The Sound of /k/

For the sound of /k/, we have a few choices.  How we spell the word depends on several factors.  Do you remember us discussing how, when deciding how to spell a word, we must look to morphology first, then etymology, and finally, phonology?  Well, the /k/ sound is a great one to illustrate that point.

Most often, we spell the /k/ sound with a letter ‘c.’  The rule goes like this:

We use the letter ‘c’ to spell /k/ in front of  a, o, u, a consonant, or nothing.

When ‘c’ comes before e, i, or y, it says /s/.

However, there’s more to it than this.  If a base word ends with a single vowel saying its short sound, followed directly by the /k/ sound, we use ‘ck’ to spell that.  But, if the base word ends with a short vowel, then another consonant (often an l or n, but other letters work too), and then the /k/ sound, we use a ‘k’ to spell that.  Some folks are thrown by the term “base word” here because words like ‘chicken’ throw them for a loop.  A ‘chick’ can be considered the base word for ‘chicken.’  Not surprisingly, there’s another layer to this that can confuse things even more.

As you can see, the above rules deal with phonology, but we need more information if we are going to consistently answer our children’s questions about words and if we are to help them spell words correctly.  This is why we often have to look to morphology and etymology to figure out how to actually spell something.  We can’t just throw letters out there and hope they stick!  (Prior to the mid 1700s and the publication of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, we could do this, but not anymore!)  These three elements are the whole reason why kids in spelling bees–at least at the higher levels–always ask to hear a word’s definition, the language of origin, and to hear it used in a sentence.  For example, if the child is told that a word has a Greek origin, they know they should be using the second sound of the two-letter phonogram ‘ch’ to spell the /k/ sound, like in ‘Christmas.’  From the clues allowed in spelling bees, good spellers can usually figure out how words are spelled.  You can too, but first, let’s get back to learning more about the sound of /k/.

If a word happens to be have multiple syllables, meaning it’s not a short base word ending with a /k/ sound coming after a single short vowel, you will use just a ‘c’ to finish it.  This is why the phonology rule reads as “or nothing” above.  We can thank Noah Webster for this, by the way.  Most often, these words are going to end with the morpheme -ic, which means “having the nature of” or “like.”  You see it in words like “acidic, barbaric, heroic, or plastic.”  The relationship between the words and the thing they are purportedly similar to by the word created with the -ic suffix in the previous words is clear.  Acidic means having the nature of acid, barbaric means having the nature of a barbarian, and heroic means having the nature of a hero.  These words are easy to understand.  However, in words like “music, epic, traffic, or picnic,” that relationship isn’t so easy to see.  What is needed with words like these is to look deeper into their histories, otherwise known as their etymology.

The resulting history lessons are often quite fascinating for both teacher and student alike. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but my favorite reference work for this task is Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.  In it, we learn that the word “music” comes from the word “muse,” meaning the group of sisters, the Muses, from Greek mythology who were in charge of the creation of many arts.   According to those legends, Zeus was the sisters’ father and Mnemosyne was their mother.  This is really interesting because memory is so very important to all artistic pursuits, and for all the gentleness that most arts seem to possess on the surface, they really are very powerful.  Think about it.  The word ‘epic’ comes down to us from the French and before that, the Latin, and before that, from a Greek one that means voice, story, or word, and usually indicates a long adventure tale, like Beowulf or the Iliad.  The word ‘traffic’ presents a little more difficulty because it comes to use from a Latin word, transfricare, which means ‘to rub across’ or ‘touch repeatedly.’  Traffic is certainly something that is repeated on a nearly daily basis!  In the 1800s, someone decided that the word really came to us through an Arabic word that means ‘to seek profit.’  Modern scholars don’t accept this meaning, but that’s a shame.  Think a little.  Where does most traffic stem from?  Traffic is usually a result of folks being out and about, either seeking to earn profit or seeking to spend their own profit!  The word ‘picnic’ is another strange one because it didn’t come into English usage until the 1800s, but it had been used as early as 1692 in French.  Most linguists think it comes from a word meaning ‘to pick, or peck’ plus another one that means ‘worthless things’ and that’s how it came to be associated with a social gathering where everyone brought along something to add to the provisions–much like what we might call a ‘pot luck’ nowadays.  Perhaps the etymology of this word is what led to the old children’s tale of Stone Soup?  In any event, do you see what I mean by this being interesting stuff?!?

In all the cases of the -ic usage, though, if we are going to add the suffix -ing, or even an -ed, we would need to change the ending by adding the ‘k’ to the end!  If we didn’t do so, the ‘c’ at the end would end up saying its soft sound because … see the rule above … before an e, i, or y, c says /s/ and nobody wants to go /pic nis sing/!

Learning how morphology, etymology, and phonology come together to help us spell words is a beautiful thing!

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A Tribute to John Taylor Gatto

An amazing educator died last week.  John Taylor Gatto, for those of you who have not heard of him, was named Teacher of the Year in New York City’s Schools in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and also New York State’s Teacher of the Year in 1991.  That’s quite a resume.  Although this man taught in the classroom for 30 years, he was not your average teacher!  Instead, he asked very tough questions–of the educational system and of his students.  Once he retired from the school system, he turned to activism, speaking out against modern education.  He authored several books on the subject: Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Modern Schooling, The Underground History of American Education, and one of my favorites, Weapons of Mass Instruction.

I remember first reading Dumbing Us Down soon after it first came out.  So much of what went into that book resonated with me.  I wanted more for my child.  I didn’t know exactly what that “more” would entail, but I knew I wanted it.  I have to credit the ladies from True Q, as my husband called the group of women who shaped my early mothering, for introducing me to these ideas.  These were some crunchy moms!  The actual title of our group was The Continuum Club.  Some were homeschooling, some were unschooling, some had their kids in school.  Of those, some chose Montessori, others chose Waldorf, some had their children in Yeshiva.  Out of all of these women, I can’t think of any who chose the public schools.  Within this group, there were several of us who were on our first baby and just learning all sorts of things about attachment parenting and similar offshoot ideas.  Among my La Leche league friends from this same time period, a few of them went the public school route, but many of them had reservations about putting their children in “regular” school too.  I only had one child and he was just a baby so “school” wasn’t yet a concern, but I wanted to be the very best mother I could for him, so I read the book and joined in the conversation.  Surprisingly, at this point in my life, I still thought homeschoolers were a little too weird, and I certainly didn’t expect to end up doing it myself.  When I look back now, there wasn’t as much wrong with the schools as there is today–after all, this was years before Columbine and the current political agenda–but back then it was still considered really strange to even entertain the idea of homeschooling.  This was the environment into which Dumbing Us Down was published.

Nevertheless, Dumbing Us Down was eye opening to many people and its lessons were just the beginning.  About a decade later, Gatto’s Magnum Opus hit bookseller’s shelves.  The Underground History of American Education pulled no punches and spelled out exactly what had gone wrong.  In between these two books, many parents were left wondering how to fix the problem, and especially, what to do about their own children.  Gatto himself advocated homeschooling, and specifically unschooling, which was definitely seen as a fringe activity akin to living on a commune.  Nowadays, things are different–not completely, but enough that unschoolers are not looked at like they are essentially truants.  Gatto, in his various works, advocated that children want to learn and will do so if left to themselves.  While I am not in complete agreement with that statement, there’s no doubt that kids are curious and will learn.  Where I disagree is with leaving children completely to themselves!  (It is a rare thing for people to rise above trouble, but a normal occurrence for folks to be pulled down. Children, being children, need good guidance–but can do without smothering, which I am too often guilty of doing!)

What I love about Gatto’s writings are how they make me think, and think deeply!  As I said in the opening of this tribute, he asked tough questions.  Those questions are the kind meant to stimulate deep thinking rather than flippant answers.  Take for instance the questions, which originated with the German philosopher Kant, Gatto asks in Chapter 8 of Weapons of Mass Instruction:

  • What can I know?
  • What may I hope?
  • What ought I to do?
  • What is Man?

While I’m not a fan of Kant, there is no doubt that these questions are intriguing.  In fact, Rosalie Slater, one of the ladies credited with founding the Principle Approach–which some might say is a direct opposite of the unschooling approach to homeschooling–postulated similar questions when contrasting the pagan vs. the Christian idea of man and government.  In Miss Slater’s mind, everything came down to government–who or what was in charge of pretty much whatever, be it a person, a home, a school, a church, or a nation.  Elizabeth Youmans, who penned the Noah Plan History and Geography Curriculum Guide for FACE, put the questions this way:

  • Who made me?
  • Why was I made?
  • What is my duty?

The answers to these “Ultimate Questions” (as another speaker, Maureen Richards, called them at the Writing Educator’s Symposium in 2010) really do make up the presuppositions where we each begin.  As such, they are the foundational pieces of all education, too.  We need to answer them well if we are to have any hope of turning the tide against the problems we see in the world of education–in the public schools, private schools, and our personal schools. John Taylor Gatto advocated for REAL education long before anyone in the modern era realized there was a problem.  For that, we should be grateful.  I know I am.



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Reading What is THERE …

… rather than what you THINK is there seems to be the other really big problem that plagues many readers.

I’ve taught reading for long enough that I see this is both young beginners as well as established readers well on their way to the higher stages of reading.  In other words, I wish I could say that people will grow out of this, but I can’t.  Sometimes what happens is that the reader skips over or changes the “little words” in the sentence, the prepositions or the conjunctions. Sometimes messing up these words will not change the meaning of the sentence, but other times, changing these changes the sentence dramatically!  The word ‘on’ is very different from the word ‘in,’ yet students will sometimes use these words interchangeably.  You see this with changes in the vowels or the consonants.  I wish I knew why it happens or another way to completely eradicate it.  Until I learn more about this issue, here’s how I deal with it:

I give my writing students the definition that “prepositions show position in time and space” as a way of helping them understand that the relationships between one noun (or pronoun) and some other thing in the sentence matters.  Do you remember that funny little sentence machine from maybe 20 or 30 years ago?  It was in the shape of a book and had several buttons across the top of it.  Every time you pressed one of the buttons, you would change either the noun (subject), the verb, and a few prepositional phrases.  The end result was often hilarious. Two phrases that my husband an I will often reenact from this little device are: on the moon and in my soup. The nouns were rather ordinary, as were the verbs, but when added to these prepositional phrases, the result was quite silly.  The turkey sat on (something, I forget what) in my soup.  We found it even sillier to advance through the prepositional phrases: in my spaghetti, on the moon, etc.  Eventually, you could press another button and the whole sentence would be read to the child in a robotic voice.  I think that before this book-like sentence machine, there was a round toy with a pull cord that did something similar.  Anyway, the point here is that kids were supposed to read the text that went along with the disembodied robotic voice.  As silly as the items were, they could get used to reading what was there rather than what they thought should be there.  Maybe that silliness is what’s missing from the lives of kids today?

On the other end of the spectrum, though, sometimes kids start reading longer words correctly, say for the first syllable, then they say something completely different from what is printed for the rest of the word.  When this happens, I suspect that these kids are reverting to some “whole language” strategies they learned previously and simply guessing at the words.  Sometimes they will do this just by looking at the other words around the word in question, guessing with the first thing that starts like the word they are supposed to be reading.  Other times, especially when there are pictures on the page, they will guess words that make sense from those clues.  Because of this particular aspect of this problem, it is extremely rare that I will allow children to read (for instruction) from things with pictures.  Unfortunately, this severely limits the reading material I have available for fluency practice.

Recently I had a few children read me a story from a Phonics Bible I bought for this purpose.  This exercise showed me another problem with reading what isn’t there … that of memorizing something and then “reading” that instead of what is really on the page.  Even though I went along with the children for every single syllable, underlining multi-letter phonograms and adding any other markings that would help them read–just like they have during their regular lessons–these children read what they had memorized from their own Bibles instead of the paraphrased versions on the page.  I could probably have just pulled out a “real” Bible and had them read that, but I am a firm believer in young children using large enough print and I just don’t have any Bibles that fit that distinction.

When I am doing comprehension exercises, I will write down every single miscue that a child makes and then reteach those words later on, but quite often, when taken in isolation, the children read the words correctly.  So what does this tell me about what is going on in their brains?  I need to do more research; that’s what it tells me!  It must have something to do with the act of reading words vs the act of reading sentences.  Maybe we need to play more sentence building games so we get more practice inbuilding up from syllables to words to sentences.  That idea might have merit.  Perhaps this has something to do with the mouth not being able to catch up to the brain, like how so many kids stutter around the age of five or so.  Sometimes kids will do all of the above things and simply read what they think is there without actually reading what is printed on the page.  Most teachers and parents think the child is being lazy when these things happen, but I disagree.  I’ve seen this happening too often with the struggling learners that I work with for this to come down to a character flaw (which is what someone is essentially saying when you say a person is behaving in a lazy manner).  It has to be related to something going on in the brain someplace and for some particular reason.  Until I conduct more research, I’m going to have to leave this blog post unfinished.  Until then, the best advice I have is to keep practicing!  Whatever happens, don’t give up and don’t think that your child is doing this on purpose!


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Finger Tapping

Sometimes it seems like the hardest part for beginning readers to grasp is that of seamlessly blending sounds together to form syllables or words. I’ve found that tapping the individual sounds one after another, starting out slowly, then moving faster and faster, seems to work best for most kids. After that, exposure to the words is vital. This exposure can take place is so many ways … reading words the child has previously sounded out then written, playing games, writing sentences … all kinds of things will create multiple exposures. Reading will come!

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The dictionary defines comprehension as the capacity of the mind to understand; power of the understanding to receive and contain ideas; capacity of knowing. The verb form of the word, comprehend, means to take in, to take with, to imply, to contain, to understand, to take hold, or to conceive. When applied to the subject of reading comprehension, we see that this skill employs not just reading, but also listening and speaking—as well as writing at times, too. What I mean by this is that quite a bit of what is billed as “reading comprehension” can be discussed, but that there are going to be times when students really should write down their thoughts about the things they have read.

An integral part of reading is the exchange of ideas. It stands to reason, then, that understanding would also be required for those ideas to be received, considered, and then exchanged again. Do you remember when we discussed Chall’s Stages of Reading Development? Those stages progress from the very elementary to very advanced, but all of them require some degree of comprehension behind the act of decoding of the text itself. Reading comprehension builds over time. You would not expect very little children to write an in-depth critical analysis of the motivation behind a particular character or the worldview of the author when they are first beginning to read, but these things are also part of reading comprehension. However, because comprehension involves the skills of inferencing and connecting thoughts as well as recalling details, there is so much parents can do to help their children learn to think about what they are reading in order to bring them to those upper stages of reading that Chall and Adler speak about in their books.

Reading comprehension covers so many areas with many different strategies that can be employed. For example, when beginning a new passage or a new book, students can ask what they think will happen in the story from just looking at the cover or the first few lines of text. For some books, the table of contents and the index can yield valuable ideas as well. Even pre-readers can begin to work on comprehension by learning to monitor their own comprehension, make predictions, connect that with what they already know about a topic, and then compare what they thought would happen with what actually happened in the book. As time goes on, these children will be bringing more and more knowledge to the table when they read; therefore, they will be able to make more and more connections and be able to understand more and more.

This page on Reading Rockets offers wonderful strategies to help your reader understand or take hold of the text. Once your child can seamlessly blend sounds into words enough to follow the thought of a sentence, you can begin working on more explicit comprehension strategies, which can often be found through worksheets or assessment curricula.  Personally, I’ve found that the McCall-Crabbs series from the 60s works really well from about 3rd grade.  You can purchase the single hardback volume from Wanda Sanseri or Elizabeth Fitzgerald or you can opt for the individual booklets ordered directly from Spalding International.  Whichever way you go, Spalding carries a slim paperback guide that contains answers as well as teaching notes for the mental actions the student needs to consistently apply when reading for optimum comprehension.  Around 4th grade, but certainly useable all through the middle school years,  Walking with Jesus, a reading strategies curriculum from the Foundation for American Christian Education, provides succinct strategies that are first applied to Biblical texts and then can be expanded to other works the child is reading. Finally, Tapestry of Grace, a classical Christian curriculum company, created something called Writing Aids to help 4th through 12th grade students organize their thoughts—which is much of what the skill of comprehension encompasses—so that they can write about what they read.  (The grade levels cited with the above two products are what their publishers recommend for the general education segment.  I’ve used these items later than that to good success with my own struggling learners.)  Although I have not used it, I’ve heard great things about Connect to Comprehension by Lynn Givens, who is part of the Orton-Gillingham Online Academy.  If your child is already in an Orton progression for reading, check to see whether your practitioner utilizes this highly acclaimed program.

I have one caution when discussing the concept of reading comprehension and that is to resist the urge to discuss everything to death! Nothing ruins anything like overdoing it. Dissection of texts doesn’t HAVE to happen with every single thing your children read! Just like you don’t analyze every book you read or even finish every single one your start, they should be allowed to read for fun as well as for increasing their skills. That’s actually the key to “selling” someone on the idea of reading—especially when it is a tough sell due to difficulties. Don’t kill the joy! If you keep that one caution in mind, your children are sure to enjoy reading—and talking about their reading—for years to come.

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The arts of language really are composed of four actions: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Everything in the Big Five of Literacy, indeed in all English classes on the planet, are some subtopic of one or more of these four overarching headings. If you have ever read the Common Core State Standards, you see these four items broken down in more and more minute sections.

When I say the word “writing,” I might sometimes mean handwriting, or penmanship, but usually I mean composition, or the free exchange of ideas through written communication. Writing is most definitely a true art of language, in fact, I’d say it is the culmination of all the strands together, because we can’t talk to everyone on the planet! I love Dr. Jay Wile’s definition of science because it includes this aspect of communication. As someone who teaches writing on many levels, I can tell you that there is also a certain level of subjectivity to it. I think that Andrew Pudewa is on to something when he likens writing (meaning, composition) to playing a musical instrument. Nobody picks up an instrument for the very first time and is a virtuoso, just like nobody picks up a pen for the very first time and turns out the Great American Novel! We practice and eventually we get better. Some of us may get better faster than others, but that’s fine. After all, writing is not a race!

Writing as a subject area is tough to teach because it can be very subjective. It also can be difficult because one cannot write (compose) without being able to write (handwrite) unless someone writes (scribes) for him—typing and keyboarding notwithstanding. Just like when we teach the beginning stages of reading, there are certain things that can be done at the beginning stage of teaching writing (handwriting) that will make writing (communication) better, or at the very least, easier.

First of all, seriously consider teaching cursive first. These are so many good reasons to do so that it really makes a lot of sense. (Did I do this? No, but I learned those reasons much later in life.) One reason why cursive makes so much sense is that it’s virtually impossible to create reversals of the letters. Yes, kids can still form the letters the “wrong” way, meaning with incorrect strokes or faulty directionality, but for the most part, you eliminate the b/d/p/q confusion that is so prevalent in little ones, especially those who struggle with language. (BTW, reversals can be left to right and/or up and down. Remember, struggles with directionality are a dyslexia marker.) Another reason why cursive works well is that it is faster to write, which means that school time doesn’t take as long, which is always a plus! Do a bit of research to learn all the reasons why cursive is such a good idea. You won’t be sorry.

Another thing to talk about when discussing handwriting (penmanship) is the idea of the pen. I know, most kids and moms balk at pen—although for different reasons. Kids balk because they know that when they make a mistake in pen they have to start all over again on a new sheet of paper. Moms balk because pen gets on things and isn’t always easy to wash out of the laundry. While these are valid reasons for sticking with pencil, there is just something about the scratch and drag of the pencil on the paper that using a pen just smooths away. Then too, using pen gets rid of the annoyance of kids always sharpening pencils. You’d be surprised how many people press too hard with a pencil. Using pen also inculcates children to the idea that there is no such thing as a first and only draft to anything. Perfectionism is a difficult flaw to overcome, but the idea of using the writing process is one sure way to help it along. Pen is the way to go! However, keep in mind that when your child gets older and ready to take an SAT or ACT and they need to do one of those essays, they will need to practice with pencil on a piece of paper to get the feel down again!

One aspect of handwriting that has to be discussed is that it can indeed be considered an art. There is something about beautiful handwriting that is definitely artistic. In fact, people who practice calligraphy consider what they do to be an art. Manuscript writing, back in George Washington’s day, was considered to be necessary for surveying, map making, and architectural drawing. It still is today. You can see this in the printing styles on any blueprints, although there too, handwriting is a dying art. When related to plain old everyday cursive, though, the size of the letters is what makes the difference in our minds as to whether it is handwriting or art. The larger you go, the more you feel like you are drawing. At least, that’s how it feels to me.

At the other end of the writing spectrum, we have the art of composition. Composition entails many things. The very best definition of this that I’ve ever read is that of Carole Adams of the Foundation for American Christian Education and Stonebridge School in Virginia in her English Language Curriculum Guide, “Composition equips students to clothe ideas with words for communicating truth and ideals in writing and speaking.” Composition can truly entwine all the English strands into one strong rope. Writing goes hand in hand with reading because writing is the other side of reading. Whereas one side is expressive and active, the other is passive and receptive. The reader receives what the writer has communicated. Writing helps students define their understanding of what they are learning. The act of composing—fitting thoughts into words, phrases, clauses, and paragraphs—settles things in a person’s mind. Writing must be an active part of any student’s learning.

How is the art of composition developed? As mentioned previously, we can’t expect children to pick up a pen and write the Great American Novel right off the bat! How does writing happen? How is it best taught? Certainly, it must begin with the concept of forming letters, then syllables and words. Where does it go from there? Sentences and paragraphs are the building blocks of all thoughts. Connected thoughts can be combined into unified paragraphs, but before we connect our thoughts together, we need to be able to compose good sentences. This can begin in the lowest grades by composing original sentences with spelling words. These sentences will start out being very elementary, in their simplest forms and types. You remember these. Statements are called declarative sentences. Questions use question marks and are called interrogative sentences. Commands are called imperative sentences, and like declarative statements, use a period at the end. Finally, sentences with exclamation points are called exclamatory sentences. These are all simple sentence forms. Beyond those, we can combine all sorts of things to greater and great complexity building sentences with compound subjects and/or verbs to two independent clauses joined to create a compound sentence. From there, we can further expand to include a whole slew of options with dependent clauses and independent clauses that can combine to create very detailed sentences. Sentences can range in length from one single command shouted, as in “Fire!” to something with well over 100 words.  You will be surprised to learn that the longest sentences far surpass that already large number. Wikipedia states:

   One of the longest sentences in literature is contained in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936). The sentence is composed of 1,288 words (In the 1951 Random House version). Another sentence that is often claimed to be the longest sentence ever written is Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the James Joyce novel Ulysses (1922), which contains a sentence of 3,687 words. However, this sentence is simply many sentences without punctuation. Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club appears to hold the record at 13,955 words. It was inspired by Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age: a Czech language novel written in one long sentence.

I’m not a fan of sentences with quite than many words, but who am I to question Faulkner, Joyce, or Coe on the matter?! For my students, I tell that that as long as the sentences they are creating are “legal”—meaning there are no errors in grammar, usage, or mechanics (including spelling)—and the sentence makes sense, they are fine.  In my high school composition classes, sentence length averages around 20 words, but students don’t start out there!

Very often children start their journey into the world of composition with simple sentences pulled from their everyday life, such as, “I like ice cream” or  “I went fishing with my dad.” Little children tend to use a lot of pronouns, especially “I,” but they can be reminded to use common nouns as well—especially ones that are easy to spell!  Slowly but surely, introduce them to the concept of adding more layers of detail to the sentences they craft. Soon after that, they can be encouraged to make better word choices. Children love collecting words! Go ahead and “ban” weak verbs or adjectives, which is part of the Excellence in Writing philosophy that I speak so highly about throughout my website’s pages. Good writing is a craft that is honed over time. It does not happen overnight.

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Skillful Readers

Today’s post was supposed to be about writing, but that’s a huge topic for me and time is short.  Instead, I am going to insert a picture for you to consider.  It’s about everything that goes into being a skilled reader.

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I learned a new word.  Dysteachia means “confusion in teaching” and the gist of it is that it deals with teaching that is ineffectual.  This could very well be the state of reading instruction in many schools–public, private, and personal–around this nation these days.  I’ll have to look for the post I saw that explained it.  Sorry!

Found it!

The important take-away from this post is in one of Faith’s comments on her post:  we need better teaching for all students!

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Spelling is critical to reading success! Great spellers are nearly always great readers; however, great readers don’t always make great spellers. How can this be? Let’s examine what spelling is.

Spelling takes place in an area of the brain quite close to where reading and handwriting reside, near the left ear, on the underside of the brain. (Check out these brain pictures to see exactly where.) This review of Stanislas Dehaene’s book, Reading and the Brain, discusses what happens in the reading center when we see print, but if you are really interested in this stuff, do read the book. It’s a tough slog at times, maybe because it’s written by a neuroscientist, but it contains a wealth of information. In a sense, spelling is the opposite of reading. Specialists even have similar words for both tasks: reading is called decoding; whereas, spelling is considered encoding. I sit in the Spalding camp where I believe that children should be taught to ENCODE words before they DECODE them.  The reasoning behind this philosophy is that you can read what you can spell. Now, there is a caveat to that statement. You can read what you can spell IF you correctly orthographically map the sounds to their symbols, in the correct order, AND then, when you read the words, you can chunk the word into its syllables and apply the correct set of rules that govern those particular words. So, while it is true that you can read what you can spell—without memorizing the words and “what they look like”—you can really only do so when you remember the various syllable types and how to divide them, as well as any other rules that might need to be applied. In addition to that, you have to be able to blend the various phonemes into one smooth sounding word, and then into multiple smooth words—obeying punctuation and cadence—when you get to the sentence level. Spelling, at its most basic level means retrieving a word, sound by sound, using the right phonograms, and putting the letters in the correct order, while simultaneously forming those letters correctly. Whew, no wonder why learning to read and spell is such hard work!

Because you have to get the letters in the right order, learning to spell can often be more troublesome for some folks than learning to read.  English spelling can be particularly problematic because our language is so vast and brings words in from several language streams. Due to this, we not only have to consider the phonology of a word, but also its etymology and its morphology. If you have ever watched the National Spelling Bee, top spellers always ask for the language of origin, the definition, and to hear the word in a sentence. Using the word in a sentence tells the speller the part of speech, which often yields clues about the word parts used to make the derivative. Hearing the definition clarifies the exact meaning, which can tell the speller more about the specific word being requested. Knowing the language of origin tells the speller to consider specific phonograms that come to us from that particular language. All of these things come into play when we are spelling words. When we read words, we really just need to know how to divide up the syllables correctly and the impact those syllable types have on the way we pronounce them. Spelling, because you are moving from the invisible to the visible of the two actions, has many more choices and, therefore, more opportunities to make a mistake!

Not only do you have to have the phonograms mapped accurately in order to spell a word correctly, the letters themselves must be in the proper order, and they all have to be formed correctly. Andrew Pudewa has a great talk about what he believes about spelling “retrieval in the right order” concept called Spelling and the Brain that is well worth listening to if you have time.  (I found a YouTube version of it!)  While I don’t absolutely agree with every word he says in this, there’s certainly a lot of really good stuff packed in there.  Anyway, this last part of spelling–the getting the letters out in the right order–is more properly addressed under the topic of handwriting, but since you can’t really spell on paper without some sort of handwriting system in place, we can group it with spelling. Did you know that in early American schools, this entire subject area was considered something called Orthography? Back then, the school subject of Orthography, which literally means correct writing, also incorporated all the first principles related to language: speech sounds, penmanship, reading, spelling, even conventions such as capitalization and punctuation. School children spent considerable time with Orthography in preparation for the act of composition. In addition to orthography, under the English Language Skills heading, students worked on syntax, which we now usually call grammar, and etymology, which we now consider vocabulary. All of these strands culminated in composition, just like it does today. After all, the purpose of writing anything—including spelling things correctly—is to communicate with others. Composition is thinking on paper, and we’ll talk more about that another day; for now we are focusing on the art of spelling things properly so that our readers can understand what we are trying to explain.

Surprisingly, the formalized spelling of English didn’t come into practice until the middle of the 1700s with the publication of Samuel Johnson’s ground-breaking Dictionary. Noah Webster desired a distinctive American Dictionary for our nation in the early part of the 1800s. If you have ever read letters written before these times, you quickly notice how willy-nilly the spellings are—sometimes even for the same word repeated throughout the same letter! This page has an interesting history of our language written by Suzanne Kemmer.  Contrary to what George Bernard Shaw postulated, English spelling DOES makes sense—but only if you remember to consider the morphology, the etymology, and the phonology!

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More on Fluency

Reading speed does matter, but it probably doesn’t matter as much as accuracy or comprehension, which are also critical aspects of the umbrella term “fluency.” Even the best readers will slow down their pace when faced with either densely packed fact-based pargraphs or sentences full of unfamiliar words. Both Mortimer Adler and Susan Wise Bauer commented on this fact many decades apart from each other when they each described how to approach the reading of the Great Books—which are notorious for being over most people’s heads! Both noted how good readers automatically change their reading pace depending on what they are reading. This doesn’t mean that if your child’s teacher has sent home a note stating that your child reads too slowly that you shouldn’t be concerned. Instead, you need to find out why your child’s pace is slower than her teacher would like it to be.

As mentioned, fluency, when applied to the world of reading, has three parts: speed, accuracy, and comprehension. When you add an oral reading component, you also need to include proper intonation and expression. It’s hard to teach these things because they take time and you definitely can’t do it until a child is already reading to a certain extent! This presents a problem because not every child will move from that initial blending stage to chunking words at the same rate.

When a child first learns to read, they are sounding out the words, sound by sound, using orthographic mapping for each and every phonogram. It takes a while before kids catch on to the concept of smoothly blending the sounds from one to another. Ideally, children should be required to reread the words they map in this manner, as well as to write sentences with these words, and then read those sentences too. Kids need lots and lots of exposure to these tasks. Struggling readers need even more tie to do this. It’s not unheard of for a dyslexic student to need to hear, spell, map, write, and read each word fifty times before they finally make the connection and that word sticks in their brain. Students for whom reading comes easily may only need to do these things two or three times for each word to be solid in their heads.

As you can imagine, struggling readers are at a great disadvantage when you consider the ramifications of such numbers. It’s no wonder that kids who find reading easy soar ahead of their struggling peers around 4th grade or so. It’s also not surprising that many stealth dyslexics don’t discover problems until around this time. Mainly this is because of the sheer volume of words being introduced as the child switches gears from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” around then.

Reading is a difficult subject area to teach because children learn at such varied rates. Some little ones really are ready to learn this at age 4 (and a few are ready even earlier), but many just won’t be ready until later—some much later! This is unfortunate because our society has been pushing things earlier and earlier on our children, yet they really haven’t changed much since time began. Indeed, our society had, but children have not. Think about that for a bit.

While you ponder that, here are a few pages that I discovered as I was preparing to write this post.

More about reading rate, words per minute, and overall fluency:

Excellent article in PDF format:

Although written by a proponent of speed reading, the following page has some useful ideas about how fluency affects speed:

Another fabulous article:



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