Why Study Orthography?

I have been reflecting on my previous post and the great comments I received on that post from people I admire and respect.  In an email to these same friends, I described my students and me as on “a road less traveled”.  It seemed fitting to borrow a line from Robert Frost’s poem, since it was a poem whose idea surfaced and resurfaced in our room all year.  Picture it like I do.  In the line  “two roads diverged in a yellow wood”, the wood symbolizes public schools. One of the roads represents traditional spelling instruction and the other orthography.  I’ve been on “the road less traveled” for a year and a half now.  And choosing this road really and truly has made all the difference.

When watching the videos from this year and last, it has been soul-satisfying to hear how studying orthography has made my students feel.   As Dan Allen says (in the comments of the previous post), it IS about language and spelling, and yet it is about so much more.  My students loved getting so involved in the search.  The more they learned about searching and what they were seeing, the more fun it was to set forth.

By the end of the year, students eagerly began investigations on their own and planned out presentation posters in all sizes.  Finding unfamiliar words in their personal reading was no longer a thing to be ignored.  Those were the words that they wrote word sum hypotheses about.  Those were the words they chose to investigate.  Those were the words that brought images and life to the story because they now carried meaning.

Questioning each other became an everyday activity, and no one was threatened by it.  It was freeing for all of us to realize that we weren’t searching for that one right answer, but rather an answer built on our research, our knowledge of the rules of English, and our logical thinking.  As we learned bits about Greek and Latin, they too were incorporated with glee!  Every bit of new information was welcomed because it helped us make sense of a subject that never made sense before.  No matter how hard we all worked at it, traditional spelling instruction only ever taught us to memorize one word at a time, 20 words a week, 360 words a school year.  But success was only for the few who could memorize well.  And let’s face it.  That is not the majority of students.

Does this mean students in my class never misspell words?  Of course not.  It means, though, that they can have a conversation about whether or not the consonant before the suffix should or should not be doubled.  They can have a conversation about what the prefix is and how it modifies the meaning of the base.  They can make a hypothesis about what the word sum might be, and they can defend that hypothesis.  They can have a conversation about pulling off suffixes and whether or not the base has a final ‘e’.  They spell out bases, prefixes, and suffixes because they know that none of these has a pronunciation until it surfaces in a word.  They can use resources (online and hard copy) independently to back up their investigation findings.  They can question their classmates with an air of genuine curiosity, earnestly seeking to make sense of new information and incorporate it into current understandings.

Since we’ve dropped traditional spelling instruction and become orthographers, we expect spelling to make sense.  This basic premise intrigues us.  We are ecstatic that we can silence the voices of our pasts that say, “sound it out”,  “just memorize it”, or  “nobody knows why”.  We feel like we are cracking unsolved cases wide open!  We feel joy and satisfaction and pride in what we know!

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4 thoughts on “Why Study Orthography?

  1. Mary Beth!

    Just as I finish up a WW Update that makes your previous post the focus to end the year — you share this wonderful follow up.

    I kept reading bits I was going to highlight, and then I hit this and had to re-emphasize it:

    “Questioning each other became an everyday activity, and no one was threatened by it. It was freeing for all of us to realize that we weren’t searching for that one right answer, but rather an answer built on our research, our knowledge of the rules of English, and our logical thinking.”

    Exactly.

    Then I got to this point:

    “Since we’ve dropped traditional spelling instruction and become orthographers, we expect spelling to make sense.”

    This distinction between studying “spelling” and studying “orthography” became a central point in my reflection on your last post. Then I see that you bolded this point so eloquently to end this piece.

    You and your students are lighting the way for me and so many others — always one step ahead!

    Many thanks.

  2. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and I am continually impressed by your students, particularly by their understanding of the English language. They (and you) are amazing!

    I am moving from third to fifth grade next year, and I would like to veer away from traditional spelling instruction. Are there any particular resources you’d recommend for a teacher who is just beginning to explore orthography? I see that you have a page of orthography resources on the blog, but I’m wondering where to start. Thank you for the inspiration!

    Regards,
    Shauna Hamman
    Mrs. Hamman’s Class Blog

    • Welcome Shauna! I’m thrilled that you may be joining us in orthographical pursuit. I have learned so much in the last year and a half from all of the places listed in my Orthographic Resources tab!

      To begin, I would recommend you go to the Word Works link. That is Pete Bowers site. There is a lot to see there. Scroll down to his section called “Key Links”. On the far left there is a section called, “Where to Begin”. All of the links listed will provide useful information.

      I would also suggest that you watch Gina Cooke’s TED videos. I’ve shown them to my class several times. The one called “Making Sense of Spelling” is perfect for introducing the idea that spelling isn’t just about sound.

      I would also suggest that you visit other classroom blogs where the students are investigating words. I have fashioned so many activities from what I have seen other teachers doing.

      At Real Spelling, you will see short films in the gallery. Each is fascinating and tells the story of a word’s spelling. I highly recommend purchasing the ToolKit 2 at this site. You can see an overview of the information in the Toolkit in the top far right. The amount of information in this Toolkit is astounding! It is the best and most comprehensive resource regarding our language that I’ve ever seen. I continually learn from it, and have created many Smartboard lessons based in the information in it.

      Let me know if you have questions. I will help in any way I can!

      Mary Beth Steven

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