Spelling Stop: Process vs. Product

I was in a classroom, when a four year old girl came up to me and asked, “Teacher David, how do you spell STOP?”

Now Freeze.

I have two potential answers to her question.

Answer #1:

“Well, you spell it like this, S-T-O-P.” And I might even show her a stop sign and have her copy the letters.

Done and done, and she will spell STOP perfectly.

Answer #2:

“Well, let’s sound it out!  Every word has different sounds in them. So let’s start from the beginning.  Ssssssss – Tuh! – Aaaaaaaahhh! – Puh!  Which sound did you hear first?”

“Sssssss.”

“Now, what letter makes the sssss sound.”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, let’s see, Ah! Here we have a letter chart.  Let’s go through the letters and guess which letter makes the sssss sound.”

We sing ABC’s together pointing to each letter as we go.  We pass by S and finish the whole alphabet.

“Can you guess which letter makes the sss sound?”

She points to the letter J.

***She never had pre-teaching to learn the sounds of the letters and was just guessing as sincerely and best she could.  I don’t believe that it was an issue of laziness or wanting me to answer for her.

“Hm…  What letter is that?  Let’s check.”

We sing the ABC’s again. until we get to J.

“This letter is J.  It makes the juh sound. Let’s keep going until we find a letter with the ssss sound in it.”

We sing the ABC’s very slowly and when we sing C, she looks up at me.

“Does that letter make the sss sound?”

She says, “See,” over and over again.  She nods her head yes.

“Well write it down!”

She proudly writes it down.  We go through this process for the next sounds in the word.  She ends up spelling the word like this: C – T – I – P.

Process versus Product

If my goal is to get her to make a good product (i.e. I want her to spell the word correctly, S-T-O-P), then my answer is very simple.  I either tell her the letters, “Well, it’s S-T-O-P,” and wait as she writes each letter, or I show her a stop sign and tell her to just copy it.

But if my goal is to get her to use a good process (i.e. sound out the word so that she can spell any word, not just the word stop), then the conversation becomes much different.

I will always believe that teaching a process is more important than teaching a product.  The process frees up the child to independently find solutions to problems.  In this case it is finding a solution to the problem of spelling a word.

Now some people might say, “Well now she thinks stop is spelled C-T-I-P! What kind of teaching is that?”

My answer is this.  Well, she won’t think it is spelled C-T-I-P once she sees a stop sign.  She can also do some more work in learning the sounds that letters make, and also different combinations of letters such as G-H or C-H or A-W. Those tools will be added to her toolkit that she can use within the process of sounding out a word.  And if you think that it is better to simply tell her the letters or show her where to copy the letters, what happens when she asks you how to spell other words?  Are you really going to spell it out every time for them?  Multiply the number of times you answer her spelling questions by the number of children in the class.  Are you going to spell it out every time?

The process teaches independence, self-sufficiency, builds self-esteem (imagine how they feel when they get it right), critical thinking, and children internalize what they learn   more efficiently since they learn it on their own terms.

In this day and age, so many schools focus on the product because of high stakes testing and getting singular correct answers to multiple choice questions.  In other words, our national policies that call for accountability in teachers through testing is effectively forcing teachers to teach children to get good products instead of forming processes for thinking.  It is a factory style of learning to spit out meaningless answers, and teaches children to copy or get the right answer from some source other than from within themselves.

I can’t stand that kind of teaching and I vow never to prescribe to a belief or system that enforces a pedagogy that doesn’t help children in the long term.

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2 Responses

  1. Pat Armstrong says:

    No child left behind and accountability by testing, killed my desire to ever teach again.

  2. Ellie Thomas says:

    Process/critical thinking is wonderful! The same techniques can be used in a variety of areas, including social/emotional development. It is a wonderful way to get kids thinking about how things work, and how they can work towards solving problems/challenges. It also demonstrates how there can be many answers to a problem. Offering up a question, or using the question of a child, to a group of children and allowing them to hear the ideas of other people, how other people think and solve problems is such a powerful opportunity for building critical thinking skills.
    My sons preschool strongly promoted “inventive spelling”. They did purposeful things to get the kids to write things out. For example, they would intentionally run out of materials, and encourage the kids to “write a note” to the teacher, letting them know what was needed. They had a board for their notes to the teacher, and it was always full of wonderful notes. “bi papr” or “we ned tap” or “we r ot ov penclz”…..HA! So magnificent! Thanks for the reminder that we rarely need to provide an answer!
    -Ellie

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