Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Embedded Content and the Foreign Language Paradox

Bumped to the top from August of 2010:

Joanne Jacobs: Kids Don't Know Grammar. Although neither of those quoted (perhaps misquoted) can spell "embedding," their point is good. Embedded curriculum doesn't work.
Less than 10 percent of Robert Archer’s 10th graders know grammar. A 14-year veteran teacher in Spokane, Archer doesn’t blame middle-school teachers. He blames curriculum developers for “imbedding” grammar in the curriculum.
"in my experience, the term “imbedded” is nothing more than educationalese for “not ever specifically taught.” Somehow, this grammar-is-imbedded movement is supposed to help students naturally take in what proper grammar is (i.e., grammar by osmosis). It’s very much a hyper-constructivist approach to education; the students are supposed to “discover” proper grammar on their own as they read good pieces."
He's right. They don't pick up on the proper forms of grammar, nor do they pick up much of anything that isn't specifically presented and what is, doesn't last.

Maybe I'm an old-school fart but it seems to me that if the students really could do this type of learning by assimilation, they would be miles ahead of where they are now. I do SAT prep classes and the grammar skills are terrible -- except for the kids in Spanish or French III or IV.

I call this the "Foreign Language Paradox." When learning English in an English class, grammar and basic forms are not supposed to be explicitly taught. Literature reigns supreme and some limited essay forms are required. Grammar and proper sentence structure are supposedly understood as 5th graders. Then we are all surprised that no one seems to know them.

In any foreign language class on the other hand, noun and verb declensions, grammar and sentence structure are specifically taught; then drill, drill, drill. Every student learns through actual work and walks out with an understanding of the language and a better understanding of English, too. "I never understood the subjunctive mood until SeƱor told us." "Past, imperfect, pluperfect - wow! Then, a couple of present tenses and more than one future tense? Damn."

It's not just Latin that builds English skills, although Latin does have power in its rigid simplicity and endless lists and mnemonics. It's specifically teaching grammar to students when they are finally sophisticated enough to really understand and appreciate it in all its nuanced glory.

Hello? Is my curriculum coordinator listening?

Apparently not.

Joanne chimed in with her own anecdote:
On Back to School Night, my daughter’s eighth-grade English teacher told parents she was going to go off curriculum for two weeks to teach grammar and punctuation. She got a standing ovation.

It's not just English, but math as well. Bunches of my students go off to the tech center for a one or two year program and then return. They have me for algebra I and then go to forestry or woodworking or something. Invariably, I hear about the embedded math credit. They are then placed in the next class and have no clue about the missed material. What's worse is that they are in my class for the eleventh grade and thus on my roster for the NECAP tests in November. I think of myself as a good teacher, but that's just not fair to either of us.

Bottom line: No matter how smart, no matter how motivated, all kids need some instruction. Unless you are specifically making things clear, you are allowing kids to construct any old thing, and it's usually flawed.


  1. Thank you! I teach writing and editing at the college level and encounter the results of "embedded learning" (snark!) every day.

    Mercifully, some K-12 schools are reverting to teaching students about the structure of their own languages. However, because teachers themselves are the products of previous generations of educators who thought it was counterproductive to teach basic grammar, style, and mechanics, they're woefully ignorant and they pass their ignorance along to the kids, who bring it with them into my classrooms.

    That's why I start each semester with what I call the "basics reviews": explicit instruction geared to the 20 or 30 issues that pester students most often. And yes, Virginia: people CAN learn these principles and they can learn to apply them to their writing.

    The departmental chair at the university campus where I taught before moving into administration once pushed through a new course she titled "Grammar for Writers and Teachers of English." The day the course first appeared in the schedule of hours, the dean of the College of Education barged into her office and said, "I wish you would not teach our education students grammar."

    That is not a joke. And it is not an apocryphal story.

  2. My son told me once that he learned more English grammar in his German class than in the English class (Oh, and that's in the UK)

  3. The bad news is that even some foreign language departments believe in the "embedded" approach. My son dropped HS Japanese because, as he complained, the teacher "isn't teaching us the structure of the language."