Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Teaching Kids to Spell: Yesterday's Fads, Today's Experts, and My Experience

"Top Twelve Spelling Trends and Fads"
Pennington Publishing Blog (September 24, 2009)

"Spelling instruction certainly has had its share of crazy instructional trends and fads. As an author of two spelling books, a reading specialist, and a teacher of elementary school, middle school, high school, and community college students, I have seen my fair share of them over the last thirty years.

"For example, during the height of the whole language movement of the 1980s, California stopped adopting spelling programs and refused to fund the purchase of spelling workbooks. Principals were even encouraged to confiscate spelling workbooks from veteran teachers.

"In the spirit of, I have listed and rated a dozen of the most popular instructional spelling trends and fads over the last thirty years as 'TRUE' or 'FALSE,' in terms of recent spelling research...."

Then there's a list of 12 cool ideas that didn't work out quite the way their fans thought they would. And, a short evaluation of whether or not they were based on fact.

As a recovering English teacher, I recognize a few of the items, like "whole word" spelling. That seemed like a good idea: since good readers and spellers can recognize strings of letters as units - complete words - teach kids to see words that way from the start. Just one problem, the way I see it: recognizing whole words is something a person can do after learning to read and spell.

I'm not sure what I think of "...'TRUE' or 'FALSE,' in terms of recent spelling research." I'm not convinced that "experts" have their heads screwed on straight, just because they published recently.

For example:

"...11. What works for one student to develop conventional spelling ability does not work for every student. Not all students learn how to spell in the same way.

"FALSE Effective spelling instructional strategies work for every student. Differentiated instruction should derive from diagnostic assessment data...."

That "work for every student" doctrine sounds fine - and would be true, if human beings were all identical.

You can get pretty good results by using a technique that works for the 50th percentile most of the time - and labeling the kids who don't learn that way as "trouble makers," "class clowns," or "lazy." It's a little rough on the misfits: but hey, the nice, normal, average kids come through the process just fine.

A Short (?) Personal Digression

Yes, I'm taking #11 a little personally.

I'm pretty good at academics, so my grades only got me into the principal's office once. I've since realized that I've got what I call "trick wiring" in my head, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I also wouldn't wish it on anyone else. It seems to be hereditary - my father was like this, and so are two of my kids. Those two have been known to look at me and say, "thanks, Dad." The way a son or daughter might say, "thanks for making me mow the yard."

During elementary and high school, I learned to stay awake in class, by keeping just enough of my consciousness focused on the teaching process to keep up: and letting the rest of my mind do something more interesting. Like tracking Earth's rotation by observing the movement of the sunlit patch of floor, or thinking about the floor plan of the school, or studying the shape of the lighting fixtures.

And no, that's not "normal."

People seem to feel better when they've got names for things, so I'll share one of the many names for my trick wiring: Asperger's syndrome. I more-or-less fit almost half of the listed symptoms - so there may be something to it.

One of the signs of Asperger's is "Showing an intense obsession with one or two specific, narrow subjects, such as baseball statistics, train schedules, weather or snakes". (Mayo Clinic) Of course, that's for children.

As an adult, I still have a range of interest that includes only three things: That which
  • Exists withing the universe
  • Exists beyond
  • Might exist
Spelling wasn't all that much of a problem with me, apart from the usual "i before e" stuff: so maybe there is something to the "one size fits all" approach to teaching spelling, after all.

Back to That Quite Interesting Post

The Pennington Publishing Blog post is a pretty good review of the wonderful and weird world of educational fads over the last few decades - and of what the experts are saying right now.

I'm glad I read it: it was an interesting trip down memory lane, and a confirmation that I made the right decision, getting out of education.


Mark Pennington said...

Here's another one on crazy reading fads. Check out these crazy reading fads at Crazy Reading Fads. Funny, but very disheartening.

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...

Mark Pennington,

Thanks for sharing that.

I'll agree with the funny part: "...'It remains to be seen whether children would do just as well reading to hamsters, rabbits, cats or turtles, the researchers said, but the fact that dogs are attentive and nonjudgmental seems to make a difference.'..."

I remember having to read and report on that sort of thing: with a straight face.

Disheartening? In a way, yes. I think it's sad, that the traditional educational establishment in America is in this condition: and that this sort of silliness is being inflicted on kids.

On the other hand, I see reason for hope. Quite a bit has changed in the last, say, 40 years. One major change is that the traditional information gatekeepers no longer have a near-monopoly on what most Americans are allowed to see and read. ("What is an Information Gatekeeper?," Another War-on-Terror Blog (August 14, 2009))

Another development, which I think may be related to the emergence of new sources of information, is homeschooling. My wife and I have been homeschooling our kids (their choice) from grade 7 through high school graduation. We don't fit the stereotype 'homeschooling parents' - and neither do the homeschoolers we've known. ("Home Schooling, Religious and Moral Instruction, and American Culture," A Catholic Citizen in America (March 6, 2010))

I think that, as more parents decide to take responsibility for their children's education, we'll see a little less wide acceptance of screwball fads. It's not that parents are necessarily smarter than 'experts' - but we're maybe a little more interested in our kids' developing intellectual skills: and less on showing that some pet theory is totally groovy.

I realize that a decline in America's government school system will have an economic impact. But I suspect that many teachers are like me. I was a secondary-school teacher once: but have had a few other careers, too. Teachers can, I suspect, learn new skills as well as teach old ones.

As for the massive support industries? Homeschooling parents use textbooks, buy erasers, and have many of the same needs as a school. It'll mean a shift in marketing strategies: but I suspect that many companies are able to adapt to a changing market.

As for the administrators: Many of them, although interested in education are primarily, well, administrators. I'm fairly confident that there will be enough massive bureaucracies around for the foreseeable future, to accommodate out-of-work school administrators and executives.

Clerical and technical staff have more easily transferable skills - but this comment is getting very long.

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