My posting on spelling and grammar prompted a lot of comments, including this thoughtful email from a high school teacher.
With the teacher’s permission, here is the note:
I don’t respond to blog posts with emails very frequently but I thought I’d take the time to respond to your spelling and writing post from Dec. 3rd because it resonates with me closely. Only a few of your commenters approached the issue in the same way that I do: that phonics, spelling, and grammar absolutely must have a place in today’s classroom all the way through 12th grade, not because it’s “right” or “correct” but because it’s good teaching!
In order to help explain how I ended up with that position, I’d love to share my story as a new language arts teacher. Last year was my first year teaching. Sometime in January, after a whole fall semester of trial and error, I came to teaching vocabulary skills through using prefixes, roots, and suffixes.
I wanted to start off the new strategy with some easy words so I picked bio as my first root word. The first word: biology, the study of life. Every student in my class knew the definition of biology and that “ology” means “the study of.” That’s pretty much lesson one of biology class and my students aced it.
The next word: microbiology. Not a single student could tell me what it meant. Crickets. Somehow adding a prefix confused them so much that they could not determine what this new word meant even though it contained the word we just discussed previously. Something was terribly wrong.
Back in grad school we discussed the concept of a “schema,” which means, basically, a framework or pattern applied to something. My students’ schema for words was to treat them as a whole piece. When I added micro to the front of biology, I confused them because, from their point of view, I had created an entirely new word.
It’s as if I added another angle to a triangle and created a square. The problem is, that’s not how words work. Words have constituent parts which contribute to their meaning. My students were missing out on a major piece of their literacy because they were seeing words as a whole, unchangeable unit.
Not only does this have implications for their reading comprehension (How on earth can they figure out new, unfamiliar words if they can’t determine prefix,root, suffix?) but it also makes the task of writing much harder because they have no strategies for generating new words to fit their intended meaning.
When writing, suffixes are especially important because they determine the part of speech and tense of a verb. How many students go through years of instruction and never have subject/verb agreement? We tend to think it’s a matter of practice-makes-perfect. I think it’s a matter of teaching the nature of words.
Oh, you know what else? These were 9th grade students, 14-and 15-year-old kids who were completely unaware of a major component of the English language.
It should come as no surprise that they were also terrible spellers. Now, I have to pause and get on to you a little bit here, Maureen. Your examples from the presentation, it’s and its, are not misspelled. They are misused. And that’s a world of difference when you’re in my position and have to figure out where each kid’s language breakdown is occurring.
My students (and this is equally true of my current crop of 9th grade students) were at a total loss when it came to reading and spelling most words longer than two syllables. Some of my students were in even worse shape. I had and have students who don’t realize that vowels in the English language make two different sounds, long and short. Many of my students couldn’t tell me why the letter C sounds like an /s/ sometimes and a /k/ other times.
The root cause of spelling errors isn’t spellcheck. It isn’t using too much text messaging shorthand. It’s a lack of phonics knowledge. Letters make sounds. There are rules for why letters make those sounds. If you know the rules, you can spell anything. Most adults came of age in a world where their teachers were very prescriptive about spelling and grammar. Even without the schools pushing it, students acquire language skills naturally through their interaction with family and friends.
This is one of the reasons why reading with young kids is so important: you’re inculcating the rules which govern our language. Unfortunately, many students don’t have that in their lives. When a student misses out on the chance to develop an understanding of phonics “organically,” the schools have to pick up the slack.
But are schools going “back to basics”? Are they looking for students who miss out on the foundations of good literacy? I don’t know. After a year and a half, I can’t say for certain that there’s a system in place to target these students. That’s why I feel like I have to do it in my class; I can’t depend on the school system to meet their needs adequately prior to walking in my door every August.
I think we instinctively avoid mentioning these deficiencies and instead point to how impressed we are by the content. Presenters would rather talk about how impressive their students are from an analytic standpoint. I know I would. But spelling and writing are a window into each student’s understanding of our language. We can learn just as much from their spelling and grammar as we can from their content and analysis and teachers shouldn’t shy away from the hard truths.
If we don’t take the time to teach spelling and writing, how will we ever hope to improve those skills? Do they just appear magically? Next time you see a student misspelling words, look closely at what she is misspelling.
Is it just a mistake or a sign of a larger literacy problem?
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog