Thursday, January 29, 2015

Linguistics at NCTE

I'm a little slow in getting this posted, but did want to share - In November of 2014, I traveled to the National Council of Teachers of English meeting in DC. (Actually, it was at the Gaylord Resort in National Harbor, Maryland – a strange netherworld; I wish it had actually been in Washington, DC.) I, along with Ian Connally, Suzi Loosen, and Beth Keyser presented at a panel called “The Story of Language: Integrating Linguistics into High School English Classrooms,” organized by Anne Lobeck. The theme of the whole NCTE conference this year was Story as the Landscape of Knowing (?), so our three presenters shared how they have developed innovative courses and curricula that enable students to make connections between linguistic concepts and the overall ‘stories’ of their lives by encouraging inquiry, thereby improving not only students’ knowledge of the structure and use of their own and other languages, but also their expertise in investigative discovery and habits of mind.

These approaches and the activities students engage in in these teachers' classrooms take the study of language beyond writing and literacy, creating a unique bridge between English Language Arts and other disciplines. In particular, teachers who incorporate linguistics into their classrooms rely upon and celebrate the language of all students, including those in underrepresented groups, ultimately creating a context in which multilingualism is explored and affirmed. By better understanding and learning to discuss the many ways that language ‘works’ to create meaning, students learn to better understand themselves, their peers, and their world.

Ian Connally teaches Honors Linguistics in a Title 1 urban district in Forth Worth, Texas. His year-long course focuses on college readiness and critical thinking. Supporting STEM goals across the curriculum, the class offers a way to get ‘hands-on’ with language, looking at language as scientists, asking “why”, and developing skills to answer those questions. Here is Ian’s powerpoint on Linguistics in the AP Literature classroom.

Beth Keyser, who has featured prominently in this blog, incorporates weekly lessons on language and grammar into her English classes at her rural high school in Superior, Montana. Beth has found the investigative approach is more engaging, that students do well, regardless of their reading and writing abilities, and that students become scientists of language, discovering patterns for themselves based on evidence. Here is a prezi from Beth’s presentation.
It includes within it a YouTube video "No Nonsense in Nonsense Words: A new perspective on grammar," which is also posted separately here.

And Suzi Loosen teaches a linguistics course at an urban, public high school in Milwaukee in which she introduces her ethnically and linguistically diverse students to linguistics, including units on phonetics, morphology, language acquisition, endangered languages, sociolinguistics, and the history of English. Here is Suzi’s powerpoint and handout, "Linguistics: A high school English elective." (Suzi’s article, “High School Linguistics” also came out recently in Language; unfortunately, it's paywalled.) (And here's an article from 2013 from the Wilwaukee Journal Sentinel about Suzi and her use of linguistics in her classroom.)

The presenters were inspiring and the participants engaged. Some audience members shared ways in which they have incorporated linguistics into discussions of poetry, others about how linguistics has informed classroom discussions about the connections between language and thought. And there was discussions about interesting ways to take advantage of the expertise of speakers of other languages in the English classroom to enrich discussions about literature and writing. I hope we can continue the conversation. Feel free to contact Ian (, Beth (, Suzi ( or me, Kristin, ( to share your own ideas or to talk more about ways of incorporating linguistics into your existing classes or introducing a stand-alone linguistics class.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Wrapping Things Up

Since the school year has just come to an end, I feel like this blog needs some sort of closure too. I haven’t posted in awhile since some of the projects begun on this blog have been taking shape in other forms. Much of the information from the blog now resides at Exploring Language, a website that contains lessons for grades 3-8. It is very much in a newborn stage, so I will be making changes, corrections, additions, etc. Please feel free to send feedback using the contact form on the website. Also resulting from the blogging is an article on the Common Core, spurred by this post that will be published in Wiley-Blackwell’s Compass later this year. And I have a couple of other articles out for review that may be of interest to readers of this blog; when they have a published form, I’ll let you know.

Another good site that Dave Pippin tipped me off to is Englicious (that’s the log in page, but teachers can have a free trial period, and you can read see sample materials before registering here). It’s tied to the UK’s National Curriculum, which is much more of a top-down curriculum than anything we have in the U.S., though with many similarities to the Common Core (which, remember, is not a curriculum). Linguist Bas Aarts, at University College London, is heading up this project, which looks like a good model for us here. Here’s a brochure about the enterprise, and here’s a Telegraph article about the need for more instruction in language, grammar, in particular, that is motivating the Englicious materials.

I may still post here on MiddleSchoolLing occasionally; I do find that I like to spit out stuff here first and hear from some of you; then it can begin to take a more refined form (as a lesson or an article or a conversation with a friend).


(See Angela Roh’s article, “And you can all say haboo: Enriching the standard language arts curriculum with linguistic analysis” in Linguistics at School: Language awareness in primary and secondary education for more on "haboo".)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Common Core Musings

I’ve been spending time lately not developing lessons with teachers, but trying to bring together the work we have done into some kind of resource that is useful to a wider audience (a website, I think), as well writing some articles on what I’ve been learning through my collaborations. I’ve also been thinking again about the Common Core. I have developed a set of lessons for grades 3-5, each connected to the standards - but I’m a little uncomfortable with these, and I've been trying to figure out why. Here are some of the reasons.

I, like many, have mixed feelings about the Common Core State Standards. The only ones I’ve spent any time reading through and thinking about are the Language Standards. On the one hand, these are exciting since they include quite a bit of knowledge about grammar, usage, etymology, and morphological analysis. Apparently, there were even some linguists among the creators of the language standards strand with its three sections: Conventions of Standard English, Knowledge of Language, and Vocabulary Acquisition and Use. Each strand includes between about 15 and 30 standards per grade in these three areas. Examples from grades 3, 5, 7, and 9-10 of Conventions of Standard English are shown below:
Grade 3:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.1.A: Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.1.B: Form and use regular and irregular plural nouns.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.1.C: Use abstract nouns (e.g., childhood).
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.1.D: Form and use regular and irregular verbs.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.1.E: Form and use the simple (e.g., I walked; I walk; I will walk) verb tenses.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.1.F: Ensure subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.1.G: Form and use comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs, and choose between them depending on what is to be modified.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.3.1.H: Use coordinating and subordinating conjunctions.
Grade 5:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.5.1.A: Explain the function of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections in general and their function in particular sentences.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.5.1.B: Form and use the perfect (e.g., I had walked; I have walked; I will have walked) verb tenses.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.5.1.C: Use verb tense to convey various times, sequences, states, and conditions.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.5.1.D: Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in verb tense.
Grade 7:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.7.1.A: Explain the function of phrases and clauses in general and their function in specific sentences.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.7.1.B: Choose among simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences to signal differing relationships among ideas.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.7.1.C: Place phrases and clauses within a sentence, recognizing and correcting misplaced and dangling modifiers.*
Grade 9-10:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.9-10.1.B: Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.9-10.3: 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.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.9-10.4.D: Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.9-10.5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.9-10.5.A: Interpret figures of speech (e.g., euphemism, oxymoron) in context and analyze their role in the text.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.9-10.5.B: Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.9-10.6: Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.
The amount of knowledge about language expected here is more than we’ve seen in any other standards, so that’s good (though intimidating!) – the more knowledge about grammar and language, the better. (Though some of them are quite strange, as I wrote about here. I’m especially struck by this 8th grade one.)

On the other hand, I’m troubled that these standards may become yet another list, items to check off without teacher or student fully understanding or appreciating the value of such knowledge. For indeed, the value isn’t evident if the standards are approached as concepts to be taught. However, if they are used as a scaffold for introducing a method of thinking, of discovery, rather than as a checklist, they could become a very good starting place for investigations into language.

There is some very direct value in studying the concepts alone, as I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog. Learning about the concepts in the standards, such as parts of speech, tense, aspect, types of clauses, and so on, will have direct applications to reading, writing, and analysis of literature. But importantly, students can gain much more than knowledge about grammar and its applications. Cameron (1997, "Sparing the Rod: What teachers need to know about grammar," Changing English 4.2), in discussing similar standards in England, stresses the importance of knowledge beyond “constituent structure and word class categories…if you want students to have not merely some factual knowledge about language but a critical awareness on such issues as the value of standard and nonstandard dialects, the status of minority languages, etc.” (235). And quite critically, knowledge about the structure of language is the foundation upon which such other knowledge is built. Cameron adds the following:
“[I]if people don’t understand the grammar, they cannot make critical positions their own, because they cannot understand the supporting arguments. For instance, the sociolinguist’s axiom that ‘all varieties of a language are equal’ is not just a political statement to the effect that one should not be prejudiced against, say, Black or working-class speech, it is a statement about the comparability of varieties on structural linguistics criteria such as systematicity, formal complexity and rule-governedness. For someone who does not understand what is meant by these terms, who cannot look at grammar as a system and formulate the rules, the axiom remains mere dogma, something you believe, or not, according to ideological conviction. To be truly ‘critical,’ language awareness must be informed by ‘technical’ knowledge about language” (235).
The CCSSs also include a Knowledge of Language section for each grade level strand, which does incorporate notions about language in use with standards such as the following.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.5.3.B: Compare and contrast the varieties of English (e.g., dialects, registers) used in stories, dramas, or poems.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.9-10.3: 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.
In order to do address these well, however, and in ways that aren’t discriminatory, one must really understand the grammatical structures underlying the varieties, as well as understand the basis of biases of spoken and written variations.

The other component of the standards that makes me somewhat uncomfortable has to do with so-called Standard English. One of the sections of each Language Strand is called Conventions of Standard English. This term promotes the mythical idea – what some would call an ideal – of a single standard variety. My collaborator extraordinaire, Anne Lobeck, and I have been working on several projects related to this idea of Standard/Academic English. She has noted that there is much evidence that there simply is no homogeneous linguistic variety with specific rules and forms that speakers and writers know and agree on. There are a handful of shibboleths of both speaking and writing, but not enough to build an entire notion of a standard around. Promoting such a hypothetical standard in our standards allows for an institutionalization of the process of linguistic subordination and overlooks the discrimination suffered by speakers of non-mainstream dialects, including (some) non-native speakers of English.

Many of the lessons that have grown out of my collaborations with teachers – many in this blog – begin to get at all of these notions, but the standards themselves, don’t. It’s important, then, that we approach the standards critically. We may use them to help achieve what we want our students to know, but we must make sure that they are not reinforcing aspects of ideologies about language that we reject.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Strand 2/Morphology - Part 9: Contractions and spelling and conventions oh my

Deidre and her students have been talking about possessive nouns and the apostrophes that go along with them. I joined them today as they looked at contractions of verbs with pronouns. She had given them a list of pronouns and a list of verbs and they were to make a list of all of the possible contractions: I + am = I’m, you + are = you’re, who + s = who’s and so on. They noted that some looked odd in writing, like it’d, it’ll and who’re even though they sounded fine in speech. Deidre mentioned that in formal writing in general, you don’t find as many contractions. Next they broke into groups to investigate is and has and how pronouns contracted with these. One of the goals was to discover that you end up with identical-looking contractions that are made up of different words:
she’s = she + is or she + has
he’s = he + is or he + has
The group I was hovering near immediately contracted the pronouns with has but then came up with the example sentence: He has candy. “Oh, but then you can’t contract it.” Another said, “But you can contract it if it’s like, He’s got three chickens.” They were coming up with great data to illustrate that there are two distinct types of have.

The students did great with the contractions and were really clear on the fact that the apostrophe represented the deleted letters. Deidre had them say which letters were missing to reinforce this. She was able to talk about the oft-conflated it’s/its and who’s/whose, so a spelling lesson comes along for free.

Auxiliary Have and Main Verb Have

What this activity made me think about as a possible follow-up lesson was the distinction between auxiliary verbs and main verbs, because, along with recognizing that is and has both contract to -‘s, the students were also discovering that there were two different verbs have. One could continue this exploration to see how auxiliary have and main verb have differ not only syntactically but also phonologically.

Have students describe the different pronunciations of have and has in the following examples or some like them:
I have ten dollars. - have pronounced with /v/
She has ten dollars. - has pronounced with /z/

I have to go. - have pronounced with /f/
She has to go - has pronounced with /s/
Cool, huh? We just know that these are different words with different functions, and the pronunciation is an indicator of those differences. And they have already noticed that only auxiliary verb have can contract with a preceding pronoun, so that’s a syntactic fact about it:
She has been to Twisp.
She’s been to Twisp.
But main verb has, meaning ‘possess’ cannot contract. No main verb can (except main verb be, but that’s a story for another day); only the auxiliary verbs (forms of be and forms of have and the modal verbs).
She has a horse.
*She’s a horse. (Can only mean that she is a horse, not that she has a horse.)
Negation and Questions

Auxiliary verb have but not main verb have can also contract with not:
The girl has not seen a horse.
The girl hasn’t seen a horse.

*The boy has not a horse.
And auxiliary have can move to the front in questions.
She has seen that movie.
Has she seen that movie.

He has three dogs.
?Has he three dogs?
For this one – has he three dogs - students might think it sounds ok since we’re accustomed to hearing this in older literature. (Have you any wool?) But for American speakers (and most British speakers too these days), we’d have to say Does he have three dogs?.

As speakers of a language, we just know that auxiliary verbs can do things that other verbs can’t. They contract with pronouns. They contract with not. They move to precede the subject in questions. AND, here's some syntactic evidence that some contractions are their own grammatical beast; they aren't just squished versions of the whole words. Consider the following:
She has not seen that movie.
She hasn’t seen that movie.
Hasn’t she seen that movie?
*Has not she seen that movie?
Has she not seen that movie?
When the auxiliary verb is negated, the contracted form (here, hasn’t) can go at the front, but with the uncontracted (has not), the not has to go after the subject. How do we know that? We just do. It’s an example of the syntactic information that we all have. It’s pretty cool. And students can come work together to discover these patterns about auxiliary verbs and main verbs, but also, more broadly, about the vast amount of grammatical knowledge that they already have a firm handle on.

Other lessons that deal with main and auxiliary verbs are here and here.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sentence Diagrams

I’ve been thinking about sentence diagramming. Both this kind:
(which has gotten some recent press with the release of this poster)

and this kind
Or a more complex version of this linguistically-informed syntax tree, such as this:

Dick Hudson discussed a bit about the history of diagramming recently here and Beth Keyser has been using linguisticky (Like that spelling? And how would you spell the present participial form (-ing) of the verb picnic? We are picnic___. Sometimes our spelling system fails us, but we make do.) trees in her classes for several years; she and I will report on this soon. I’m also planning to write up a more thorough investigation (an article rather than a blog post) of the pros and cons of various kinds of visual representations for sentence diagrams, but in the meantime, these are some musings and some questions.

There were various studies in the 1930s and 1940s about whether sentence diagramming improved student writing. Mostly it didn’t seem to (though the methods of evaluating improved writing were and are messy). But what else can creating and using visual representations of sentences do for us? Certainly, whatever kind of diagram is used, one must know the categories of each word and of each phrase and be able to show how all of those fit together to make clauses. Throughout this blog, there is a presumption that such knowledge of categories, phrases, and clauses is useful. I have emphasized that we have such knowledge unconsciously, so what are the benefits of making it conscious knowledge? Even those who say that in middle and high school you should just teach grammar in context (such as Constance Weaver), and suggest teaching the bare minimum, all include some very basic grammatical information that students should recognize and be able to discuss. These include the basic parts of speech, subject and predicate, and clauses and phrases. Well, that’s a lot, actually. And can using diagramming of one kind or another help with that? Or does it introduce an unnecessary complication? My college students who are planning to become teachers say and write over and over that one of the most important things they learn in my classes that they hope to introduce to their future students is using visual representations - tree diagrams - to help elucidate the structure of sentences. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Strand 3/Conventions – Post 7: New Punctuation…☺

We know that language is always changing. Pronunciation changes perhaps faster than other kinds of grammatical changes since it doesn’t match up with the written language very well anyway; so you can say “bought” pretty much however you want, as long as you have something close to a “b” sound at the beginning and something close to a “t” sound at the end. We’re slower to accept morphological and syntactic changes since you can see them in writing. If you say I seen him, that looks a lot different from I saw him, so we notice these variations more. And until recently, I’d say that our punctuation system was pretty set. You can read a very brief history of punctuation in this post, and I’ve also written about how standards of punctuation can vary, as mentioned here, but in general, our system of punctuation has been fairly fixed since the 18th century. So the new punctuation is really exciting! We have old punctuation being used in new ways, and new symbols being incorporated into our punctuation system (emoticons).

Slash/ - Anne Curzan has written about slash, and it was even a runner-up in the Word of the Year vote by the American Dialect Society. The / used to be a not so frequent punctuation mark, but has come in to the spoken language much more frequently of late, and into the written language as slash, written out as a word like that. You can read more about this new conjunction here. What’s especially interesting is that this newish (it’s not clear how new - a former student just wrote me yesterday that she heard a Friends episode from 2002 when Ross says, "So much for my dinosaur slash Amelia Earhart theme park,” so it’s been around at least since then with this newish meaning. Thanks, Mary!) use in which speaking the punctuation (and writing it as slash rather than /) seems to capture something kind of different from how we understand the punctuation mark in writing. And getting a new conjunction is big news, because we just don’t get those very often, like not in 1000 years.

These things: “” - These so-called quotation marks have long been used to mark things other than quotations. I mentioned here the Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks which has examples like this one:
. Why are these funny? Let’s first consider the three primary uses for these little marks, “”: (1) to mark direct quotations, (2) as scare quotes, which serve to alert the reader that either the word or phrase is being used in an unusual way or that the writer doesn’t accept the phrase or is using it ironically, or (3) to emphasize, which is what most of the Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks’ examples are intending to express. OK, so why are they funny? Because we can read them as scare quotes, even though we know that’s not their intended use: Excuse our “Emptiness”
It seems that all of these writers can’t be wrong in their use of this bit of punctuation. It’s simply less established than the other two uses of the “” marks. It’s true that the emphatic “”s show up a lot more in hand-written signs where we don’t have the benefit of bold or increasing font size in a systematic way, so these marks “” are given yet another duty. But the emphatic use is not something that was likely ever taught. It’s come about out of a need; writers’ ingenuity comes into play. In speaking, of course, we’d have other ways of making the point, with intonation, pitch, and facial expressions. In print, we have to make do with other methods. Would underlining be preferable? Why or why not?

Ellipses… - My students brought the changing meaning of ellipses to my attention. We all know the basic use of these within a quotation where you’ve left some of the stuff out: Harry Potter said, “In school if you make a mistake, you can just try again…but out there, you don’t know what that’s like.” That’s not new or interesting. The new use is mostly in texting. Texting has brought about all kinds of appropriation of existing punctuation, and in some cases, these are gaining new meanings. So one student mentioned a text he received from his dad which read something like “Give me a call when you get a chance…” The student was worried; he interpreted the ellipses as a marker of anger or disappointment. Other students agreed that they would too. When he talked with his dad, though (abandoning texting in favor of a voice call since he thought Dad was mad), Dad was fine and hadn’t intended that meaning at all. I think I got the dad’s intended meaning from the ellipses, though: this isn’t urgent, call when you can, no big deal. The ellipses as used in text messages have completely different meanings for these two writers.

The Period. - Similarly, there’s an article here on the changing meaning of the period in texting and other informal online communication: When there is a shift in topic, a line break can do the job. Most texters would agree that
I’m home now
what’s for dinner?
can sound a lot friendlier than
I’m home now. What’s for dinner?
The question I like to pose to my students is how they know all this. Where do their ideas about the meanings of the punctuation and the contexts in which they are appropriate come from? How are these standards and new uses emerging? My students – and yours too – definitely have a sense of when certain marks are appropriate and when they are not. And because some of these uses are relatively new, we’re not all on the same page, so to speak, and so misunderstandings can emerge. I just think this is a cool way to begin to explore the notion of standardization and language change and to realize that now, as always, we the people are the creators of the standards. And it’s important to drive home that the students are really savvy about these evolving rules of etiquette and conventions. And, in fact, students are knowledgeable not only about conventions of texting, but also about when to use various genres of writing styles (despite the myth that texting language is ruining “language skills”. See here for a LanguageLog post on that). Focusing on their knowledge is a good way to introduce these topics - You’re good at this! Now let’s explore what you know! Linguist John McWhorter, in this New York Times piece, writes the following about texting and email:
“…the looseness and creativity of these new ways of writing are a sign of a new sophistication in our society. This becomes clear when we understand that in the proper sense, e-mail and texting are not writing at all….Keyboard technology, allowing us to produce and receive written communication with unprecedented speed, allows something hitherto unknown to humanity: written conversation. In this sense, [emails and texts] are not “writing” in the sense we are accustomed to. They are fingered speech.”
I think there are lots of conversations and activities that could emerge from the info in this post, but here are a few:

Activity: Have students consider their uses of capitalization in texting, in email, and in other online communication. Do they ever not capitalize the first letter of their name? If so, when? What factors enter in to that choice? What about ALL CAPS? Would they ever use that in a message, and if, so, what is the intended effect?

Activity: Have your students consider their use of acronyms and abbreviations such as lol, brb, or ttyl. Do they use them? If so, in what situations? Have them come up with other acronyms and abbreviations that are completely integrated into the language, such as radar, laser, and scuba or DVR or tv, or ID. If they aren’t aware of what the full forms of these words and phrases are, have them look those up in a dictionary. (Many of my students report that their parents, in their 40s and 50s, for the most part, are much more consistent users of abbreviations such as u for you and ur for you’re or your, and also of the acronmyms.)

Activity: What is the future of emoticons? Emoticons offer us an opportunity to express emotion in writing in a way that is otherwise really cumbersome. We can convey that something is ironic or silly or sad, without using words. We can soften the way that something is read. Now, the use of emoticons is restricted to texts, chat, and some email communication, but have your students discuss whether these features might ever enter into more formal written discourse. What would be the benefits? Drawbacks?

Oh, and no discussion of punctuation is complete without mention of the interrobang. My students always lament its lack of popularity. I tell them they have the power to make it happen.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Strand 3/Conventions – Post 6: Punctuation Variation: the Oxford Comma

At first, I didn’t think there was really anything interesting to say about the comma with items in a series, but I think it’s actually a good example of how we latch on to some of the early things we were taught, and then we stick to these things, often passionately, just because. Also, even if you’re not interested in this serial comma, the Common Core State Standards are. It shows up here for fifth grade: but is asterisked as one of those “Language Progressive Skills” that “are particularly likely to require continued attention in higher grades as they are applied to increasingly sophisticated writing and speaking.” They suggest revisiting this skill in grades 4-8. That seems really strange to me since it’s so straightforward. I guess it’s the lack of a clear yes or no/right or wrong strategy that bothers people.

So you know the scoop: there are two ways of writing items in a series, with either a comma before and or no comma before and (or other conjunctions).
The kid ate the bread with a peanut butter, jelly, and a banana.

It’s the comma after jelly that can either be there or not, depending on what your fourth grade teacher told you. That really seems to be how people decide - whatever they were taught first is what they stick to. So this comma is sometimes called the Oxford comma because Oxford University Press uses it - and they’re very fancy, so maybe that’s a good reason to go with it. Then again, those Brits do other funny things with punctuation, like put the “end punctuation” outside the quotation marks. (Wait, that actually makes a lot more sense.) So what do American style guides say? The Chicago Manual of Style recommends its use, while The Associated Press Style Guide (and therefore most journalistic writing) says to avoid it, unless doing so results in ambiguity. Consider the following sentence:
I went to the LSA meeting with Anne, a linguist, and a horseback rider.
This is ambiguous, of course, because it is not clear whether a linguist is an appositive describing Anne, or is the second person in a list of three different people. When we remove the final comma, we lose the possibility that a linguist is an appositive, but still have the possibility that we have three separate people attending the meeting.
I went to the LSA meeting with Anne, a linguist and a horseback rider.
And we now have the possibility that Anne is both a linguist and a horseback rider (and in fact, if you know Anne, she is), so there is ambiguity both with and without the final comma. We can, of course, change the wording to remove the ambiguity.

And this particular Anne and I are good examples of the two different acceptable standards here. I’m a consistent user of the Oxford comma, and Anne is a consistent user of the no Oxford comma. We write a lot of things together, so I put them in and she takes them out, or she leaves them out and I put them in, and then we have to wait for some copyeditor to make the call.

Let’s see, a good activity for this funny little punctuation rule is to go on an Oxford comma (or lack thereof) treasure hunt to see where it appears and where it doesn’t in published writing. And have your students look for the possibility of ambiguity as well. And if this wasn’t a blog targeted at middle school, I would provide you a link to the Vampire Weekend song “Oxford Comma,” but it might get you in trouble if you play it at school. (The first line of the song would have made a much better title for this post too.)