Lancer Letter – Words, Words, Words

Submitted by Richard Scaletta, GM School District

Having had the chance recently to view some reading lessons in action, I was reminded what an amazing thing it is to teach a child to read. This Lancer Letter was originally written in 2014 and has been updated.

Think for a moment about the complications of human language. You are looking at what may be considered arbitrarily conceived squiggles called letters that are formed into something called words. These words are placed in an order in such a way that ideas are conveyed. There are many other languages that structure their squiggles, words and word-order differently than we do, yet those languages also convey ideas.

Now let’s consider the foibles of the English language. Some vowels go together and make one sound. For example, “ai, ea, ou, ue.” The rule on this is “you usually make the sound of the first vowel or a long vowel sound.” Usually. So if we applied this rule to the word “you” we wouldn’t pronounce it like the baby sheep (ewe) but like the rapper hail, “Yo! Dawg!” As luck would have it, this frequently used pronoun is one of the exceptions to the rule. So is the word “eight.” Should sound like “eat” but is pronounced like “ate.” Who makes these rules, anyway?

Speaking of “eight” and “ate,” that brings up the issue of homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have very different meanings. For example, mane and main, pail and pale, and waste and waist. These can be very confusing for people who are new to the language. Homophones are confusing but contribute to funny riddles. For example, “What do you call a bunch of rabbits standing on a line and all taking one step back simultaneously?” Answer: a receding hare line! Haha – get it?

Without homophones, how could we ever enjoy childish humor?

There is also the issue of pronunciation and writing what you hear. When you hear the words, “physics and fun” you would logically expect them to start with the same letter. Yet, there is that “ph” issue that prevents the perfect spelling of a word using the “f” sound from being correct. Consider the letters “c” and “k”. They sound pretty much the same when they come before a vowel but then there are words like “celery” with the soft c sound. How can you keep it all straight?

Knowing the correct word to convey meaning is also important. Consider this student’s description of Socrates: “Socrates was a famous Greek teacher who went around giving people advice. They killed him. Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.” Word choice matters.

Speaking of word choice, why does the English language have many words that seem to mean the opposite of what you would expect. Why is it called a HAMBURGER, when it’s made out of BEEF? Why does quicksand work slowly? As one comedian says, “Why do we drive on a parkway and park in a driveway?”

Yes, the English language is filled with contradictions and surprises. What I’ve noted above is just a fraction of the idiosyncrasies of the language. So, how would you teach it to a 6 year old? Or even an 8 year old? When do you break the news that the child’s t-shirt that says, “Phat Pharm” is really not spelled correctly? At what age can a child handle, “i before e except after c?”

For the last three years, a group of our highly competent elementary teachers, under the direction of Curriculum Director Jason Buto, made all those decisions plus many more. They laid out a Writing Curriculum, a Word Study Curriculum, and a Reading Curriculum that outlines year by year and week by week, when and how the English language will be taught. It notes when letter sounds are introduced, when the rules and their exceptions are taught, how to introduce grammar concepts and all the other many aspects of communicating in English. They had to coordinate the curricula to work together. Though we can segment different parts of language (phonics, grammar, sentence structure, etc.), we know that we best learn holistically and must consider all elements of language together.

If you have been thinking about my question regarding how to teach the English language to young children, you realize how extremely complicated it can be. It is certainly not “elementary.” We are fortunate to have the professional, highly skilled teachers we have who have been developing and implementing a very effective curriculum. They are providing our children the incredible gift of reading. While complicated to learn and understand, they make it accessible to children. Through a child’s ability to read, teachers open a world of possibilities.

We are very excited about what is happening with reading in our young children. They truly love to read and can discuss their reading at a very high level.

When you see one of our elementary teachers, be sure to thank them for their phine, I mean, fine work!

The Lancer Letter is a weekly editorial by Richard Scaletta, Superintendent of Schools, General McLane School District. Opinions expressed are Mr. Scaletta’s views on the issues and subjects of discussion, and not necessarily those of or our sponsors.

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