Beyond Phonics

Have you seen the short TED-Ed lesson, “Making Sense of Spelling”? It's great! Who knew that an onion could teach us so much? My mentor, Myrna McCulloch (founder of the Riggs Institute), did.
 
One of the things I love about teaching students with McCulloch's program is that it takes my students way beyond phonics. Her lessons show me how to not only increase my students’ phonics knowledge but also how to increase their decoding, spelling and vocabulary skills by teaching them about morphology, etymology, and rules about form. Not only that, but my students are constantly being asked to think critically. They love this!
 
Do you know how the words two, twin, twice, twelve, twenty, between, and twelve are related?
 
Riggs students do.
 
In Lesson 89 (Level I) they learn that these words are derived from the same Anglo-Saxon root, which means two. (You can see the remnant of this root in the tw part of each word).
 
After I dictate these words to my students, they dictate them back to me and we analyzed them together. When we finish investigating these words, my students bracket them (in their notebooks) to show that they are paronyms (words that are derived from the same root--words that share the same morphemes, or units of meaning).
 
If I were teaching this lesson to older students, I might ask them to think of additional words that are derived from this root.
 
Can you?
 
In this Riggs lesson I always engage my students in a dialogue in which I let them tell me how to use their Riggs marking system to note any useful facts that might help them recall the spellings of these words. 
 
"Raise your hand if you can help me analyze and mark this word," I say.
 
“We double-underline the w in two,” says Johnny.
 
“Why?” I say. (I don’t allow guessing. I want my students to know why they know what they know.)
 
“It’s silent in modern English.”
 
“Yes, the w is silent,” I say. "Why do we need to remember to include it when we spell?"
 
More hands go up. What else do they know?
 
"It's there for the meaning."
 
What else do they know?
 
“We add marks to show why there is a silent e on the words twice and twelve,” says Sally.
 
“Why are the e’s on twice and twelve?”
 
The whole class knows the answer, of course. They've applied this rule to many previous words: “The e makes the i in twice long . . . and it makes the c soft.”
 
"You're really learning about our spelling system," I say. "Why does it make the c soft?" 
 
The whole class repeats the rule: "/c/ before e, i, or y says 's'."
 
"Yes," I say. "You remember the rule. What else can you tell me?"
 
"In the word twelve, the silent e is there because English words don’t end in v.”
 
"Great. And how many is twelve?"
 
"Twelve is two more than ten (or ten plus two)."
 
"How many is twenty?"
 
"Twenty is two times ten (or two tens)."
 
And so on. The Socratic dialogue--and the lesson--can go on and on and on. But I usually stop it right about here.
 
“You sure are exercising your brains today,” I say. “They are really growing! We better stop before you get too smart!”
 
Here is Lesson 89 in my Level I Teacher's Edition. Have you taught it? What did your students think of it?
 
 
In my classroom, each lesson is like an adventure. And my first-grade students feel like detectives. We dive into principles of spelling and morphology on a regular basis. And we do it with gusto. They think it's a game!
 
But my mentor would say, “They are doing some of the best thinking of their lives.”
 
Yes! They are!
 
My students love to learn. They love thinking critically while enlarging their vocabularies, and they love gaining knowledge that will increase their spelling, decoding, and comprehension skills. What student wouldn't?  
 
 
Guess how often my students misspell the word two after this lesson? 
 
Last week I learned that there is abundant research evidence for a connection between children’s morphological knowledge and the progress that they make in learning to spell and read. This does not surprise me. Deep vocabulary instruction can't help but significantly improve literacy skills.
 
In Improving Literacy by Teaching Morphemes, Terezinha Nunes and Peter Bryant show us why this is so as they argue that “schoolchildren need to become explicitly aware of principles of language, which at earlier ages they learned and obeyed at an implicit level only.” Have you read their argument? It's convincing.
 
After reading about their investigations I could see why these researchers are strongly suggesting that the early teaching of English literacy should go beyond phonics to include instruction in morphology, etymology and rules about form
 
Thankfully, Myrna McCulloch and her Riggs Institute have been showing educators how how to do these things since 1979.
 
In their Level I teaching text, for example, Riggs helps teachers introduce beginners to a study of morphemes with lessons like the one above as well as with lessons that directly teach simple noun, verb, and adjective suffixes (s, es, ed, ing, er, est).
 
The Riggs Institute's knowledge-based lessons increase my students’ spelling and decoding proficiencies and enrich their understandings.
 
By the end of the year, Level I Riggs students have correctly added these suffixes to hundreds of English words. They are able to do this independently because their teachers have helped them create and use reference charts that illustrate the principles that enable them to use these suffixes. They can corrrectly add these suffixes to a variety of words, and they know what the suffixes mean.
 
In Level II, Riggs teachers continue to expand their own knowledge of such things (most of us didn't learn this stuff in school or college), and the lessons help them expand their students' knowledge by leading students to build prefix and suffix charts as well as by moving them into a focused study of Greek and Latin roots.
 
The core spelling-vocabulary words in Level I and II Riggs lessons give teachers opportunities to provide their students with explicit instruction in phonology, morphology, and rules about form. Every Riggs lesson is much more than a spelling lesson. It is deliberately designed to increase a child's encoding and decoding abilities while enriching his knowledge. 
 
I'm so glad.
 
Thanks to the Riggs Institute's Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking curriculum, my students are becoming empowered to generate hypotheses about written language that go beyond sound-symbol mappings.
 
All of my Level III Riggs students, for example, can see at a glance that words like science, conscience, and conscious are derived from the Latin root that means to know. They can also see the prefixes and suffixes in words like conscience and conscious, which they have of course mastered.
 
I've noticed that students enjoy this kind of work, this kind of thinking. It makes them feel competent and confident! They aren't just memorizing isolated pieces of information; they are analyzing and discussing, and they are learning why English words are spelled as they are. (And they love to know why.)
 
Riggs-taught students go way beyond phonics.
 
They study the language. 
 
They're scientists.
 
 
 
 

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