwhile discussing your course & schemes of work with your colleagues. Everyone has a different way of doing things & interesting ideas are sure to come up.

A few past Tips concerned with lesson planning:
Lesson beginnings:
Lesson endings:
Ordered themes:
Lesson shapes:
Rounding off:
Planning ahead:

For an interesting book on 'designing sequences of work for the language classroom', do check out 'Planning Lessons & Courses' by Tessa Woodward (CUP).


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