What Are They Thinking!?

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.

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4 Responses to “What Are They Thinking!?”

  1. Debbie Thurman Says:

    I finally came over to visit your blog, Janie, after reading your latest column on education in “World.” I have liked all your columns, of course. And that’s not just because it takes a writer to admire one. I deeply appreciate good critical thinking, as most everybody does. It’s a dying art/skill. The art of skillful persuasion wins out over sophistry.

    My children were blessed in their education because their schools utilized a writing-across-the-curriculum approach. Their composition and critical-thinking skills were tested in all subject areas. They are among the young adults today who can communicate clearly and passionately. And they love to read — a school of its own, as you say. We didn’t allow them to sit in a vacuum at home, of course. They barely escaped the e-traps that are so abundant for kids these days, thankfully.

    Thank you for your informed commentary. Keep it coming!

  2. jbcheaney Says:

    Thanks, Debbie! Your children were blessed. We followed a similar program with ours in our homeschool–in fact, I used to do a seminar talk called “Writing All Over the Curriculum.”

  3. Ruth Froese Says:

    They taught us in college that as we age, our brain cells die, but that what we lose in ability is compensated by wisdom. Having entered the nifty fifties, I’m grabbing for wisdom tricks, like the one I’ve recently begun putting into practice, “Fools defend themselves when rebuked, wise people say thanks.” Reading your blog reminded me of the language tricks they used to teach in school. “There it is. It’s theirs. They’re means they are.”

    Thanks Janie, for your articles in World mag. I’m often rebuked, and grateful.

  4. A. Carroll Crowe Says:

    I grew up doing workbooks and didn’t have a problem, but I can see where the connection between workbooks and real-world application hasn’t always clicked for my siblings. In my case, even though the connection “clicked,” I would have enjoyed school (well, homeschool) more had my textbooks emphasized learning by doing. You make a very good point that learning grammar by composition might help some struggling students.

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