June 30, 2010

More Tools

As you may have read in a previous post, A "Dinosaur" Can Be a Dangerous Thing, I have concerns about letting young children, especially - and even older kids - have free reign with a thesaurus. It's not that a thesaurus (a.k.a., "dinosaur") has no place in composition and language arts study. But I do think we need to educate our students about how to properly and judiciously use one and to decrease their need for it in the first place through age-appropriate vocabulary instruction - all of which you can read more about in the linked post and all of which I still stand behind.

Recently, though, a very wise friend pointed out to me a different, spelling-related use for the dinosaur that I think is actually quite brilliant.

To illustrate, let's say that your child wants to choose a "strong word" for her composition and picks beautiful. However, she's unsure of the spelling. She knows from your instruction that she needn't worry too much about exact spelling in a rough draft or even in revision - because spelling errors will be corrected when she edits. So she segments the word as best she can and comes up with byutifull.

When it comes time to edit, she sees that you've circled the word and marked sp above it, and so she knows what she has to fix. She pulls out her dictionary, intending to look it up, but then stops short. In order to find the word there, she has to know how to spell it...but that is precisely what she's trying to discover.

So now she's stuck. What can she do?

Dig out her dinosaur, of course!

She can't look up beautiful...but she has a good vocabulary, and she knows that pretty is a synonym. She knows how to spell that. So she looks up pretty, scans the list of synonyms, finds beautiful, makes her correction, and happily moves on through the editing process. What's more, the spelling of beautiful may now even "stick" in her mind because of the process she's gone through to figure it out on her own.

And that, my friends, is a wonderful use of the thesaurus - one that even I can fully embrace!

As my friend explained this concept to me, she also pointed to a pocket-sized book on her desk, explaining that she uses it all the time. You see, though she has a Ph.D. in education and has authored two books, my friend claims to be a horrible speller.

Now, perhaps if she'd had the benefit of using AAS as a child, that would be a different story! But the fact remains that spelling is difficult for her - as it is for so many - and so she has learned coping strategies along the way. Among them is the little dinosaur trick I've described and regular use of the little book, Webster's New World Pocket Misspeller's Dictionary.

Being a "natural speller," I'd never heard of it, but I was very impressed when I took a look. Turns out, this book lists thousands of words - no definitions, just words - according to the most commonly used misspellings for them. So your daughter could look up byutifull, very likely find it, and then see the proper spelling of the word listed alongside her version.

My two girls - now eight and nine - have made amazing progress in their spelling since we started AAS. Just today, we jumped into Step 19 in Level 2, and I was very impressed that each could quickly and correctly identify whether c says /k/ or /s/ in front of each letter given in the Concept Review - and they knew their answers depended on the "e, i, or y" rule we first learned months ago. So I have no doubt that each will be a strong speller by the time we finish AAS's Level 7 a few years from now.

My eight-year old happens to be a rather natural speller, so that's probably all she'll need to become proficient. However, spelling doesn't come quite as easily to my nine-year old. Of course, I want to provide her with as many useful tools as possible to help her along the way with literacy. And so - just as a plumber carries not just one wrench but a whole set of varying sizes - I'm going to help her work through all of AAS, but also teach her about the dinosaur and get her a copy of the misspeller's dictionary.

That way, she'll have lots of strategies "in her back pocket." And, when she gets stuck on a spelling task, she can analyze all her "wrenches," decide which one would be most helpful for the current situation, and quickly and efficiently fix the "leak."

Photo Credit: Fifi LePew


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