Many linguists have provided theories on the use of language and how it changes. Noam Chomsky altered linguistic thought with ideas on language and its use. This section will observe several of Chomsky’s notions in order to form a conceptual framework which may be helpful to the teacher that uses this technique.
Chomsky had many ideas about language. He did not confine his view to Greek and Latin as representative languages, but was able to elaborate on patterns common to all languages. This section will focus on these notions, which, if are useable, will serve to help the teacher conceptualize a model of language sufficient to incorporate this technique and rethink their notions of learning and language. Naturally this discussion is not meant to convince or even suggest that these theories are truths that are established, but to provide the user with a basis for further investigation.
Chomsky thought that every human being has the capacity to communicate the language of their respective culture. Despite the obvious differences in human qualities and traits, all members of the species could make utterances which were new and able to be understood. He sought to develop a model of language which would speak to the use of the language and the range of possibilities regarding its use.
Language is a reflection of its culture. Chomsky asserts that the form of language reflects the form of the mind and their existed matters of performance and competence. The language of each culture may differ according to their level of development, however, this need not necessarily be the case. For example, a native population in South America may possess a language which is totally suitable to their needs. This does not necessarily connote an inferior language or, as in the case of the individuals, an inferior mind. Given exposure to more elements and experiences the language will shift and fit the needs of the native speakers. Despite cultural differences, languages do possess similar patterns. One obvious pattern is the ability of a speaker of a language to be able to distinguish words that are not of their language and those that are, even though they may never have heard the utterances.
The following principles, or patterns of language as defined by Chomsky, can provide the conceptual basis for the sentence-combining technique.
1) Duality of structure: this term refers to two levels of grammatic structure. The primary or syntactic level of analysis means that sentences are composed of singular units which when strung together provide meaning and sound. Sound refers to the phonological or secondary level whereby sentences are characterized as being composed of a pattern of symbols that indicate phonemes or sounds.
2) Creativity: refers to the open-endedness of the language. Creativity is a principle which puts forth the notion that all members of the human species possess the capacity to create new utterances. Also this principle asserts that members can understand new utterances and recognize them as being a part of the language.
These patterns reflect in a general way the basic elements of language. There are others which will be discussed further along. It is important to note, if we accept these principles as valid, the skills which the child brings to the classroom. Of course differences in environment, income, and cultural awareness, are but a few of the factors which may contribute to the development of a child’s language system. Yet there are basic uses of the language which, for the most part, occur unconsciously as the individual seeks to communicate.
The primary level is important because it deals with syntax, the orderly sequence of units to convey a particular message. Students are able to recognize the proper order of words in their speech, and would need remedial assistance if this were not the case. Students seem to possess an intuitive sense of the correctness of syntax in their speech pattern which is related to their linguistic competence. Because of the diverse nature of society, students need to be able to communicate their thoughts in a variety of forms. Too often, particularly in urban settings, students are only able to communicate the language of their immediate environment. They are not cognizant of the manipulation of the language in specific situations. Although they do manipulate language in other instances within that environment. For example, a child may communicate differently with his peers than his teachers.
The problem results when the child does not possess forms necessary to sustain his survival in the much larger world. As teachers we must expose students to as many communication forms as possible to facilitate the use of their linguistic intuition or competence on paper. The sentence-combining technique can be employed to encourage students to write more complex sentences which sometimes characterize their normal everyday spoken language.
The phonological level is crucial for students in terms of reading, writing, and comprehensive skills. Students must be able to associate words and letters. When students misspell words, or fail to pronounce words, this problem is related to phonology. Teachers may design a suitable phonics program. This unit will not provide suggestions for helping students to recognize word-letter combinations, but will deal with the process of combining or embedding phrases in a sentence to achieve greater clarity of written expression.
Transformational-generative grammar is another concept which has a direct bearing on the sentence-combining technique. Grammar, according to Chomsky, refers to a set of formalized rules which operate within a limited vocabulary and is capable of generating an infinite set of sentences. The aim of this grammar sounds reasonable yet it is unreasonable to expect younger students to be able to generate all of the sentences of the English language, although he has the capacity. Generating some of the sentences of the English language will result from the sentence-combining technique and will enhance syntactic maturity in student writing. This model can appraise the student of certain sentences in the language but not all.
Transformation refers to the process of manipulation through deletion, substitution, or permutation. The attempt is to rid the sentence of ambiguity and to increase accuracy of description. For example, in an imperative or command sentence, the subject is always understood to be you. (i.e., Do your homework. or You do your homework.) We delete you because it is not necessary. Thus, the former has been transformed from the latter into a concise yet meaningful form.
Chomsky proposed several models to describe language. The first model he proposed is known as generative grammar. Grammar is a set of rules which operate within a limited vocabulary and is capable of generating most of the sentences of the language. One means by which to illustrate the concept of generative grammar would be to draw a mathematical analogy. Consider the following algebraic function.
3x + 2y - z
Given that the variables x, y, and z can each take the value of the coefficients, the expression is said to generate an unlimited set of resultant values. If we say that x is 2, y is 3, and z is 6, the result is therefore 6. We can then say that the number six is capable of being generated by the algebraic expression. The rules of the function are clear and formalized. If a mistake is made, it is a problem of rule application.
We can relate this idea to the principle of creativity. Students can speak on a complex level as far as it concerns complex written sentence structures. The errors in writing should be seen as errors of performance, which can be corrected given proper rules which are understandable and readily applicable.
Chomsky draws a distinction in the generation of the sentences of a language. He stressed the fact that many of the utterances produced by native speakers (samples of their performance) will, for various reasons, be ungrammatical. The reasons have to do with linguistically irrelevant factors as lapses of memory, or attention span and malfunctions of the psychological mechanisms underlying speech. If this is true, then the linguist and the teacher cannot take the principle of creativity at its face value. The teacher must see possibilities in the raw data and must be able to eliminate all those utterances which the native speaker would recognize, by use of his intuition, as ungrammatical.
A relative term, intuition, has played a significant role in Chomsky’s theories of generative grammar. Intuition acts as a filter and is used by the native speaker to recognize whether a sentence is part of language and is able to convey a message. Intuition is synonymous with linguistic competence. It is an innate amount of knowledge which enables the native speaker to ascertain the correctness of spoken utterances.
Behaviorists argue that language is a result of stimulus and response bonds. Furthermore, that children imitate sounds and have no internalized conceptual structure of language. The evidence which supports the former view is that children are able to distinguish sounds of communication from other sounds in their environment. Also, they are able to create complex sentence structures in their speech. Moreover, students adhere to basic language patterns and can usually be understood by other speakers of the language. The fact that children are able to understand new sentences suggests that they have a sense of syntax and how it provides intended meanings. The teacher should bear in mind that the use of complex structures in speech is oft times an unconscious function of linguistic competence. The teacher has to be concerned with building a language approach or system of language use, which will deal with the specific needs of the student. Each child eventually develops his own grammar, which, like the grammar of the English language, is constantly changing. Teachers should strive to facilitate the linguistic competence usage by the student.
The study of traditional grammar has been questioned as a viable means of teaching the writing of the language. Traditionally, it was thought that traditional grammar study would improve writing skills and speech proficiency. Frank O’Hare, in his work, asserts: Grammar study is in disrepute at the present time, largely because it has failed to help students write any better. It has occupied the center of language study in the classroom, and ma people, including some grammarians, think that this is regrettable.
O’Hare, after thorough analysis of research data, attempts to dispel the notion that grammar study alone is necessary as a prerequisite for good writing and speaking. In fact, O’Hare thinks that grammar study has been responsible for the lack of proficiency in student writing because instruction in learning how to describe a language is quite different from learning how to use and apply it effectively. He advocates the sentence-combining approach and avoidance of the negative aspects of grammar study altogether.
What if any are some of the advantages of a writing technique that does not rely on traditional grammar study? O’Hare cites examples from his and other’s research to remark: Richards, Scriven and Postman all stressed the importance of the use one makes of a skill. And that is precisely what sentence-combining practice is designed to do, to make students better able to handle English sentences. Of course, there was no suggestion here that the student would write in their free writing sentences as long as those they practiced. What was postulated in this study was that there would be a sort of “rub off” effect from sentence-combining practice with multiple embeddings (added phrases or clauses) which would lead to greater syntactic maturity. Football players practice hundreds of plays many times so that at the right time, in the right situation, a dozen or so of these moves will have become appropriate and habitual. So also with sentence-combining, only some of the operations should become habitual.
O’Hare is suggesting that what is needed in place of grammar study is a series of simple, consistent, practical and efficient signals designed for the sole purpose of facilitating the sentence-combining operations.
A major aspect of the success encountered with this approach was due in part to a non-error oriented environment that accentuated the positive. Teachers have to be careful in providing students with positive feedback. Red marks and slashing may not encourage students to try again. Students must be made to think that their work is totally acceptable. The effect of this technique is to facilitate the development of better writing proficiency by training the memory and increasing the cognitive chunking ability of the student. By training the memory, students who use the combining operation are able to apply similar skills in their own free writing. Chunking ability is the ability of the mind to organize complex information through gradual enlargement of information which increases the memory span. Although there will be errors of performance in free writing, they should not take precedence over the use of the operation of combining. Ideally, students should use the operation in their free writing and should be applauded for that accomplishment.
The sentence-combining operation begins with a simple form; a single or kernel sentence. In order to increase the length of the sentence one has to add a word, clause, or phrase. This follows the pattern of chunking. O’Hare writes: “Non-error-oriented, grammar-study free, and wholly dependent on each individual’s inherent sense of grammaticality, the sentence-combining practice virtually guarantees student success, and success should produce a positive, acceptant classroom atmosphere that, in stressing the spirit of inquiry, would encourage syntactic experimentation and build confidence. The dais might disappear; the student as syntactic authority take over.”
What means can the teacher employ to evaluate the progress of students? Teachers have to realize that the basis for this operation is that students possess native language skills when they come into the classroom. The challenge is to build on those skills. What is important is that teachers are able to identify areas of weakness in terms of basic language patterns. For example, if a pupil misspells a word, this is a function of phonology. A misspelled word should not reflect on a student’s use of the language but is an error of performance. The idea is to improve the performance. Research suggests that preoccupation with grammar and mechanics may dull an evaluator’s reaction. Moreover, accurate spelling is not synonymous with good composition. The basic tenet of O’Hare’s work is that written English is a dialect which is distinct from spoken English and that instruction should be based on language-learning techniques. This technique may be especially helpful with students who lack versatility of expression outside of their immediate environment. The combining operation can be perceived as a vehicle to facilitate greater expression of ideas in various forms. The success can be evaluated in terms of the length and complexity of sentences in student writing. In his analysis of the data on the subject of whether sentence-combining operation produced syntactical maturity, O’Hare cited six factors which would indicate maturity:
A. Six factors of Syntactic Maturity
1. Words per T unit (a T-unit consists of a principle clause and any subordinate clause or non-clausal structure attached to or embedded in it)
2. Clauses per T-unit
3. Words per clause
4. Noun phrases per 100 T-units
5. Adverb clause
6. Adjective clauses per 100 T-units
The research reviewed in O’Hare’s study has shown that as the student matures, he tends to add more sentences in his writing which results in an increase in clause and T-unit length. These increases may be attributed to cognitive development. On the other hand, they are the result of his imitation of the more mature styles that he encounters in his reading and in conversation at school. There is a developmental trend, whatever the cause. Thus, since they tend to increase with age and are indicative of linguistic maturity, the syntactic characteristics above would appear to be efficient criteria for evaluation or at least in describing syntactic maturity. The purpose of this outline of the six factors of syntactic maturity is not to urge teachers to develop an elaborate instrument to measure success in sentence-combining, but to make teachers aware of the criteria used by O’Hare. Some teachers may find the factors helpful, but remember that linguistic processes are dynamic and the sentence-combining operation is a language activity in which these processes can be simulated. The student, given positive feedback and a nonerror oriented atmosphere, is said to mature in his linguistic ability through a series of learning experiences in sentence building. More will be said about evaluation later.