Friday, March 2, 2012

Better Ways

Working in schools I'm reminded of all of the things I was really bad at.

Handwriting. I never earned my "pen license". I'm not sure at what point I was allowed to use a pen. I don't think I was ever given explicit permission.

Spelling... I'm still a pretty bad speller. I've gotten orders of multitudes better, but I'm still not great. I'm just really lucky that I work with machines that can tell me when I've got it wrong.

I was shocked and stunned when I went to a school and found that they still do the good old fashioned spelling tests that I used to do as a kid. It didn't help. My spelling, I believe, actually suffered from the exercise. My failure to spell properly in those tests discouraged me.

Memorizing the spelling of a set of words seems to me to have so little value as to be one of those things that takes away from learning. I think I've said it before about math. The value in learning and memorizing your times tables has the detrimental effect on so many people that they spend the rest of their lives hating math and convinced that they're simply no good at it. Learning what it means - 7x3 is 7 groups of 3 - has much more value to knowing the answer. Actually I can't credit myself for this thought.  It came from this TED talk.

So how do you teach kids to spell? I sincerely believe it has to be in context. It's not enough to just teach "spelling". It goes under a much better heading of "literacy". Write a story. Try to use "these" words. Have a dictionary or some way (such as a netbook) of being able to look up a word. Make the word have some sort of meaning. You're suddenly expanding vocabulary, learning spelling (and hopefully picking up on patterns) and it all has some meaning as opposed to the awful explanation of "it's what we've always done" (and get what we always got).

Nowadays my vocabulary is expanded through reading. I'm sure that's the case for most adults (those of us who read at least). Why shouldn't this ring true for kids well? I don't find myself memorizing lists of words on a weekly basis. It's all in context. Think about the whole "word a day" approach. The idea is that you learn a word and during the day, try to use it in context as part of normal conversation. Sure, it's mostly a vocabulary thing, but then, what's the point in learning the spelling of a word if you can't use it? I wouldn't recommend this for kids - they have to expand their vocabulary at a faster rate than most adults and given that the people around them are likely to be just learning the word, using it in context isn't going to be easy... Still... if we learn with context, why do we expect kids to learn without?

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