Archive for December, 2010

What Are They Thinking!?

December 22, 2010

Any teachers out there?  I’ve never taught school so I lack a first-hand perspective, but word from the front is that not only are reading skills declining, thinking skills are too.  At a writers’ meeting, at least three aspiring children’s writers who are also teachers agreed that more students can’t spell and continually mix up homonyms.  Even simple distinctions like to, two, and too defeat them, and no amount of workbook exercises correct the problem.  They might score 100% in the workbook, but make the same mistakes in composition.

I noticed this problem when homeschooling: what the kids got correct in the workbook they missed in original composition.  Obviously it didn’t click–at first–that what the workbooks were teaching had real-world application.  I think over time they began to see connections between what they read and what they wrote, but in the meantime I ditched the workbooks and just focused on grammar through composition.  (The program Learning Language Arts Through Literature does this, but it wasn’t available back in the pioneer days.  Ruth Beechick’s You Can Teach Your Child at Home and Sam Blumenthal’s How to Tutor take the same approach–end of homeschool commercial.)  

We were able to correct the problem of the grammar-writing connection–but it remains a hurdle for kids of elementary age–one that is not being cleared, apparently.  A fifth-grade teacher in our group said that her district tried a pilot program involving intense focus on spelling for an entire year–spelling notebooks, drills, exercises, etc.–and at year’s end the pilot class’s skills were little or no better than the other fifth-graders who didn’t participate.

Some kids seem to have a natural ability to spell, or at least it comes fairly easily to them.  I think it has to do with the kind of memory you have, an ability to recognize and remember certain letter combinations.  From my homeschooling days I recall many good readers who were terrible spellers and nothing seemed to help much.  Besides, bad spellers can always look to founding fathers who couldn’t spell–Thomas Jefferson comes to mind.

But the inability to distinguish homonyms is something else again–that’s a thinking problem.  The fact that English is notoriously difficult in spelling and idiom is no excuse.  An agile brain should learn fairly early to distinguish between there, their, and they’re and determine the context where each one fits.  It involves several functions: recognizing the letter sequence, knowing the definition, and determining the usage.  Which sounds complicated–and it is!  But any fourth- or fifth-grader should be able to do it.  If they can’t, they are deficient in two vital functions: distinction and connection.

We’re not supposed to say that anyone is “deficient.”  No, Julie and Jayden just think differently, and all ways are good.  Except that if you are lacking in either of these critical functions, you can’t be said to “think” at all.

Here’s what education is: learning to distinguish between one thing and another, and, once the distinction is made, discerning how one thing relates to another.  Our brains are made to learn subtlety and precision, to skip lightly between inferences and stretch comparisons.  What makes apples different from oranges?  And how are they alike?  How is the American Revolution different from the French Revolution, and how are they related?  What’s the connection between waves and particles? 

And how about the connection between reading and thinking?  We don’t fully know, but we’ll probably know a lot more before long.