Thursday, January 29, 2009

Grammar Doesn’t Have to Be Boring — Why We Think the Descriptivists Have the Right Idea

Recently our New Product Development Specialist, Douglas Grudzina, shared an article with me that seems to make a lot of sense. In this month’s English Journal (January, 2009), the article entitled “The Grammar Gallimaufry: Teaching Students to Challenge the Grammar Gods” has quite a bit to say on the way grammar is taught.

Author Jeff House begins by explaining the difference between the “prescriptive” and “descriptive” approaches to teaching grammar. Prescriptivists tend to think of grammar as a static set of rules, and are often very strict in upholding them. Descriptivists, on the other hand, believe that grammar is more a means to an end and spend time looking at the rationalizations behind the grammar rather than ignoring the changing nature of language.

“The ‘rules’ of grammar are really nothing more than a strong consensus among educated speakers and writers,” agrees Grudzina. “The descriptivist realizes that communication depends on the sender and the receiver, and the sender must be sensitive to the receiver’s frame of reference.”

Currently, the prescriptive approach tends to be the norm for most students and teachers. House agrees, saying, “…the dominance of grammar drills, rote memorization, and heavy markdowns for ‘incorrect’ grammar suggest how much prescriptive thinking dominates the classroom. This is particularly ironic in that every English teacher knows that literature abounds with comma splices, run-ons, fragments, split infinitives, dangling modifiers, and other ‘errors’ we sometimes legislate against.”

House also quotes linguist Edward Sapir, who wisely tells us that, “‘All grammars leak,’ which is why teaching grammar as a firm set of rules invites trouble.” Like House and Grudzina, Sapir believes that “The endpoint of grammar instruction is not the rules; the endpoint is using grammar to clarify expression. … [O]ne learns grammar not to test one’s memorization skills but to learn how to lay out the nuances of thought.” Thus, the descriptivist encourages his students to “acknowledge grammar’s inconsistencies,” while the prescriptivist perpetuates the student frustration of “relearning rules depending on who the teacher is this year.”

While many teachers agree that there are, in fact, flaws in the prescriptive approach, they, like Jeff House, lament the fact that it is difficult to find a book that teaches grammar any other way. We at Prestwick House wanted to fill this void with a book that understands that, “…grammar is about expression, not memorization.” And thus, Grammar for Writing was born.

“Even before I saw this article, I chose the descriptive approach for Grammar for Writing largely because it is the only approach that makes sense to me,” says Grudzina, a twenty-five-year veteran of the high school English language arts classroom. “We know that language is dynamic. Words enter and leave the language every generation. Words change in meaning. Slang words work their way into acceptable speech. New inventions and procedures require the creation of new words and expressions. Creative writes coin new phrases or use words in new ways and eventually these also become commonplace — like the current practice of verbizing a noun or adjective.”

Grammar for Writing starts from the very first lesson identifying “units of thought” and manipulating them so that the student learns how to convey something meaningful to his/her reader. The end result is that, yes, the student will capitalize the first word of every sentence and end every sentence with a period, but which do you think is easier to understand, remember, and apply: make sure you capitalize and punctuate; or make sure you signal to your reader when you are ending one thought and beginning the next?”

“This book is different because it has the kids play around with words, phrases, and clauses — arranging and rearranging them to see how different configurations mean different things. From their exercises, they then ­infer­ the convention rather than having the rule imposed on them.”

Since Grammar for Writing came out, we’ve been seeing more and more teachers stepping up as descriptivists, and it’s fantastic to see this theory confirmed in an academic publication like the English Journal. We stand behind this approach as the most effective method for getting students to really understand grammar and not just regurgitate the answers that we demand. If this is an approach that you’d like to try out, feel free to call us to request a sample of Grammar for Writing.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

RIP -- John Updike

Whenever I hear people complain about there not being any great, living literary authors in America these days, I always respond with Phillip Roth and John Updike. Well, today, we lost one of those two when John Updike passed away from lung cancer at age 76.

I spent many of my formative years in the same town that Updike grew up in, Shillington, PA, so when I read Rabbit, Run in college, I could see all of his locations perfectly. I went to school in the same buildings as Updike, stood on the same corners, and probably knew the relatives of the people who inspired many of his characters. He was one of those rare authors who was able to chronicle the real thought process of his characters and his ability to draw them not only in their highs, but also in their lowest moments, made him a truly remarkable author.

Throughout his life he won nearly every major literary award -- the Pulitzer, the PEN/Faulkner, and dozens of others. He published over 50 books in his career.

While many of his books speak of topics that are appropriate for only the more mature high school student, they're definitely worth a read for any teacher who isn't familiar with his work.

"Suspect each moment, for it is a thief, tiptoeing away with more than it brings." - Updike, "A Month of Sundays" (1996)


Friday, January 16, 2009

Introducing Growing Your Vocabulary Artist, Ned Harrison

Recently, Prestwick House recently introduced its first vocabulary series especially for middle grades students, Growing Your Vocabulary: Learning from Latin and Greek Roots. Often, a project of this size requires large numbers of illustrations in a short amount of time. For this particular project, Prestwick House recruited the help of illustrator Ned Harrison to bring a fresh, new perspective to a younger audience. Ned was provided with sentences from the 4-6th grade books and was able to create some truly memorable characters and scenes.

“He really did an amazing job with the assignment, bringing his own unique take on the sentences we provided,” says art director, Larry Knox. “On top of that, he was able to produce high quality work under extremely tight deadlines. Paul Moliken, the Senior Editor on this project, really got a kick out of his interpretations. I’ve overheard him on more than one occasion commenting on them to his writers.”

Meet the Artist

Name: Ned Harrison

Age: 35


Where He's From: Seattle, WA

Occupation: Illustrator/Factotum

Education: Bachelor of Arts/Graphic Design, Central Washington University, 1996

Favorite Children’s Book: Arnold Lobel’s Owl At Home

Favorite author: George Macdonald Fraser

Favorite Poem: Jack Prelutsky’s “The Mummy”

What other interests or hobbies do you have besides art?

I like to read and snowboard, but not at the same time. My huge project this winter is the rehabilitation (not restoration) of a 1975 Toyota Landcruiser. I am learning how to weld, and the plan is to finish the entire project by summer.

About Ned Harrison’s Art and the Growing Your Vocabulary Project

How did you get interested in art? Is it your full time job?

I’ve always had an interest in art; the hard part is making money doing it. Fortunately, I am not easily discouraged and I like to try new things. Another of my jobs is as an assistant-director of a summer camp. I am also exploring the possibilities of grad school in order to earn my teacher’s license.

What kinds of art do you do besides illustration and dough craft?

I like to take photos with my Nikon FM3A camera. I prefer it to my digital camera because traditional film forces me to take my time to get the exposure and aperture correct the first time. There is a sense of satisfaction to be able to imagine what’s going on behind the shutter.

What artist most influences your work?

William Steig is an illustrator I look to for inspiration. Throughout his long career Steig’s drawing became better by becoming simpler. His books are honest and perceptive studies of human interaction and family connection.

What do you enjoy most about being an artist?

The best part about being an artist is the freedom to explore possibilities. Would it be fun to wear my pajamas all day? Yes, it would. Should I drive to the store to buy a new set of chalk pastels? That sounds fine. Was it a bad decision to wear pajamas to town? Absolutely.

How did you get involved with Prestwick House?

Prestwick House art director Larry Knox brought me into the Growing Your Vocabulary project in January 2008. He saw my work posted on a commercial portfolio website. Larry told me that Prestwick House would be introducing curriculum for the middle school market, and I was eager to join the team.

What was your time frame, and how many illustrations did you create for this project? What was your process?

I drew more than 400 illustrations in twenty weeks for the Growing Your Vocabulary series. That’s about twenty drawings per week. Easy to do, as long as you stay on schedule, or else you might find yourself doing 400 illustrations in a weekend! (I stayed on schedule.) For this project I worked with an egg-timer to keep myself from spending too much time on any single drawing. If I couldn’t finish one in ten minutes, I needed to speed up.

I like to develop my sketches on tracing paper. Frequently, funny ideas appear unexpectedly on separate overlapping drawings. Also, if there’s only one or two sections of the drawing that I like, I can simply trace-up onto a fresh sheet.

Is illustration your main focus, or was this project different from what you normally do?

Illustration is my main focus, and the Growing Your Vocabulary series is my widest exposure so far. It has been an important step in growing my portfolio.

What are your thoughts on the Growing Your Vocabulary Project?

The content of the three Growing Your Vocabulary books greatly exceeded my expectations. These are smart textbooks, and I am proud of how successfully the text and the illustrations work together. My goal was to add another layer of explanation and humor to an already interesting series. I’d like to work on more Prestwick House textbooks in the future.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Lesson in Internet Grammar

I couldn’t help but giggle when I came across this video from the user, “SisterSalad.” These ladies really know how to defend the proper use of grammar on the web! It's sung to the tune of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” I humby give you “Yo Comments Are Whack!”

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New! Writing An A+ Research Paper

Hello, PWH Blog Readers! It’s been far too long since our last post, so I’ve taken over where Keith left off back in September. So, without further ado, this newly graduated, fresh-faced copywriter will be writing more frequently to keep you updated on all things Prestwick House. Sit back, relax, and enjoy as I share some of my favorite books, a few fun PWH photos, all of our newsworthy happenings, and a whole lot more.

All the Best,

Annie Rizzuto, Copywriter Extraordinaire


Back when I was writing my first research paper on the Holocaust for Mrs. Reilly’s AP English Lit class, the process was all about book research at the local college library, hundreds of handwritten note cards rubber-banded together (and exploding out of every pocket of my backpack), and avoiding plagiarism like the plague. With the ever-expanding reach of the Internet and the modernization of libraries, some of the things that I had had ingrained in my head a mere five years ago have changed. Today’s students will never know what a physical card catalog looks like (much less how to use one), but they now have seemingly unlimited sources for gathering information.

Along with this veritable flood of useful information comes a barrage of questions that many research handbooks are simply not equipped to handle. Because of this deficiency, Prestwick House has created Writing an A+ Research Paper to help out these poor kids who no longer have to turn in 200 handwritten note cards by Friday.

Instead of just giving some “helpful hints” and then moving right into the citations, Writing an A+ Research Paper works through the entire process in definitive steps — from choosing a topic all the way through turning in a final copy of the finished paper. Before completing a step of their own research paper, students actively help two fictional peers: Ella, whose work provides the models; and Rob, whose work students will analyze, critique, and help develop.

Similarly, instead of just throwing out the usual warnings about plagiarism, this book actually explains the rationale behind avoiding it and adds well-thought-out suggestions on the best ways to do so. And just in case that wasn’t enough, Prestwick House added a bonus CD filled with extra practice for every step, and over 200 pages of supplemental material.

So, from an English student who’s just a little jealous that such a book didn’t exist back in the 2003-2004 school year, I highly recommend Writing an A+ Research Paper for your high school classroom.