Schoolbooks

In the interest of being a better informed, more organized, thoughtful teacher in the spring than I have been this fall, I devoted a couple of hours to making schedules based on units and holidays, and a couple more to reading our tenth grade textbook this afternoon. I soon realized that, although I had always assumed I had read that textbook, I actually hadn’t, but had simply scanned or listened to it, without actually making sense of what it was saying. Shortly, I realized why that was the case: the writing is about on the level of a dull but well informed freshman, and the units (which are actually four page chapters, not units) often do not interact in any discernible way. This is fairly standard: a boy has read an advertisement for a new sport center, and writes to his friend:

Dear Mari,
How are things with you? I hope you enjoyed the film we saw yesterday. Now I’m writing to invite you to come with me to a fantastic new sports centre which has just opened near my house. It has got indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a huge swimming pool and courts for basketball, mini-football, and badminton. There’s a skating rink too, and a very modern gym. And if you’re hungry or thirsty, there’s a nice cafe where you can have drinks and snacks.

Let me know if you’re interested. It would be great to see you again and hear all your news! AAA yes, thank you very much for the lovely key holder!

Love,
Nick

Mari replies: Nick, you be trippin’. I joke. Actually she replies:

Hi Nick,
Thank you for your invitation to the new leisure centre. It sounds great! I’d love to come with you. It would be great to relax for a couple of hours. Besides, you know how much I like playing tennis. We can also go swimming and then have some ice-cream in the cafe. I’m really looking forward to going there. Please give me a call when you’re free. I’m glad you liked the key holder.

Best wishes,
Mari

If two teens actually wrote this way to one another it wouldn’t be a problem, of course. They’re being awkward, as teens are so often are, and are sending each other mixed signals, especially by being more formal than the occasion requires, I suppose because they’re not sure what kind of relationship this is, and formality is the safe route. It’s not a shining example of the English language in use, but there’s nothing bad enough to be worth correcting. If it were submitted as a school essay I would object to Nick starting one sentence “and if you’re hungry,” and another “AAA yes.” I don’t quite know what the latter expression means, but surely it wouldn’t fly in a school essay. Still, “good enough” for a letter to a friend, or a blog, or even an A- in English Composition is not necessarily good enough for a textbook.

In another essay, which gives information about visiting a cave, explanations like: “Best visited by taxi from Kutaisi (45 min. from a town centre). Ask for a dinosaur footprints” might be accepted or even charming coming from a local guide, but are problematic at best when written in a school textbook. There aren’t, I think, many obvious mistakes like “a dinosaur footprints,” but it’s dull reading throughout. Rather than writing new copy for students to read, why not find real, interesting prose that’s not very grammatically complex or lengthy, but which is trying to say something that is worth going to the trouble of understanding? I get the impression from this text that the writers are using the ignorance of their target audience, who don’t know English well enough yet to be able to tell the difference between a natural sentence and an awkward one, and have to concentrate more on words and phrases than overall meaning, as an excuse for lazy, sloppy, uninteresting writing.

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8 thoughts on “Schoolbooks

  1. could AAA simply be a typo?

    And I never understood what is wrong with starting the sentence with a preposition.

    Out of curiosity, is your teaching style one of sticking with the textbook or one of teaching by the seat of your pants?

    • >>could AAA simply be a typo?
      It certainly could, but usually it’s obvious what a typo was trying to express, whereas I can’t tell what “AAA yes” could be intended to mean. My best guess is that she asked him a question about whether he used “triple A” car insurance (or whatever it is) and gave him a key chain, and he’s responding to her question. That’s what I’d think if it were a real letter. Since it’s a fake one, I’m just perplexed.

      >>And I never understood what is wrong with starting the sentence with a preposition.
      I don’t think it is wrong. “On top of the Empire State building, stood a giant guerrilla” seems acceptable, if slightly convoluted. “In Tucson, it’s very hot in the summer” is just fine. I had thought that conjunctions like “and,” “but,” or “or” are a bad choice because they’re meant to join two thoughts or things in a single sentence,and are obviously not doing that when they’re hanging out at the beginning of a sentence, rather than between two thoughts within a single sentence. In your case, I imagine you’re using “and” to see if it bothers me enough to be worth commenting on.

      In Nick’s case, here’s an alternative: “The new leisure center near my house has tennis, basketball, mini-football, and badminton courts; it also has a huge swimming pool, a skating rink, and a very modern gym. If you’re hungry or thirsty, there’s a nice cafe where we can get drinks and snacks.” The main difference is that the “and” makes Nick’s offer to take Mari to the cafe sound like an afterthought, and therefore more tentative (she doesn’t have to go eat with him unless she gets hungry!), less like a real date (he also says “you,” rather than “we”), and therefore slightly less risky. I would guess that if an ELL student were astute enough to know what Nick’s “and” means in this case, they should be reading something more difficult, and, if not, it oughtn’t be there.

      Redmarble, what do you think? is “But I think much of learning” an acceptable way to begin a sentence, or simply a slightly bad habit?

      • Sorry, I meant conjunction, not preposition. Forgive me, this is not my strongest subject.

        I would imagine if you are learning a foreign language it would be difficult to learn a rule for written language and then notice people break the rule when they speak. I think that is true for sentences that start with And or But. I don’t know if it is better to teach them the actual rules or to teach them how people generally speak, but is probably best to teach both.

        • It isn’t mine either (I only know preposition because I was surprised that in Georgian they have postpositions instead, which I had never heard of before) — I try not to think about grammar if I can help it because I’m extremely annoying when I do, but it’s part of my job just now and seems to be catching.

          We very often use sentence fragments, substitute “good” for “well,” and do a number of other sloppy things in speaking that we wouldn’t in writing. I agree that it’d be best to know both, but if one doesn’t have enough time and memory for that it might be better to learn the formal rule in class, because it’s always possible to ask another speaker for clarification later if they do something unexpected (and it’s never necessary to make any such minor mistake, whereas people often do judge one another for being unable to speak or (especially) write well in essays, formal letters, resumes, and so on.

  2. In my French textbook we had some fairly interesting conversations between two or more young twenties type people. But I think much of learning a language just has to be drill, drill, drill, so that one will actually be able to read and write and think about more interesting things. I am by no means an expert but I was distressed as a substitute in a French high school class to find out that there was way too much emphasis on arts and crafts and learning styles, kinaesthetics, etc, and so little on drill that many of the students were pathetic. The French teacher told me that all the bells and whistles artsy-craftsy stuff were what is required now. He was a fairly young man, maybe in his late twenties to mid-thirties as I recall, and said his background in college and high school had been the dril, baby, drill, but now, already in his case, he had to adapt to modern teaching methods.
    By the way, Molly, what is your teaching style if you had to answer that question to an interviewer? Mine was both to stick to the textbook or to handouts I had made, and to do it by the seat of my pants. Read, and questions will arise. Of course it is a great idea for me to have some questions in case students don’t have any, and to have a student or two to come prepared with a question, as you did at St. John’s. By the way, Mom says Schmoker’s new book, Focus, is good. When you don’t have character, or the students don’t, then you must have a method because they’re not going to figure things out by themselves as we often did. That has to be the rationale for all these thousands of teaching strategies, of the tool box, as Dr. McBile said.

    • I don’t know that I disagree, but if one is to “drill, drill, drill,” it seems to be of great importance that one know what is most worth drilling. That may be one reason why Sayers says that children ought to learn an inflected language for grammar class (with Latin as her language of choice). It’s fairly obvious what’s most important in Latin grammar — we can start by drilling the declension of nouns, and then move on to the conjugation of verbs, while learning some individual nouns and verbs to decline or conjugate. Perhaps it’s less obvious in English, not only because the medieval schoolmasters never formulated an official method, as with Latin, but also because most of the things that are expressed in an inflected language through declensions and conjugations are expressed in English through auxiliary verbs, word order, and prepositions. We can and do drill things like: “It is a teddy.” “Is it a teddy?” “Yes, it is an orange teddy.” “No, it isn’t. It’s a purple ball.”

      In my (severely limited, but corroborated by other volunteers) experience, the main difficulty with drills (and part of why they want native speakers) here is that the content of well used drills is very much a matter of judgement, and foreign teachers (or even textbook writers) who have never lived in an English speaking country may not have very good judgement. They emphasize and drill on things that aren’t very common, and ignore things that are much more so. For instance, one ought to know that “I’m mad about fashion” means that I love it, rather than that I’m angry about it, but one also ought to know that a phrase like that will draw a little extra attention to the way you’re speaking, and that nothing important will be lost by not using it. One can live one’s whole life as a native speaker and never use that phrase, so including it in class drills (as it is) is… frivolous. The same is the case with “used to” or “didn’t use to,” especially the latter — I don’t know that I’ve ever used it, and while one ought to understand someone who does choose to use it, I’m none too fond of my co-teacher’s insistence on having students practice it all the time, since very little precision is lost in not using it, on a very few occasions.

    • By the way, it seems like American language classes aren’t so much language classes as language and culture appreciation classes, where students also get exposure to the language so as to have a bit more familiarity should the want to actually learn it at some point in the future. In Turkish class, for instance, I don’t know how much Turkish they learned, but the students were always baking Baklava, going to poetry competitions, making posters, drinking Turkish tea, making marbled pictures, and so on. I figured that it was really a Turkish appreciation class, which was alright for being that; like taking music appreciation rather than actually learning to play the piano. One should be clear what kind of class one is taking or teaching, though.

  3. As it happens, David Foster Wallace scorns the “don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction” rule. In an especially long footnote involving Wittgenstein he begins a paragraph with one. But he is a very snarky writer, and a bit too clever for his own good.

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