Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Taken Out of Context

Context matters. When someone’s words or ideas are taken out of context, things don’t make sense. The ideas can end up twisted, unclear, or contradictory.

We hear about such situations all the time. In the last few weeks, for instance, ex-CIA director George Tenet has been making the talk-show rounds talking about how his “slam dunk” comments on the Iraq War were taken out of context. Such cries of “out of context” raise red flags for listeners and readers. No matter how closely we read the text, we know the original meaning may be lost in the new context.

Yet in the world of grammar instruction and assessment, things are taken out of context all the time. The Sun-Sentinel article “FCAT Writing Scores Show Many Students Struggle with Grammar” explains, “teaching grammar in isolation isn’t effective because even if students complete worksheets on language rules, they may not apply those skills in their own writing.” In other words, when grammar is taught out of context, students do not learn how to use the strategies in the essays and stories that they write—and they may not recognize the correct (or incorrect) usages in a new context.

This conflict is not new to me. I’ve taught English for years. I know the various rules of grammar and mechanics. When I see grammar questions out of context, I can adapt. I’m an English teacher. They can’t trick me with their out-of-context grammar and punctuation questions—or so I thought when I decided to try my hand at the sample FCAT grammar questions included as a sidebar to the Sun-Sentinel article.

Sample FCAT question
As I worked through the sample, I came to a series of questions on crocodiles and stumbled on question 7. I read the question to myself: “Some of a crocodile’s teeth can be seen when its mouth _______.” That sudden burst of test-taker’s anxiety rushed through me.

I’m well past the age when I would have memorized random animal facts. I’m lucky if I get the dogs’ names right. So here I was trying to remember the details on crocodiles and alligators, panicking about science facts that I forgot long ago. Open? Closed? Underwater? Damn! Oh, wait, context doesn’t matter. Factual accuracy isn’t important. Sigh. They got me.

Ultimately I earned my 100% on the sample questions, but I was also concretely reminded of the difficulty of asking people to complete grammatical tasks that have been taken out of context. Perhaps one day students will be assessed in a world where no context is left behind.


Anonymous said...

Even worse, the test really is not focused on grammar. Mostly, it is about spelling, punctuation, and usage. akra

Anonymous said...

Grammar is a wondrous concept, as is decontextualisation, as well as personal ideology. The real issue is why the test is being given, and what the results are used for.
Is there an assumption that ability to be cognitively flexible and linguistically agile is an indication of writing and reading ability?
Getting hung up on science was not necessary.
And yes, those 13 questions were not sufficiently broad enough to warrant the title of grammar test.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you should consider the content of the statements. I panic in my search for comma and quotation mark placement and never think about a statement being taken out of context.

How differently we approach grammar tests, any test for that matter. One person asks "why the test is being given" and how the results may be used. Supposedly it is assessment of skills mastered. As I write, I wonder about giving a test that requires students to correct a paragraph.
The image that comes to mind is ice skating competition where the skater must do certain moves. What about a test where the "moves" are employing particular grammar/punctuation rules. Oh, this probably has been done.

The issue that Traci rasises is "taking statements out of context." I think of students trying to incorporate quotes into a research paper. They have no clue about doing this. The everyday models are almost non-existent, if their models are media with the 30 second news flash or the 2 minute indepth story. Perhaps we should consider strategies that keep us and others aware of context.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I wonder if it would ever be possible to comprehensively create the necessary context for our students (and whether or not we should). What I am often faced with, having taught English or tutored writers from 6th grade through college is that there are so many students who will not actively attempt to reach through the immediate scenario to understand the larger issue, and therefore never take context into account. In trying to create context for my students, I am still doing the thinking for them, and they never seem to learn the habits of mind necessary to apply concepts to other situations. I cannot help but add that my teachers never bothered with context, and here I am (but this is an old argument). I believe we do not teach our students how to think. I we applied some of the concepts provided by teachers like Edward De Bono, for example, and taught thinking skills directly, and then used grammatical and other concepts as practice for those thinking skills, we might all be better off as teachers, students, and a society.

Joe said...

I'm going to ignore context and talk about content--the idea that grammar should not be taught separately from writing. I believe that students hunger to understand the "whys" of grammar. When we teach grammar only in response to writing, we generally only have time for the "whats." I would hate to go back to the drill and kill of my Grammar School days, but I see real value in building student understanding of grammar conventions in a systematic way.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the concept of teaching grammar in the context of writing or literature. What I find difficult is using literature as a model to teach concepts like misplaced modifiers or comma errors - things you don't see much of in literature. Aside from using errors in student writing as they occur for examples, what is the most effective way to get these concepts across to the students without smothering them in worksheets and drill?

Alan said...

Joe is right. Many students, boys especially, like to figure out how things work. Grammar is a system like a car engine, a video game, a football play, or a coreographed dance number. Within each, there are several parts, some of which operate in subsystems, and some independently, to form a whole functioning unit. Students' enjoyment of how things work, regardless of context, can be tapped into in this way. I had some success experimenting with sentence diagramming with inner city 9th graders in Brooklyn this year. Why? Because it has become obvious that my students' reading and writing difficulties stem in part from their inability to comprehend dependent clauses or nested phrases. They can't follow a complex sentence. But when they began to see what different parts of speech are and how they function, the light bulbs begin to go off. I am all for teaching grammar in context as part of a program, but the program needs to include instruction on how grammar functions and why. Kids will get into it if presented with a little flair, because they like solving puzzles.