Saturday, November 19, 2016

My Journey to Find the Truth About Language
Shawna Pope, MS/CCC/SLP

This blog post is being written in response to a request for resources to duplicate this learning in the home school community. I apologise for the length of the response, but found everything written here is necessary to understand just what is taking place. 

When I entered private practice  in 2015 I knew I wanted to specialise in literacy, but I did not know the best teaching practices for the task. I had knowledge about language, as a speech-language pathologist but literacy entered our scope within the last 7 years and it was not yet clear to me how to best teach the literacy skills involved with reading and spelling.  I found that the state of affairs was quite dismal as the researchers and practitioners in the field were constantly in arms over how best to approach reading and spelling. 

As a speech-language pathologist, my main interest was to teach students who had difficulty learning to read and spell so this task was even more unclear as much of the research focused on teaching the skills to children who just seem to naturally " pick it up". I first stopped and considered reading instruction based on the Orton-Gillingham ( O.G. ) approach as everyone in the " dyslexia" community raved about the success of all of the programs based on the approach and the original approach itself. Learning the original approach was not accessible to me and was very costly so I began by attending a week long course to become a consultant for the Barton Reading and Spelling system. I thought I had found the key to teaching students who struggled with literacy and was very excited to begin. 

Upon purchasing the materials and diving into learning the procedure involved in this scripted program I soon found I had many questions about many words that were not answered anywhere in the program. I worried about my clients and their families asking me questions that I would be unable to answer in a meaningful way. I was also uncomfortable with some of the "rules" that were created to explain the English language because there were so many exceptions to these rules. Every exception had a confusing complex explanation that left me with even more questions. I also read reports from parents talking about how their children struggled with maintaining interest in learning the procedure of the program. I found this to be the case with all programs based on the O.G. method. Parents still dutifully sent their children to receive the instruction, however, it was not something many children did with enthusiasm. They were reported to make progress but many continued to struggle in various areas and some made no progress at all. 

During one of  days spent searching for answers, I happened upon a website, I had been there before and it did intrigue me but I think it was beyond me at the time. This second time I dipped my toe in the waters, I became more interested. I saw some of my questions being answered in the videos posted on the page. I was attracted to the curiosity that the children had when learning about words and their ability to grasp concepts I had not yet learned. I began to wonder why I had not been taught these skills in childhood or even in my degree program.

I soon found I knew very little about how our language worked. I was one of those students who just " picked up" enough language skills to be successful academically in what was required of me. Most of the expectations I realised focused heavily on memorisation of concepts and definitions.

My journey moved on to a website I discovered on the wordworks website.  It was on this website I began to have epiphanies so overwhelming I could barely focus. It took a few weeks for me to settle down to sit for long periods of time ingesting all of the ways in which our language worked. I realised that before I could teach struggling students to read ( or any students for that matter) I must first learn myself. I was starting from scratch.

After I completed a few Spellinars from the RealSpelling website with other scholars learning about language I began to turn my attention to teaching. This is very much a process of scholarship and not of learning based on a curriculum (which denotatively means race track). The terms scope and sequence apply to what we understand as " curriculum ". We have lost the art of scholarship almost entirely in many of our educational settings. When teaching structured word inquiry and about language what makes it work and what makes it an enjoyable journey is it's inherent scholarship ( denotatively, learning with ease at leisure). There is no scope or sequence but there are spelling conventions that we teach as they arise. Sometimes we guide these sessions depending on the lessons we would like to focus on. However, sometimes magic happens when you go in with no plan at all. Children seem to really enjoy it when the teacher thinks things through with them and do not have all of the answers in their manual.

With that being said, when I began a short time ago, I found it difficult to make the leap to teaching in which the students led me and where I didn't not have lesson plans or a sense of where the lesson would sometimes go. I purchased the Teacher's resource book from the Wordworks website to get me started while I found my comfort level and solidified my understanding of the English language. I also began taking online courses with Gina Cooke from Gina sells some resources in her online store that I have found essential to grasp and teach many concepts. Her Lexinars have added to my understanding in all facets of language and I have found them to be invaluable.

Now that I am teaching children of varying ages, levels, and abilities, I am creating resources of my own to use. I got some of these ideas after visiting The Nueva School in California this past summer. Pete Bowers, from Word Works presented an amazing week long workshop at the end of a year he spent there instructing the teachers. I would like to make my own resources available to others who are interested and have a plan to do so very soon.

The beautiful about this learning is that you can actually begin teaching as you are yourself learning. The dept of your analysis only goes as far as your knowledge and that is fine, the learning is still rich. You learn about orthography and it's components of morphology, phonology, and etymology right along with your students. The result is delight and relief that English is not only interesting but regular and logical. There are no red words, sight words, or outlaw words as none of our words set out to break laws or to trick us. We only have to know how to think about them in order to bring understanding.  Our words are not driven by pronunciation, but my meaning that lies in their morphology.

Other resources:

Lewis and Short  - A Latin Dictionary
Dictionary of Word Origins - Ayto

Enjoy the journey!

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