Among my most prized possessions are words that I have never spoken.
Orson Rega Card
I’ve been enjoying Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders. It’s a slim volume – only 50 words and drawings, one word and sketch each represented on two-page spreads throughout the book. The small size and spare prose only reinforce the truth that sometimes there is a whole world in a word. Some of the words make me think of moments in my life, like the Hawaiian noun akihi, which means to listen to directions and then walk off promptly and forget them, or resfeber, a Swedish word signifying the anxious and excited beat of a traveler’s heart before the journey begins.
Others make me think of teaching, like the Greek adjective meraki, which is all about pouring yourself wholeheartedly into something, and doing so with soul, creativity, and love; or the Hindi noun jugaad, which means ensuring things happen even with minimal resources. Good intentions bump up against reality in tsundoku, a Japanese noun that describes leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books.
My favorite word in the collection may be kummerspeck, literally meaning grief-bacon (kummer = grief and speck = bacon), referring to the excess weight we gain from emotional overeating. When I’m thinking about a late-night snack I now try to ask myself, “Am I really hungry, or is this just going to turn into grief bacon?”
If there can be worlds in words, then publishing something like a website that will have its words accessed far into the future puts you in the position of being a words and conventions forecaster. What I’ve learned from consulting our marvelous copy editor Laurel Robinson over the years is that there are rules, but there are also choices to be made because language evolves. What looks and sounds right now may be wrong (according to convention guides and style on the street) in five or ten years. That’s why we present minilessons and not mini-lessons at Choice Literacy, and answer email instead of e-mail. I’ve staked our style reputation on those hyphens disappearing sooner rather than later, since we’re always in a hurry in classrooms and beyond (and I sadly doubt that will ever change). Skipping hyphens saves writers time. Yet our site uses the serial comma (or my preferred name for it, the Harvard comma) because that extra comma does sometimes clarify meaning, even if it takes a little time to add it. Every time I slip one into a draft it feels like I am classing up the joint.
Helping students see the worlds in words, the ways conventions evolve, and the reasons why spelling is sometimes a choice can be joyful work if children get intrigued by language possibilities. More important, it’s essential work if we ever want them to become skilled writers. As Misty Adoniou explains:
If spelling words are simply strings of letters to be learnt by heart with no meaning attached and no investigation of how those words are constructed, then we are simply assigning our children a task equivalent to learning ten random seven-digit PINs each week. That is not only very very hard, it’s pointless.
As I read that quote, I wonder if I should change learnt to learned and Americanize it. I decide to respect Misty’s Australian heritage and keep learnt as is. See? Choices, even if there is a reader or colleague out there ready to whack you on the head with a style guide if you decide to swim against the current norm.
This week, we look at ways teachers are making the study of words and conventions more of a playground and less of a battleground in their classrooms. Plus more as always – enjoy!
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Here are two features from the archives to help you think through spelling and conventions instruction.
Heather Rader shares Three Rules Worthy of Spelling Inquiry:
Franki Sibberson explains why Word Study is More Than Spelling:
If you aren’t a fan of weekly spelling tests, you might like these provocative thoughts from Misty Adoniou on why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help:
This interview with Steven Pinker is a wide-ranging discussion of how language evolves, in spite of the “gotcha gang” that insists on interpreting usage with narrow and questionable rules:
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What conventions can be taught in a way that sticks with older adolescents? Gretchen Schroeder is Rethinking Grammar Instruction in High School:
Gretchen Taylor concludes her two-part series on spelling instruction in middle school with My Kids Still Can’t Spell! In this installment, Gretchen visits a colleague in the primary grades to get advice and practical insight:
Our new cluster on Teaching Conventions features contributions from Linda Karamatic, Heather Rader, Mandy Robek, and Franki Sibberson:
New PD2Go: Katie DiCesare confers with first grader Jack and addresses conventions:
This video and workshop guide support Common Core Standard ELA-Literacy.W.1.5: With guidance and support from adults, focus on a topic, respond to questions and suggestions from peers, and add details to strengthen writing as needed.
Finally, we offer an encore video with Heather Rader. This conference with a second grader and teacher debrief explores using spelling aids in writing workshops:
That’s all for this week!