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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Three Spelling Rules We All Learned Once

Becoming overly dependent on spell check provoked a revitalized interest in those spelling rules we all learned as children.  There are ten major ones, and this post will explore (I mean review) three of them.   Forgive the elementary nature of this blog post and please indulge my fascination with words, regardless of length, and the English language.

Rule #1
One of the first rules we all learn in the early years of school is to put “i” before “e” except after “c” … and sometimes after “w”.


Next, we learned that we could not trust this rule to apply in every instance and were taught how much of the English we know and love is populated with words that are exceptions to a given rule.

“e” before “i” and not after “c”
“i” before “e” even after “c”

Rule #2
When a word ends with an "e" this last vowel remains silent and causes the other vowel in the word to have a long sound or "say its name" as my elementary teachers used to say.  Then we were often presented with a table similar to the one below so that we had the visual on this rule:  short vowel sound vs. long vowel sound.  After all, we learned and applied more phonics rules than kids do today.

Short vowel sound
Long vowel sound
site (as in a location)

Rule #3
I've seen adults still thrown by this one and even some college graduates I've worked with do not properly double the consonants when adding a suffix to one-syllable words.  That is the third rule, to know when to add an extra consonant at the end. Maybe this rule isn't taught in second and third grades anymore...

One-syllable word
Proper spelling with added ending
batted, batting
hopped, hopping
planned, planning
scrapped, scrapping
stopped, stopping
barred, barring
marred, marring
patted, patting
mapped, mapping
napped, napping
snapped, snapping
whipped, whipping
topped, topping
tipped, tipping
tapped, tapping

Please share this with a grade school student you know, or have them add to it, or just accept my post as a exercise in nostalgia. Ah, remembering all those wonderful moments, effectively glued to a small desk, staring at the blackboard while rules were tossed out for us to catch and remember. I'm glad I still love English after going through those drills!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Misuse of “Went” and “Gone” in the Media

Have you noticed that both local and national reporters – and some anchors – have quite a bit of trouble with verb tenses?  Most particularly I have noticed a confusion with the past participle and past tense of the verb “go.”  Of course it wouldn’t be worthy of a blog post if the error is a simple slip of the tongue or other form of occasional misspeaking.  However, it happens so often  that it requires at least a single blog post to acknowledge it.

The mistake usually happens in the middle of a report, when I hear:

“He has went….” or “They have went….” (Ouch – it hurts my ears)
instead of “He has gone….” or “They have gone….” or simply "He went...." or "They went...."

The reporters in question seem to forget that “went” is the past tense of the irregular verb “go” while “gone” is the past participle form of the word that requires the speaker or writer to use “have,” “had,” or “has” before the verb.

Grammatical errors from the average person who may be answering a reporter’s questions are common and expected, but when I tune in to hear a broadcast journalist give me the news of the day, I anticipate a higher level of grammatical accuracy.  After all, a journalist’s business is language and his or her job is to communicate both ideas and information.  Bad grammar gets in the way and becomes a distraction to the listener or reader. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Alternative Approaches to Writing Instruction

Is it possible to get kids to connect with the writing process in a way that gives them confidence and skills that stay with them?  Absolutely.  Can it be done within the existing public school structure?  It isn't getting done for the majority of students using the traditional teaching methods and, no matter how inspiring the teacher is, as long as we keep teaching to tests and segmenting skill sets into a seemingly unrelated string of exercises we are not honoring creativity and life-long learning.

Traditional English instruction is top-down: the teacher sets the standards, gives specific lessons and uses a rubric to measure the success of the student's writing product. What is a student's motivation for conforming to the established set of rules?  From my experience watching kids go through standard-issue U.S. education, the motivation is completely external to the student and what the assignment can teach him or her.  

Extrinsic reasons to write:
I have to please the teacher
I have to finish this quickly
I have to meet a deadline
I have to keep parents from nagging
I have to get a good grade

What if we gave the student more control and more responsibility for designing the project?  Instead of conforming to a one-size-fits-all set of rules, the student's role becomes one of ownership.  In fact the writing process in this scenario is a means to an end, which is the finished project.. For example, say the student chooses from a list of possible assignments to write and self-publish a book for younger students. Right there we see the biggest difference between the traditional and alternative approach: "I write because I want to," not "I write because I have to." The motivation is now internal, which means the student can become fully invested in the project and want to learn the skills to succeed.  Guidance, not rules, is what young writers need at this point.

Intrinsic reasons to write:
I want to learn how to write in this genre (children’s book, short story, persuasive essay)
I want to learn how to publish
I want learn about a topic of interest
I strive to write better
I feel  strongly about a topic
I want to communicate

These are big picture ideas, and my discussion of an alternative approach to writing instruction is far from complete. However, I know that learning is a personal, vital experience that cannot be drilled into anyone.  The desire to learn must come from within each of us, it must be nurtured in a safe and non-threatening learning environment, and it must be allowed time to grow.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Word's Meaning: Well Intentioned or Intentionally Emotional?

Words are the symbols that we assign to things so that we have a basis for shared meaning when we communicate, or at least attempt to do so. While S.I. Hayakawa reminded us that  "The word is not the thing," long ago  (Language in Thought and Action, page 28), many speakers and writers tend to forget this basic fact of semantics. 

At the very fundamental  level, and when we are not speaking or writing in metaphor or using symbolism, there seems to be agreement as to a word’s meaning:  street, cat, dog, horse, cow, house, garden.

It’s the abstract concepts that, when used, start to impede our communication.  In fact, some words become so emotionally loaded that, instead of a rational response from the listener or reader to an entire paragraph or essay, there is a reaction to just one word that hits a hot spot somewhere inside the brain.  Hope of communicating at this point fades into the deep abyss between the message’s sender and receiver. 

Words may shift in meaning over time and within different subcultures in the same language group or change with the political winds of any given era.  According to the authors of An Introduction to Language, meanings change over time in three ways:  it may become broader, it may become more narrower, or it may shift (Fromkin/Rodman, page 207).  Today, these words are examples of those that carry emotional baggage beyond the dictionary definition:

government funded
state’s rights

Speech or writing used purposefully to cause an emotional response has become an art form employed by advertisers, columnists, and politicians (and radio talk show hosts).  Now, however, I hear self-proclaimed journalists use emotionally loaded terms, supposedly without thinking (if I am to give them the benefit of the doubt).  Whether intentional or not, word use by journalists should be as objective as possible and hold up to scrutiny.  Instead, broadcast journalism becomes just another sound bite and no one cares if it stings.

For example, I have paid into the social security system all of my adult working life.  Most recently I heard the retirement system called an "entitlement" program by someone assuming the role of a journalist on cable news (CNN). The interviewer used this emotionally loaded term instead of calling it what it is:  a tax on payroll matched by employers to be set aside for the employee’s retirement.  Brevity in language does not always equal correct language. Definition of entitle:  to give (a person or thing) the right to receive, demand, to do something.  Does this definition imply that the person has not worked to receive the thing in question?  

A sound bite literally goes by so quickly that it is difficult to capture, let alone analyze. I am often left with questions.  Did I hear correctly?  Did I misinterpret the intended meaning?  What was the intention?  Did the journalist speak knowingly or in error? Or are certain words used as descriptors in certain interviews and not in others?

If I conclude that it is all just a matter of semantics, that doesn't solve the problem of shared meaning; it only begins to point out  the ongoing dilemma.  

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Can Spelling Reform Improve Reading Performance?

Since the mid-1870s there has been a movement in Britain and the United States to reform English spelling to make it conform more closely to the sound of the words. Although the move was embraced by Teddy Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, and the Chicago Tribune, few changes were made in the last century.  The movement survives today as the Simplified Spelling Society and the English Spelling Society,  founded in 1908, promoting thought and discussion about the troublesome disconnect between sound and spelling.

The English language is based on the Roman alphabet of 26 letters but has 41 separate phonetic sounds based on the letters, not to mention a plethora of silent letters (debt, ghost, receipt, though, know, gnat, to name a few) requiring young students to memorize the spelling.  According to the authors of An Introduction to Language,“The irregularities between graphemes (letters) and phonemes have been cited as one reason ‘why Johnny can’t read.’  Different spellings for the same sound, the same spellings for different sounds, ‘silent letters,’ and ‘missing letters’ – all provide fuel for the flames of spelling-reform movements (Fromkin/Rodman, 1974, pg. 297).

Troublesome words?  Here are some I found mentioned a few times on the web.  Bomb, comb, and tomb do not rhyme, while weigh, they, and say do.  The question raised by the site: why is this the case? I looked up the etymology of each thinking that might give us some answers.

Bomb: derived from French, Spanish, Latin, and Greek
Comb: Old English
Tomb: Anglo-French, Old French, Late Latin, and Greek
Weigh: Old English
They: Middle English and Old Norse
Say: Old English

As long as the dictionaries are published with standard spelling, there will be little traction in making sweeping changes to the system.  What do we do instead? Exposure to the written word and, in turn, expressing thoughts in writing are two powerful tools that helped us all learn to speak, write, and spell correctly.  This knowledge escalates as a child becomes older:  the more the child reads, the better the child writes, the better the child reads.  In fact, I believe that the subtleties of our language are accepted -- and even taken for granted -- with increased exposure to the words that appear troublesome at face value. Over time we get it, we get the context, we know the meanings, and so do the children who are given the opportunity and the resources.




Friday, December 24, 2010

"Free" School is Democracy in Practice

This morning I caught the last few minutes of an interview on MSNBC about a school that doesn't assess students, doesn't give grades and, in fact, has little structure. It certainly caught my interest, so I almost immediately started a web search to find out more about this Sudbury School Model. I discovered that in a Sudbury School, of which there are now over 40 in the world, it is up to the individual students to decide how to spend their time and what they want to learn. 

The founding principles behind this model were formulated in Sudbury, Massachusetts in 1968, and an article discussing the pros and cons of this model was published earlier this year by the Seattle Times.  More specifically, the article highlights activities at the Clearwater School in Bothell, Wash., where the one weekly structured activity is a weekly meeting to vote behavioral matters and to give younger students the floor to request privileges.  Who votes?  All faculty and students -- regardless of age -- get one vote on all matters.

While a lack of formal structure does not fit the needs of every student, the authoritative model of our public schools where students have little to no say in their own education is equally inappropriate for meeting the needs of every student.  Over-assessment versus no assessment?  Giving students a degree of control over their own studies and schedules -- as long as they embrace the opportunity -- puts learning in the right perspective:  the desire to learn and excel must come from within each of us.  Schools cannot drill it into us through tests, grades, and regulations. 

Regardless of the administrative constraints, I believe that each teacher is responsible for igniting that special individual spark in a student that leads to successful learning for learning's sake. Comments?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Adolescent Literacy: A Hot Topic in 2010

According to  an article published by Jack Cassidy and Drew Cassidy on the International Reading Association's website, adolescent literacy was one of at least five very hot topics for literacy professionals this year. Several organizations -- from the National Governor's Association to The Carnegie Corporation -- have been working to identify and improve the state of middle school and high school literacy levels , which have been found woefully lacking for some time according to the US Dept. of Education's recent reading and writing assessments.

Reading to Achieve: A Governor's Guide to Adolescent Literacy  (National Governors Association, 2005):  defines the term as "...the set of skills and abilities that students read, write, and think about the text materials they encounter. Becoming literate is a developmental and lifelong process, which in the 21st century includes becoming literate with electronic and multimedia texts as well as conventional written material....America's adolescents need to be literate not only to succeed in school, but also to succeed in life." No one could disagree with this definition.  The challenge is going from simply naming the problem to a potential solution.

So how do we get tweens and teens to become more literate? A study by the Carnegie Corporation written by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert of Vanderbilt University called Writing to Read shows that increasing the time spent writing improves reading comprehension. Getting teens to write about what they've read further improves comprehension across all academic disciplines.  Simply taking notes, writing summaries, answering questions, or creating questions about a text helps them to integrate information and develop their knowledge about a subject.

How critical is the need for a solution to this growing dilemma? According to By Rafael Heller, Ph.D., in his article The Scope of the Adolescent Literacy Crisis, "Simply put, if the middle and high schools continue to churn out large numbers of students who lack the ability to read critically, write clearly, and communicate effectively, then the labor market will soon be flooded with young people who have little to offer employers and who cannot handle the jobs that are available."

Improved literacy one student at a time can help strengthen our economy. How about a new program dedicated to intensive literacy workshops where they are most needed in every city? Now that's a stimulus I can believe in...and one with a great potential for lasting results.