Thursday, May 03, 2007

Why I can't teach reading & spelling...

When I was a very small child, I was read to. A lot. My mother signed up for book clubs and we had several sets of books on the shelves. The Entire Dr. Suess collection,the Sweet Pickles books, the Berenstein Bears. Everyone read to me, from my mom to my grandparents, aunts and uncles, older cousins. Basically whoever I could get to read to me, did. I had a very solid vocabulary at an early age and soaked up everything that had to do with language; spoken word, written word, double entendre, innuendo, jokes.. everything. Often, if I couldn't get someone to read to me, I'd pull out a book and "read" it to myself, having heard the story a zillion times and memorized it fully.

When I was four, during Christmas break at preschool, my grandmother heard me "reading" in the next room. After a few minutes of listening it was apparent I was not just reciting from memory, but actually reading the story. She came into the room, pointed to a word and said, "What's that word?" "The." I told her. "That one?" "About." She did this for several minutes before picking a book off the shelf that wasn't read to me often. And I read it. Front to back. I had learned to read simply by seeing the words as I heard them. Throughout my early school years, my love of language gave me an advantage in spelling as well. Most of the spelling words assigned were words I'd read and written a thousand times already. I can't say that I enjoyed a literature, composition or language class until high school. Before then I was just bored.

When Chad was born, I was determined to immerse him in language. I knew the fact that I was spoken to like a person instead of a baby, and read to so frequently, was the reason I could read and speak with such fluency at an early age. I intended to repeat the process with my kids. I bought gobs of books. I read to Chad every day, even before he was old enough to ask me to. We sang the ABC's and practiced letter sounds wherever we went. "Look at the sign for the fruit. See? 'F' says 'ffff' for 'fffruit'. I was happy when Chad entered preschool and the teacher expressed her amazement at his knowledge of letters, shapes and colors. He did not learn to read at home, but learned in kindergarten and 1st grade with a program called ReadWell in the public school. Unfortunately, by the time we started homeschooling halfway through second grade, Chad was not reading with much fluency. He was phonics-focused and it was impossible for him to read words like "friend" that can't be sounded out easily. So I began a whole-language word recognition exercise every day. It went something like this:

Me- This word is "boathouse." "th" usually says "thhh" but this is a compound word. Boat-house. Boathouse. Say it.
Chad- Boathouse.
Me- This word is "would." You don't hear the "L" in this word, but that's how it's spelled. Say it.
Chad- Would.
Me- What's this word again?
Chad- Boathouse.
Me- And this one?
Chad- Would.

We did this every day. For reading, it really helped. He now reads books one or two grades ahead of his grade level. But it was an exhausting process that left us both feeling like crap. I was pushing his reading like a drill instructor, and he was hating reading everything I gave him. He refused to read on his own, just for fun. It wasn't fun at all. He's finally found some books he actually enjoys and I think he'll turn into a reader after all, but the process sucked. I wouldn't have pushed him at all, but was positive that his reading and writing ability would be greatly damaged unless he learned to do it properly.

He still cannot spell at anything better than 1st or 2nd grade level some days. He can read, but he can't spell. He can read all the words he misspells. His spelling is also phonetic, regardless of how many times he's read the word to know it's not spelled like it sounds. I've tried daily spelling practice. I've tried spelling rules. I've tried spelling aloud. Nothing has worked for him.

I don't know what else to do. Through all the struggle with Chad's spelling and now Cadence learning to read and write (on her own initiative, thankfully), I've realized I don't have the slightest idea how to teach it. I just learned. I just knew. Explain how to breathe. Teach someone how to sneeze. I don't have a clue how to explain the thinking behind learning a new word because it's something I just do. I see the word, I pronounce it, I know it. I spell as if by instinct. I typed "entendre" in the first paragraph having never seen the word in print before, double-checked and found it correct. I'm not saying I'm perfect by any means, but the way I see spelling and reading, the way I think about them, is getting in the way of teaching them.

For now, I almost have no choice but to cycle through reading and spelling programs. This one didn't work. Nope, that one didn't either. I'm just shooting for fluent readers and spellers sometime before they're 30.


Robinella said...

I have the same things happening with my 7yo. I have read enough "evidence" to support boys as late readers and have decided to back off. Our reading time is not just crappy, it's excruciating for both of us. Backing off instead of changing programs has paid off a little. When we do read, he doesn't look like he's gonna vomit anymore. Hang in there.

Lynanne said...

I think spelling is a lot like math - some kids are good at it and others aren't. Beyond the basics, I’m not sure it’s something that can be taught. I'm with Chad - some days I cannot spell the simplest of words. Take a word like “feel” and I’ll stare at it and think it should be spelled “feal.” How about “label?” I’ll try to spell it “lable” (it’s similar to “table” isn’t it?). I can tell these words are spelled wrong now but I’ve had to train myself over and over again. I had to do this as an adult – I never could learn as a child. Every time I write something, I challenge myself to spell words correctly. Most of the time I still resort to using a spell checker. Yet, I still managed to excel in academics.

My two boys are polar opposites when it comes to reading and spelling. One is an avid reader and proficient speller. The other has been reading since an early age but chooses picture books over books at his level. He also struggles with spelling. On the other hand, he does complex math calculations in his head while his brother works them out on paper.

I guess what I’m trying to say is not to be so hard on yourself or your teaching abilities. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being a guide rather than a teacher. Offer challenges but trust your instinct to back off when it becomes too much of a struggle. He can still go far in life with marginal spelling abilities, trust me. ;)

Heather said...

That's really a good point Lynanne. My husband is a whiz with math and fully understands what a formula is doing and why. I just remember the steps. If I screw up the steps, I get a wrong answer and would never know it was wrong. Vic is able to skip steps, or do the whole calculation in a completely different way because he understands what the math is doing. And he's also a terrible speller ;)

kitten_mc said...

Have you tried explode the code or mega words? I have always put flash cards in front of mine since birth because I could not ever seem to spell well. I was told it would help. Well, it didn't. I use explode the code, mega words and we use the dictionary a bunch!
I still seem to strugle with teaching them but I know I really got to. I also bought Reader Rabbit for the computer,this helps KB. I guess some people are just better at somethings than others.