When life throws you lemons, thank it for the snack

Friday, July 20, 2012

Webster, Why Did We Ever Forget You?

I am sure that almost every American, and many other people around the world, have heard the name "Webster" at some point in their life. Webster's has even become synonymous with "dictionary" for many people. I am also sure that fewer people realize that Webster--Noah Webster, to be precise--was a real person living during the infancy of our nation. He made it his life's work to travel throughout the budding United States in order to gather information on all of the local languages spoken throughout the new nation. He noticed that, while the majority of residents spoke English, the versions of English spoken tended to have enough variations that is was sometimes difficult for people from one state to converse clearly with people from another state. Throughout his research he realized that our new country needed a unified language if we were to become stronger and work together to grow. So, he set out to create the first English dictionary based on "American" English. From his dictionary he created his speller.

Webster's Speller is a book, written by Noah Webster in the 1780s, with the last revision in 1824, that was used in schools around the country to teach children (and some adults) everything about the English language. The book was so exact, so complete, that it was used in all classrooms from first grade through high school. It is written in progressive lessons, beginning with the alphabet and each letter's sounds and ending in reading exercises for high school-level readers that include moral and citizenship lessons. Like most people who have ever opened a textbook, I thumbed through the book to find simple lessons to teach my daughter so that she could be brought up to speed. See, she was never properly taught phonics and, as she apparently has a minor speech issue, this has been holding her back significantly in her reading and writing and spelling. She does wonderfully in all her other subjects, but her spelling and reading scores were not up to par for her real level. Her comprehension is great, she just stumbles over words sometimes, often making some up as she goes because she doesn't recognize them. She never learned the tools for basic reading or the rules for combining sounds into real words. That's why I bought the Speller.

I decided that I would take my daughter through Webster's Speller from the very first lesson, even though she already learned the alphabet a few years ago, and go forward one lesson at a time until school started. I don't intend to stop until we start school. Even if we do not make it to her current grade level (she'll be starting 5th grade in August), I want to fill in as many gaps as I can. We began to make progress. I started with the first lessons/tables, which were handwriting lessons in cursive and print for each of the letters. We moved on to the tables of basic syllable sounds. I pronounced them, she repeated. Then we began single syllable words. I read them, she wrote them and spelled them out loud. Before we moved on to the next lesson--disyllabic words--I noticed that I made the same mistake most textbook readers make. I skipped over the "fluff" to what I thought was the "meat" of the book, in this case I was only concerned with the lessons. Yesterday I decided to actually read the "fluff" and I am extremely glad that I did.

Noah Webster wrote his book like a true lecture. It reads like a teacher attempting to educate his class in all of the preliminary nuances and rules of the language before you get into the lessons themselves. If you had a really good math teacher, then you learned the vocabulary of math (quotient, dividend, etc.) before you practiced that skill. It seems boring, but it is actually incredibly helpful in not only knowing HOW to do something, but also understanding WHY you do something. Understanding the WHY gives you the capacity to comprehend what exists and to build new things from these springboards. Yeah, it's fun to build a Lego set following the instructions and you feel proud of yourself because you could recreate the set as it was designed on the box. Yet, if you know why certain pieces work together then you can create new designs that are stable and artistic from the same set of bricks. The same thing goes for math and language. I am just saddened that it took me so long to figure this out.

My whole understanding of English, a language that I tend to struggle with even though it is my primary and almost exclusive language (except for a few words and phrases in other languages that I know), has suddenly grown exponentially. It was all because I decided to go back and read out the paragraphs preceding the lessons. I read the explanations of the sounds of each letter of the alphabet and the distinctions of the types of letters [bet you didn't know there were 3 types of letters, not just 2!] and why each letter fell into its respective category. For those of you who debated this, Y is always considered a vowel, but it can act like a consonant or diphthong. And I found out that the letters are not classified arbitrarily but, rather, based on the mouth movements and opening/closing of the vocal chords required to say their name. When I read this out to my daughter I could see the same light bulb go off in her brain as I felt in mine. For a very intelligent kid in speech therapy, this is a vitally important lesson if you ever expect progress to be made.

We now know why letters are pronounced certain ways in words based on their relative position to other types of letters. In fact, the only letter that Webster states you have to "just be sure to memorize" [quote is a paraphrase of actual wording, but they are used for emphasis] is the letter g because sometimes it doesn't play by its own rules. Every other letter has exact rules that are followed in American English words. Yes, the rules more complicated than Russian, for example, but that's because English uses fewer characters to convey more sounds. In the attempt to simplify the written part of language, English actually made it more complicated to decode. However, it CAN be decoded. The problem is that we stopped teaching people the basic decoding rules.

It's no wonder high school graduates have difficulty reading and spelling! They were never taught the fundamentals. Even phonics, which I have come to understand as a watered down memorization version of comprehensive language education, is no longer being taught in schools. Many education programs have moved on to "whole language," but this only teaches rote memorization of words. The human capacity for straight rote memorization is significantly limited. True understanding comes from comprehension of the rules and tools used to build more complex information. Rote memorization dumps the information into our semantic long-term memory. Skills, including rules for math and language formation, are stored in our implicit memory. We know that implicit memory almost never fades, yet semantic memory is subject to numerous recall failures. So why did we stop building implicit memory? Perhaps it was because it was seen as boring; people don't want to waste time learning when they can be spoon-fed answers. Comprehension is not regurgitation. It is adaptation. The human mind was designed for adaptation, not simply regurgitation.

Think of it another way. Some people can "cook" because they follow the recipe. Occasionally they may experiment and add some new spice because they are curious, but they don't understand why the new spice changes things. A true culinary genius, however, has learned the chemical reactions of different substances, understands how certain ingredients like yeast or baking soda function, so they are able to create novel dishes that not only taste well but that also don't explode or kill you. The same can be said of language. Okay, you can be literate. You can remember the sequences you were taught. You can read the words on the page because you remember the familiar symbols from your earlier education. But if you understand how and why the pieces go together the way they do, then you can recombine them in a new logical sequence and create something new that still works in the preexisting realm of the language.

Language and communication are so very important for our very existence. Don't believe me? Think of any major invention, philosophy, profession, art, etc. and communication was involved. Also imagine your world if you could not communicate at all, if you were 100% reliant upon yourself for absolutely everything and had to "reinvent the wheel" each and every day. I am baffled that we have become so lazy that we don't bother to really understand the fundamental rules of our language so that it will work more efficiently. I don't know why we removed Webster's Speller from schools. Maybe somebody's knickers got all tied into knots when they read the "moral" lessons at the end of the book and didn't want their little Johnny to think like that. For whatever reason, we need to bring it back. We need to have a new generation of thoroughly educated individuals, not just bubble fillers and "good testers" going through the motions. I am so glad I discovered this centuries old textbook. I just really wish others could share in its wisdom as well. I suppose I could find solace that, in a world of 7+ billion people, most of whom now speak English, there will now be a couple who actually understand English.

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