I’ve always loved architecture. Whether it’s the haunting shapes made from decades of waves washing against rocks or man-made buildings rising high in a city’s skyline or a proud little cottage that has seen a century of the highs and lows of a family’s life, I am transfixed by structure. And through the years, the parallels of architectural structure and the structure of languages has become more and more obvious to me, and more relevant to what I do with my students.
For years, I lived in a townhome within walking distance of one of the cutest small towns in the state. I loved it. I didn’t have to care for my lawn. I didn’t have to buy a new roof when the Georgia hail fell. I didn’t have to worry about painting or repairing anything on the outside of my home. And, bonus, I could tell people I lived in a three-story house. But I can tell you now, the form of that home functioned best for a family without small children. The life-sucking workout of carrying a carseat with a baby boy who was “growing remarkably in weight for an infant his age” in one hand and ten bags of groceries in the other so that I didn’t have to make another trip down and up a flight of steps meant that I longed for a form that functioned better for me.
“Form follows function,” Louis Sullivan said, and it’s true in languages as well. We have a nice, neat little noun, “friend,” but we need to describe the process of accepting more friends on Facebook with as convenient a word as possible. So, now we “friend” people, and just like that, another noun was verbed. It happens all the time. Sometimes, we can change or modify a word’s form depending on how we need it to function for us. Are there parameters and reasons and restrictions? You bet. But that’s a post for another day. The point in this paragraph is that we do it.
What I’m seeing in literacy instruction these days is a growing focus on form and function, and can we stop and say yay for a minute? That’s great. The two pervading literacy camps are still slugging it out over exactly what that means and how to do it, both deeply wrong in some ways, but at least they’ve started thinking about it. What I’m seeing is missing, though, is one of the most crucial steps in building: the presentation. Architects design, construction firms build, and then something happens. The resident - a family, a business, a store, a restaurant - is presented the keys to the building, moves in, and starts to use it. That is the crucial moment that the form and the function of the building is fully realized. Without a resident, a home has no purpose. Without a company, a building has no need at all. Without a learner using the words that she is learning, those words are just hollow forms defined and dissected with the hope that should she ever need to spell it, she can. The word never becomes her own. Like a family who never gets to move into the house that was constructed to meet their needs.
So what do we do?
We continue to study words, their meanings, histories, structures, and pronunciations, and then instead of stopping there, we look at how they’re used. We notice them in a good corpora with tons of examples. And then we use them. We use them in spoken sentences. We use them in written sentences. We write them into our paragraphs. And by we, I mean your students, not you. You don’t really know a language until you speak it, until you write it, and children don’t really learn words until they use them in contexts that they’ve created.
I recently had a kid who’s been engaging in the four questions for a number of years.
“Can you use that word ‘revise?’”
“The base is v-i-s-e. I think it means to look again.”
“Can you use it in a sentence?”
“Yeah… I re… I don’t know how.”
“Do you know what this word means? Can you use it in a sentence?” we often ask at the beginning of a session. “Kinda” is a common reaction, perhaps followed by a solid try. And it’s vital to go back there after the study. To go back to that very first question.
“Can you use it in a sentence?”
That’s where we see the fruit of the study we engage in. It’s where we kick the tires of the new vehicle or walk easily and breezily just a few steps into the kitchen from the garage with handfuls of groceries to put away.