September 14, 2009
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Natural Syntactic Development:
Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development"
and Piaget's "Plateaus"
John W. 

     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" education.

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 their ideas.

     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 -- compounding, reduction, and embedding.
     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.
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 Forest Gump.
Subordinate Clause: Tom Hanks, who is an actor, played Forest Gump.
Appositive: Tom Hanks, an actor, played Forest Gump.

Obviously, this explanation for the late blossoming of gerundives and appositives requires more research to support it, but it does explain why gerundives and appositives probably are late-blooming constructions. 

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.