Reader Response Journal

Approaching the Grammatical Mass/Count Distinction from a Multimodal Perspective by Derek J. Brown

This is a really interesting short article about how Brown used multimodality to help his Japanese students process the varying ways English groups nouns (and by extension the things they represent) as objects (countable) versus substances (mass/uncountable). Working within a framework of grammar as choice, Brown views the process of determining if a noun is mass or count as a representation of socially constructed understandings of the world, which vary across cultures and languages. Using transmediation, the process of representing meaning across different modes of communication, he helped his students understand the ways mass/count distinctions are constructed in English, and the ways they can vary across situations. For example, depending on the context, the same object can be considered a block of metal, a weight, or simply metal. Factors that influence these distinctions include boundedness (whether the edges/shape are important), internal composition (whether it’s homogenous or not), conceptual integrity and arbitrary divisibility (whether adding or removing more of it changes our perception), perceptual conspicuousness (whether we focus on the similarities or differences within a group) and interaction (what it’s used for). Realizing that his students needed to first understand these different elements of constructing meaning, before they could reliably construct their own assessments of an item’s mass/count-ness, he devised a series of multimodal activities, that, through the process of transmediation, allowed his students to recognize and discuss their underlying conceptions. First, he gave students a list of words and had them draw visual representations of them. The countable nouns, like apple and car, most yielded similar drawings, while mass nouns, like water and coffee, had much greater variability in how they were represented visually. Next, he presented his students with 26 objects, spanning both mass and count nouns, that varied in terms of their size, shape and function, and also crossed boundaries (like including sand, gravel, small stones and rocks). The students used a checklist to classify the relative importance of each item’s boundedness, internal composition, conceptual integrity and function, which helped them sort the objects into countable and uncountable categories. They discussed how Brown would classify the objects as a native English speaker, as well as how the same item could be classified in different ways depending on which features were deemed most important. Lastly, he had his students draw visual representations of different pieces of furniture, and used colored lines to code different features. Then they grouped different items together and used the colored lines to determine whether the grouping was covered by a plural (like chairs), or needed a mass noun (like furniture). This led to the students being able to discuss and examine their conceptualizations. In Brown’s words, “Students had opportunities to see language not as a series of grammatical “equations” that must be memorized and calculated, but as something that can be interacted with, altered, and created.” (p. 606).

This was a really interesting article for me, because I had an entire unit devoted to the mass/count distinction (with food as the topic) with my ninth graders this year, and I definitely realized as I was teaching it how blurry some of the boundaries are (watermelon, for example, can be countable when whole, but becomes a mass noun if it’s cut into cubes). I think using both visual and tactile modalities would really help students understand the underlying thought processes that lead to the nouns being used the ways that they are. I’ve also always been a big fan of multimodality and embodied cognition and seeing how these were realized in actual classroom was useful and inspiring for me. I’m definitely likely to use some of his approaches if/when I teach mass/count nouns next.

Brown, D. J. (2015). Approaching the grammatical mass/count distinction from a multimodal perspective. TESOL Quarterly, 49(3), 601-607.

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