Get ready to do science! You’ll definitely need your clip board and pencil so you can take careful notes. A scientist strives to leave a trail that others might easily follow. You won’t need safety goggles, but you might stick your reading glasses in your pocket. Instead of messy chemicals, we’re going to investigate words.
Looking at words and spelling as a scientist might is just plain brilliant. For children, and for all of us really, it means there are not absolute right and wrong answers. It means that there are understandings that can be explained with the evidence gathered. It means that the current understandings may at some future point be altered should new evidence surface. It also means we can let go of the false notion that there are exceptions when discussing spelling rules. A scientist would not accept exceptions. A scientist keeps researching, collecting data, comparing, and looking for a way to make sense of a spelling that doesn’t seem to fit their current understanding.
For example, I have asked students in groups of two to investigate words with <ch> and <tch>. Step one was to have them write a hypothesis describing when to use <ch> and when to use <tch> in a word. Next they were to collect a sample of words to examine. The students brainstormed and used resources to make long lists of words. As they collected the words, they sorted them into two lists. The heading of one list was the digraph <ch>, and the heading of the other list was the trigraph <tch>. This was the easy part.
Now I asked them to make a list of things they observed about the two columns of words. Students are used to being told what to look for. This type of scientific thinking and questioning needs a bit of encouraging. But within 15 minutes groups began noticing very useful things. Here is a compilation of observations made by the groups so far.
1. Both <ch> and <tch> can be found at the end (final position) in a word.
2. <ch> can be found at the beginning (initial position) of a word, but <tch> is not.
3. When <tch> is in the middle (medial position) of a word, it is because that word has a suffix.
4. Sometimes a consonant precedes <ch>.
5. A vowel always precedes <tch>.
6. Sometimes a vowel precedes <ch>.
7. Sometimes <ch> in a word is pronounced /k/.
There is more to observe. Only one group so far has noticed that when a vowel is in front of the <ch> digraph, it is actually two vowels – a vowel digraph. None of the groups have noticed in what way the vowels preceding the <tch> trigraph are alike. But then again, they are not finished with their investigation.
After there has been a chance for the word scientists to share and perhaps challenge the findings, I’ll ask them to rewrite their hypotheses for using <tch> versus <ch>.
Would it save time for me to just tell them what I think their hypothesis will be? Hmmm. Talk to any scientist about their work. Are they at a loss for words? Are they enthusiastic to know more? Can they tell you about the pitfalls they encountered in their research and how they came to a more solid understanding through investigation?
I have already internalized an understanding about <ch> and <tch>. It is time for my students to do the same – for themselves. Science rules!