How do you differentiate grammar?

by Christopher Paslay


Once a report card period, students in the Philadelphia School District are required to take a benchmark test in every core subject to see if they are meeting the state standards set forth in the District’s Core Curriculum. 


After the students complete these benchmark examinations (and after they are collected and graded), teachers are required to analyze and review test results in order to see where their students’ strengths and weaknesses lie.  Teachers must complete a Benchmark Data Analysis Protocol Sheet and come up with a plan to strengthen their students’ weakest skills.  Teachers must also reflect on teaching strategies, and discuss the results of their benchmarks with colleagues and also with the students themselves.    


I teach three sections of 11th grade English.  On December 18th, I was required to give my students the English 3 Fall

Benchmark B test (the second benchmark of the year).  Today I analyzed my results and completed my Data Protocol Sheet.  Although my students are not where I want them to be, as a whole, they scored 14% higher than the Philadelphia School District Average (the District average for the 11th grade English Benchmark was 46% correct; my students averaged 60%).    


This is far from perfect.  But they are improving.  On the first benchmark that they took in October, my kids only outscored the District by 10%.  So they are improving at a rate of 4% faster per quarter than the District as a whole. 


My students weakest skill was the following:  PA State Standard 1.5.11.F: Edit writing using the conventions of language.  Basically, it is a skill involving grammar. 


Here are the two questions that stumped them (as well as the District) the most:


1.  Select the best version of the underlined part of the sentence:


He faced many trials and challenges

throughout his life he never gave up on

his dreams.


A.  life he never gave up on his dreams.

B.  life, he never gave up on his dreams.

C.  life and he never gave up on his dreams.

D.  life; however, he never gave up on his dreams.


The answer is D.  According to the Language Handbook in our textbook (Holt’s Elements of Literature, Fifth Course), you are supposed to Use a semicolon between independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb or a transitional expression.  EXAMPLE: Dexter knew that Judy was selfish and insensitive; nevertheless, he continued to adore her.      


A is wrong because you need a comma (,) after the word life, as well as the coordinating conjunction and be fore the word he.


B is wrong because you need the coordinating conjunction and before the word he.   


C is wrong because you need a comma (,) after the word life.


Only 29.3% of my students got this correct (and 29% of the District).


Here is another question that they bombed:


2.  Read the following sentence:


Because I was tired, I left the party

earlier than I had planned.


What is the adverb clause in this sentence? 


A.  left the party

B.  I had planned

C.  earlier than

D.  Because I was tired


The answer is D.  According to the Language Handbook in our textbook (Holt’s Elements of Literature, Fifth Course), an Adverb Clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a verb, and adjective, or an adverb.  It may come before or after the word or words it modifies, tell how, when, where, why, to what extent, or under what condition.  An adverb clause that begins a sentence is always set off by a comma.   


There are only two clauses in the sentence: Because I was tired and I left the party earlier than I had planned. 


The first (Because I was tired) is the only subordinate clause (it does not express a complete thought and cannot stand alone as a sentence).  There fore, it is the only correct choice. 


Only 24% of my students got this correct (and 22.8% of the District).


This benchmark data is no new information.  Students in Philadelphia have been bombing grammar questions since the beginning of time.  Why?  Because there’s been a trend in public education (especially urban education) to marginalize the importance of Standard American English grammar (can you say Ebonics?).  Writers of educational policy seem to favor ambiguity over concreteness—subjectivity over objectivity.  Or to put it another way, they favor creativity over mechanics.     


Feeling and inspiration come first; grammar comes second.  The hot trend in Philadelphia and the rest of the nation is differentiated instruction and higher level questioning.  That’s been the topic of every professional development I’ve been to so far this year.  It’s also one of the National Academy of Education’s recommendations found in their White Papers Initiative (a group of Washington-based scholars trying to influence education policy in Congress).     


Here is the irony, however: There is absolutely NO WAY to differentiate grammar.  An adverb clause will always be an adverb clause.  A coordinating conjunction will always be a coordinating conjunction.  You either know it or you don’t.  Period. 


And how do you learn it?  By MEMORIZING the rules.  Yes, I’m talking about rote memorization.  On Bloom’s Taxonomy, this would be low-level RECALL questioning.  Just the kind of questioning that’s become taboo in public education. 


Why don’t Philadelphia teenagers know English grammar?  Because you can’t dumb it down no matter how hard you try.  You can’t put catsup on it or sprinkle it in sugar.  You have to swallow it whole, every gerund, every dangling participle.  And you must do this in spite of the backward trends in education.          


Grammar questions still make up 25% of every District benchmark.  Why?  Because you’ll find lots of grammar on the PSSA.  That’s what makes the situation so farcical: High stakes standardized tests aren’t differentiated by a student’s ability level.        


In light of this information, here is how I completed my Benchmark Data Analysis Protocol Sheet.


Question 1:  How will you group or regroup students based on the information in the necessary item analysis and optional standards mastery reports? (Think about the strongest data and how those concepts were taught.


Answer: I will partner stronger kids with weaker ones.  Then: I will teach them standard American English grammar.  Period.  I will make them memorize the rules.  Period.   


Question 2:  What changes in teaching strategies (and resources) are indicated by your analysis of benchmark reports?


Answer:  This question is ambiguous.  To this day, I still do not know what it is asking. 


Question 3:  How will you test for mastery? 


Answer:  I will give quizzes (oral and written), and have students write papers and complete projects (and journals) to make sure they are using correct grammar. 


Question 4: In order to effectively differentiate instruction (remediate and enrich) I need to . . .


Answer: . . . find someone who knows how to differentiate grammar. 


Question 5:  Based on patterns in my classes’ results, I might need some professional development or support in . . . .


Answer: . . . finding someone who knows how to differentiate grammar.           


Question 5:  As I think about giving students a better understanding and more ownership for their learning based on benchmark assessments, I . . .


Answer:  . . . feel warm and fuzzy inside. 



Bring Tracking Back to Classes

by Christopher Paslay


Ask any professor of education about differentiated instruction and they’ll tell you it’s the hottest thing since Joe the Plumber.  For those not up to date with current education jargon, allow me to give a textbook definition of differentiated instruction:


“To differentiate instruction is to recognize students varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, interests, and to react responsively. Differentiated instruction is a process to approach teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. The intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student’s growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is, and assisting in the learning process.”

          Tracey Hall, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist, NCAC


In other words, differentiated instruction is the idealistic belief that a teacher can be all things to all students at all times.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons that appeal to multiple intelligences: verbal/linguistic; logical/mathematical; kinesthetic; spatial; musical; and naturalist.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons that accommodate every student’s learning style, whether visual, auditory or haptic.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons appropriate to students on multiple reading levels—anywhere from grade 3 to grade 11 in my case—and find ways to reach English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities who have IEPs.


Teachers who use differentiated instruction do all of these things for dozens of students at the same time, every period, every class, everyday. 


Sound wonderful?  Good. 


But before we start given each other high-fives, there are a few things to consider about differentiated instruction.


The first is the matter of standardized achievement tests.  Those who grade the PSSAs don’t differentiate their scores by ability level.  Below Basic is Below Basic; the state doesn’t care if the student is white or black, fat or skinny, a visual learner or a haptic learner (haptic is a cool word, isn’t it?).  If students don’t score Proficient or above, the school won’t make AYP.              


The second thing to consider is that the real world doesn’t stop to differentiate.  In other words, employers don’t hire differentiated workers.  Colleges don’t accept differentiated transcripts.  Engineers don’t build bridges according to differentiated blueprints.  No matter how hip or liberal the construction company, 1 + 1 will always be 2.    


Maybe this is why Americans are so far behind the rest of the world in science and math: Because you can’t B.S. your way around cold hard numbers. 


As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of this new learning fad.  In my opinion, differentiated instruction is educational socialism.  It’s teaching students via the path of least resistance, giving them endless choices so they don’t have to come out of their comfort zone. 


I am a dedicated educator so I do my best to reach all of the students in all of my classes.  I also work extremely hard to accommodate multiple learning styles in my classroom.  But teaching a room full of students with varied ability levels is an extremely difficult task. 


The way to effectively give a child a solid fundamental education is not through differentiated instruction.  In fact, it’s just the opposite: Schools must go back to academic tracking. 


The following is an article I published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 30, 2005.  It is titled “Bring Tracking Back to Classes,” and it is as relevant today as it was almost three years ago.


For more than two decades, writers of educational policy have been fighting to abolish academic tracking.  Grouping students by ability level, they argue, promotes race and class segregation, harms self-esteem and keeps students locked-in at lower tracks because of a limited access to information.


Although national studies have supported these claims, as a high school English teacher in Philadelphia, I believe academic tracking should be brought back into public schools—in the suburbs as well as the city.  Grouping students by ability level can strengthen a learning environment and make classrooms more efficient.


Arguments against academic tracking have lost their validity, in my opinion. Multiculturalism and promotion of diversity ensures that students will not be segregated by race or social class, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents children from becoming socially stigmatized. As for students getting “locked in” at a lower track, standardized curriculum guarantees that all students have equal access to knowledge and information.


Poor scores on standardized tests are proof that heterogeneously grouped classes—those not tracked by ability level—are failing to meet the needs of our children. In short, the “one-size-fits-all” model of education initiated in the 1980s is unrealistic.


The level of expertise needed to teach a class of 33 heterogeneously grouped students is beyond the reach of many educators. For starters, teaching a heterogeneously grouped class involves identifying each student’s aptitude level. A teacher might use the previous year’s scores from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) to do so.


Aptitude levels as identified by the PSSA are, advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic. If there are students in the class at all four levels (and most non-tracked classes have all four levels of students) this would mean that the teacher would have to write four different variations of his or her daily lesson plan to meet the needs of all students.


Once ability levels are identified and materials are prepared, the teacher begins teaching the lesson. Not just once, but up to four times, modeling the activities for each unique group of learners. For example, if a 10th grade English class were composing a Shakespearean Sonnet, students at the various ability levels would have to be instructed and assessed separately. Advanced learners would be required to write the most complex form of the sonnet, following the correct rhyme scheme and syllable count, which is iambic-pentameter. Advanced students would also have to develop the poem’s theme.


Because writing a Shakespearean Sonnet is rather challenging, students at the proficient level would most likely be excused from writing in iambic-pentameter. They would develop the theme and write in a set rhyme structure, but be allowed to deviate from the cumbersome syllable count. Of course, these individualized instructions would still have to be modeled and explained to the appropriate students.


Students at the basic and below basic levels likely would be excused from fully developing the poem’s theme. In addition, they might be excused from writing in the traditional rhyme structure. Again, examples of these variations would need to be modeled and explained.


Is requiring an educator to simultaneously teach four different variations of a lesson to four different groups of students realistic? In my opinion it’s not. But, theoretically, this is the procedure a teacher instructing a class of non-tracked students is expected to follow. The alternative, of course, is academic tracking.


Academic tracking permits an educator to teach students who all are at one ability level. It allows for proper pacing, ensuring that slower students aren’t left behind and that advanced students don’t go unchallenged.


Despite current trends in education, acknowledging a child’s academic weakness is not something to be frowned upon. Neither is putting him in a specialized classroom where he can learn basic skills without the distraction of alternative activities going on around him.


In light of poor performances on standardized tests and the limited resources of many educators, academic tracking should be reintroduced into our public school system.