While working on the past tense verb,“ed,” with a first grader, I noticed this little girl was having difficulty understanding how “ed” could have three different sounds. For example, planted or landed both have the id sound added to the base word – (plant-ed) and (land-ed) while the word “hopped” sounds like a /t/ at the end, and the word rained sounds like a /d/ at the end. For young children, and even some older children, this flexibility of how the “ed” suffix is pronounced is challenging. We came across the word “stopped,” and she said, “Stop- ed.” I tried to explain to her how it is pronounced, but she was adamant that the word is “stop- ed.” I asked her if she ever heard anyone say stop-ed and her response was, “Yes, like when someone says don’t do it. Stop it!” I thought this was so cute! Her response clearly defines why we need to be explicit; she was generalizing the ending “ed” to sound the same in every word. Children will try to make sense of words and language that fit in with their own language level and understanding at the moment. It was Abraham Maslow that wrote, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Not only will children generalize information that they hear, they also tend to be rigid in their understanding of the world. They live in a world of absolutes with few exceptions, unless they are told there are rule-breakers. I know many adults use the saying, “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” For many words, this holds true. The vowel team “ea” USUALLY will be the long /e/ sound, but there are many words where it represents the short /e/ sound like in head, feather, or bread, and in other words where it represents the long /a/ sound like in great, break, or steak. Many children will naturally see the flexibility of words, yet a large number of children will not simply figure it out. We need to tell them which vowel sounds are most common and which ones are least common when they are looking to sound out a word for the first time. We need to be extremely cautious with the little sayings and shortcuts that we think are helpful yet turn out to be misleading.
It is best not to make too many assumptions, especially when it comes to children and learning. A funny episode of the Odd Couple, an old television show about two male roommates with opposite personalities, one, a neat-freak named Felix Unger, the other, a laidback slob named Oscar Madison, reverberates in my head. Oscar received a ticket and decided to fight the ticket in court with Felix acting as his attorney. In the courtroom during cross examination, the witness being questioned by Felix said, “I just assumed…,” and Felix promptly cut her off and responded, “Never assume. When you assume, it makes an ass out of u and me.” He wrote the word assume on the chalkboard and demonstrated how the word can be broken apart into ass-u-me. How true! With children, never assume that they will pick up information without explicit instruction. Also, do not assume that you can tell them a way to remember something that works only some of the time and expect them not to use it all of the time.
Faith Borkowsky, Owner and Lead Educational Consultant of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching, is a Certified Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner, is Orton-Gillingham trained, and has extensive training and experience in a number of other research-based, peer-reviewed programs that have produced positive gains for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADD/ADHD, and a host of learning difficulties. Her book, Reading Intervention Behind School Walls: Why Your Child Continues to Struggle, is available on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/dp/1543060781