When Are You Ready Enough?

I get a lot of great comments about my blog, and about how lucky my students must be to be learning so much about English spelling.  I appreciate each and every comment.  It’s great that other teachers, parents, tutors, etc. recognize that the understanding I offer is very different to what they themselves learned when they were in fifth grade.  Instead of seeing spelling as a mindless exercise in rote memorization, my students see it as fascinating because of all the investigating and discovering they now know how to do.  There are stories and explanations embedded in every word, and every word is part of a family, complete with its own family tree!

What isn’t as obvious to my students, but is very obvious to me is how understanding the historical sense and meaning of a word can affect how a person uses that word when writing or understands that word when reading.  Since spell check came out, many people are thinking that teaching spelling is not as necessary as it used to be.  But then again, they are equating learning spelling with mindless memorization of strings of letters.  They have not visited my classroom.

The people who read what I am doing and just know deep inside that this is what should be taught in all classrooms, often accompany their enthusiastic comments with questions.

“I want to begin, but do I know enough?”
“Should I wait until after I take more classes?”
“What other classes do you teach?”
“When did you start?”
“What if the students ask a question, and I don’t know the answer?”
“I’d love to investigate words with my students, but where do I start?”

I get it.  When it comes to trying new things in the classroom, it can be a bit overwhelming.  Especially when there is no scope and sequence to follow.  As teachers, we are used to having step by step teaching guides that set a pace that we can follow.  I have always been one to understand that, and yet, I must admit, the professional in me has always felt a bit claustrophobic when using one.

Back when I began teaching 5th grade, I felt confident that I could effectively teach all subjects except two – grammar and spelling. The materials left behind by the previous teacher just felt ineffective.  The words, “Get out your English book” could quickly drain the color from the faces in front of me. The students weren’t involved enough in thinking about grammar and thinking about spelling.  Everything was “fill in the blank” and “write definitions using the dictionary”.  As a student, I used to find that kind of classwork super boring and usually finished the assignment without thinking about what I was doing or why.  As a teacher, I couldn’t honestly see any long lasting benefit to the work.  I knew I wasn’t really teaching children how the parts of speech they were learning about came together to represent a complete thought.  I knew I wasn’t really teaching children to understand English spelling.  But how could I teach what I, myself, didn’t understand?

That’s why I was thrilled back in 2004 to have had the opportunity to hear Michael Clay Thompson speak.

He changed my grammar teaching life!  His 4Level Sentence Analysis was intriguing to my students and they learned more about grammar than ever before.  MCT made grammar thought provoking, yet understandable.   Over the years, my students and I have done a lot of analysis at the board and had rich discussions about the role words can play depending on their placement and function within a sentence.  Students don’t just fill in a blank with a good guess.  They are able to state how they know that in a specific sentence, a word is a specific part of speech.  What follows is that they understand how the meaning of the sentence is constructed.  Since 2004, MCT has expanded his selection of age level grammar and writing books.  Find a full description and listing of his language arts materials HERE. The following video was taken in February of 2013.  I had already been using MCT’s grammar materials for 8 years, but this gives you an example of the kind of thinking required to analyze the structure of a sentence in this way.  [You might notice that the word ‘our’ as in ‘our wagon’ was incorrectly identified in this video as a pronoun, and that I did not spot the error.  It is the kind of adjective that is a possessive determiner.  It is pointing to the noun ‘wagon’.]

Because I was so impressed with the results I was seeing in my classroom, I also began using some of MCT’s other curriculum materials to enhance what I was required to use for spelling.  I started with his Building Language books and loved that my students began learning Greek and Latin word stems.  I also incorporated vocabulary words from his Caesar’s English 1 book.  Teaching some Latin and Greek stems gave my classroom learning experience a big boost!   I was satisfied with what I was doing … until I came across Dan Allen’s blog in late 2012.

In 2012 I decided to start a classroom blog, and went in search of other upper elementary classrooms to connect with.  When I happened upon Dan’s blog, I was fascinated.  He took what I was teaching my students using MCT’s Greek and Latin stems materials to a whole new level.   After a weekend spent reading every post on Dan Allen’s blog, I was raring to do what he was doing.  I just knew THIS was what I needed to do.  THIS was what would make a difference in the lives of my students.  Dan was digging into words and letting his students ask really deep, rich questions about spelling.  He was teaching his students that spelling is NOT just a random collection of letters, and that it is NOT meant to represent the pronunciation of a word.  By Sunday afternoon I had contacted Dan, and he put me in touch with Real Spelling.   Seventeen years into my teaching career, I finally began learning and teaching how English spelling works!

I’ve never been shy about trying something new in my classroom. I have always kept my eyes open for ways to make the learning memorable and at the same time for my students to enjoy having learned.  Studying English spelling by treating it as a science would be no different.  But in such a big way it was.  This wasn’t just a new and clever presentation of the same old thing.  It wasn’t a program, and it didn’t come in a shiny box with 1001 accessory books/assessments/teacher guides.  It didn’t even have a hefty price tag!  This was inquiry. This was looking at spelling with a scientific methodology.  My students and I could start working the minute we assembled the needed materials:  our questions, pen and paper to record our thinking, and dictionaries (regular and etymological).  Whoa!  I couldn’t think of any good reason not to jump right in!

So here I was, halfway through the school year, knocking on my principal’s door.  “Would it be okay if I abandoned our spelling books and tried something different for the second half of this year?”  I went on to explain what I understood at that time about Structured Word Inquiry, or as we were also calling it, Scientific Word Investigation.  Thankfully, my principal was open to the idea, and I was given permission to see if this way of learning about words could be as powerful in my classroom as it appeared to be in Dan Allen’s.

My next step was to write a letter to the parents of my students to explain what I was doing and why there would no longer be a spelling list or a spelling test.  Then, of course, I needed to pitch this idea to my students.  Quite surprisingly, not all were in favor of doing away with a spelling test.  But as you might guess, those who hated memorizing spelling lists were delighted.  And so we jumped in.  I reread Dan’s posts and also read Ann Whiting’s blog posts.  She was teaching a 7th grade Humanities class in Kuala Lampur and wrote inspiring blog posts.  (Ann is no longer teaching, but you can read her wonderful wonderful posts HERE and HERE).  I became part of an email group in which questions were shared and discussions ensued.  At that point, I mostly listened and learned.  I adapted activities from both blogs to use in my classroom.  And everyday we spent time investigating and understanding words like we never had before!  It was wonderful.

But was I prepared?  Was I knowledgeable enough?  No.  I really wasn’t.  But I didn’t pretend I was either.  My students knew I didn’t have answers to their questions.  I was very clear about that. I told them that I would be learning WITH them.  And that was the truth.  We asked questions of Real Spelling a lot in those first months.  I was also in contact with Ann Whiting and Dan Allen, who were both helpful and made me feel comfortable about asking so many questions.  To this day, that group of students holds a very special place in my heart because of the extraordinary shared learning we experienced.  Their enthusiasm and level of questioning played off of my own and our classroom became a place where thoughtful questions came to roost.  Here are two short  videos of those students in the midst of investigations.

By May, my students and I sat down to reflect on the learning.  It was unanimously stated that I should continue to study orthography with my next fifth grade group in the fall.  I felt the same way.  The students felt as if they had learned to spell without really consciously thinking about it.  In focusing on the elements in their word sums, and then how to apply suffixing conventions, they had indeed become more accurate in their spelling!  Besides spelling, they also felt more of a connection to words. After having investigated and discovered the stories of so many words, the students understood those words in a way that a dictionary definition just couldn’t match .  They had zeroed in on the denotations of base elements and the senses that affixes contribute to words.  They could compare what they knew a word to be revealing about its meaning to what a dictionary said about the word’s current usage.  So many rich discussions!

To reinforce the learning that we were doing, the students brainstormed words that might fit on a matrix for <star>.  I printed the matrix out, and scheduled time in each of the three second grade classrooms in our building to teach those students about word sums.  In this way, each of my students was paired with a second grade student and then taught them about writing word sums (and also the suffixing convention that deals with doubling).  At the time, I had a self-contained classroom (one group of students all day), so each of my students had three opportunities to teach word sums to second grade students.  My students found out that, “The best way to know if you know something is to teach it to someone else,” is a true statement!

When school was out for the summer, I needed to seriously consider what training/classes I would seek.  The first on my list was a 3 day training on Wolfe Island with Dr. Peter Bowers.  Having spent most of my life thinking there wasn’t anything to understand about English spelling, I found this training exhilarating!  Pete had spent ten years as a classroom teacher, so I knew he understood a teacher’s perspective.  His goal was to open our eyes to what was true about our language and contrast that with what we have been taught that could easily be falsified.  He gave us lots of opportunities to dig in and learn in the same way our students would. I met some great people who, like me, were excited to be finally understanding things about English spelling.  Many of those friendships have flourished since then, since we email or see each other in classes (through Zoom) once in a while.  These days Pete Bowers travels a lot and presents to teachers around the world.  If you are wondering whether he’s presenting near you, read more HERE.

In the years since, I have taken classes when I could, started a collection of reference books so I could research on my own, and continued to write blog posts like this one to share some of what happens with my students and some of what I notice on my own.  When posting here and when teaching orthography to my students each year, I am always cognizant and appreciative of how my story with Structured Word Inquiry began.  It was one teacher sharing and then connecting with another.  My regular posts on this blog have been my attempt to pay it forward.  I realize that not all who read my blog are classroom teachers, but if you are in any way giving a child truth about English spelling in place of gimmicky tricks that are designed to help a person remember what does not make sense, you are a teacher.

So if you know in your heart that Structured Word Inquiry will help a child in your life, think carefully about how long you intend to withhold that information – that adventure of inquiry.  Are you one who is most comfortable waiting for the understanding to gel in your own head before sitting down with a child?  Are you one who is most comfortable jumping in and asking questions as you go?  You have to determine when you are ready.  The child you are thinking of is ready already.  Don’t keep them waiting longer than necessary.  Luckily there are some introductory classes that will help you learn the terminology to use and some of the basic understanding needed as you begin.  Here is a list of introductory course offerings available in the SWI community:

Bringing Structured Word Inquiry into the Classroom  –  I teach a four episode (90 minutes each) online class.  Check this out HERE.

Introductory SWI Class  – Lisa Barnett at See the Beauty in Dyslexia offers a three episode (90 minutes each) online class.  Check this out HERE.

Intro to SWI  – Rebecca Loveless offers an online class.  She also offers an ongoing study group opportunity.  Check these out HERE.

An Introduction to Structured Word Inquiry  – Dyslexia Training Institute offers a six week (30-40 hours) class.  Check this out HERE.

I am also adding a link to the joint blog/workshop opportunities (Australia based) of Ann Whiting and Lyn Anderson:  Caught in the Spell of Words.  Check it out HERE.

The important thing to remember here is that you don’t have to have all the answers as you begin.  That being said, you do need to identify what it is you don’t know as you move forward so you can seek the understanding you need.  Do not be afraid of making errors.  Expect to make errors.  Celebrate the day you spot them and  replace them with a deeper understanding and new questions.  Investigate and present your findings to others.  Then have a dialogue about what you found.  The most wonderful learning happens when my students present their findings.  We all move our chairs so that we are close to the board and the presenters.  Then when the presentation is over, the questions, comments, dialogue and learning begins.

I am leaving you with this great quote that has inspired me through moments of self doubt:

 

Four-Level Sentence Analysis and Structured Word Inquiry – Both Rooted Solidly in Scholarship …

I love teaching grammar.  No, really!  I love teaching grammar.  Of course, I didn’t always love it.  I began loving it when I met Michael Clay Thompson.  He revolutionized the way I was teaching it.   It’s hard to imagine something other than what I grew up doing – going through each part of speech as laid out in our English textbook with plenty of fill-in-the-blank sentences, in order to prepare for a test on things learned in isolation.  But Michael Clay Thompson thought of a different way to teach it, and his idea is brilliant!

He encourages teachers to review/teach the parts of speech and the parts of a sentence within the first month of the school year.  That sounds crazy, yes?  That does not leave enough time to teach to mastery, but that’s okay.  The mastery happens later on, after the sentence analysis starts.  You see, after that first month of intense review and teaching, I start writing sentences on the board to be analyzed.  And we spend the rest of the school year understanding the interrelationships and functions of the parts of speech, the parts of the sentence, and the phrases because we see them over and over in different sentences as they are being analyzed. In other words, we spend one month of reviewing/learning and 7-8 months of applying what was learned.  See?  Brilliant!

To begin with, the sentences are simple and short.  But the analysis is the same:

Now here’s what that looks like with a real sentence:

The first row below the sentence is parts of speech.  If you are wondering what ‘det.’ stands for, it is an abbreviation for determiner.  Over the course of the last year, I have come to understand and embrace the idea of a ninth part of speech – that of the determiner.  Prior to that, I had, like a lot of people, considered articles to be a type of adjective.  But identifying a determiner as a word that begins a noun phrase has been especially helpful to my students.  When they spot a determiner (and because of their frequent use in sentences, this is one of the first parts of speech students become confident about identifying) they know that a noun (or pronoun) will follow.  It may be the next word, or it may be after one or more adjectives (or adjective with an intensifier), but it will be there!

Articles (definite and indefinite) are not the only types of determiners we see.  Other types include quantifier, possessive, interrogative, and demonstrative.  Identifying determiners in our sentences has given my students a predictable pattern to look for.  The noun phrase usually begins with a determiner and ends with a noun or pronoun.  In between those two we might see adverb-adjective pairs, adjectives, or nothing at all.  There is also the possibility that a determiner won’t be used, as is the case with some noncount nouns.

Other than the abbreviation for determiners, I imagine you can figure out that ‘LV’ stands for linking verb.  In the second row, the important parts of the sentence are identified.  Because this sentence has a linking verb, we look for a subject complement (calm).  If the verb was an action verb, we would look first for a direct object and secondly for an indirect object.

In the third row, we identify any phrases.  This sentence has an appositive phrase.  In the last row we identify the sentence structure.  This sentence is a simple sentence with one independent clause.  The word declarative identifies the type of sentence this is.

In a nutshell, my example above illustrates the four level sentence analysis my students and I engage in for 7-8 months of the school year.  Can you imagine how comfortable some of this feels by the end of the year?  They have the opportunity to keep making sense of the order of words in sentences!  They have the opportunity to keep making sense of the functions and interrelationships of words in these sentences.  They begin to realize that the function of a word within a sentence determines its part-of-speech label.  I particularly love it when a sentence contains a word that is able to function as more than one part of speech and the students need to reason out what its particular function is in the sentence before them!  They become so invested in figuring it out!

But a bigger benefit to all of this is what happens when I conference with the students about their writing.  I can address specific aspects of their writing using specific language that they now understand.  A typical comment from me might be, “You have a dependent clause here, but remember?  A dependent clause is not a sentence on its own.  It needs an independent clause either in front of it or behind it to complete the thought.”  I might also say, “You have written a pretty terrific complex sentence, but it is missing its comma.  Begin reading it aloud and tell me where the comma should be.”  The students understand what I am saying to them and feel good about being able to make fix-ups so easily.

This is what it looks like as students are actively analyzing a sentence:

So this is obviously scholarship, but what does it have to do with Structured Word Inquiry?  Yesterday I came across a recent article by Michael Clay Thompson.  It was posted at Fireworks Press where you can find all of the Language Arts curriculum materials he has written.  Click HERE to check it out.  The title of the article is “Doing four-level grammar analysis is like practicing your piano”.  In the article, he addresses why students need to continue analyzing sentences at every level, even if they’ve already been doing it for several years.

In my situation, students are analyzing sentences for the first time.  The benefits are obvious.  But what about next year and the year after that?  When is enough enough?  I sincerely hope you spend the time reading his response.  To that end I will not post the highlights of it.  If I tried, I’d have to post the whole article anyway!  I will, however, share two of his thoughts because they philosophically parallel how I feel about my other passion, Structured Word Inquiry.

“Four level analysis is different because it is an expansive-almost cosmic-inquiry into language, with four tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously, and it is investigating something that is not concrete or simple but that is essentially bottomless.”

For those familiar with SWI, do you see the parallel?  As I’ve been teaching my online class, Getting a Grip on Grammar, I’ve been realizing more and more how similar the investigations into these two areas can be.  I love thinking of SWI’s four essential questions as well as MCT’s four-level analysis as “tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously”.  And clearly neither is “concrete or simple”, but “essentially bottomless”.  There was a time when I would’ve thought of that as an overwhelming idea – thinking I would be expected to know all of it at some point.  But scholarship isn’t like that.

Scholarship is not what happens when you use a textbook, memorize definitions, and get tested.  Scholarship is done leisurely.  It is a continual pursuit to understand better what one only understands partially.  There is no test.  There are only questions to be posed, investigations to be launched, and evidence to be gathered.  Here I will share another quote from Michael Clay Thompson’s article.  In your mind, replace ‘Four-level analysis’ with ‘scholarship’ because clearly the one is a form of the other.

“Four-level analysis can lead you through the known, beyond the terms, past the things that have already been named, and on out to the edge, where the wild questions are.”

It’s alright if you read it a second time.  Because of my passion for both SWI and grammar, this sentence not only resonates with me, it also makes me smile!  Scholarship is a worthy pursuit, whether it be in regards to words, grammar, or in playing the piano.  Thank you Michael Clay Thompson for the beautifully written, inspirational article!

**If you are interested in learning more about the grammar instruction my 5th graders receive, there is a tab at the top of this page that says “Grammar Class”.  That is where you can find out about current schedules.  If there isn’t one currently scheduled, just let me know your preference for time-of-day and dates.  I will created a new schedule!