It has been awhile since I've gotten around to writing a blog entry. But, inspired by Mary Beth's Real English Manifesto, I thought it might be worthwhile to mention how I introduce Word Study (which in my class we call FWI -- Forensic Word Investigation) each year to the parents of my students.

I tell them I'm going to start by teaching them some math. I ask them to imagine that they are first graders and I am their teacher. Of course, as very young students, they are eager to do as the teacher instructs and get it right. So I tell them: "Here is the rule of how to do addition. If you just follow the rules, you'll be a good math student. You start in the column on the right, add the two numbers, and write the answer below in the same column. Then move to the next column to the left and do the same. Keep doing this until you run out of columns. Like this."

And then on the board I write:

  2 1 2

+5 4 4

 7 5 6

I do a few more problems, then give them a few to do, such as:

  3 4 5

+1 3 3

 4 7 8

After doing a few of those and having great success following the rule, I remind them to always follow the rules and give them one like this:

  2 4 6

+5 8 4

and, following the rule, surprisingly they get the wrong answer -- 71210. So after they have tried and failed by doing exactly what I told them to do, I tell them that this problem is an exception to the rule and they'll just have to memorize it, and a lot more like it, because there are a lot of exceptions, because math is crazy. And we're going to have weekly addition tests, and if they get any wrong it will show that they are bad at math, and will probably need extra tutoring to overcome their math disability.

I point out to the parents that if I taught math this way, they would be showing up at the school with torches and pitchforks, and I wouldn't be a teacher for long, and one of the more excitable parents here in Silicon Valley might even have a bit of tar and feathers in the back of their car just in case I didn't go quietly. But when we teach English (or as we unfortunately call it in America, Language Arts) that way, nobody shows up with torches and pitchforks because that's the way everyone teaches it, and that's the way the parents and their parents were taught, and it's even part of the (shudder) Common Core. So they just accept it, and will sometimes start polishing up their pitchforks when a teacher doesn't give the weekly spelling tests. But teaching English that way makes no more sense than teaching math that way -- it's teaching children a lie, and then punishing them when they do exactly what we told them to do.

I sometimes wonder what effect it would have on the number of children diagnosed with learning disabilities if they were all taught Real Spelling, or FWI, or Real English, or whatever you want to call it, right from the start. How many children are diagnosed because of their inability to make sense of nonsense? Alice was able to handle the Red Queen, more or less, but not every child can. And maybe that's their real disability -- they believe their teachers and parents and try to do what they're told.

Comments (2)

  1. Peter Bowers

Nice Matt. I've heard you tell this story and it does reveal the utter absurdity of the situation. Here's the line from your post that really hits home for me,

"How many children are diagnosed because of their inability to make sense of nonsense?" 

This makes me think of a frame I often toss out for consideration regarding dyslexia. It seems to me that one key part of this story could be that dyslexics have an interaction with instruction that misrepresents how the writing system works. Here’s what I mean...

Those who have brains that see a spelling and remember it -- definitely not the brain that I was born with -- are able to receive instruction that misrepresents the conventions of English spelling and just ignore it when what they are told doesn't work. For example, when those brains are told that /t/ is the "T- sound" and <z> is for <zoo>" they just ignore the fact that the /t/ in <jumped> is represented by the <d> of the <-ed> suffix, and that BY FAR the most common way to write /z/ is with the <s>. The learner who just remembers the spelling <dogs> and <kicked> doesn’t spend any time focusing on the /z/ at the end of <dogs> or the /t/ at the end of <kicked>. They don’t even notice that what they were told is not true here.

Perhaps a major problem for dyslexics is trying to make sense of this "nonsense" as you call it. The child who knows the spelling of <dogs> without thinking of it, doesn't even notice that they are ignoring what they've been taught because their orthographic memory happens to be so strong. When they see a <z> however, they do notice a /z/ and so sense that what they’ve been taught is true. The struggling speller, however, dutifully sounds out the final /z/ phoneme in <dogs> because they get stuck and have to think about it. Just as they were taught, they write the <z> for the “<z> sound” and misspell the word.

Imagine the frustration so many struggling kids feel when they are identified for struggling with literacy, get the "extra help" then do what they are told and get it wrong. 

Your question is a profound one. 

It seems to me that if we are going to label a person as having a "learning disability" a basic principle that must be met first is that that person has received instruction that accurately represents the content being taught -- in this case how the writing system works. 

This is such a basic principle that it should hardly need stating. However, the evidence is clear that education has failed to understand long-established facts about English spelling -- and thus is incapable of recognizing its own flaws. 

In 1967, linguist Richard Venezky pointed out the following:

 "...the simple fact is that the present orthography system is not merely a letter-to-sound system riddled with imperfections, but, instead, a more complex and more regular relationship wherein phoneme and morpheme share leading roles" (Venezky, 1967, p. 77). 

How does one reconcile that this uncontroversial understanding in linguistics with the recommendation by Adams (1990) in her hugely influential book “Beginning Reading”:

“Although teaching older readers about the roots [base morphemes] and suffixes of morphologically complex words may be a worthwhile challenge, teaching beginning or less skilled readers about them may be a mistake” (p. 152).

It’s important to recognize that this assertion is not claiming to be supported by research. However, the evidence from the literature is that it was treated as though it was a research-based finding.

A decade later, the National Reading panel (2000) did not raise the issue of morphology even to highlight the lack of studies testing the effect of morphological instruction. They did lament the lack of vocabulary interventions and thus sparked greater interest in that topic.

While there were more and more voices raising questions about Adam's suggestion regarding morphological instruction, the meta-analysis that I was involved in (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010) provided the first comprehensive test of this view that remains assumption in the education world. Not only did the hypothesis that morphological instruction should be avoided with less able and younger students fail to be supported by the evidence -- the exact opposite was found. These are the groups that gained THE MOST. That finding was corroborated by subsequent meta-analyses (Goodwin & Ahn, 2010, 2013). 

See a brief 4-page summary of the research HERE.

And since then there is more direct evidence to consider.

Devonshire, Morris, & Fluck (2013) did an intervention with 120 5 to 7 year-old students using explicit instruction of the interrelation of Morphology, Etymology and Phonology which was compared to a vs phonics condition using “best practice” in the UK. They used word sums and matrices. (Devonshire references word sums but not matrices in the paper -- but confirmed with me via email that they did use matrices.) They found that “The novel intervention significantly improved the literacy skills of the children including both word reading and spelling compared with the phonics condition.”

See a copy of this paper HERE.

Not only do we have the straight forward logical argument that instruction should accurately reflect the content of study before assigning labels of learning disabilities, but the most current  meta-analytic research (what is thought of as the "gold standard") shows that decades of assumptions about teaching "less able and younger students" students was exactly backwards. Struggling  and younger students gain the most from instruction about morphology that was previously explicitly denied them.

You ask, "How many children are diagnosed because of their inability to make sense of nonsense?" 

Far too many has to be the answer. 

A reasonable follow-up question is, "How often does this diagnosis provoke instruction that accurately represents the writing system?"

These questions answer themselves. 

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  1. Felicia Agyepong    Peter Bowers

Hi Matt,

Great Post! I wish I had the eloquence to be able to articulate so succinctly the arguments raised in your post. I have been thinking lately how on earth language arts teachers can get away with teaching language the way they do without regards to concepts and principles in a manner that can never be tolerated in any other subject or 'content area'. As things stand right now; you don't have to understand any concepts and principles about English to be able to teach English but you have to understand math concepts in order to teach math. You just start with examples and keep working your way through. English is okay so long as you keep getting the right answers, but the moment you obtain an answer that does not tally with your first example, then something is wrong with English, not your method. You are not required to check your approach, because the problem is not your approach to working with the language but with English itself. It simply won't do what we want it to do. It is irregular and crazy. However, it has never occurred to us that we are crazy in trying to teach something that we have never bothered to understand for ourselves.

To illustrate a point: I received a personal mail from a parent a couple of weeks ago. She told me that her son (whom I know) received the diagnosis of having dysgraphia last summer. She said the diagnosis meant nothing to her, but she got the test done so that her child could receive the help he needed at school. This child attends a premier international school. According to the mother, neither the class teacher nor the Special Education teacher 'gets it'. Her child is very smart but for some reason can't seem to make sense of what they are teaching about language, and for some strange (or not so strange) reason, English spelling is the only area he struggles with in school. She said the situation is affecting her son so badly that he had to see a psychologist throughout most of last academic year. How sad! Now how many children is our present system sending to psychologists or worse places because of how English or Language Arts is taught. Not all children can memorize random lists of words.

I recently had the privilege of listening to an expert of English language tell her audience to require their students to 'take a camera and take pictures of the word "vicious" in order to remember the spelling because there is no other way of knowing why there is no in that spelling'. So, if you receive such instruction from the experts, what else can you do in the classroom and what will be the end of the poor students who receive such instruction from you? A lot of students who cannot make sense of your nonsense will receive a whole lot of labels. And the labels may help ensure the success of some experts' careers.

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