Friday, February 28, 2014

Grammatical nit-picking

See this photo and others at The Huffington Post.

I was conversing with a young professional in academia a few days ago. The topic related to and English program, no less. A question was asked; by whom, I do not recall. Out came a wonderfully grammatically "incorrect" phrase:

"I'll try and find out..."

For those of you who may not see the problem. The "correct" form should be, "I'll try to find out..." Think about it: Was the speaker going to try something and find out something? No. The speaker was going to make an attempt to do something: try to do. Yet the try and form is quite widespread, and few notice it when used in conversation. Therein lies the problem which leads to the topic of this post: Does focus on "correct" grammar during assessment disadvantage English language learners (ELLs).

Of course grammar is a necessary component of language assessment, and I have called a "grammar nazi" more times than I can count. Nevertheless, one must keep in mind that "correct" grammar is not always a matter of rules but of conventions. That is, English includes many grammatical conventions that do not precisely correspond to rules. Often these are referred to as exceptions. Or in this case, what native speakers say and understand in actual practice is different from what is considered "correct".

Take double negatives as an example: "I don't want to pay no taxes."  Today we would say this is grammatically incorrect. Yet in English's distant past it was acceptable. Yet even today, despite the a fact that the grammar and the semantics reveal a logical contradiction, people use this type of structure, and no one misunderstands the intent.

Does any one misunderstand this grammatical error? From

Why then do we penalize ELLs for the same errors?

I've seen speaking assessment rubrics that have grammar components such as "near native-like use of grammar" paired in the same grade band with "virtually error-free usage". So which is it? Are ELLs to be assessed based on native-like speech, which is commonly filled with grammatical inconsistencies? Or should ELLs be assessed based on grammatical precision, a standard to which we rarely hold native speakers?

What are your thoughts about grammar and assessment for ELLs?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Libraries produce economic gains.

When facing budget shortfalls, public libraries are often among the first to be put on the chopping block and receive cuts in funding. This is a mistake. The economic gains of public libraries as a whole often far surpass the spending needed to maintain them.

Did you know...

  • In 2011, spending by Texas public libraries totaled $544.9 million, but economic benefits topped $2.407 billion? That's $4.42 return on investment (ROI). [1]
  • The University of Illinois determined that it's library expenditures in 2006 resulted $4.38 ROI, which was based on the entire library budget. If only collections expenditures were considered the ROI would've been around $12. [2] 
  • A 2009 report from Colorado (using data from 2006) looked at eight library systems, chosen at random, from metro and non-metro, urban, suburban and rural communities. All libraries showed positive ROI, the lowest being $428 and the highest being $31.07 (an outlier). The median ROI was $4.99. [3]
  • A 2004 report out of Florida calculated Florida public libraries' ROI at $6.54. [4] A 2010 report estimated the ROI at 8.32! [5]
These are just a sample of the plentiful data you can find floating around cyberspace. Check out the Illinois Library Association as a resource to start your own search.

I like libraries for what they are, but the economic gains are nothing to sneeze at.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: A little book of language

Speaking of the library, I recently checked out A little book of language by David Crystal. Last week I finished . I found it a great and quick read, very conversational and accessible in language and tone. The inner jacket of the books begins like this:
"With a language disappearing every two weeks and neologisms springing up almost daily, understanding the origins and currency of language has never seemed more relevant. In this charming volume, expert linguist David Crystal proves why the story of language deserves a retelling."
Aside from the incredibly poor use of the word prove, I have to agree with the assessment. It is indeed a charming volume, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Crystal covers a broad sweep of topics. The book opens with several chapters discussing the language development in children. Crystal then segues into the basic elements of language: spelling, grammar, accents, etc. From there he moves into a variety of language topics. Some of my favorite chapters were 21 Language change, 22 Language variation, 26 Etymology (a topic that always intrigues me), and 31 Language at play.

Despite the variety of topics and a tendency to jump from one topic to another, A little book of language does not come across as fragmented. There are mini "sections", for example chapters 27 and 28 discuss place names personal names, respectively. Crystal also does a great job of pulling the chapters together, reminding readers ideas already mentioned and hinting at what's to come. The overall effect is one of great scope and cohesiveness.

A little book of learning is not an overly academic read. Unlike previous Crystal texts, such as Language death, I can't imagine it being used as a university or college textbook, unless in an introduction to linguistics course. For those with a linguistics or language education background, there will be few, if any, major conceptual revelations. At best you might acquire some trivial yet captivating facts.

To whom then would I recommend this book? First, this is a great introductory text for those flirting with interest in linguistics and language-related topics. It's full of great information, and yet because of the brevity of each chapter, readers are left not only captivated, but also desiring to learn more. Second, for those of us with linguistics and language-related backgrounds, although there may be little in the way of new concepts, the Crystal's love of language shines through in in his writing. The prose is engrossing, and if you've lost a bit of your passion for language learning, language teaching or language study, A little book of language will likely reignite that flame.

"This is a 'little book' about language. But language is a big subject. None bigger, to my mind. It's the Mount Everest of subjects. I suppose that's why I find it all so fascinating." (David Crystal)

Stars: 4.5 / 5

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Libraries = accessibility and possibility

“I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” (Ray Bradbury)

There are unfortunately haves and have nots. It is an inconvenient truth. As much as Americans tend to maintain the image of the self-made man or woman, i.e. the person who worked hard and became successful, the statistics show that upward mobility is increasingly a fantasy in the US. Rags-to-riches stories, while inspiring, are increasingly rare according to socioeconomic data.

In today's economy, access to information is essential. Knowledge truly is power. Libraries offer a place where those who cannot afford to buy books, who cannot afford a computer and internet access, or who cannot pay for tertiary education can access the information, ideas, and skills essential in a knowledge economy. Libraries are hubs of accessibility.

Children born into poverty are known to have less access to reading materials. Krashen (2004) noted that they tend to live in neighborhoods with few bookstores (if they could afford the books) and under-resourced libraries, and they attend schools with poor classroom and school libraries. Children born into low-income households often start formal schooling with a "word gap", in part due this limited access. Hart and Risley (1995) found that 3-year-old children from welfare families had an average vocabulary size of 525 words, compared to 746 words for children from working-class families and 1116 words for children from professional families! Recent research from Stanford has shown that 18-month-old toddlers from disadvantaged families already have a vocabulary gap of several months.

Libraries can and do make a world of difference. The key is access. Krashen, Lee and McQuillan (2012) make a compelling case for the positive effects well-resourced school libraries in addressing the negative the effects of poverty on student learning. For disadvantaged adults who want to work hard and change their lot in life (the American dream), public libraries are essential sources of information, both printed and electronic. For low-income parents of small children, libraries may be the only place to access books to read aloud to children, a major step in children's linguistic and educational development.

Yet for all this, people in poverty often have the worst library resources. More affluent families with the ability to purchase books and ebooks and internet access often have the best, even if they don't really utilize them. Even great ideas like BookMooch require internet access of some kind.

Let's make sure books get into the hands of those who need them. Let's make sure children (who do not choose the families they are born into) aren't punished for simply being born into the "wrong" family. Let's make sure communities and schools have libraries, good libraries. Donate books you don't need. Work to start libraries in communities without. In an age of budget cuts and discussions about how to spark job creation, let's not be so short-sighted as to deny the resources people need to prepare themselves to be the entrepreneurs and visionaries and job-makers of the future.

“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” (Walter Cronkite)

Hart, B., and Risley, R. T. 1995. Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Krashen, S. 2004. The power of reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, and Westport, CONN: Libraries Unlimited (second edition). 
Krashen, S., Lee, S.Y. and McQuillan, J. 2012. Is the library important? Multivariate studies at the national and international level. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 8(1): 26-36.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Libraries have media and are social: The original social media!

Shhhhh! This is a library!

Isn't this the stereotype? Libraries are quiet places for independent reading and study, not places of for socializing. Libraries certainly can be this if you want them to be, and I'm sure some libraries are filled with cavernous silences. But that is far from true in many, if not most, modern libraries.

Libraries are often hubs of activity. Libraries are often sites of public lectures on any variety of topics. They also often host public forums. You can usually find a bulletin board posted with flyers and announcements of community events. Lots of public libraries also host reading times for children. If you're lucky, you may even find authors stopping by a library to read from their own books.

Informal discussions also abound. Want to discuss books? Librarians are often happy to talk with you, when they're not busy, of course. Do you see people browsing through books you've read or perhaps the recent additions? Strike up a conversation. Most people are happy to converse. You already know you share an interest in books; just take it from there. It's social the way social was always meant to be.

I haven't even mentioned clubs. Many libraries have book clubs. There are books clubs for adults. There are books clubs for youth. There are manga clubs. Given that libraries have now become digital hubs as well, there are clubs for online and computer gamers. Even non-media clubs such as boy scouts and quilting guilds meet at libraries. It's truly a community center.

I've heard people say that once they're out of school, bars and churches tend to be the only places to go and meet people. I beg to differ. Make your local library a new habit. It was the original social media source.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Libraries: Gardens of discovery

“Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book...” (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

I keep lists of books I want to read. Do you? Some of the books on my list come from friends' recommendations. Some of these come from references in other books. Some of these simply come from walking in the library, gardens of literacy.

One thing I love about libraries is that I inevitably come across books I never would have looked up nor would people I know be likely to recommend. Walking through the stacks, whether looking for a specific book or simply browsing, I inevitably come into contact with books about topics or with viewpoints that I never would have considered. They all mingle together, whispering, "Read me." And joy of joys, I can (for free).

Why are libraries better than bookstores? Aside from new volumes, do you see libraries trying to promote recent bestsellers? Do you see libraries trying to push you toward "bargain bins"? Libraries: the place where every book gets equal air time. Libraries: the place where the old and the new, the pulp and the significant, the popular and the repulsive take their places together and invite you to chat.

What are libraries better than Amazon? Amazon tries, bless them, to make recommendations: "Related to items you've viewed"; "Customers who bought this item also bought"; "100 books to read in a lifetime." It's useful. It brings to light other books I might like. It helps Amazon make a profit. But where are the book recommendations for topics I never imagined? Where are the books I might actually hate (but would be good for me)? At libraries they all sit side-by-side, welcoming me to try.

Where but libraries can ideas and opinions rest on equal footing? Where but libraries can the democratization of ideas reach its zenith? Where but libraries can all people of all ages from any educational or socioeconomic background commune with the both the greatest (and sometimes perhaps the feeblest) of minds to their hearts content or disgust? Indeed.

"In a library we are surrounded by many hundreds of dear friends imprisoned by an enchanter in paper and leathern boxes." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Monday, February 03, 2014

Libraries: FREE is a GREAT price!

“The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” (Albert Einstein)

I love libraries; this is no secret. I have spent hours upon hours in libraries. I remember with fondness my father taking me to the local public library as a boy. I volunteered at the public library while in high school. During my first three years at university, I worked in the university library's periodicals department, often reading more than or alongside working. I've made a habit of visiting university libraries in different cities when I can, one of my favorites being at the University of Chicago.

As an adult, a parent, and an educator, libraries have taken on a new significance. I make full use of the library, having complete four checked-out books since the start of the year, having attended a lecture/presentation, having taken my sons to story time almost every week. It's a wonder to me that people don't go to libraries more often!

In this and the next few entries, I plan to go through a list of why I think libraries are so important.

#1: Libraries are FREE

Let's just start with the obvious and most appealing: Checking out books (or cd's or dvd's) from the library is free. Whether you check out one item a year or several items a week, you don't pay a cent, aside from the occasional late fee. People love free; don't you?

I realize libraries require money to operate. I realize that taxes are used to pay for library services, both labor and materials. In this way, they are definitely not free. Nevertheless, could you get books from a bookstore? From Amazon? The cheapest book I've ever bought online was a used book from Amazon for a penny. Yet the shipping cost was $3.95. Comparatively, I have three books in my home right now, for which I have paid nothing directly, and if I calculate the cost from my share of taxes, it would still be miniscule compared to that $3.96 book.

In our day and age, with increasing awareness of the haves and the have-nots, those with access to information and those without, libraries can be a great equalizer. Knowledge is there for the taking. FREE! Once we get past the fetish of needing to have our own copies of books (even books we may only read once), the appeal of free becomes apparent.

Take advantage of libraries. They want to be taken advantage of.

“I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” (Ray Bradbury)