Viewed from a holistic perspective
When we throw away phonics as the first and primary method of decoding and switch to whole word (whole language) method, we are telling our kids something that isn’t true. We are saying that there is no code — that there is no order to the development of language. That words themselves are the blocks of the language.
But words cannot be used as parts of a whole. In other words, you make words from letters but you don’t make new words by splicing two or three other words together. So, in fact, words are not the blocks of the language — letters are!
However, that’s not what we tell our kids. By depriving them of the understanding that letters, not words, are the blocks of the language, we are making language incoherent. It can’t be understood; there is no pattern; it can just be memorized. Can you imagine having to memorize by sight every single word in the English language? Well that’s what we condemn kids to do when we teach them whole words instead of letters.
This causes another problem — the problem of thinking. If we begin by the whole word method, we are encouraging a number of practices. We encourage and reward memorization and we encourage estimation — if you don’t know the word, guess. In fact, by allowing students to think that meanings are interchangeable, that if you don’t know what it really means, guessing is okay, we are pretending that words don’t have specific meanings. But every word stands for one, and only one specific concept.
It is not true that any old meaning will do. It is not true and it is not fair to the student to imply it is. It says that accuracy is not important and that fuzzy or “sort of” thinking is all right.
So we encourage kids to memorize and match, tell them that accuracy is not important, forgive and allow fuzzy thinking and pretend that creative (inventive) spelling is fine. Then what happens? High school, university, college and life happens. Students end up thinking associationally, not conceptually. They can’t problem solve, don’t take academic risks, need structured programs and lots of help and guidance — all of which impede the development of real self-esteem.
They don’t “get it,” don’t make the connections or see the relationships. They are disorganized, not motivated, sometimes confused, angry or defensive. They are not achieving their potential because they haven’t learned how to think critically.
Ask any high school English or Math teacher, go to a university and inquire of the English, philosophy, business or psychology departments, or speak to business leaders, about the literacy of many recent graduates. You will see we already have this problem. It’s not going away, it’s going to get worse.
And it begins when we cast the first seeds of doubt in the pristine minds of our children. A child who has learned to speak already knows (implicitly and probably without the words to defend himself or herself) the importance of accuracy. Watch kids play and observe how carefully they keep each other accurate. Even understanding a single word means that that child understands that there is something the same as other words but that there is an important something different as well and that child is capable of understanding that difference. That child insists on clarity, honesty and integrity in his or her dealings with the world.
Then we tell the child to ignore all that he or she knows about how to learn. We say accuracy isn’t important and that our written language doesn’t have a code. Some schools forbid teachers from telling kids that words are made up of letters which have specific sounds. In other words, we imply that how the child has been using his or her mind is wrong.
What they figured out for themselves can’t be trusted. They are wrong for life! If one thinks of the amount of struggle an adult goes through in order to understand life and then considers that this same struggle is occurring daily in the hearts and minds of our children, one might begin to see why it is so important for them to feel that they are capable of understanding. Their very survival depends upon it.
But our reading programs pull the rug out from under our children. We discount the achievement of their minds and the confidence and pride they have developed as a result of that great achievement. In fact, what a child accomplishes in learning to speak is probably the greatest achievement of his or her life. It is certainly the hardest.
Instead of celebrating this great achievement — one that required precision, logic, understanding — we tell them to memorize and trust. We drive a spear into the very soul of their self-confidence and feelings of self-esteem and it is no wonder that they prefer to memorize and live in a structured universe. If their own minds are not safe or competent then the only other option is trust and follow.
But it’s just a reading program, you say. And teachers love kids and want to help them and school boards don’t want to cause problems, they want to educate kids as effectively as possible. Yes, all that may be true, but it doesn’t change the facts.
All the good intentions in the world will not change the principles of a bad program and will not lessen the severity of its effects. Whole word or whole language reading programs are not teaching our kids to read well and are a major part of the reason why students are not thinking more clearly and effectively.
We have known how to teach kids to read for centuries. Modern teaching methodology has produced creative and effective teachers. Let’s use these strengths to marry excellent teachers with effective programs.
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Viewed from a holistic perspective
Whole Language versus Phonics is a subject engendering much discussion these days. Parents are demanding a return to the teaching of reading by phonics while school board trustees and administrators are claiming their whole language reading programs are effective. Teachers are often confused and kids are stuck in the middle. It may be possible to understand this issue better if we examine some of the primary principles underlying the act of reading.
Children first hear language by listening to their parents. But they do not merely copy the sounds of their parents. A child must make an enormous mental step in order to begin learning this language. Every word in our language represents a particular and single concept. When children first learn language, they first have to understand — in a mind that has no language at all — that the strange sound they are hearing is connected to whatever the parent is pointing or referring to.
For example, when you say “Mommy” to the child and point at yourself, how will the child know what you are doing, or that the sound you have made even has any meaning at all? Understanding that the sound refers to one specific concept is a feat that requires the child to understand that it is necessary to categorize information in order to make greater sense of his or her universe.
Without language, we can only think about what is in our conscious mind right now. All the learning of the past would be lost to us. Without words to summarize and represent concepts, we would have to develop each concept anew every time, much like the lower order animals do.
Children learn language through their ears. They hear sounds, learn to distinguish the differences between these sounds, learn to blend diverse sounds together, learn what concepts are, and what the individually blended sounds (words) stand for. All this information is filed in the subconscious and the language is verbal.
The next step seems logical. The child already understands all the concepts of language implicitly. If they can speak in clear sentences, they already have comprehension! We do not have to worry about that. Our task should be to teach them how to access the incredible amount of stored knowledge and literature humankind possesses.
By teaching children to understand the code or script we use to write our language. It is a unique code and it is designed to be built from the ground up, much the same way every single verbal or mental concept is formed. Amazing! Language and thinking are developed together and in the same way. In fact, language was developed so that we could further enlarge our knowledge. It is primarily a tool of thinking, not for communication.
Reading should be no different. If we first helped the child to understand abstract concepts by making sure they understood concrete ones — by teaching verbal language — then we should teach reading in the same manner. That would suggest to our children that there is some logic and order to the learning of written language just as there was in the learning of spoken language and in thinking.
The building blocks of reading are letters, and there are only 26 of them. All words flow from these basic 26 units. If for no other reason than it is logical and rational, we should consider using only phonics-first reading programs for our children. It is empowering and important for the development of their self-esteem.
But there is much more. Next time.
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1. Use the Power Listening process in class for listening.
2. Enter all homework, assignments and exams in your planning calendar as soon as your teacher assigns the work.
3. Begin each study or homework session by making a plan.
4. When reading, use SQRCRC to make sure that you understand.
5. Spend 10 minutes per subject each night and summarize the day’s lessons into study notes. Break the information down into main idea (the main concept); supporting details (each one different but all linked to the main idea); and sub-details (which explain, modify, or give examples so you better understand each supporting detail. Make these notes short in point form and in your own words.
6. Review these notes 48 hours later. Put a * and date in the right hand corner of the page every time you review. When you review, don’t memorize, just make sure you fully understand your note. Make the note into a story or a complete picture – use visualization if possible.
7. Make sure that each study note has five *’s in the right hand corner before you have to write an exam. If you review your notes five times, you will remember them
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It is not possible to become an effective and organized student at the last minute. If study is left to the last minute all that is really left is cramming.
Too Much Homework is Bad for You
It is possible to hear, listen, integrate and learn material in class. When students follow this path they can then spend much of their at home time in brief, but effective, review and summary.
The secret seems to be learning to shift from a passive mind set (“I’ll just sit here while the teacher teaches me”) to a more effective and aggressive model, an active process.
For example, if you took the following attitude, you would become an active learner: “I can’t afford to wait in class to be taught. I’m going to question, summarize and visualize during the lesson. I am going to learn! I’m going to sort information into stuff I already know and stuff that is new. I’m not waiting for the teacher to explain this to me! This is my life and it’s too important for me to be passive. I’m going to watch myself as I learn and when I don’t “get it,” I’m not letting it pass. I will jump right in and find out what I don’t understand. If I can’t understand, I’m not going to blame the teacher, I’m going to make my teacher teach it so that I do get it! I take responsibility for my own life and learning.”
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Make yourself comfortable. Use a table or desk and a comfortable chair. Hold yourself erect. Slouching in the body is mirrored in the mind. Do not lie down or sprawl on the bed. Make sure that you have sufficient light to read comfortably.
Try to arrange a permanent study place where you can keep your study materials around you. Ask your parents to help. Keep your planner, assignment book, review notes, lots of pencils, pens and markers, etc. in your study place.
Reduce distractions. Ask your family not to disturb you. Do not answer the phone while you are studying. Turn the radio off and do not study in the same room as a TV set. If you are sitting by a window, draw the blinds. The fewer distractions you experience, the more effective you will be.
Decide on the type of study activity that you are engaging in tonight. Is it best to study alone or would studying with a friend help?
- When is it better to study by yourself?
- When is it better to study with a partner?
- How do you plan to minimize distractions?
- How do you plan for assignments?
- How do you plan for exams?
- Name four ways you can better arrange your study environment.
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This should not be a problem for you.
Work for 20 minutes then take a five-minute break. You are working only 45-minute hours. That is plenty of time to focus and plenty of time to refresh.
When you take your break, don’t stay sitting at your desk. Run downstairs and get a drink of water. Make a quick phone call. Tease your brother. Anything, just get your mind off the work. You will feel much better.
Use a stopwatch. No cheating! Do not take more than five minutes.
Working on your environment is the focus of our next article.
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It is essential to develop a plan for homework, assignments and exams. Each presents a different set of requirements and each requires its own study plan.
Planning for Homework
- Take your assignment planner to class and write down assignments.
- Before you leave school, read your planner and make sure that you bring all the necessary materials home with you.
- Follow your planner and begin your homework at the scheduled time. If possible, set a habit for yourself. Always do your homework at the same time.
- Before you start to do your homework, review everything, estimate the amount of time you will require for each assignment, and decide which subject’s homework is the hardest.
- Now, enter this information in your homework planner. The most difficult homework gets done first.
- Take a five-minute break every 20 minutes and relax. That means that you are working only 45-minute hours. Not so bad, eh?
Most Common Homework Problems — recognize any?
- Fail to bring home assignment and necessary materials.
- Don’t know exactly what homework or assignment is.
- Deny having homework.
- Must be reminded to start homework.
- Procrastinate, put off doing homework, studying.
- Don’t do homework satisfactorily unless you get help.
- Daydream or fiddle during homework session – taking too long.
- Are easily distracted by noises or activities of others.
- Are easily frustrated by homework assignment.
- Take unusually long time to do homework.
- Produce sloppy or messy work.
- Hurry through homework and make careless mistakes.
- Forget to bring homework or assignment to class.
Planning for Assignments
Planning is one of the most important elements in completing your assignments. You can save research and writing time if you plan well.
Describe the absolute worst assignment that you ever handed in?
How could you have made it better?
Rules for Assignments
Researching Your Topic
Write down everything that you can think of about the topic. Carefully choose items from your list which define or apply to the topic so you can better understand or define it. This narrows down the topic and allows you to choose only the very specific items needing to be researched instead of having to generally research the entire subject.
Now, do your research by reading only that information which is relevant to your specific needs. Read only about these topics, instead of reading everything you can find on the subject. This will save you time and energy and keep you focused on the actual subject. Too often we know more about a subject than we think, if we follow these guidelines the amount of research we have to do will be limited to those areas which are relevant to the topic.
Now that you have your research narrowed down, break the assignment down into parts. Think carefully. If you need four sessions to read, make sure that you plan four sessions.
For example, here is a sample of an assignment broken down into parts.
Assignment: Prepare a project about the Olympics
Due: 31 days
- Narrow topic and prepare research list
- Go to library and get research material
- Look on Internet for research materials
- Read research material
- Make notes from research material
- Write introduction
- Write history paragraphs
- Write about Canadian sports heroes
- Write outlook for Olympics
- Write conclusion
- Add graphics and pictures
- Do title page and bind project
Total Time Required: 19 days
Using this plan, you would have 12 days left over before your project was due. You could hand it in early just to show the teacher how prepared you are.
Once you have broken the assignment down into its parts, you can begin to enter these parts into your calendar. You know how many days are left before the assignment is due, make sure that you allow sufficient time for the complete assignment.
When you sit down each evening to do your homework, make sure that you have entered the assignment unit that you have planned. Viola! Completed assignments. No more rushing at the last minute. No more excuses.
Planning For Exams
- As soon as the exam or test is announced, divide that subject into units of study. A unit of study is the amount that you can learn in one evening. Remember, you have regular homework and assignments to do as well so don’t make these units too large. Be sure to include four units of study for review.
- Get your planning calendar out and enter one unit of study into each day, making sure that you have time to cover the entire course and do your review before the exam.
- When you sit down each evening to do your homework, make sure that you have entered a unit of study. You are now ready for your exam.
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Our objectives are to learn how to —
- Set study goals
- Arrange a study environment
- Plan study breaks
- Avoid interruptions
- Learn how to study.
- Where do you study?
- What distractions are there (visual – noise)?
- How do you avoid or minimize these distractions?
- Where do you keep your study supplies?
- When do you study?
- How often do you take breaks?
- Do you make a study plan before you begin?
- Do you ever study at school or the library? Describe the conditions.
Can you think of five ways to improve your study habits?
In point form, describe the perfect study environment. Does your study environment meet these standards? If no, how can you change it?
Here are five essential ways to improve your study time. Use the space after each tip to create a personal plan for yourself. Use point form to describe how you will make changes while you study.
- Plan Your Study Time
- Take Breaks
- Arrange Your Study Environment
- Learn How To Avoid Distractions
- Use Time Management and Planning Skills
Planning your study time will be covered next time.
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I am relaxing, watching something about space on The Learning Channel, when my 10-year-old son strikes.
“How do you do fractions?” he asks.
I hate that question because it means I am about to fly right into the teeth of his beloved classroom teacher who does it a different way. I am about to become really old in the eyes of my kid because I obviously come from the deep dark past where math was done differently. I think he suspects that we counted with dead animal bones or something!
Ten-Year-Old Son does not know this yet, but — even worse — I am about to insist that he actually understand what he is doing instead of just spouting some stupid formula that will give him the answer with no understanding.
I have watched for years as one system of teaching mathematics after another has gained popularity. I have watched rote memorization of tables and endless “kill and drill” of math facts. All that produced was kids like me who could fire off the nine times table at the drop of a hat — but who understood nothing.
I have seen concrete-based programs using “magic manipulatives” become the rage. In these programs kids in kindergarten through Grade 8 play with multicoloured cubes and strips of plastic, in a futile search for the meaning of mathematics.
I have seen the abandonment of all memorization and concept teaching in favour of learning aids such as calculators, number lines, finger counting systems and matrixes. The theory here being that memorization is not necessary if kids just learn the “facts” and “concepts.” Sounds great, but who was going to teach them the facts or the concepts?
Today’s students do not understand the concepts
If you want to confirm that assertion, ask any Grade 7 or Grade 8 student to explain why you invert the divisor and multiply when you are multiplying fractions — not just the memorized rule but a real explanation of the reason so that even a dummy (like a parent) can understand. After all, if a thing cannot be explained by a student in the student’s own words, it was never understood in the first place. It was just memorized!
When Ten-Year-Old Son asked his innocent question, I knew it was because he had forgotten the rule that he was supposed to have memorized. Like many kids, he does not have a great memory for verbal information. What he was really asking was for me to remember the rule for him.
Alas, I can’t do it! I too have forgotten the rule.
But I do understand the concept of fractions and I know that together we can figure the rule out. Of course, I wouldn’t tell him even if I could remember, because it wouldn’t really be helping him. And that’s my job as a parent — to help him if I can.
He sees that gleam in my eye as I reach for some support materials and he begins to panic. “Jeez, Dad, I don’t want you to teach me the thing. Just tell me the answer.”
“Sorry, Buddy,” I say, “but we’re going to have some fun. We’re going to figure this out together! Won’t that be cool?”
His look of panic was eloquent response enough. The concrete-bound education system has trained him to see the purpose of school as memorizing answers so you can get marks on tests, pass to the next grade, and get great presents each summer for doing so well in school. And, here comes old Dad with his goofy belief that Ten-Year-Old Son really wants to know about fractions.
The real problem is that he doesn’t really want to know. He just wants to answer the questions assigned by the teacher for homework and get on to something interesting like playing video games. This is challenge enough for any parent.
I search through a drawer and come up with a fork, a bottle of hot sauce, a salt shaker, a toy and some old poker chips that have somehow survived four kids. There is groaning in the background. He sees that I am excited by the challenge. This probably means that he isn’t going to get into the fourth level of Ultra Doom tonight. Worse than that, he may even have to learn something. This is a gross idea to kids who make a business of surviving in school simply by using their memories.
My excitement does not sweep him in yet. He sits back, feeling helpless, and watches blankly while I go through a few preliminary exercises. He is not getting it. I know that. I expect that. He is not used to starting with an overview of what is coming. He wants facts that can be memorized, just the facts! He is not used to integrating new information into old information in order to build new knowledge.
I continue telling him about the idea of units. I want him to see that numbers by themselves mean nothing — that they are just funny marks representing some real things somewhere else. I line up a salt shaker, the hot sauce, a fork and a small cereal box toy.
He looks at me. I begin to explain about Place and Quantity. We are concentrating on the fork. It is the third object in the line. We begin to make up stuff about the line of objects. Suddenly, he sees something for himself and we write down an equation. (Okay, maybe I did think up the idea of the equation, but he discovered the idea by himself!)
Hot Sauce + Salt Shaker = Fork
We start to talk about the line again. How many of each object is there in the line? Just one. Now we discover that we can add something new to this equation.
1x Hot Sauce + 1x Salt Shaker = 1x Fork
He is getting interested. This is not like math at all. We now discover that in another situation 1x Fork equals only the place on the table where Mr. Fork is standing in line with Mrs. Hot Sauce, Professor Salt Shaker and Yellow Toy. We even discover that Yellow Toy is not even real yet because we didn’t go past Mr. Fork. Yellow Toy does not become real until we pass him or stop on him in line. His whole life depends upon his place in the line.
This is neat stuff! Without realizing it, Ten-Year-Old Son has just discovered two very fundamental principles of mathematics: the principles of Quantity and Place.
We continue. If we know about Place, then we can begin to consider a new idea. Each one of these units represents a single thing, a one. Without intending to, Ten-Year-Old Son now understands this. He even added the 1x to each unit in the second equation by himself. (Okay, maybe a little prompting from the cheap seats)
But, what will happen if sometimes there are fewer than one? Let’s say we are part of an ancient tribe and the hunters return from a successful hunt with one deer. How will we divide one into parts smaller than one?
“This is a problem!” I declare.
Ten-Year-Old Son responds, “No way! You just tear the deer into the same number of parts as there are families!”
“Brilliant!” I say. “You have just discovered fractions!”
He frowns. He thought we were just playing! He didn’t know we were doing math! Eventually we arrive at a plan for dividing the meat and, to make things easier, we start to put symbols down instead of a full description of the piece of meat each family gets. We make up weird looking symbols. Using our formula, we realize that each symbol stands for one exact piece of meat in the line (Place), but it can also stand for the sum of the quantity behind it (Quantity). He doesn’t know it yet, but we just invented numbers!
In all, we spent two hours together and, in the end, he invented the way to divide fractions himself! I would not swear to this in court, but I think he actually forgot about Level Four in Mega Doom and had fun doing math. Zounds! What a weird thing to do — have fun learning!
As for me, quality time with Ten-Year-Old Son is hard to find these days, so I will just lie in wait until he forgets and yells out, “Dad, I don’t understand this.”
It’s about understanding
The moral of the story is that if you just memorize facts or formulae or orders of operation or tables, you don’t actually learn anything! Unless you can explain the new concept in your own words, unless you can see the relationship between abstracts (numbers) and real live things, unless you understand why the inversions happen, you just have a bunch of “stuff” floating around in your head that bears no relationship to reality and is completely useless.
Except on a challenge test in school. Does that seem right to you?
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Using Beat Writing
Beat Writing is designed to teach both grammar and writing skills. It is not to be used as a singular program. You must use it with other Oxford Learning materials as per the Program Manual.
Beat Writing teaches —
- how to recognize complete sentences
- how to punctuate
- how to write grammatically correct sentences, including subjects and predicates; sentence fragments and run-on sentences
- how to use parts of speech, including nouns, pronouns, conjunctions and verbs
- how to use words
- how to use verb tenses.
Remember too, the study skills that we teach with every page; the application of SQRCRC, the numbering of rules and directions. As always, we teach so much more than any work sheet ever asks for.
Students who finish all the pages of Beat Writing will have an excellent basic knowledge. They will know the basic parts of speech and how to use them, as well as how to recognize the most common mistakes and, more importantly, how not to make them.
The Beat Writing Idea Bank contains 30 playful suggestions and story ideas for students to use while practicing their newly developed skills.
Use Your Skills
You will have to use your skills as an Oxford Learning teacher to help kids stay motivated. This program probably contains completely new material for our students. They may never have done anything like this before. It may seem hard to them; however, the results are more than worth the effort.
Don’t forget — it is not a long program. When these pages have been mastered, the students will be writing well, and, better yet, will have a firm grasp of the structure of our language.
Let’s talk about creativity. There is much criticism of structured writing programs these days — they are out of vogue. Teachers want it to be “more fun” for kids. Claims are made that structure retards creativity, that programs requiring discipline retard creativity. Imagine that!
If you could ask Einstein, Michelangelo, Newton, Margaret Lawrence or Picasso if creativity required discipline, you would not be surprised at their answers. The most creative and talented humans on earth all agree; first you master the skills until they become automatic, and then you become creative.
Let us stop asking the cart to pull the horse. We must learn to use our teaching skills to teach creatively and motivate our kids while they work through this material. Once these few pages have been mastered, these kids will be able to express themselves verbally.
Do not begin to teach a writing program by asking kids to write, write, write. They do too much of that in school already and just entrench their mistakes. Current research shows that new cognitive patterns can sometimes be formed by very few repetitions. This means that repeating mistakes may create an automation of the task, thus burying the instructions in the subconscious. This makes it harder for the student to change.
You must begin Beat Writing at the beginning — the free form creative writing comes later. Complaints about “boredom” usually come from two sources — kids who are challenged by the precision of these new ideas and from teachers who are themselves bored. Ignore these plaintive calls and invest in making the activities fun for kids and in helping them to understand why they are learning to write correctly.
Lord Chesterton, in a letter to his son, said, “Whoever is in a hurry to finish shows that the thing he is about is too big for him.” This is apt.
Let us do this correctly by building the foundation and then freeing the spirits. Writing is an extension of the voice of the speaker. Since children sense their littleness and want to be larger and more potent, the idea that through writing, they can make their voices reach much further can be very exciting to them!
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