“Mr. France, I think I know why a lot of us got this one wrong.”
“Oh yea, Pete? Why do you think?”
“Well, in this sentence, the author uses personification by using an adjective, ‘stubborn,’ to describe the stick. Usually, when we see personification, we see verbs.”
My eyes widened, and a huge smile crept onto my face. It only took two years, but these kids were finally applying parts of speech naturally, without any prompting or assistance from me.
When I was in my graduate program, I had a teacher who was adamantly against teaching parts of speech. She insisted that children below middle school were not capable of the abstraction that accompanies grammar, and that grammatical skills should be developed intuitively. Essentially, she was saying that students should not be expected to understand parts of speech. I used to whole heartedly disagree with her, but now I think I know what she really meant when she said that.
The Flaws of Direct Instruction
We live in an age of direct, focused instruction. It’s one of the blessings and one of the dangers of standards-based teaching and learning. Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely a proponent of standards-based teaching, learning, and assessing, only, however, in moderation. I even believe that direct instruction has its place, but when I began teaching parts of speech my first two years, I found myself immediately frustrated. We’d go over the same concepts repeatedly, I’d continue to give them example sentences, and two weeks later, they’d manage to forget the difference between a noun, adjective, and verb–the most basic of the bunch.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from these experiences, it’s that direct and focused instruction is not an ultimate solution to closing gaps in literacy. In fact, by segmenting and isolating skills so discretely, it only makes for segmented and compartmentalized learners. Instead, we need to channel the basics of psychology. We need to think about the spaces in between synapses, where neurons are constantly firing throughout the day in our classrooms.
Building a Web of Firing Synapses
When a child has a relevant experience where something is actually “learned,” a synapse fires in his or her brain, making a connection. However, over time, this connection may fade and slowly disintegrate into the abyss that is wasted knowledge. Even when we repeat these similar experiences over and over, the connection might still fade. You could also think of it like a tightrope, stretched across a deep canyon. Sure, the child can treacherously and carefully balance as he or she walks across this tightrope to academic success, but the likelihood of them falling is high, as well.
Instead, we need to think of teaching and learning like a spider web, where string is stretched and connected from different angles, creating an intricate surface on top of which students can anchor learning experiences and make connections between targets, as opposed to one linear path that can be achieved through repetitive practice.
Take, for instance, this parts of speech example. Instead of simply teaching parts of speech in grammar, I noticed that it was critical to bring parts of speech into every area of the curriculum in order for students to truly see the relevance in the skill. In reading, this can be best linked with vocabulary and word study. When students are able to see that different words parts, like -ous, -ic, and -al can create a number of adjectives, we are, in essence, beginning to spin the aforementioned web, providing them another angle from which to see this abstract grammar concept. And because word study and vocabulary are integral to all areas of the curriculum, this paves the way for more experiences with parts of speech in science, math, social studies, and even other content areas like fine arts, allowing us to, slowly but surely, construct this intricate web that will eventually allow them to sprint across the canyon, fearless and unlikely to falter.
But this isn’t only applied to something like parts of speech. It can also be readily applied to complex concepts like mathematical properties or literary devices. In order for students to flexibly identify and apply these seemingly routine skills, they need to be able to see them from different angles and through a variety of contexts.
The Bottom Line
When we’re teaching something–anything–we need to make it relevant; we need to give it multiple contexts. I only began to understand this when I started to ask myself the question: Why am I teaching this? Why do I want my kids to learn this? In fact, I had a parent ask me the same question, specifically about parts of speech at a parent-student-teacher conference.
She smiled at me. “I’m sorry, Mr. France, but why does it matter if my son knows what a noun is?”
A plausible and logical question, I’ll admit. I welcomed and appreciated it.
I replied, “Well, my ultimate goal is for him to write complete sentences. In order for him to do that, it is necessary that he learns what a subject and predicate are, and in order to know those things, he needs to be able to identify a noun as the subject as a sentence, a verb as the most important part of the predicate, and then rule out other words in the sentence by knowing their function, as well.”
In this case, one of the tightropes was the “noun” skill, which eventually became just one string in the strong web that would eventually be helping Peter build complete simple sentences, compound sentences, and complex sentences.
After Peter’s epiphany that day in class, I replied, “You’re totally right, Peter. I never thought of it that way. I didn’t even notice it there!”
Peter smiled back, proud of himself for making such an astute connection, while the rest of the class buzzed with a new realization that those seemingly unimportant skills were, in fact, helpful.