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The use of general semantics in teaching the language skills in the eighth grade.

LIKE MANY English teachers in high schools and junior colleges I have found that the attempt to improve my students' language skills constitutes the heaviest burden of my teaching. The language problem has been given a great deal of attention in recent years; hundreds of texts have been produced which are intended to teach the student to read, to write and to 'think.' Most of these books when analyzed prove to be mere re-formulations of 'ideas' which have been recorded many times before. The method of each is substantially the same, that of objurgation, or telling the student what to do without giving him a general method and a system for doing it or an insight into the causes of his difficulties. General semantics had been reported as effectively increasing the general 'intellectual' efficiency of groups of students and it seemed apparent that it could be applied in the particular field of language operations to replace the purely verbal, hortatory methods which prevail in most schools. (1) In 1936 at the Barstow School for Girls in Kansas City, Missouri, I set out to use this discipline for a direct attack upon the various language difficulties which I found in my classes. This paper presents a brief account of the methods and procedures that I used and the results I observed, and also some objective test data for the second group of students who were exposed to this training. (2)

My first step was to make each student conscious in a very specific way of her own particular difficulties. This analytical approach seems to be diametrically opposed to the sort of 'animal learning' inherent in current educational practice. Children of twelve to fifteen have a latent ability for self-criticism and we went on the assumption that this faculty should be developed specifically as they are maturing. Before any training in general semantics was introduced, significant misunderstandings of both oral and written material and many examples of failure to communicate adequately were brought to the attention of the class, and I kept a record of them for future reference. During this time the subject matter of the course centered around the study, theoretical and historical, of language as a human function. The students were carefully introduced to the nature of symbolism and were taught to understand that language functions as a form of representation.

I first touched on Korzybski's system by demonstrating the analogy he makes between maps and language symbols in relation to territory-facts. In the science-mathematics classes, the students were constructing, at this time, a clay relief map of Europe and the Near East. Since the map was used to demonstrate the geographical factors determining racial and linguistic distribution, the danger of misrepresenting territory-facts became concretely apparent. The girls began to see that 'what they really knew' (or 'meant') was of small consequence if they could not communicate it adequately through structurally correct forms of representation. The very obvious fact that the most detailed as well as structurally similar map is the most reliable guide to a territory showed them the pitfalls of loose, general terminology, which roughly includes 'everything' and gives little clue to what they know.

Most of the application of the Korzybskian system was made in connection with the structural differential. I planned it this way for two reasons: a) The differential had been in front of the class for some time and had aroused a good deal of interest. b) It is a device around which so much of the material of general semantics may be organized. In explaining it I was able to introduce the students to the notion of the process character of 'matter,' to drill them in the realization that the object of sense-perception is not the event, nor the word the object, to bring home to them an understanding of the projection mechanisms of the human nervous system and their dangers, and to discuss the need for a structurally correct representation of the world. An understanding of these points was necessary before any direct application to the language material could be made.

Although reading and writing difficulties seem to represent similar semantic blockages, I made a practice of approaching the two problems separately, when explaining them by means of the differential. For problems in expression, work with the lower orders of abstraction of the differential and discussion of multiordinal terms were most valuable. Handling the loose strings on the differential increased the students' consciousness of characteristics left out when we represent experience, a point already learned from the map project. At this time I explained and prescribed the use of indexes, dates, and the etc., and the value of always remembering them while writing and speaking. These extensional devices helped to direct the girls' attention to things they might have left out through 'carelessness' and to eliminate the vagueness and confusion of expression which comes from lack of consciousness of:

* abstracting and projecting,

* the absolute individuality of events and their relatedness,

* the abstract nature of our vocabulary, and

* the false-to-fact orientations (subject-predicate forms, etc.) we get from the structure of language itself.

The differential used in conjunction with concrete experiences is the most effective device I have ever found in dealing with the prevention and correction of reading difficulties (the failure to comprehend verbal material). With the aid of the differential, I was able to demonstrate that in reading as in other types of learning we are attempting to make the acquaintance of the world outside our skins by means of symbolic representation of this world. I showed the students that when they are reading a book or taking oral directions, the expressions of the writer or speaker become events or unalterable empirical data in the outer world which must be transferred to their own nervous systems with structural accuracy. (They must reconstruct the facts represented by the words.) By means of a diagram I demonstrated the insuperable blockage which the habit of unconscious projection of uncontrolled verbal association tends to set up between themselves and the reading material. This experience helped the students develop a feeling of the need of integrity in their own representations of the outer world. Lack of this feeling appears to be at the root of most reading difficulties, especially those of the more elusive type, not always detected by reading examinations, but very troublesome to the student and puzzling to most teachers.

I noticed particularly that this new orientation greatly increased the students' ability to grasp 'larger meanings.' For example, it tended to clear up certain persistent types of errors they had previously made in attempting to grasp the general import of a paragraph or any other long unit of writing. The consciousness of the fact that we omit characteristics in every act of representation put them on their guard against an over-inclusive, too general interpretation of the material indicating inattention to important limiting or extensional details. On the other hand, the training tended to reduce the frequency of too narrow interpretations, especially the inclination to literal reading of any group of words that strikes the attention, instead of seeing them as a part of an 'ordered and inter-related whole'; for example, the training tended to eliminate the "that's what it says here" type of answer.

By the end of the year I found that all my students' work had improved remarkably in several definite respects. After old themes had been revised, in the light of their new understanding of how language works. I found that their writing was more lucid and adequately organized. The general weaknesses that come from using words without 'thinking' of the 'meaning' they carry (or, more exactly, visualizing the facts represented)--including poor paragraph construction, faulty logical transitions, contradictory statements and repetitions--were understood much more readily and quickly corrected. On form B of the Nelson-Denny Reading Test, given in May, the average improvement over the scores on form A, given in September, was twice the normal expectancy. (Both forms were scored and reported by the Educational Records Bureau.)

In class work I noticed an interest in more exact interpretation of words, especially 'contextual meanings,' an increased ability to understand sentences of more complex structure, and an improved comprehension of the objectives of a given lesson or textbook assignment. In sum, such rudimentary training in general semantics as my groups of students had in these two years, so much improved their ability and confidence in using the language, that most of them were able by the end of their year in the eighth grade to perform academic tasks beyond those usually prescribed for children of their age.

Also significant are the comparative percentile ratings for one group of eighth grade girls on the American Council Psychological Examination, forms for 1935 and 1936. These tests were administered in September, 1937 and May, 1938. Epidemic conditions in Kansas City in September interfered with testing all the girls in the group. Only eight girls in my class were present during the 'test weeks' in both September and May. The tests were scored by the Educational Records Bureau, which reported the comparative percentile ranks given below. These percentiles are based on the scores of over 1500 ninth grade students in Independent Schools, members of the Bureau. As no other member schools administered these American Council Psychological tests to eighth grade students, the Bureau had no norms for this grade and our students were compared with ninth grade students in other schools.

I believe that it is particularly significant that not only the 'poor' students showed phenomenal gains but also the students in the upper percentiles gained considerably in relative standing in a group of 1500 more advanced students.
 September, 1937 May, 1938 Points Gained in
 Percentile Rank Percentile Rank Comparative
 Total Score Total Score Percentile Rank

Student 1 27 53 26
Student 2 37 78 41
Student 3 18 60 42
Student 4 64 90 26
Student 5 6 31 25
Student 6 10 67 57
Student 7 73 94 21
Student 8 6 72 66

Average gain for this group in comparative percentile rank--38.


1. See General Semantics. Papers from the First American Congress for General Semantics, March, 1935. (New York: Arrow Editions, 1938). This volume contains early papers on the subject.

2. The use of general semantics by the writer in teaching eighth-grade language skills was part of an over-all re-orientation of the educational program at the Barstow School originated and directed by M. Kendig, Head and Educational Director of the school, 1934-38. This paper was written in the autumn of 1938 in co-operation with Miss Kendig, as a brief article on specific applications of general semantics methodology and the observed results on one grade level. Some other aspects of the work done under this educational program are discussed in the following, all of which are available in reprint form (see publication list of the Institute of General Semantics, Chicago): M. Kendig, 'Language Re-Orientation of High School Curriculum and Scientific Control of Neuro-Linguistic Mechanisms for Better Mental Health and Scholastic Achievement.' Presented before Educational Section, A.A.A.S., St. Louis, December, 1935. Published in General Semantics, New York: Arrow Editions, 1938 (Lithoprinted, 6 pp.); 'This Living Barstow: Implications of Linguistic Revision for School Learning and Personality Adjustment.' Address given at Kansas City, April, 1937 (Printed, 13 pp.); 'Comments on the Controversy over the Nature and Constancy of the I.Q. as a Measure of Potential Growth,' Educational Method, January, 1940 (Printed, 2 pp.); M. Kendig and D. W. Brown, 'Elective English Language Unit for the High School, 1936' (Mimeographed, 9 pp.); Sarah Michie, 'A New General Language Curriculum for the Eighth Grade,' Modern Language Journal, February, 1938 (Printed, 5 pp.).

From Papers from the Second American Congress for General Semantics, August 1-2, 1941, Denver, Colorado. Dona W. Brown was a teacher, 8th Grade, Barstow School, Kansas City, Missouri.
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Author:Brown, Dona W.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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