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Mindful Teaching of Reading and Spelling

Mindful Teaching of Reading and Spelling: Four Facts and One Educated Opinion

You know what’s really hard? It’s really hard to learn something that completely changes what you previously thought you understood about something. While it is destabilizing to have what you thought you knew debunked in a matter of minutes, lifelong learners know that it is a golden opportunity to learn even more and most of us are very excited and motivated by the destabilization. When it comes to teaching reading and spelling, what you choose to use with your students it totally up to you and should be in response to the individual needs of the student, but before you teach your next class or session, consider and ruminate about these four facts about English that every single teacher should know:

Fast Fact #1 – The English writing system is not based on syllables.

The English writing system is morphophonemic. This means that it is difficult to know how to pronounce a word until we consider how the morphemes interact with each other. For example, in the free base <please> the <s> is pronounced [z]. When we add the suffix <-ure> the phonology of <s> shifts to [ʒ] and <ea> shifts from [i] to [ɛ]. With this understanding, we can take the load off of the common weakness of memory and processing speed and transfer it to verbal and problem-solving strengths. I mean, if I had a dime for every struggling reader and speller that was a great Lego builder…English is just like Legos, find the elements (morphemes) that fit together and build something beautiful. With the base <please> you can build please, pleasant, pleasantly, displeasure, pleasing, and on and on.

Fast Fact #2 – Spoken English is a stress-timed language.

This is one of the reasons we cannot reliably ask students to “sound out” words, as a first step when spelling or reading. English speakers often either reduce spoken vowels to schwas or elide the vowel completely.  Say this sentence in a normal conversational rhythm: Our president was part of the family. Then write that sentence exactly as you hear it (there are no right answers, we all articulate things differently), you might come up with something like this: R presidint wuz prt ov the famly.  Now say this same sentence while pronouncing very clearly each and every syllable. This second rendition is almost incomprehensible to native English speakers. So, now take a look at some spelling mistakes and see if a mistaken phonology-first strategy can explain a few of the spelling errors. When we remind students to think about what the words mean as they write them, we see more mindful spelling; not perfect spelling, but mindful. 

Mindful Teaching of Reading and Spelling

Fast Fact #3 – Spelling is not phonetic, period.

If we are going to toss around linguistic terms while we are teaching reading and spelling, we really should make the effort to use the terminology correctly, right? Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies the minimal segments (phones) of speech. A phoneme, on the other hand, is a psychological construct, an “alphabet-induced concept” (Coulmas, 1999), and “…a mental entry related to various allophones [phones] by phonological rules…”(OSU, 2016). The phone is the smallest unit of physical pronunciation and the phoneme is the smallest unit of distinctive, mental categories of pronunciation. Phonemes are spelled in an orthography, not phones. That is a critical distinction, especially when we are using pedagogical “phonemic awareness” tools to identify students at risk for dyslexia. 

If a student identifies four ‘sounds’ in the word <fly> and we count it wrong, that is our mistake. The student’s answer actually reveals an impressive “awareness” of the number of “sounds” in that word, which is exactly what she has been told to do. She is identifying that there are four phones [flaɪ] in the word <fly>, but not that there are only three phonemes. Of course, the teacher or proctor knows there are only three phonemes because they already know how the word is written, and/or because they themselves have been miseducated about what is actually a phoneme, and what a phoneme actually is.

Phonemes and the graphemes that spell them also do not have a 1:1 correspondence in English (or in most written languages), which is why using nonsense words is problematic, because that is not how the language works. If I ask you how to pronounce the word <chom> what is the right answer? Well, there is no way to know without knowing what it means. It could be [kɑm] or [ʧɑm] or [ʃɑm] because the pronunciation of <ch> is entirely dependent on its etymology. For example, chef (French), chorus (Greek), and chip (Old English). And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Fast Fact #4 – Drum roll please…contrary to very popular belief the troublesome <-tion> is only troublesome because it is not a suffix.

It just isn’t! How many of us have seen the word <action> spelled *<acshun>? Imagine the relief of the student when taking the pressure off the memory and the sounding out when we ask what <action> means and what the suffix <-ion> spells, it spells a noun. It changes a verb to a noun. It contributes meaning. Then ask what the meaningful parts are in that word (<act> and <ion>). Look for related words (<acting>, <inactive>, <deactivate>). Now they are ready, with mindfulness of how their language really works, to either spell or read the word. The <t> belongs to the base or stem – always. 

Opinion #1 –   Everything you ever wanted to know about what your student understands about the English language is in their writing.

We can give other assessments until the cows come home and none of them will give us more information. Don’t ignore spelling and when you do decide to teach it, make the effort to understand it. Understanding spelling better leads to better reading. This article is a good start.

A while back, I was lucky enough to co-facilitate a self-advocacy workshop with K-12 students, ranging in age from 8-20 years old. Their dyslexia varied from mild to severe. Their school experiences varied from horrific to a perfect fit. I asked them to raise their hand if they were poor spellers, and every hand went up. I asked them to raise their hand if they wished they were better spellers and if they were still interested in learning how to spell, and every single hand went up. When people say spelling isn’t important, it is usually someone who can already spell well making that judgment call for someone else. But if we are going to teach it, and expect our students to understand it, we have to use the terminology mindfully: Look to the linguists, because the researchers and curriculum developers are operating from a flawed understanding of the English writing system and it’s time to correct that – that is fact #5.

If you know better you should do better. Now you know better.

Reluctance is a Choice Dyslexia is Not - Reluctant Reader

Reluctance is a Choice, Dyslexia is Not

Lately, it seems like I have heard the term ‘reluctant reader’ more than usual. Maybe I am just listening more carefully, but every time I hear it, I am struck by the carelessness of the speaker using the term. Unfortunately (or fortunately), people who use that term are revealing much more about themselves than they are about the student they are labeling. 

Let me make my point by taking the time to understand the word, reluctant. So let’s start with a trip to the etymology dictionary (www.etymonline.com):

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Dyslexia: Three Things Every School Should Know about the Parent in the IEP Meeting ~Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley

No one likes IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings. If you have ever been to an IEP meeting at a school, then you know they are exhausting, long, laborious, emotional and sometimes, they are contentious. When the student has dyslexia it adds a whole layer of myths and fallacies that usually have to be explained away – by the parent or their representative. These parents are often perceived as ‘that parent’ who is being unreasonable or perhaps asking for things they are not entitled to. But parents of students with dyslexia go through quite a bit of turmoil trying to make sure their child learns to read and spell. So, what is really going on the other side of the IEP table?

Parents are faced with an avalanche of information, and misinformation, about dyslexia. 

If you have ever googled dyslexia then you know that what you get is everything from dyslexia isn’t real to you can cure dyslexia with colored lenses to companies selling computer programs that teach reading in less than 4 hours to you have to use a specific approach or else. Each of these suggestions is supported by some kind of research and if you are not trained in what is good research and what is bad research, then who do you believe?

Then imagine mentioning that your child is struggling with reading and spelling to a neighbor who then empathizes with you because their child also struggled, and then they proceed to tell you what you ‘have to do’ all without knowing a thing about your child’s specific struggles. 

Finally, the parent mentions dyslexia to the school and are told they are either over-reacting or dyslexia isn’t real or the school is already doing what they can do. Who in the world are they supposed to believe? That is what is happening on the other side of the table. The parents are trying to protect their child amid a firehouse of conflicting information and trying to figure out who to trust. The fact is that parent is probably a subject matter expert by the time they get to the IEP meeting so their input needs to be considered and their journey respected. 

Parents often go home and cry after a meeting.

I can’t tell you how many times I have walked out to the parking lot after an IEP meeting with a parent who begins to cry. They held it together during the meeting for three hours while the team talked about their child. They held it together while the school continued to disagree with them. They held it together while the school told them their child was ‘fine’. Every parent knows that they know their child better than anyone else, so it can be incredibly frustrating, and heartbreaking, to listen to conflicting information. 

I have also stood in the parking lot and had parents thank me after a meeting and say, “that was completely different just because you were in the room.” Why is that? Why are they treated differently just because an advocate is there? Is that ethical? 

Parents desperately want to work with the school in the most congenial way possible. 

Most parents are not looking for a fight. In fact, they would prefer a meeting where they did not have to request what should be offered. They would prefer not to bring an advocate or have to pay for an advocate. They are very aware that any relationships that are damaged during the IEP process could negatively impact their child’s everyday experience at the school. So, when they start asking the tough questions or bring an advocate, just remember they didn’t want it to be that way – and it didn’t have to be that way.

Parenting is hard. We all know that. Everyone has an opinion on how we should raise our children. Everyone has an opinion on how we should teach our children. When a child is struggling it is very difficult for parents to sift through all the noise about dyslexia and find what is appropriate for their child. Piling on the need to fight for their child is even more taxing on a parent. So, when you see ‘that parent’ on the other side of the table, remember that they wish they weren’t there and there might be tears later.