Fragments: And Other Benefits of Attending to Our Speech

Overview: 

Although we tend to think of written language as simply the text version of spoken language, we know, when we stop to think about it, that they actually are quite distinct systems. Children acquire spoken (or signed) language without instruction simply by being exposed to it. Writing and reading, however, must be taught. And although writing is a secondary form of language based on the spoken version, it has its own unique prescribed rules and established patterns. Discovering these facts with students is enlightening and empowering. Students should be assured that their use of language and their ability to communicate is perfect. We are all equally good at it, and it is an aspect of being human that everyone acquires in the same way. Sometimes, however, as we all know, learning the written rules of language takes practice. Too often, the focus with respect to spoken language skills is on nonstandard dialects and on the language of English Language Learners. However, focused study on the differences between spoken and written language and on the many variations allows all students to benefit. Such examination leads to a better understanding of the distinctions that exist for everyone between spoken and written language.

In my work with teacher education students, as well as with middle and high school teachers, we have learned that drawing students' attention to how spoken and written language are distinct, allowing them to explore these differences, and discovering ways that written language conventions correlate (or not) with speech patterns, leads to a reduction in writing errors and improvement in formal speech delivery, while also making students more aware of their own diversity of language use.

Grade Level: 
Grades 3-5
Grades 6-8
Grades 9-12
Lesson Plan: 

Understanding Fragments as a Feature of Spoken Language
The study of fragments allows for an exploration of the benefits of spoken language investigation on students' written language, helps develop a heightened awareness of formal and informal speech patterns, empowers students to learn that their spoken language is patterned and systematic, and paves the way for deeper investigation into the study of grammatical categories.

The writing error known as a sentence fragment is an excellent example of the mismatch between oral and written language. In writing, we are taught to use sentences, rather than pieces of them, or fragments, even when our meaning is quite clear. Consider, for example, the following representation of a perfectly natural oral discourse exchange.
Speaker A: What did you get at the store?
Speaker B: Milk.
Though it is natural to reply as Speaker B does, in writing (except in representation of dialogue) the beginning writer is encouraged to avoid fragments and to fill in what we call old information or information that is known to both speakers. We typically learn that the desired written version of B, if it is not written as a dialogue, is I bought milk, rather than the fragment, Milk. Learning to write formally, therefore, often involves overriding our patterns of speech to create a document or record that can be read and interpreted without the benefit of clues available to us when we speak face to face.

Rather than simply teaching students that fragments are bad and should be avoided, we can convey to them how perfectly appropriate they are in speech. (And how awkward it would sound to speak in complete sentences.) To make students aware that the mistakes of writing are actually completely acceptable patterns in speech is empowering. It allows them to understand that they are not making random writing errors. Fragments can also, of course, occur in writing, and many students will be aware of this. They occur in many books, including these popular young adult books:

The German loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Reichstags, houses, personal items, slain people, and of course, books. (The Book Thief, p. 84)

Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry. Yes. I like that a lot. (The Book Thief, 183)

A group of die-hard friends and enemies would gather down at the small reserve on Steber Street, and they would fight in the dying light. Archetypal German, the odd Jew, the boys from the east. (The Book Thief, p. 183)

Sing. My throat is tight with tears, hoarse from smoke and fatigue. But if this is Prim's, I mean, Rue's last request, I have to at least try. The song that comes to me is a simple lullaby, one we sing fretful, hungry babies to sleep with. What my music teacher calls a mountain air. But the words are easy and soothing, promising tomorrow will be more hopeful than this awful piece of time we call today. (The Hunger Games, p. 234)

An act of will, crossing that divide. Always. Reached for his gun, then changed his mind. Some days were worse than others. (Finch, p. 3)

A sudden flash of his partner Wyte, telling him he was compromised, him replying, I don't have an opinion on that. Written on a wall at a crime scene: Everyone's a collaborator. Everyone's a rebel. The truth in the weight of each. (Finch, p. 3)

Students will recognize that fragments occur naturally and appropriately in speech, often in writing, and that they are a feature of all languages. Their use in speech is not a result of laziness either; they serve to introduce new information. The old, or understood, information does not need to be stated. In order to come to this knowledge on their own, we have used activities like the following in our classes in which students engage in dialogues to understand the subtle complexity of their use of so-called fragments in speech.

Conversational Fragments Activity. Consider the dialogue between speaker A and speaker B, with the fragments shown (bolded) below:

A. Where are you going?
B. To the store.

A. Do you think Jack should jump off of that?
B. Probably not because he might get hurt.

Such replies are, of course, perfectly normal and acceptable ways to speak. And fragments do have systematic patterns; they are not at all random or unstructured, as the following impossible fragments show. (The * indicates that the sentence is ungrammatical.)

A. Where are you going?
B. *Store.

A. Do you think Jack should jump off of that?
B. *Might get hurt.

No one would produce examples like these starred B ones; therefore, students will come to see that the utterances they produce are patterned as they produce their own dialogues and transcriptions of them. An extension of this lesson is to determine what sorts of grammatical categories occur in the fragments; invariably, they will turn out to be phrases and subordinate clauses, but not, say, single words that are not also phrases. A sample lesson plan can be found here: http://teachling.wwu.edu/node/1432.

Furthermore, students can discover that replies that are full sentences, while not ungrammatical, are stilted and strange in speech:

A. Where are you going?
B. I am going to the store.

A. Do you think Jack should jump off of that?
B. Jack should not jump off of that because he might get hurt.

Understanding how fragments function and that they are a natural feature of language helps students realize why they might write in fragments, and to understand and appreciate one of the differences between spoken and written language, thereby reducing the number of fragments in their own writing.

An important follow-up lesson to this one is to practice identifying subjects, which is a valuable component of being able to write in complete sentences since every written sentence needs both a subject and a verb. See http://teachling.wwu.edu/node/1430 for some lesson plans on identifying subjects. Also see Denham and Lobeck 2002 for discuss of fragments in writing.

Another useful exercise that we have undertaken is to have students search through various kinds of texts in search of fragments. This is best done after a more thorough exploration of how to identify subjects, as suggested in the linked exercise above. The rhetorical effect of the use of fragments can be explored. Their use in fiction is often appropriate (as suggested by the selections above), but in other kinds of writing, they may have the effect of undermining the writer's credibility.

One of the most dynamic activities for an exploration of spoken language, which has a variety of possible extensions, is the following recording of conversations.

Conversation transcription activity. Students should record about two to five minutes of casual conversation. We have found it can be interesting not to be too specific about the numbers of participants in the conversation or what type of conversation, in order to get a variety of resulting types of conversations for analysis in the classroom. It is important to let students know that they must have permission to record from the people they record. However, they should also try to make the recording as unobtrusive as possible. Students should then transcribe the recording, taking down everything that was said, including ums and ahs, false starts, etc. (Be sure to tell them that they can leave out names or use pseudonyms.) They should then bring their typed transcriptions to class to use for discussion.

Suggested questions for discussion: What was the situation? Where were the ages of the speakers? Was there a stated purpose or topic for the conversation or were the participants just chatting? Are all of the transcriptions of very casual conversations? Was the conversation completely informal or somewhat formal? What are the factors that seem to affect the number of interruptions, unfinished utterances, the use of slang? In the transcription, are there any pseudo-phonetic spellings: in', dunno, etc.? If so, which words were respelled and what guided your decision in selecting those words? What is the effect of such spellings on the reader? How did you indicate interruptions and utterances that trailed off? Did you edit out anything besides names? Why?

Drawing attention to the features of spoken language and how we try to capture those in writing can aid both with writing and with formal speaking. I and teachers I have worked with have used it in lessons on learning to write in dialect, on understanding fragments, on informal and formal speech patterns, on the power of nonverbal communication, on students' use of fillers, on the role of intonation, among others. I invite you to send feedback after you have tried it out.

It is worth mentioning too that such lessons directly correlate with the Common Core Anchor Standard on Speaking and Listening, as well as those on Language. Consider, for example, the Grade 7 Speaking and Listening Standard (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.6): Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. Also related to these lessons is the Grade 7 Language (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.3): Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Although a very simple exercise, students at middle school, high school, and college have found it to be very enlightening. I never realized how different spoken language really is. You think that dialogue that you read in books is how we speak, but it really isn't. This was the most useful activity we did all year. It has made me think about how I speak and how I write.

An awareness of some of the differences between spoken and written language, and of the many varieties of each, allows students to become thoughtful analysts of language. When students recognize that many of the common writing errors are not simply random errors, but are appropriate and grammatical representations of speech, it is empowering and can lead to a reduction in errors in writing and improved formal speaking. Also, transcribing speech allows students to carefully attend to its features, leading to a respect for the many varieties of spoken language.

Selected Bibliography
Denham, K. and A. Lobeck (2002) The Writing Classroom as a Gateway for Linguistics, presentation at the Linguistic Society of America symposium Bringing Linguistics into the Schools: Preparing -12 Teachers and Curricula, Oakland, CA.
Passages from the following:
Collins, Suzanne (2008) The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic.
VanderMeer, Jeff (2009) Finch. Portland, OR: Underland Press.
Zusak, Markus (2005) The Book Thief. New York: Alfred Knopf.

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