from KISS Grammar
National Gallery of Art
There are many books about writing and
style that more or less focus on grammatical constructions. There are also
some very interesting books on education and the curriculum. These are
the two types of books that are reviewed here.
- Dr. Ed Vavra
on Grammar and Style
on Grammar and Style
Books and Articles
|Fish, Stanley. How to Write a Sentence.
Graff and Birkenstein. "They Say/I Say"
Lanham, Richard A. Revising Prose.
Lanham, Richard A. Style: an Anti-Textbook.
Nesbitt, M. L. Grammar Land
Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style.
Williams, Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons
in Clarity ? Grace.
|Adler, Mortimer J. ? Charles Van Doren.
to Read a Book
Bortins, Leigh A., The Core: Teaching Your Child
the Foundations of Classical Education.
Brill, Steven. Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to
Fix America's Schools.
Gardner, Howard. The Unschooled Mind
Perry, William G., Jr. "Examsmanship and
the Liberal Arts: A Study in Educational Epistemology"
Riesman, David. with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney.
Sahlberg, Pasi. Finnish Lessons.
Although the books in this section can be read
by anyone, they are probably best appreciated by people who already have
a fairly good understanding of grammatical terms. For example, many of
these books discuss passive voice, but they generally assume that their
readers already know what passive voice is. For readers who do not, these
books can be confusing. Note that grammar textbooks per se are not
Stanley. How to Write a Sentence. N.Y.: HarperCollins, 2011.
I was curious when I first learned about this
book. In 2009, Fish published three
columns on "What Should Colleges Teach?" (These are worth reading on
line, especially because the comments posted about them reflect the multi-sided
debate about teaching grammar.) The first article begins:
A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature
course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean
English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost
invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart. I became even
more alarmed when I remembered that these same students were instructors
in the college’s composition program. What, I wondered, could possibly
be going on in their courses?
In essence, the first article argues for college composition courses that
focus on “grammar, style, clarity, and argument.”
The second article mainly replies to the critical
posts he received on the first. Most of these are way too diverse to summarize
here, but Fish does agree that if teaching grammar simply means "memorizing
rules and being always afraid of breaking them," then instruction in grammar
is harmful. He claims, however, that "drilling students in the forms that
enable meaning" works. He gives an example, an example that is also offered
in the book:
Let’s say I’m teaching the neither/nor form. I begin by producing
a simple neither/nor sentence. “Neither his age nor his disability prevented
him from competing.” I then ask my students to write their own sentences
on that model. Most of them are able to do it, and they produce sentences
with 20 different contents, but only one form. The next step is for the
students to figure out what that form is. Just how does a neither/nor sentence
organize items and actions in the world?
He continues for several paragraphs explaining the value of this exercise,
but he misses some important questions. First, is he really suggesting
that graduate students cannot already use "neither . . . nor . . . . "?
Second, is he suggesting that such exercises on "neither . . . nor . .
. . " will help his graduate students whose sentences fall apart after
six words? And third, does he realize that S-R conditioning theory suggests
that the effects of such exercises (which do not require any understanding
of the grammatical forms involved) will quickly wear away?
In the third article, he admits that he is
still attempting to "work out" a way to teach grammar. He proposes supplementing
his own sentence-model approach with "a standard grammar text filled with
the usual terminology, a terminology that will not seem impenetrable and
hostile to students who have been learning how language works at a level
these texts assume but do not explicate." He offers two of his favorites.
The first is Geraldine Woods’ English Grammar for Dummies. He likes
this book "because its examples are so fanciful ('Lochness loves my singing')
that there is no danger of becoming interested in their content." To me
this sounds like "I'm going to buy this car because I love the stripes
on its sides." His second favorite is Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical
Grammar: Grammatical Choice, Rhetorical Effects. He likes this book
"because of Kolln’s emphasis on how grammatical choices fulfill and/or
disappoint reader expectations." Kolln's book, however, like almost all
textbooks, does not even try to teach students how to analyze the structure
of their own sentences. Put differently, it shows students magic tricks
without teaching the students the basic mechanics that underlie those tricks.
Fish ends this article by recommending an
article by Lynn Sams (“How to Teach Grammar, Analytical Thinking and Writing;
A Method that Works,” English Journal, January, 2003. Sams' article
is interesting, but incomplete. The examples in her article are almost
all extremely simple sentences, but she does propose a three-year sequence
for teaching grammatical terms -- parts of speech in sixth grade; seventh
grade would move from "simple two-word sentences through compound-complex
sentences"; and in eighth grade students would apparently add "infinitive,
noun, gerund, participial, appositive, and absolute phrases, and more practice
with compound-complex sentences." Users of KISS will probably note that
the sequence she proposes is similar to the KISS sequence -- but compressed
into three years. If Sams would give more details about how this sequence
would work, I'd probably support her -- I've always said that KISS is not
the only possible approach. Given what she wrote, however, it appears that
she may have in mind teaching the students the constructions, but not necessarily
enabling students to identify those constructions in what they themselves
I've spent the time explaining the previous
because I was initially curious about Fish's articles, especially since
I had read Patricia Bizzell's Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness
(Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1992). One cannot blame teachers
for the interpretations (and misinterpretations) of their students, but
what made me go back and look at Bizzell's book is that she advocates just
the "multiculturalism [and] social justice" that Fish decries throughout
his articles. And she regularly notes Fish as one of her mentors! According
It might not be too much to say that we owe all our current
knowledge of composing to the early decisions of beleaguered composition
scholars to resist the pedagogical agenda being set for them by senior
academics, namely the teaching of grammar . . . . (181)
As I looked over my notes on Bizzell's book, I found that I wrote, "She
is an unwilling agnostic who is more interested in teaching 'social
justice' than she is in teaching students how to write better."
Fish's part in Bizzell's beliefs is, as noted
above, difficult to determine, but she regularly acknowledges his influence
in shaping her views. (By their fruits you will know them?) In addition,
Fish acknowledges having taught many graduate students in composition,
and Fish himself is highly political. Is he attempting to atone for previous
How to Write a Sentence may be such an attempt,
but it is a sad one. Perhaps the worst part of it is his attack on Strunk
and White's The Elements of Style:
Strunk and White's advice assumes a level of knowledge and
understanding only some of their readers will have attained; the vocabulary
they confidently offer is itself in need of analysis and explanations they
do not provide. (14)
That is true. But why haven't educators ever asked if that terminology
could be better explained, and could be taught (sequentially across several
years of schooling) such that students actually could understand and use
it? This idea certainly never floats into Fish's mind. Instead, he claims
that students should learn some grammatical terms, but he is not clear
about which, why, and when. Ironically, he himself does not appear to have
a good command of such terms. He refers, for example, to "A man in possession
of a good fortune" and "in want of a wife" as "two clauses." Grammarians
disagree about definitions, but I doubt that any grammarian would agree
that these are clauses.
The book is also weird in that it is almost
entirely about sentences from stories and novels. Strunk and White, Joseph
Williams, Richard Lanham, and most of the others who write books about
sentence structure and style primarily focus on expository prose -- the
kind of writing that students do in high school or college courses, including
those graduate courses (and students) about which (and whom) Fish complained.
Given Fish's complaint, I assumed that this is what he would be addressing.
In Fish, however, you will find delicately analyzed sentences by Jane Austen,
Henry James, Melville, Milton, and the literary list goes on and on. The
analysis, moreover, includes very slight (sometimes no) discussion of sentence
structure. Most of it is about vocabulary, and about how that sentence
fits into the work as a whole. Thus there are chapters on "First Sentences"
and "Last Sentences" -- in literary works. Fish enjoys showing off his
erudition as he explains the allusions in these sentences and how they
connect to the work as a whole, but he explains very little about sentence
His definitions, moreover, are no better (and
probably worse) than those in most grammar textbooks. He tries to explain
-- "the main verb of the sentence is whatever action is being performed,
and in this case it is the action 'prevents'." (20) His definition, like
those in many grammar textbooks, is limited to the example that he is discussing.
Many sentences have main verbs that do not express an action. Clearly Fish's
definition is incomplete.
The "Last Sentences" of this book suggest
a sad moral/religious undertone:
The reward for the effacing of ourselves before the altar of
sentences will be that "incidentally" (what a great word!) -- without looking
for it -- we will possess a better self than the self we would have possessed
had we not put ourselves in service. Sentences can save us. Who could ask
for anything more?
The "altar of sentences"? "Sentences can save us"? Save us from what? There
is the current of a lost soul, not only here, but also in many of Fish's
discussions of literary sentences.
How to Write a Sentence is a book written
by an "amateur" -- in both the negative and positive senses of the term.
When it comes to teaching sentence structure, Fish is clearly an amateur
in the negative sense -- he is tinkering around with something he (admittedly)
does not understand. Unfortunately, his reputation will draw many people
to this book, thinking that they might learn something about teaching sentence
structure. They will not find much that is useful. In the positive sense,
Fish is clearly a lover of sentences. For people who share his love (and
for students of creative writing), this is an excellent book.
Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. "They Say/I Say": The Moves That Matter
in Academic Writing. Second Edition. N.Y.: W. W. Norton, 2010. (245
They Say is not primarily a book about
grammar, but it is a great book for those of us who teach writing, do not
have the time to teach grammar, but know that our students need instruction
in grammar. The primary idea behind the book is that any writing is part
of a conversation (thus the title). To teach students how to write in a
way that participates in such conversations, the authors present students
with a number of "moves" and examples of "templates" that are used to make
the moves. In the chapter on "The Art of Summarizing," for example, they
give templates such as "They celebrate the fact that ___________________."
They also give a page and a half list of what they call "signal verbs"
-- argue, report, suggest, agree, praise, qualify, refute, etc.
(39-40). Similarly, in a chapter on "Connecting the Parts," they give a
list of adverbs and adverbial phrases (not so named) that function as transitions
-- also, in fact, for example, by extension, to sum up. (109-110).
In an ideal educational world, high school
students would be able to see how all the words in any sentence function
together to make meaning. But we do not live in such a world. I'd suggest
that even students who do know the grammatical terms would profit from
this book, but the book is an excellent presentation of important grammatical
functions even though it does not often use grammatical terms.
Richard A. Revising Prose. Fifth Edition. N.Y. Longman, Pearson,
2007. (165 pp.)
This is an interesting and helpful book.
Lanham concentrates on clarity, on strong, active voice verbs, on the elimination
of strings of embedded prepositional phrases (especially "of" phrases),
and on the rhythm of sentences. He also devotes a chapter each to "Business
Prose," "Professional Prose," and "Electronic Prose."
Richard A. Style: an Anti-Textbook. Second Edition, Revised. Philadelphia:
Paul Dry Books. 2007. (212 pp.)
This "Anti-Textbook" touches on some of the
grammatical questions he discussed in Revising Prose, but it is
more about style in general -- chapters are devoted to "The Uses
of Obscurity," "The Opaque Style," "The Delights of Jargon," and "Poetic
Prose." Lanham does make some interesting points, and he does an excellent
job of bashing the typical writing textbooks (which is why I'm including
this review). One does not really need a background in grammatical terminology
in order to enjoy (or detest) this book.
M. L. Grammar Land: Grammar in Fun for Children. New York: Henry
Holt and Company, 1878. (You can get free printable versions of this book
on the web, including an audio version by LibriVox.)
Unfortunately, I can't remember who suggested
this book to me, but I do thank whoever it was. If your students are having
problems with the parts of speech, this is a cute 120-page narrative that
may help them. The parts of speech (Dr. Verb, etc.) can't agree about which
words belong to whom, so they present their cases to Judge Grammar. In
so doing, each part explains how its words function, thus providing another
perspective on the functions of each part of speech. Dr. Verb even explains
"three tenses, number, and person."
Most of the chapters include a short exercise,
most of which fit nicely into the KISS framework. (I plan on using a few
of them in the KISS Workbooks.) Mr. Conjunction is also explained, but
the book does not distinguish coordinating from subordinating conjunctions.
(In KISS, subordinating conjunctions are introduced in Level 3, so that
is not a problem.) The idea that the "part" to which a word "belongs" in
dealt with nicely in Chapter VI ("Mr. Adjective Tried for Stealing").
The book also does a beautiful job with words
such as "his," "her" and "its." Some grammar books categorize these words
as adjectives; others claim that they are pronouns; and I have seen one
book that notes the disagreement. In Chapter VII of this book ("The Quarrel
between Mr. Adjective and Mr. Pronoun and Little Interjection") the parties
come to a nicely explained compromise. They agree that which category a
word belongs to depends upon how it is used (its function) in a specific
From a larger perspective, the book presents
"article" ("a," "an," and "the") as a separate part of speech, resulting
in nine parts rather than the traditional eight. (In KISS, articles are
simply considered adjectives.) This could be used as a starting point for
a discussion of the very categorization of "parts of speech." Different
grammars, especially modern linguistic ones, categorize words differently,
thereby having different numbers of basic "parts."
Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire, CT.: Graphics
Press, 2006. (308 pp.)
Artful Sentences is an excellent supplement
to the KISS Approach to teaching grammar. Some of the grammatical terms
that Tufte uses differ from those in KISS, but students of KISS will probably
appreciate the book more because they will come to it with the ability
to identify the constructions that Tufte discusses. Her focus is entirely
on style. Her explanation and examples of passive verbs (the last half
of Chapter Three) is the best that I have ever seen. The whole book is
well worth reading, but I particularly like the chapters on "Parallelism"
and "Syntactic Symbolism."
Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity ? Grace. Glenview: Scott,
There are many very positive reviews of this
book, but most of the praise resembles the praise that alcoholics give
to tracts on sobriety. First off, most readers should take the advice of
Adler and Van Doren in How to Read a Book,
especially those parts about reading introductory material and the "Preface,"
and about looking at the author's purpose for writing the book. Williams
specifically states in his Preface,
I intend this book to be a short book focusing on the single
most serious problem that mature writers face: a wordy, tangled,
too-complex prose style. (xii, his emphasis)
In other words, this is not a book for high school students, or even for
most college undergraduates. Relatively few college students write the
type of prose that Williams addresses in the book. Put still differently,
the disease for which Williams offers a remedy is usually developed in
the last two years of college as students attempt to mimic the flatulent
prose they are forced to read. High school students and college Freshmen
and Sophomores rarely write this type of prose.
For mature writers, this may be a good book,
but Williams does have a problem with grammatical terminology. He wrote:
To address [the] problem, we have
to be specific and concrete, and that means we have to use some of those
terms we may or may not remember from junior high school -- verb,
and so on. Every subject has a vocabulary which anyone learning that subject
has to master. It's the same with style: If you want to understand and
improve your own, you have to control a few terms. There aren't a lot of
them here, they're not difficult, and every one of them is defined in the
Appendix. Under no circumstances waste your time trying to memorize them.
Simply learning how to define nouns and verbs won't help you write any
better. But if you can develop a sense of how nouns and verbs differ, you'll
understand what distinguishes good and bad writing, and
help you write better. (ix)
Here, Williams is both right and wrong. Simply learning definitions of
parts of speech is not helpful. But although he tells readers that they
do not need even to memorize the definitions, throughout the book he uses
grammatical terms fairly regularly. He even tells readers to use their
knowledge of them. For example, on pages 135-136 he gives a list of fourteen
"steps for checking and revising your style." The first three are:
1. Find phrases that you can replace with a single word.
This is excellent advice, but some people are confused by the word "phrase."
Items 2 and 3, moreover, assume that his readers can in fact identify subjects
and verbs in their own writing.
2. Cross out whatever interrupts subject-verb and move it before the
3. Circle verbs. Revise so that the crucial actions are in verbs.
This contradiction between what Williams says
about not learning to identify the parts of speech and his then telling
his readers to use their knowledge of them is somewhat understandable.
He is not trying to write a grammar textbook, and he has in mind that traditional
instruction in grammar which KISS Grammar
is directly designed to improve. But he still leaves his readers with a
major problem. Those who have mastered clauses in the KISS Approach will
have not have that problem.
For its given objective and intended audience,
this is a good book. The only other readers for whom I would recommend
it are those people who are obsessed with following the "rules." Lessons
Nine ("Style and Usage") and Ten ("Style and Punctuation") take a position
similar to that of most of the texts discussed in these reviews -- some
rules are very important, and some rules are pure nonsense. Effective usage
should determine the rules. Thus, on pages 165 - 179, he discusses "rules
and RULES," "Real Rules," "Nonrules," and "Optional Rules." (For users
of KISS Grammar, I'll note that everything he says fits within KISS.)
For most students, I would recommend Lanham's
Prose rather than this book.
Mortimer J. ? Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide
to Intelligent Reading. Revised and Updated Edition. N.Y.: Simon ?
How to Read a Book deserves its
excellent reputation, primarily because of the distinctions and suggestions
it makes and an underlying theme. Adler and Van Doren explain that different
types of books should be read differently -- and some books should be read
more than once. Part Three, Approaches to Different Kinds of Reading
Matter," goes into this in more detail. Like the rest of the book, it illustrates
the important underlying theme: good readers read actively -- they constantly
ask questions about the text as a whole, and about many, if not most of
The authors distinguish four "levels" of reading
-- 1.) Elementary Reading, 2.) Inspectional Reading, 3.) Analytical Reading,
and 4.) Syntopical Reading. These levels create a hierarchy that reflects
the different types of questions that can be posed by a reader at each
level. In addition to what one might expect, the discussion of "Elementary
Reading" briefly surveys historical approaches to teaching reading.
"Inspectional Reading," the second level,
essentially is skimming a book to get a general idea of what it is about
and where it is going. The purpose of this is twofold. For one, it enables
a reader to decide if the book is worth reading again at the higher levels.
Second, even a quick reading helps the reader get a better sense of the
author's purpose and what he is trying to say. This is excellent advice
for both novice and experienced readers. I have, for example, started reading
Plato's Gorgias twice -- and twice stopped in frustration. But this
book has prepared me for a third attempt, this time as "Inspectional Reading."
As the authors say:
Finally, do not try to understand every word or page of a difficult
book the first time through. This is the most important rule of all: it
is the essence of inspectional reading. Do not be afraid to be, or to seem
to be, superficial. Race through even the hardest book. You will then be
prepared to read it well the second time. (43)
The problem with this, of course, is that "second" time -- or third, or
fourth, etc. The authors were, in essence, professional readers. (They
did not, for example, have to teach and grade the papers for five sections
of composition each semester.) Many of us may have the desire, but not
the time, to reread that often. Still, the suggestion is a good one. I
have often enjoyed and profited from second and third readings of books.
The third level, "Analytical Reading," explains
various "frames of reference" (See Perry.)
for coming to terms with a single text, including "The Importance of Classifying
Books," "Determining the Author's Message," and "Criticizing a Book Fairly."
The fourth level shifts to a different set of "frames." These primarily
involve reading a book in the context of other books on the same topic,
and in terms of other books that share a similar frame of reference.
I must admit that I also admire this book
because of the authors' statements about grammar and syntax. Both Joseph
M. Williams, in his well-known Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity ? Grace,
and Stanley Fish, in How to Write
a Sentence claim that knowledge of grammatical terminology is not important,
but both use such terms regularly throughout their books. Adler and Van
Doren do not do any grammatical analysis, but they make several statements
that imply that a formal understanding of grammar is crucial:
You must be able to read an author's text more or less steadily,
without having to stop to look up the meaning of many words, and without
stumbling over the grammar and syntax. (31)
They also make important statements for the KISS argument that grammars
that use different terms should be generically named so that teachers and
students don't become confused by the differences in terms:
. . . we will assume that you know some grammar. We do not necessarily
mean that you must understand everything about syntax, but you should be
concerned about the ordering of words in sentences and their relations
to one another. [This is one of the KISS advantages.]
Some knowledge of grammar is indispensable to a reader. You cannot begin
to deal with terms, propositions, and arguments -- the elements of thought
-- until you can penetrate beneath the surface of language. (120)
Once more, you cannot do this [discover propositions]
very well unless you know a little grammar. You must know the role that
adjectives and adverbs play, how verbs function in relation to nouns, how
modifying words and clauses restrict or amplify the meaning of the words
they modify, and so forth. (125)
If we are puzzled by the syntax of a sentence, we are . . . working
at the elementary level. Only when we have solved these problems can we
go on to read at higher levels. (261)
Where there is unresolved ambiguity in communication, there
is no communication, or at best communication must be incomplete. . . .
For the communication to be successfully completed, . . . it is necessary
for the two parties to use the same words with the same meanings
-- in short, to come to terms. (97)
Leigh A., The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical
Education. Macmillan, Palgrave, 2010. (238 pp.)
Leigh Bortins is the founder and CEO of Classical
Conversations, Inc., a support group for Christian homeschoolers. I still
have my doubts about home schooling in general, but Bortins' The Core
illustrates some tremendous advantages that homeschoolers may have. The
most important of these is an integrated grade-level to grade-level curriculum
in which one year builds on what was previously learned. As I have mentioned
elsewhere, at the first conference of what is now the NCTE Assembly for
the Teaching of English Grammar, presentations on how to teach the parts
of speech were given by primary, middle, and high school teachers, and
by college instructors. In other words, in our current public (and probably
many private) school systems, instruction begins at the same beginning,
year after year, and it apparently goes nowhere.
As a whole, this book is well worth reading,
and not only for homeschoolers, but also for people interested in improving
public education. Four things in Bortins' philosophy of education particularly
impressed me. First is her emphasis on memorization and over-learning.
Throughout the book she stresses that basic concepts need to be practiced,
practiced, and practiced until they become automatic. This is an underlying
principle of KISS Grammar. But Bortins extends this by using "grammar"
in two different meanings -- the grammar of the English language, and the
grammar (basic concepts) of any field of study -- history, math, science,
Second is her push for having students read
classical (difficult) texts. The works that she mentions as reading for
students are impressive, and she even implies that students should read
Darwin's The Origin of Species (193). She tip-toes around the question
of teaching evolution, but this may be because she is attempting to sell
books and conferences to her primarily Christian audience. (Many Christians,
of course, accept the theory of evolution, but others actually take their
children out of public schools simply so that their children will not be
exposed to it.)
Third, Bortins stresses regular, frequent,
even daily writing. I love the way she focusses on correctness of spelling,
correct grammar, and basic writing formats. She suggests that early in
their writing students should simply copy samples of good writing, which
is not a bad idea. In their early writing, she correctly downplays "originality."
She is probably reacting to a twenty-plus year trend in public education
that stresses "originality" even in the writing of very young students.
But as Bortins notes, originality will come of itself later -- once students'
minds are stocked with facts (and I would add "frames of reference" --
See below.) In essence, she is agreeing with Gerald
Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in their They Say / I Say.
Fourth is her regular reminders to parents
that they should learn with their children. Here I agree and disagree.
New users of KISS Grammar often tell me that they want to "brush up on
grammar" before they begin teaching their children. My general response
to this is that they should jump in at KISS Level 1.1 and learn with their
children. I do, however, suggest that they should first at least browse
the How to Use KISS Grammar, the
Essays, and the KISS Psycholinguistic
Model. All three of these provide context, direction, and a theoretical
background for teaching grammar. They provide what William Perry, in his
humorous, somewhat difficult, but fundamentally important essay, "Examsmanship
and the Liberal Arts: A Study in Educational Epistemology" calls "frames
of reference." In essence, Perry argues that an educated mind is not just
a storehouse for facts. He labels facts per se as "cow" -- "(pure):
data, however relevant, without relevancies."
For Perry, an educated mind knows how to "bull"
(in a positive sense of that word). He defines the noun "bull" as "(pure):
relevancies, however relevant, without data." Later he defines it as a
verb -- "To discourse upon the contexts, frames of reference and points
of observation which would determine the origin, nature, and meaning of
data if one had any." Perry is surely correct that understanding "contexts,
frames of reference and points of observation" is crucial. These, however,
cannot be learned at the same time that the child is learning them. Indeed,
they should determine what the teacher plans on teaching and why.
Perhaps because she is reacting to the almost
total lack of requirements for memorizing basic facts and concepts, Bortins
appears to stress what Perry calls "cow," and I never got the sense that
she appreciates Perry's "bull." I may be wrong. Perry, I should note, states
that the best thinking is a "marriage" of cow and bull" -- both are necessary.
As users of KISS Grammar might expect, the
only other serious question I have about Bortins' text is her approach
to teaching grammar. She is infatuated by Warriner's English Grammar
and Composition (32). But Warriner's is a very simplistic text. Like
most textbooks, it teaches the "parts," but really does not address how
the parts fit together. Bortins admits, however, that she started teaching
with a woeful lack of knowledge about grammar. She loves parsing sentences,
but she is not completely clear about how she does it. Thus she states,
"parsing just means to reduce a whole to its parts and identify them" (58).
She gives a few examples, but they are all very simplistic. It would be
very interesting to see how she has students parse longer, more complicated
Her discussion of the "Structure of English"
(118-124) is likewise simplistic and at times prescriptively wrong. Thus
she claims that "All compound sentences have commas before conjunctions.
and Jill are nice, but I am nicer." (124) Anyone working at
KISS Level 3 (clauses) should be looking at sentences from randomly selected
real texts. They will see that many good writers often use a comma in this
situation, but in many cases they do not. By what authority does Bortins
tell students that they have to?
Obviously, I have qualms about Bortins' approach
to the grammar of the English language, but then I am not recommending
her book as a grammar textbook. The book has many very important things
to say about what education as a whole should look like.
Steven. Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools.
New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
I bought this book to get free shipping when
I purchased Finnish Lessons. It was a good
purchase. Brill explores the political battles that plague our educational
system. For me, it was a totally new, and very interesting perspective.
He also makes a case for public charter schools. (I didn't know
that such schools exist.) I recommend the book to everyone interested in
the reform battle, but the book raises more questions than it answers.
As Finnish Lessons argues, good teachers
are very important, but Brill under-defines and over-rates the teachers'
roles in our educational problems. Most of the teachers he discusses are
K-5, and I doubt that I would want to work for any of them. Read the book
for yourself, but what I saw was some every enthusiastic, dedicated, basically
untrained, "lead" teachers who feel as if they can tell all the other teachers
how to teach. I'm sure that the attitude of the public charter school teachers
adds to the success of their students, especially the emphasis that every
child is capable of learning, but Brill doesn't appear to be aware of the
problems faced by many public school teachers.
He does strongly undercut the opposition's
argument that charters cull the "cream of the crop." Students get into
public charter school by lottery. Although Brill acknowledges the fact
that these students' parents are concerned about their children's education
(whereas not all parents are), he doesn't seem to grasp the implications.
Students in public charters are well-behaved and do their homework. My
question is, what happens if they misbehave and/or don't do the homework?
My guess is that they do not stay in the charter school. Brill doesn't
The biggest problem in our public schools
is that students often misbehave and many rarely do homework. And they
get passed on from one grade to the next. Teachers are not to blame for
this. I've heard many a story from (or about) teachers who believed a student
should fail and not be passed on to the next grade. But the teachers are
usually over-ruled. The students, of course, realize this--and the next
year they misbehave more and do even less, in or out of class. This aspect
of the "system" raises major problems for both the teachers and the students.
A seventh grade teacher, for example, may have to teach students who are
reading anywhere from the third-grade level to the eleventh. The students
who are reading below grade level either don't care or are totally lost.
The students who are well above grade level are bored. You try teaching
in these conditions.
Howard. The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should
Teach. Tenth-Anniversary Edition. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
Gardner is most famous for his 1983 Frames
of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In it he argues that
there are different types of intelligence, for example, the mathematical,
musical, and muscular. That book is important, but I would suggest that
Unschooled Mind is more important. Here, he shifts his focus from the
differences in intelligence, to the differences in academic disciplines.
As he says, "Stated simply, I believe that the primary intellectual mission
of pre-collegiate education ought to be to inculcate in students the capacities
to think in the ways that characterize the major scholarly disciplines."
(xiii) He explains this beautifully in the next few pages, but what he
means, for example, is that scientists think differently than historians--they
ask different questions and require different kinds of proof. Experiments,
for example, can prove or disprove scientific studies, but a historian
cannot conduct experiments.
I cannot do his explanation justice, but he
also claims that it takes several years to become proficient in a discipline--to
think like a scientist (of a specific kind) or like a historian, etc. An
interesting point that he makes is that the "cross-disciplinary" courses
in our high schools are really not disciplinary at all. He calls them "thematic,"
because the students (and the teachers?) do not have the training to think
as a historian, biologist, or whatever other disciplines are involved.
In essence, the courses become fact centered. Gardner is clearly opposed
to the testing mania--the tests cannot evaluate understanding, and Gardner
argues that how to understand is what we should be teaching. The third
part of the book is "Toward Education for Understanding."
The first part of the book, I should note,
is "The 'Natural' Learner." In it, Gardner explores how we conceptualize
the world for ourselves before we enter formal schooling. We learn a lot--in
a lot of different ways. How this learning confronts school learning is
another important theme throughout the book.
I have had this book listed on this page (with
the picture) for over a year--with a small "Forthcoming" instead of a review.
As I write this now, I understand why I could not write the review then.
The book is too good and too systematic to be summarized in a review.
--June 26, 2014
David. with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. The Lonely Crowd. Abridged
edition with a 1969 preface. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961.
This may seem like an
odd addition to a collection of book reviews on education, but Riesman
and his colleagues present a huge historical perspective that sheds light
on our current problems with discipline and standards. It requires a longer
review, so if you are interested, click here.
Pasi. Finnish Lessons. N.Y.: Teachers College, Columbia University,
Several years ago I happened to catch a T.V.
documentary comparing education in the U.S. with that in Korea and Finland,
both of which are acknowledged world leaders in education. What caught
my attention were the first words out of the mouth of a Finnish teacher--"We
teach our students to be Finnish citizens." That is worlds away from the
U.S. focus on going to school to get a job, and I still believe that the
"job" focus is the major problem in U.S. education. Many of my students
tell me that learning to write (or read), learning about history, government,
and social issues are all not important to their reasons for going to college.
Thus they are disengaged--Sahlberg mentions "Lack of engagement [as] the
main reason for the challenges that teachers face in schools and classrooms
today" (142-3). It's the truth. One cannot teach people who do not care
to be taught, and "motivating" them with songs, dances, and undeserved
praise not only does not work--it devalues education. For education to
work well, society as a whole has to value it.
Years later, having read an article about Sahlberg's
book, I put it on my reading list. He makes good arguments. The most interesting
to me is that schools cannot effectively be changed from the top down.
The obsession with standards and testing, he rightly notes, is harmful.
He explains that teachers in Finland are better trained and more respected.
This struck me. My perception is that in the U.S. parents generally respect
the teachers in our schools, but within the profession, teachers are not
respected--even by those at the "top" of our educational hierarchies.
Other things of interest are that education
in Finland is basically free--straight through college. (But one needs
to pass an exam to get into college.) Their view, and I agree with it,
is that free education provides "social capital." In other words, a poor
child who cannot get a good education will not be able to contribute the
new inventions, ideas, or social engagement that the freely educated poor
child can. Objections have been made to what Sahlberg calls "the Finnish
way"--the main one is that Finland is small and basically homogeneous.
He addresses them fairly well, but I have to question his explanations
for Finland's success.
Sahlberg regularly emphasizes the importance
of the Finnish "welfare state." (For many in the U.S., the very idea of
a "welfare" state is obnoxious.) Sahlberg never explains how Finland became
a welfare state, but I would suggest that it did so because the country
is historically Lutheran. (Sahlberg never mentions religion.) According
to Wikipedia, in 2013, 75% of Finns were Lutheran; in 2000, 85%; and in
In The Cultural Significance of the Reformation
(N.Y.: Living Age Books, 1959), Karl Holl traces the "first seed for the
development of the welfare state" to Martin Luther. It appears from Holl
that Luther was strongly anti-capitalistic (89). According to Holl, Luther
felt that primary duties of the Church should be to educate people to read
(so they could read the Bible), and to take care of the poor--including
the lower middle class that exists on the edge of poverty. "Luther conceived
this obligation on a magnanimous scale." (91-2) Holl quotes from Luther's
"Sermon on St. Stephen's Day" (1523): "But we do not have the men
for it; therefore I do not dare begin until the Lord God makes some Christians."
(93, 185) As a result, he assigned these two obligations to the state--the
"first seed" of the welfare state.
Another reason for Finland's educational success
that Sahlberg notes but probably under-emphasizes is that Finns have historically
been avid readers. Reading really is fundamental in everything from technical
work to history and politics. And, as I argue on the KISS site, mastery
of the syntax of the written word--the ability to decode the complex sentence
structure--can only be gained in two ways--from reading itself, or from
formal instruction. But once gained, such mastery easily transfers across
all areas--from technical to political. One of the basic problems of education
in the U.S. is that we put students who are reading at the fourth grade
level into tenth grade classes. Those students are sunk, but we still pass
them on to the next grade. My point here, of course, is that Finland may
have succeeded in large part because its people read. (Sahlberg notes,
with worries, that they are reading less than they used to.)
Sahlberg's book is good, but I'm not sure
that I would recommend it. As I've stated, it addresses very important
questions, but it is repetitive and, from my perspective, focuses too much
on the administrative changes. We are told, for example, that Finland has
a well-developed system of support for students with academic and other
problems, but there is little detail of how it works. We are told that
teachers get degrees that focus on their subject areas, but the descriptions
are never clear as to what, exactly, they learn about the subject area
(as opposed to the teaching of it). Sahlberg repeatedly refers to the importance
of "cognitive" learning (as opposed to learning "facts"), but how that
works is never illustrated. My previous discussion of Lutheranism as a
possible major factor in Finland's success leads me to wonder if and how
Finland deals with questions such as climate change and evolution, questions
that are highly divisive in the U.S. (I've had a number of students tell
me that their parents homeschooled them because they--the parents--did
not want their children to learn about evolution.)
I may, of course, be asking for too much,
but the book is rather expensive as I write this (Amazon $32.26; Kindle
$19.22). And, in dealing with such an extremely complex topic, one can
only cover tips of icebergs (as did my comments). Still, anyone who is
really involved in improving education in the U.S. should probably read