Hitch your Wagon to the Stars, but Make Sure its Wheels are on the Ground

Kim Sanabria, Professor
Language and Cognition


My interest is in skills acquisition. In Old Norse, the word skil referred to knowledge, but nowadays we are more convinced than ever that knowing how to do things, as well as knowing about things, is the key to getting ahead. This is understandable. In a world where pursuits ubiquitous today were unimaginable a few years ago, where an uncertain future workplace looms menacingly over young people’s futures, and despite the claims of a post-text future, reading and writing skills are still essential tools that students must develop in order to succeed.


Paul Kei Matsuda, a groundbreaking researcher on second language acquisition, has shown that surface errors distract readers, so emerging English language writers face compounded hurdles. They must not only learn to organize and substantiate their ideas, but also to navigate a different idiom with hidden nuances and echoes. In much the same way, good reading is indispensable but demanding in another language. Sometimes I try to put myself in my students’ shoes by attempting to read passages in languages I do not know well. Struggling through a chapter, article or menu, I find myself overwhelmed with the challenges my students face every day. How can I decipher this, and how could I possibly write about it? What would an instructor suggest?


National reports of unprepared students are alarming, but it’s important to remind ourselves that expertise in reading and writing is acquired, not inherent, in a first language or any other. We must also remember that students most certainly have skills that we are not aware of, and are powerful agents of their own progress. And content is more important than form, so what students are writing about – their aspirations, observations, and opinions – is much more significant than their citation protocols, dangling modifiers, or verb tense consistency. Yet what get evaluated are their essays, the embodiments of their ideas. I have explained this to my students using the work of José Gorostiza, one of my favorite poets. He portrays water as an elusive and life-giving liquid that is nonetheless imperceptible unless it is constrained in a glass (just as our spirit is encased in our existence). Likewise, ideas are perceived through how you write them. It is daunting and intimidating to watch your ink seep into the paper and form inscriptions that are then examined, evaluated, judged. It is little wonder that students struggle so hard with their essays. But frequent, purposeful practice leads to progress and milestones become yardsticks, as goals are set and passed.


Novelist Anne Bernays, in “Pupils Glimpse an Idea, Teacher Gets a Gold Star” is perplexed when her students appear to make the same mistakes repeatedly, and in desperation, she resorts to giving them mindless mini-assignments, “as arbitrary and demanding as solfège.” To her delight, her students clamor for more of the same, finding that they can undertake and do well on these small tasks. Introducing skills is like that. Spending time on micro-tasks, as simple as how to paraphrase a key idea or introduce a quote, yields all kinds of valuable progress in writing: the process is fun and manageable, engaging. It is also useful, because once students can use these skills in a summary of something they’ve read, they find that they are contending with important concepts, prompting better development and structure in their essays.


Little and often is the key here, and not just in writing: small tasks are tangible anchors of proficiency in all forms of discourse, and contemporary materials writers are breaking down reading skills into component parts for the same reason. For example, students can spend time in class learning to find the rhetorical mode, examine pronoun use, or underline time markers. They can do tasks like this every day. Perhaps one day they will learn the Cornell method, or how to annotate: another, they’ll learn how to organize ideas in outline form. Each step represents acquired ability, empowering them to tackle longer and more difficult readings.


The question of skills, particularly how students can get them, tends to be contentious, because there is one major caveat. It has been shown quite definitively that if skills are presented alone, isolated from meaningful content, the endeavor is likely to be inconsequential, especially in second language learning settings. Instead, interest and understanding must be the driving forces, and emerging methodologies widely recognize that weaving skills instruction into an exploration of ideas is the only way to proceed. Grammar instruction has long been housed in content in such a way. Now, materials writers are following the same approach with reading and writing skills acquisition in the tapestry of their textbooks. For my own part, I have assembled what I’m calling a taxonomy of reading and writing skills – a grab bag of essential skills that I can adjoin to classes and publications. Designing materials that promote skills development is a complex, time-consuming, and highly creative task. Yet I am convinced that it has merit. It yields stronger and more confident learners.


Instruction must speak directly to students, and the delivery of a well-prepared syllabus cannot be decoupled from the day-to-day evolution of their learning. The title I chose for this piece comes from a book by visionary educator Myles Horton, who pointed out that any discussion of skills development needs to be grounded in students’ real needs, as well as the printed curriculum.


Above all, we must believe in our students’ promise and potential, and make learning relevant and appealing. I think that my mother taught me to study, although, like my father, she herself never completed middle school. I would grind through my homework at the kitchen table, blanket over my legs for the lack of central heating, and she’d quiz me before she went off to bed. I loved Latin, especially the exotic-sounding ablative absolute, but one evening, I was facing an impenetrable translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. While the heroine, Latona, was experiencing “joy unutterable,” I was in tears of frustration and incompetence. Look, said my mother discourteously, just call it “thrills unmentionable.” That sounded more natural, she ventured. We laughed so hard that I still remember it, and later, my efforts propelled me into a thrilling and lifelong passion for Romance languages.




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