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What <wh> Words Have to Do with Rocks

It's not every day you meet a child whose grandfather is a geologist by hobby, nor is it every child who actually cares that his grandfather is a geologist by hobby. I have the pleasure of not only knowing a child whose grandfather is a geologist by hobby and who actually cares that he is, I also have the privilege of working with that child on spelling. 


He came to me as a kindergartener whose teacher had given him a list of "sight words," as she called them, to memorize. He failed to memorize them, so she sent more. They were nestled together on one side of a green folder with some activity ideas for the parent on the other. Whenever he didn't pass the spelling test the previous week, the sight words he failed to spell correctly were put back into the folder for further study and more sight words were added to the folder for memorizing the following week. There were about 25, maybe, in the folder when we started to work together, with still more waiting in the wings to be stuffed into the already-overstuffed folder that Friday.


This isn't an uncommon situation for parents to find themselves in these days. Many parents are dealing with lists of "sight words" and are being tasked with the responsibility of getting them "into" their kids. This particular student of mine (let's call him Stuart) is one of the more brilliant kids I've met. He's empathetic and loyal and fun. Our first lesson together had him sitting on my lap, hiding under the table, standing on top of the chair, laying across his chair and mine as a bridge, eating a granola bar and grapes, and trying to feed me the same. I loved it. 


We looked at his green folder, and I got the giggles. "That's a lot of sight words," I said.


"Yeah." He heaved a heavy sigh.


His mom brought out the dump truck he had with just a small portion of his rock collection spilling off the back. He was really into rocks. These were his river rocks we were holding. He told me their scientific name, igneous, and explained how there were other types of river rocks in other rivers. I chose six of his rocks and asked if I could write on them. He nodded. His mom brought me a black Sharpie marker, and on one rock, I wrote <wh>. On another, I wrote <th>, and on another, <h>. On the remaining three rocks, I wrote <ere>, <at>, and <en>. I then elicited the question words from him.


"If you don't know someone's name, what might you ask them?"


"What's your name?" he said.


I nodded. "You just used the word 'what.' Here's how we spell it." We built the word "what" by sliding together his <wh> rock and his <at> rock. He spelled it aloud without me asking him to. 


"Did you know that the whole purpose of language is to let someone know what you mean?" I asked him. "So when we are writing, the spellings of words that have similar meanings are lots of times spelled with similar patterns." 


"That makes sense," he said. 


"Which one of these is your name?" I asked and pointed to some choices.


"That one," he said, pointing at his name.


"You just used the answer word to that question word," I said, and we replaced the "wh" rock with a "th" rock to build the word "that." 


We did this with "where" and "there" and "here." Stuart didn't get "there" mixed up with either of its homophones because we were looking at it in the meaning pattern it was spelled in. Finally, we built "when" and "then" and talked about how they were both referring to time. 


It should be said here that only two of the question words we built were in Stuart's green folder. He hadn't gotten to the other ones yet. So his teacher could either look at it as her student only learning two of his twenty-five words successfully, or she could look at it as her student understanding the spellings of seven high-frequency words on her master list. I left that up to her. The sight words he was given to learn at home on any given week were chosen randomly, and they had no relationship to one another. 


That's really important. 


The words Stuart was given in his folder had no relationship to each other even though so many "sight words" bear meaningful relationships to other "sight words." This is akin to teaching a child about animals at random and never classifying them into the family, genus, or species to which they belong. What we end up with is pockets of knowledge not connected to one another in any way, and as we're learning more and more, the brain likes connecting "old" knowledge to new understandings. When we point out meaningful connections to learners, they enter a world where things make sense. A dog and a cat are both called mammals for very good reasons and the words "a," "an," and "any" are spelled the way they are for very good reasons as well.


I'm so glad I get to work with Stuart. He's older now. He's put the dump truck away, and the last time I saw him, we were investigating the spelling of "conduct," "conductor," and "conduction." He still likes rocks, but we don't write on them anymore. He sits on his chair during our sessions, though he still eats snacks (without force-feeding me). He will never be a perfect speller because the truth is, none of us are. But he knows that every English word is spelled the way it is for a reason, and he has the tools to discover, on his own now, what that reason is. And he learned that without a single flashcard and despite a green folder.


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