Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “Common Core Standards”

Understanding and Using English

One of those Tome Treasures I own is an old grammar handbook: Understanding and Using English. It’s publish date is 1949 and it is by the Birks, Newman B and Genevieve B, respectively. I am always curious and interested in browsing old grammar books because grammar used to have more active precedence in prior years, especially in English courses.  Now, it’s more about writing, but how can one write well without knowing how to put words together?  It’s like requiring a person to cook without showing them where the spices are in the rack.

Usually old grammar books are a snore and a half.  I was proved wrong. The first chapter “Language and Meaning” introduction floored me with its eloquence:

Modern man lives in a world of words, and the kind of world he lives in depends to a surprisingly large extent on the words that he uses and hears. Words can make or prevent wars, solemnize marriages or invalidate them, form constitutions or destroy them, sell shoddy or superior products or ideas, justify man’s worst actions or express his highest ideals. Because of the immense power of language, or even a few words, advertisers pay large sums for the best phrase or slogan or jingle, and no responsible statesman feels free to depart from the letter of his carefully prepared speech. Lawyers may spend hours in court trying to fix the meaning of a single word, and one of the chief functions of our Supreme Court is interpreting the words of the law of the land.

I am considering opening my initial grammar session with this.  Words and their meaning are so important.  How they are portrayed is essential, and so it is essential we know the rules of the road. More good stuff:

Since language is so important, it is strange that in our society more people have a reasonably accurate idea of how an automobile works and how to handle it than of how their native language works and how to handle it.  Even poor drivers know what the accelerator and the steering wheel and even the brake are for, and have some knowledge of the relationship between the cylinders and the gasoline and the spark. They can use road maps to drive a car from New York to San Francisco and can arrive at Sand Francisco without difficulty.

Okay, when this book was written  cars and traveling was probably simpler. However, the analogy remains that people can learn to navigate a car down the road better than they can constructing a sentence.  Why?

For one thing, [students] have often been led to accept and to follow uncritically a large number of rules for the writing of “correct” English. Suppose we look, for example, at some of these “rules.”

1. “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Must we always say, “On which chair do you wish me sit?” and never “Which chair do you want me to sit on?” Of course not.

2. “Don’t use contractions.” Many English teachers have written this as a comment on themes. Are the teachers using incorrect English?

3. “Avoid slang.” Does this mean that a sports writer or a person writing on jazz must avoid all use of slang?

4. “Never begin a sentence with but or and.” Never? But we are doing it at this very moment.

5. “Always use a comma between two independent clauses joined by and, but, for, or, nor.” In “I was there and he wasn’t,” what good would a comma after “there” do? Probably none at all.
6.”Every sentence must have a subject and a predicate.” If this is always true, why do so many able writers–Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, to name just a few–frequently write sentences that are incomplete, and why do such sentences into English texts as models of style?

That came out of 1949!  I so applaud how the Birks poke at the conventions of stuffiness. My students come up with the above observations all the time! Here is one of the stellar gems of reflection:

Language has been called “the dress of thought”; like dress it needs to be appropriate. Formality and a certain type of correctness are sometimes necessary and desirable, but for everyday expression (written and spoken) a less formal language is usually appropriate, and a different and less formal standard of correctness apples.

All I can say is: Exactly!

The rest of the book is divided up sections of use: Conventions and Meaning; Exercising Intelligent Choice; Developing an Effective Style; Good Paragraphs; Language in Action plus Some Everyday Uses of English.

I think I will settle in with this as my primer for returning to school.  This fall begins the focus on Common Core Standards and last year as I piloted the ninth grade curriculum it became more than apparent that students didn’t give much credence to grammar and were often perplexed by it.  Maybe I can stretch out that car analogy since many of my freshmen will be driving by the end of the year *I always tell them to warn me when they get their permits-jk, jk*: “Hey kiddos, if you can read and memorize the driver’s ed manual in order to pass your test, I know you can do the same with grammar!”

Wait–I know. I will morph the sagacity of this little grammar tome with the unequivocal wisdom of The Beatles:

Grammar police

Grammar police (Photo credit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Yeah. Put your pedal to the metal as you commit to your commas.

Then again, maybe I’ll just fall back on the help of Schoolhouse Rocky because, as you know, Knowledge is Power:

Coming to Terms with Poetry


education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

They say the best education we receive is that learned while teaching.  I found this to be especially true for poetry fundamentals.

I don’t recall studying poetry in jr. high English, unless studying Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” counts.  As for high school, I remember short stories, yet nothing on the poetry radar comes up for remembrance. College yes, ohmagoodness, poetry aplenty. I do recall a cacophony of emotions as I partook in the banquet of poets found in my Norton Reader. I transversed from embarrassment to  gratitude as I feasted on William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath and others I had not known existed.  Why, oh why, did I feel the compunction to resell my Norton at the campus bookstore?  College students out there?  Think twice before reselling your textbooks.  All those annotations and well-visited markings really do become appreciated some day.

norton reader

norton reader (Photo credit: cdrummbks)

These days I’m teaching to Common Core Standards and have come to terms with poetry.  They are an absolute on the schedule of attained knowledge.  I also have my AP crowd to cater.  Although I have over 200 literary terms we learn over the course of  the year in AP, I start out my ninth graders with double dozen or so.  How many do you know or remember?

  1. accent: emphasis or stress given a syllable or a particular word.
  2. alliteration: the reiterated initial consonants in prose or poetry.
  3. anaphora: repetition of an opening word or phrase in a series of lines.
  4. assonance:  the repetition of two or more vowel sounds in successive words, creating a type of rhyme.
  5. ballad: a song which tells a story; also be a poem with songlike qualities which tells a story.
  6. blank verse: the most common meter of unrhymed poetry in English; it lacks stanza form and rhyme.
  7. caesura: a pause within the line of verse.
  8. conceit: a fanciful expression, usually in the form of an extended metaphor or an analogy that usually displays intellectual cleverness due to the unusual comparison being made.
  9. consonance: a close similarity between consonants or groups of consonants, especially at the ends of words, e.g. between “strong” and “ring.”
  10. couplet: two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme, and often have the same meter
  11. diction: the selection of words in a particular literary work, or the language appropriate for a particular (usually poetic) work.
  12. doggerel: crude verse that contains clichés, predictable rhyme, and inept meter and rhythm.
  13. elegy: a poem which mourns the death of someone.
  14. enjambment: when one verse runs into another verse
  15. epic: a long narrative poem on a serious subject, usually centered on a heroic or supernatural person.
  16. epigram: a short poem, which can be comical.
  17. figurative language: language which goes beyond what is denoted (see denotation), and has a suggestive effect on the reader; a figure of speech is part of figurative language.
  18. free verse: poetry which lacks a regular stress pattern and regular line lengths (and which may also be lacking in rhyme). Free verse should not be confused with blank verse
  19. haiku: Japanese form of poetry of seventeen syllables with three unrhymed lines of five, seven and five syllables
  20. heroic couplet: a couplet with iambic pentameter
  21. iamb: a metrical foot of one short or unstressed syllable followed by one long or stressed syllable.
  22. imagery: often taken as a synonym for figurative language, but the term may also refer to the ‘mental pictures’ which the reader experiences in his/her response to literary works or other texts.
  23. kitsch: sentimentality, tastelessness, or ostentation in any of the arts.
  24. limerick: a five line humorous poem involving a fixed aabba rhyme scheme
  25. lyric: a short non-narrative poem that has a solitary speaker, and that usually expresses a particular feeling, mood, or thought.
  26. metaphor: a direct comparison–it does not use “like,” “as,” or “than.” In literature it is a figurative statement asserting one thing is something that it is not.
  27. meter: the recurrence of a similar stress pattern in some or all lines of a poem.
  28. ode: a relatively lengthy lyric poem, usually expressing exalted emotion in a complex scheme of rhyme and meter.
  29. onomatopoeia: a word or expression which resembles the sound which it represents, like the meow of a cat or the quack of a duck.
  30. pastoral: usually written by an urban poet who idealizes the shepherds’ lives. The term has now been extended to include any literary work which views and idealizes the simple life from the perspective of a more complex life.
  31. prosody: the rhythm of spoken language, including stress and intonation, or the study of these patterns
  32. repetition: the duplication of any element of language such as a sound, word, phrase, sentence, or grammatical pattern.
  33. rhyme: the identity of the sounds of the final syllables (usually stressed) of certain proximate lines of a poem.
  34. scan: to assign stress patterns to a poem.
  35. simile: a figure of speech that draws a comparison between two different things, especially a phrase containing the word “like” or “as,” e.g. “as white as a sheet.”
  36. symbol: a person, place, thing, or event that stands both for itself and for something beyond itself.
  37. syntax: how an author chooses to join words into phrases, clauses, and sentences; similar to diction which is focused on individual words, yet syntax is concerned with groups of words.
  38. theme:  the central idea or insight about human life revealed within the work.
  39. tone: the attitude, as it is revealed in the language of a literary work, of a personage, narrator or author, towards the other personages in the work or towards the reader.
  40. voice: the writer’s distinctive use of language, which is created through the use of a writer’s tone and diction.

 Okay, there is about a triple dozen and a dose for good measure here. Some terms crossover into prose which is why we start off with poetry before short stories. We’ve found our students grasp analyzing smaller chunks of literary concepts and then retain those terms and skills for the longer works.

So, how did you do?  I didn’t include the various types of poems in this set.  Stay tuned…

Happy Poetry Month


Poetry (Photo credit: Kimli)


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