Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Another example of how mean I am

I feel that if I have to endure another year of "word study" at my child's elementary school, I will either go as mad as Allen Ginsberg's friends in "Howl," or I will feel the urge to eviscerate myself.  For someone who genuinely likes words, I wonder why I have this intensely negative reaction to these years of "let's not just memorize spelling words, let's try to make this FUN by layering confusing directions, developmental nonsense, and rigid busy-work accoutrements" to the actual task of spelling, which is really just an act of memorization and recognition.  Let's just say that after two years of this, my daughter can't spell her way out of a paper bag.

I mean, this is English.  English is one of the most difficult languages to learn precisely because it evolves out of several language groups with contradictory phonics and tangled word development.  And yet, the school would like to pretend that English is some kind of holistic language that makes sense and has clear rules that "word detectives" can find.  Here's some helpful text from the third grade website about this:

Word study provides students with opportunities to investigate and understand the patterns in words. Knowledge of these patterns means that students needn't learn to spell one word at a time.

Take, for example, the difference between "hard c" (as in cat) and "soft c" (as in cell). After collecting many words containing the letter "c," students discover that "c" is usually hard when followed by consonants (as in clue and crayon) and the vowels "a," "o," and "u" (as in catcot, and cut). In contrast, "c" is usually soft when followed by "i", "e," and "y" (as in circuscelery, and cycle).

Of course, for every rule there are exceptions that threaten the rule. Students learn, though, that spelling patterns exist and that these patterns help to explain how to spell, read, and write words.

OK, note that we try to get the kids to find patterns that make sense to them and follow your typical slipshod English phonics.  Note that even these education folks are reduced to using the word "usually."  Yes, I hiss, "usually."  Note that we've got words in that section that derive from Old English, French, Latin, and I'd have to look up "circus" to remind myself of its derivation.  Yes, "usually" words that come from a variety of different linguistic roots do not follow coherent patterns.  Note the use of the word "threaten" in the last paragraph quoted.  These types of teaching methods are always being "threatened" by the nature of the subject matter itself.

OK, and this following is the part where I just really part company with these people (Diane Henry Leipzig and company).  After all I've been through with Robert, I know that applying these "developmental" frames is just a recipe for disaster--my daughter has some apparently mild dyslexia (which we'll be testing for soon) and so we've already had difficulty with the ways in which her bad handwriting and backwards letters have been "interpreted" or "framed."  You have to know what you're talking about with an individual child and his or her idiosyncrasies before you can start applying developmental frames to them.  Otherwise there's no grounds for appropriate interpretation.  But here we go:

There are distinct stages in students' spelling development (Henderson, 1981). Students at different stages attend to and represent different features in their spelling (Templeton, 1991).

Word study is based on the notion that where a student is in his or her spelling development can serve as a guide for instruction. At the start of a word study program, teachers use a spelling inventory to determine which stage of spelling development each student is at and then groups students for instruction (Bear, et al., 2000). Once groups are created, teachers develop "differential instruction" based on the stage of development each group of students has achieved (Bear & Barone, 1989).


Sara said...

As a community college instructor who's on the front receiving line of these ill-conceived educational trends (in Kalamazoo, at the moment, the trend is to teach writing primarily through "inspiration and creativity" and hope that grammar comes...instinctively. Well, I'm here to say it DOESN'T), I am often enraged and saddened at the lack of knowledge of English, writing, and literature that many (not all teachers, I have great respect for embattled teachers who must 'teach to the test')school administrations, who often dictate curriculum, have. Thank goodness your son and daughter have an intelligent mother who can help sort through the detritus of modern American education! But what a challenge it becomes when parent is more knowlegeable than teacher--and how treacherous.

jeneva said...

Thanks, Sara. I can commiserate about grammar: it is the overlay of a series of rules that structure and guide our collective receptive understanding of words and word placement so that we can understand one another at a formal level. It is not instinctive, not necessarily. I remember teaching a section of remedial composition at Columbia a while ago as a grad student, and many of the kids were just so happy that someone was just giving them some basic guidance on how to structure a sentence--something they could write down and take home with them.