|Natural Syntactic Development:
Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal
and Piaget's "Plateaus"
Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky
are generally recognized as major founders of what is known as "cognitive
psychology." If you explore what grammar is currently being taught in our
schools, you may find that some linguists are now proposing that students
be taught one or another form of "cognitive" grammar. It may be that such
grammars have some use somewhere, but basically they miss two primary educational
principles proposed by both Piaget and Vygotsky. First, both Piaget and
Vygotsky claimed that cognitive mastery entails "reversibility." Second,
both argued that natural intellectual development is "developmental, "
a term now frequently used in education, but often misunderstood. Both
of these principles apply to KISS Grammar.
"Reversibility" simply means
that a mental operation is not cognitively mastered until and unless the
learner can reverse that operation. As a simple example, no one really
understands the concept of addition unless he or she also understands the
idea of subtraction. One does not understand how a car engine works unless
one can take it apart and put it back together again correctly.
In grammar, no one cognitively understands passive voice unless they can
restate the same basic idea in active voice.
In KISS, reversibility is most
important in stylistic exercises in which students are asked, for example,
to rewrite compound main clauses by making one clause subordinate and then
are asked to rewrite sentences that have a subordinate clause as compound
main clauses. In essence, these are exercises in stylistic flexibility,
but how they should be used is best seen in the context of "developmental"
What is "Developmental"?
Simply put, for both Piaget and
Vygotsky "developmental" means that some things naturally need to be learned
(mastered) before a child can possibly do or understand other things. A
child must be able to walk before he can run. A child must be able to play
catch before she can play baseball. Children must understand words before
they can begin to talk in sentences. These examples, of course, are almost
silly, but they illustrate the principle, and the principle applies to
vast areas of knowledge. A person who cannot understand percentages cannot
make wise decisions about interest rates. Although both psychologists developed
the concept of "developmental," they used different images to illustrate
Vygotsky used the image of two concentric circles to explain what he called
the "zone of proximal development." The inner circle symbolizes knowledge
that the child has already mastered. The area between the two circles is
the "zone," and the area beyond the outer circle represents concepts that
the child simply will not be able to understand until the material within
the "zone" has been mastered. In math, for example, multiplication makes
no sense to a child who cannot understand addition, and algebra makes no
sense to a student who cannot understand multiplication.
Vygotsky's "zone" has major
implications for understanding both the learning and the teaching of grammar.
Consider, for example, how children learn the forms of the past tense.
At first, they have no concept of it at all. At that point, the regular,
most frequently used forms of past tense are in their "zone." The irregular
forms are beyond the zone. Thus we all said things such as "Daddy readed
me a story." It is only after the child has mastered the regular forms
that the zone expands to include the irregular forms. At that point,
children teach themselves the correct forms -- "Daddy read me a story."
The KISS Levels reflect Vygorsky's
zones. KISS Level One teaches students how to identify basic subjects,
verbs, and prepositional phrases. It takes students time to learn to identify
the prepositions and the very concept of "phrase." Once they have mastered
those constructions, their "zone" expands such that they are capable to
understanding KISS Level Two questions such as when "to" is and is not
a preposition. If students are introduced to KISS Level Two materials before
they have mastered KISS Level One, the materials will be outside their
zone of proximal development. Students will not understand, they will be
confused, and they will begin to hate grammar.
Vygotsky's zones not only justify
Bruner's "spiral curriculum" (discussed in the previous essay), but they
also explain why we should expect students to make mistakes when we ask
them to analyze randomly selected texts. It is very easy to distinguish
what mistakes we expect students to make. Irregular forms and irregular
constructions will be beyond the zone of students who have not mastered
the normal, most frequently used constructions. But as the example of "readed"
suggested, exercises should also include items which students are expected
to get wrong. Perhaps one major reason for the failure of our educational
system is that what is taught has been extremely oversimplified, specifically
so that students will "get it" and not make any mistakes. The result has
been that our students have become conditioned to being "right." The minute
they hit anything that confuses them, they simply give up. As Agatha Christie
suggested in The Murder at the Vicarage, "They take refuge behind
a mask of stupidity." But that mask is the death-mask of their education.
Two concentric circles
form an interesting image for understanding and discussing how cognitive
learning takes place, but they do not easily reflect the time required
for cognitive mastery.
Piaget used the image of plateaus, primarily perhaps, because he wanted
to emphasize that, as we watch a child develop, there appear to be long
periods when nothing seems to be happening. He argued that we should expect
and accept this. In essence, children need to consolidate and become comfortable
at one level before they can advance to the next, no matter what the "learning"
may concern. If we apply Piaget's plateaus to instruction in grammar, we
should make a distinction between the ability to consciously identify and
discuss the structure of sentences and "natural syntactic development."
The ability to identify and
discuss is, of course, what KISS Grammar is all about. From this perspective,
the "levels" in Piaget's plateaus can be compared to the KISS instructional
levels. Students need not just to learn, but to become comfortable with
their ability to identify subjects, verbs, etc. before they can begin to
master identifying clauses. Thus each KISS level can be viewed as a plateau
at which students will need to spend a fair amount of time, even a year
or more, before they move up to the next level. But this instructional
sequence should probably be introduced in the context of natural syntactic
development, a concept proposed by Kellogg Hunt and his colleagues.
Unlike conscious analytical
ability, "natural syntactic development" refers to children's ability to
use various grammatical constructions in speech and writing. There is a
wealth of research on natural syntactic development, but most of it focuses
on how language develops before students enter school. For example, when
do children learn to distinguish words that denote one (singular) from
those that denote more than one (plural). Hunt and his colleagues, however,
focused on how students' syntax develops after they enter school. Their
conclusions resulted from statistical studies on the appearance of various
grammatical constructions in the writing of students at different grade
levels. There are numerous questions about their research, but their basic
conclusions deserve much more consideration than they have been given.
One of their more interesting
conclusions is that subordinate clauses blossom around seventh grade! In
essence, graphs of the appearance of subordinate clauses (per main clause)
show a spike at seventh grade. Even many grammarians have derided the idea
that most students "master" subordinate clauses only as late as seventh
grade, but these grammarians (and others) have not taken the time to understand
the complexities discussed in the work of these researchers.
Obviously subordinate clauses
can be found in the writing of much younger students. Hence, the deriders
simply dismiss the conclusion. But Roy O'Donnell, one of Hunt's colleagues,
proposed that the "subordinate clauses" in the speech and writing of many
young children are "formulas." As children we mimicked the speech that
we heard. Young children, for example, frequently hear "When daddy gets
home, . . . . " "When we get there, . . .," "When it stops raining, . .
. ." They assimilate these "strings" into their speech (and writing) as
formulas. O'Donnell does not discuss cognitive grammar, but he would probably
have said that these "formulas" are just strings -- they do not represent
cognitive mastery of subordination and subordinate clauses.
This whole question of the natural
development of subordinate clauses deserves far more study, but the National
Council of Teachers of English banned the teaching of grammar and thereby
killed any interest (and funding) for such research. Additional statistical
studies would either support or undercut the conclusion. But another way
of researching the question would be to apply the concept of reversibility.
At what grade level can students learn, relatively easily, to reverse subordination,
i.e., to take a passage that includes subordinate clauses and change most,
if not all, of the subordinate clauses into main clauses?
Hunt suggested another interesting
theory about natural syntactic development when he claimed that participles
(KISS gerundives) and appositives are "late-blooming constructions. He
basically suggested that these two constructions develop after subordinate
clauses, perhaps as late as high school, or even later than that. This
idea has also been pooh-poohed by many educators (perhaps because they
have a lot of pooh in them?) Unfortunately, Hunt based his conclusion on
writing samples in which students were given a short text written in very
short sentences. The students were asked to rewrite the text so that it
sounded better to them. In other words, the students were not writing;
they were rewriting someone else's text in their own words. The implications
of this difference deserve a lot of questions, but it is highly probable
that the "writing" task resulted in fewer gerundives and appositives than
would have appeared in samples derived from the students' expression of
their own ideas. The difference, however, would probably only affect the
time-frame in Hunt's conclusion. Put differently, Hunt was almost certainly
correct that these are "late-blooming" constructions, but they probably
bloom in the writing of many students well before the end of high school.
What neither Hunt nor his detractors
considered was any theory of natural syntactic development. Hunt and his
colleagues used statistical studies to prove that natural syntactic
development really happens, and that it happens in a fairly well-determined
sequence. They did not fully consider why or how it happens.
The process is complex, but its basic motors are probably very simple --
The fundamental idea of natural
syntactic development is, of course, that children's sentences naturally
become longer and more complex as the children age. In its earliest stages
such development is reflected in the production of what are still very
simple sentences. The child's "Sally played a game. And Billy played the
game." becomes "Sally and Billy played a game." The compound subject is
created by reducing "And Billy played the game" to "and Billy" which becomes
embedded in the first sentence, thereby creating the compound subject.
There are numerous variations of this simple process which result in a
"simple" sentence. A simple S/V/PA pattern disappears when the predicate
adjective is embedded in the preceding sentence. "We live in a big house.
The house is brown." becomes "We live in a big brown house." An adverbial
prepositional phrase disappears as its own S/V pattern is reduced to nothing
and the phrase is embedded in a preceding pattern: "We went to the store.
The store is on Billings Street." becomes "We went to the store on Billings
Street." It was, if I remember correctly, Hunt who described natural syntactic
being "glacially slow," but it probably appears slow to use because the
changes just described appear so simplistic to adults that adults don't
even sense them as growth. But they are, and it takes a long plateau for
students to master them.
The development of the
subordinate clause, on another hand, is significantly different. Here we
have an entire S/V/C pattern -- which remains an S/V/C pattern -- embedded
into another S/V/C pattern. As noted previously, students will probably
have been using "subordinate clauses" as formulas before they develop cognitive
mastery of such clauses. But that mastery takes time and in many cases
may not even occur. (See below.) Hunt and his colleagues suggested that
such mastery occurs around seventh grade. Why should the mastery of appositives
and gerundives occur after that?
For most students, gerundives and
appositives are probably mastered as reductions of subordinate clauses:
Main Clauses: Bill was going to the store.
He saw an accident.
Obviously, this explanation for the late blossoming of gerundives
and appositives requires more research to support it, but it does explain
gerundives and appositives probably are late-blooming constructions.
Subordinate Clause: Bill, who was going to the
store, saw an accident.
Gerundive: Going to the store, Bill saw an accident.
Main Clauses: Tom Hanks is an actor. He played
Subordinate Clause: Tom Hanks, who is an actor,
played Forest Gump.
Appositive: Tom Hanks, an actor, played Forest
Why Should Anyone Care about
Natural Syntactic Development?
Many years ago, when my son was
in second grade, I was trying to help him with his English homework. It
was a sentence-combining exercise. Among other things, he was asked to
combine two sentences by using an appositive:
Mary is a biologist. She studies fish.
He couldn't get it, so I did it for him -- "Mary, a biologist,
studies fish." He didn't like the sentence. My version wasn't any good.
The moment stuck in my mind. Years later, I read Hunt's explanation of
late-blooming constructions. Aha! I thought! There are some stinky fish
in what we are trying to teach. It's no wonder that my second-grade son
did not like that sentence.