A High School Reading/Writing Course

This program is outlined as a series of topics for discussion by teachers for their classroom use with Junior and High School students. The aim of these discussion topics is to make students aware of Language as a human phenomenon which operates of a wider and more subtle scale than they suspect. If they understand their own use of English better, they will be in a stronger position to monitor and improve their own writing skills. Writing involves conscious understanding of words and their manifold usages. If the student has a better sense of his own use of language, he will be better able to put together thoughts in an organized sequence of words and sentences. Without a clear sense of what language is and what shadings of meaning it can voice, a student in the early HS years has little framework for putting thoughts into words on paper. A basic sense of linguistics as background can make all the difference between carefully pointed and aimless writing skills.

Some of the materials will be familiar, other items will be foreign, some not really usable by a given teacher in a given class. No teacher should be threatened by the wide scope of this curriculum, which is intended as a storehouse of ideas from which useful parts may be drawn. A shorter version of basic topics is appended.

The core concept is the New Introduction to Grammar, which can be taught in conventional form, or with concepts taken from the last fifty years research in Structural Linguistics, modified for the sake of simplicity.

Ii is suggested that two class periods a week be devoted to these topics, or others which seem more suitable for the group, in order to prepare the students in the first part of year for better dealing with their spoken and written English. Further information and reading can be supplied to teachers who are not versed in some of this material, which although unfamiliar, is basic to a modern linguistically based approach to language.

1) Communication, the various modes in which we connect with each other. Body gesture, signs, hidden signs, the face, the tone... etc.

2) Sounds for speech, what are they, their characteristic nature, number, etc.?

3) What sounds can automatically tell us: Language, country, region in a country, educational level, social mobility pattern... ?

4) How we make sounds. Acoustics. The biological equipment, vocal apparatus, tongue, sinuses etc.

5) How we hear sounds: The ear/brain mechanism, the outer, middle and inner ear (cochlea and auditory nerve), hearing and the physics of sound transfer.

6) The selection of significant sounds: The phoneme, variants which don't interrupt communication (dialect). Variants which do.. .(speech impediments, foreign accent...)

7) The World as a collection of sounds, carrying "meaning". Meaning as THING, as IDEA, as FUNCTION. What is Meaning?

8) The invisible code of language, which we can speak and use. How do we describe the code? Why?

9) Grammar as the code observed in a language (not a formula for construction). Right and wrong. What is "wrong" linguistically, as against socially?

10) Various levels of language use: At home, with other kids, in school, speaking with the Principal, at church, with elders, applying for a job.

11) Spoken language beside written language: What are the points of contact? Differences? Similarities?

12) Does a computer speak a "language" just because it can use words? Is its operation completely different from speech? How?

13) Let's take a one-minute story, and try to describe what it is made up of. Then let's write our comments down, and look at the page again. Differences?

14) (Listen to a song, then look at a page of musical score. Similar? Different? In comparison to speech as against a page of print?)

15) What is a word? (Easy to decide of paper with white on each side, but hard to distinguish in speech.)

16) Analyze the one-page story in all possible ways, isolating word by word:





17) Go over Sec. 16) above, and note the things which happen again and again. This is the core of something which we can call Structure or Grammar.

18) Words functioning in sequences, how they work, what ideas they carry. English: the Grammatical Rule of 1-2-3- (Subject Verb Object) expressing Function, as against a few "remnant endings" from an earlier period (who/whom, am/are/is).

19) A sample short study of a language which uses endings (Latin, Turkish, or an artificial language): What happened to the endings in English?

20) The Languages of the World, how many, what are some of them like? Some samples of their sounds, the writing they use (phonetics, character, pictogram, etc.)

21) Differences between the way you say things in different languages while meaning the same thing:

      Je me porte bien (Fr.) = I feel OK

      Je m'appelle... (Fr.) = my name is

      Pericolo de morte (Ital.) = Danger!

      Imitation de bois (Fr.) = wood grain finish

Does this mean that people think differently?

22) How many words are there in English? In Muntu? Are words equal to ideas?

23) Can you think without words? What things cannot be expressed in words exactly? God? Smells? Tastes? A math variable? A hyperbolic curve?

24) The special (odd) language of poetry, and why is it changing the usual use of language? What is it after? "Thou are more lovely than a summer's day... "

25) Setting up a grammatical framework for our use in writing good (= clear) English sentences. Examples should be collected for the following terms:


26) Analysis of a page of writing in terms of this framework, optionally using a color stripe for each function.

27) Analysis of a sample page of student writing, finding things which do not "fit" the situation. Are these things "wrong" in terms of communication, in style, in terms of good written English (but OK elsewhere)?

28) The levels of English in a series of readings:

      Colloquial (Mark Twain dialog piece)

      Vernacular of the workplace (shop or garage man)

      Vernacular of a locale (a Damon Runyon story)

      Substandard (ain't... ; it don't... nohow.)

      "Swears" and such.

      High school book-report

      Paper on a poem

      College paper in sociology or philosophy

      Medical prose (on a sheet in a pharmacy notice)

29) A shorthand system of notation for correcting errors in written English, used as a convenience rather than a rule.

30) Practice in finding errors, understanding them, and redoing the paper to make clean and acceptable English copy.

From this point on, it is important to get the students used to working with their writing on their own, not repeating mistakes, redoing their essays as something personally important (like brushing teeth and combing hair) and as a preparation for a more intensive writing program in the upper school grades. With the program outlined above and a fair amount of practice and discussion, students will be prepared for a better level of Junior and High School English programs.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College