5.31.2010

Fishsticks or Fishing?

All About Learning Press (AALP) is a publishing house that produces several unique and extremely effective language arts products: the All About Spelling and All About Reading series, All About Homophones, and the Beehive ReadersIn early 2009, I was personally invited by Marie Rippel, AALP's founder, to serve as a regular contributor to AALP's first interactive website, The ChatterBee, which she ran from February, 2009, through September, 2011. This was one of my articles.

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In an online forum I frequent, there has recently been a discussion of various spelling curricula. Now, in truth, I only really attempted one other spelling "program" before finding All About Spelling - a free, online resource developed by a well-meaning fellow homeschool mom. My girls were just four and five then, and I actually felt they were a bit too young to begin a formal spelling program - but, as a newer homeschooler, I also felt an unspoken pressure to do "something" for spelling. And so we tried this other mom's system, which was based on word families (i.e., a week of studying -am words, followed by a week of -at words, etc.). Both my girls could remember the 10 words for each weekly test, but even my more word-smart girl did not seem to apply her knowledge beyond those few words or past test time. As for my daughter who struggles more with language-related tasks...well, she really couldn't spell any better at the end of our semester-long foray into this program than she could before we started. What's more, we were all often so bored with the whole thing that it became drudgery to work on it each day. Thankfully, I discovered AAS rather by coincidence shortly thereafter, and we continue to move along with it swimmingly.

But I did get a brief taste of another spelling curriculum during this past school year - through a "complete" language arts program I tried for a short time. I didn't intend at all to replace AAS but, rather, it was an attempt to integrate other language arts skill-building for my girls. My plan was to continue with AAS and use this other program's spelling words as a weekly supplement. But I found the whole approach baffling. For example, in the first lesson (of the first book in the series), the five main spelling words all started with kn- but were otherwise phonemically-unrelated and the bonus (sight) word was because; in another lesson, the five key words all used the word some as a base, and the bonus word was night. But in every case that I could see, the students were never taught logical rules for why the words were spelled as they were; nor did there seem to be any rhyme or reason for why certain words were chosen to go with particular lessons. I wasn't impressed with how it presented other language arts skills either, and I quickly grew concerned that the spelling lists were frustrating the girls. So, needless to say, we didn't get far - I stopped even before the end of Lesson 2!

Though I don't have personal experience with other spelling curricula, I've researched them enough to know that most are based on giving students rather random lists of words on Monday, expecting them to do various memorization tasks throughout the week, and then testing for "mastery" on Friday. Though some programs have the teacher add missed words to the following week's new list, most simply have the student move on to a new list regardless of how well she scored on the test. So, in general, one week's spelling words are forgotten - by both curriculum and student alike - as soon as the test paper is handed in.

In that recent online discussion on the topic, one lady went to great lengths to tout the program her children use. Curious, I Googled it and took a look, expecting (based on her testimony) to find some amazing system...but I saw only yet another memorization-style program. And I failed to see how kids using it would really learn to spell - in the sense of understanding real phonemic rules in a logical way so they could apply them to new situations.

And at that moment, a twist on an old analogy came to me: As I see it, using a typical spelling curriculum is like feeding your child fishsticks - or, in the best case scenario, maybe a nice cod fillet. On the other hand, using AAS is like teaching him to fish (i.e., giving him the tools and skills needed to catch his own fish dinner any time he is hungry).

In every case, the child gets something that is - purportedly - good for her. However, I think it's safe to say that some spelling programs really are like fishsticks. That is, just as a fishstick does contain some real fish, some of the weakest curricular options offer some knowledge of how to spell; however, just as the low-quality type of fish inside the fishstick and the heavy, fat-laden breading detract from its health value, so the less-than-useful approaches of these programs really almost defeat the purpose of calling them spelling programs.

The "better" memorization-style programs might be compared to a nice cod fillet - a good source of "nutrition" free from unhealthy added ingredients. However, if I merely present my child with a good piece of fish - or a nice list of spelling words - once a week, I'm not really doing anything for his long-term "health," am I? Because what happens when the fish supply in the freezer - or word lists - run out? Can she use the fish she's previously digested to nourish herself weeks and months later?

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to equate AAS with teaching a child how to fish. The logical, systematic way in which AAS presents each lesson - and, in fact, the very order in which concepts are taught - is akin to taking my child out fishing, first on the shore while I show her how to bait a hook and cast a line and then later - as she gains skill - out in the boat using various sources of bait, different lures, and even multiple lines. In that case, she'll have acquired the skills needed to feed herself anytime. And with AAS, all children (whether "natural spellers" or not) can use the system to truly learn to spell - not just memorize - so they can "feed" themselves in the future by applying their knowledge at any time.

What about you? Would you rather feed your child fishsticks or teach him to fish?

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Photo Credit: UWFWS Mountain-Prairie

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