Spell Is a Four-Letter Word

Or, How My Boy Learns

 From Life’s Archives, June 6, 2011

I think the first word Cinder ever wrote was FART. He didn’t actually write it, if I recall correctly, but carved it into a styrofoam meat tray. For a while after that, he changed every “art” he encountered into a FART. Very joyously. Then he learned how to spell POOP. We still come across the odd random POOP smear—I mean, written on a wall, book or garbage can.

And he hasn’t precisely grown out of that phase yet. We recently started working with the All About Spelling programme, as Cinder started to stall and get frustrated with his progress, or rather lack of, with the next level of Bob Books and reading. We had been doing it fairly regularly in March and April, and then reached a frustration/stall point again, so took a break to let it all simmer and marinate, and I put it back on the table today. Flora’s working through the program with us too, of course, and I did the Step with her first, and it went sort of like this: I reviewed the concept, she repeated it or nodded her head, I read the three-letter word, and she spelled it. Then I did it with Cinder. I reviewed the concept of “sh” and “ch” and “th” sounds. He spelled “shit” to illustrate. I said ok, now we’re going to spell the “u” words from the Step. He changed “shit” to “Shut up.” Somehow—after grudgingly spelling gun, bum, and butt, and rolling his eyes at hug and tub—he ended spelling jack ass and asshole.

I was so proud. (Up to you to figure out if there’s a sarcasm sign flashing behind me).

Meanwhile, Flora was sitting at the kitchen table, listening to a book on tape and drawing rainbows, hearts and flowers.

Every Women’s Studies course I ever took? Lies. All lies.

Death By Flatulence (A Sad Story)

…or, unschooling reading and writing with a boy-boy

Austen and I were typing dorky notes to each other in Word. I typed a sentence and he read–then he changed the sentence and I read it. For example, I wrote, “Austen is not a gas bag.” And he changed it to (what else?), “Mom is a gas bag.” And on it went until we wrote this story. Austen’s debut in literature, world take note.


by austen and Mom

One day, a boy did a bad thing. He made a big fart. It blew his head off.

His head was not big. His head was not small. His head was gone.

He was sad.

Actually, he was dead.

All because of a big fart.

The end.

The Great Scrabble Battle

I asked for it.

Cinder, you see, likes to win. Even when he’s playing a game for the first time―or against a clearly superior player. So as we were pulling out the Scrabble board, I very firmly and seriously told him―twice―that this was a game I was going to win. I was absolutely going to help him―I wasn’t going to be ruthless―but this was a game I was extremely good at, and he was just learning to read and spell. I was going to win, and he couldn’t be upset when I won.

Sean chimed in, “You can play Carcassone later and whoop Mom at that.”

Cinder shrugged. “I’ve watched Mom and Richard play lots. I know the strategy.”

And we played.

Cinder’s path to literacy has been slow. If forced to label him, I’d call him an emergent reader or a developing reader. (Labels suck.) He can work his way, when he pays attention, through phonetic three letter words and the handfuls of sight words he’s memorized (one of them is Cthulu). Four letter words, even perfectly phonetic ones, require a lot of concentration, some prodding. Over the last few months, we’ve been intermittently working on finding tools and strategies to help him. He’s come a long way, but it’s hard work for him―pieces are still missing―that “aha!” moment that came for Flora when she was four or five still hasn’t come for him. He plugs away at it… then takes a long break.

We’ve been on a long break most of the summer from the spelling program that gave him his last big leap forward and confidence boost―then slammed him into a wall he couldn’t get past. But after a summer of watching me, our neighbour Richard, and other Co-op firepitters play Scrabble on most fine Saturdays, he wanted to play the game.

He rattled off a dozen words he knew how to spell. “It’s a good start,” he said. I was very proud of him for wanting to play. So long as he was able to cope with losing.

We played. I played to open up the board―to create opportunities for building more words. I played long words, so there would be plenty of E’s and S’s and T’s and the like for him to use. He’d get stuck, and he’d ask me or Sean for help. A few times, we traded letters―he’d offer me an E for a U, a P for a G. It was a great game. He spelled Dog and If and Am and Bum. Also Hire and Fire, and, with help, Tear. And attempted to spell Dense―and came damn close. Figured out adding “s” “ed” or “er” to a word often got you more points than the original word was worth. Spelled Zoos with a triple letter word score for the Z. Quit―with help from me and a trade for a T―for a double word score. I accepted Ed was a word so that he could spell DOG somewhere in the vicinity of Yeti. Yeah, I gave him some slack―but he did great.

Flora kept score for us, writing down each score individually, so we didn’t have a final tally. He went out first, sticking me with -11 points. And we sat down to add up the numbers.

He did the math in his head and I checked it on paper. 276 for Cinder. “That’s a great score,” he announced. It was. In our Co-op games, we hardly ever break 300. We started adding up my score. Half-way through, I realized I was beaten. And not just by a little bit.

He beat me 276 to 171.

Now, yes, I helped him―and I wasn’t playing to score big. But how on earth, with all those three and two letter words, did he whoop me so badly? Well, before we even started, he studied the letter distribution chart on the board. He knew how many Os, Es, Ts, Hs etc. there were in play. He paid hyper-attention to the position of all the triple-letter, double-letter, double-word and triple-word scores. When he had gotten all the letters for Zoos, for example, he trolled the board carefully to see where he could stake out the position that would give him a triple hit for the Z. (He changed Nude to Nudes to make that play, getting points for that word as well.)

He was only mildly boastful, running up with the score sheet to his Dadda. “I might not beat you by quite so much next time,” he told me graciously afterwards. But he was very proud. And mentioned he was almost ready to start the “spelling programme that I hate” again. I nodded, didn’t push. Let him savour the victory.

He’s nine and a quarter―a third almost. My emergent reader. Who can look at a page in a book and tell you, with incredible accuracy, which letters and letter combinations occur on it with the most and the least frequency (also whether there are more curvy or “sticky” letters there. And who can whoop me at Scrabble with spelling mastery over a few dozen―a hundred if we stretch it―words, because he’s got the strategic aspect of the game down pat.

This is why I never worry that he will blossom into a competent reader, when he’s ready, in his own way. Why I don’t push. Why I don’t torment him with drills that, right now, won’t help and will only serve to discourage and frustrate. Why I can have the patience, and suffer from very little doubt, that his unique path to literacy will bear the required fruit, in time. Things like this Scrabble game―they happen all the time.

Minecraft is Educational. Really.

Part of the homeschooling set up in Alberta includes twice-a-year visits from your school board’s facilitator. We’re registered with the main public school board in Calgary, and the facilitator from CBE visits us in the fall to discuss our plans for the year, and then again in June to go over what we’ve done. This post is an abbreviated report of the 2011 June visit. Its purpose? A glimpse into what Cinder considers important right now. Take from that what you will.

About as late in the year as you can get, but it went so well. I loved it that what Cinder most wanted to show our facilitator was his Tang Soo Do uniform, and Flora her bone collection—and Mary Anne got it, she was great with them. Cinder also showed her the MineCraft (video game) interface and his Slave I Lego model. On my request, Flora read her a book, and Cinder spelled two phrases I dictated. Then “ass pit,” “shit,” and he started to spell fuck. I told him to change it to fish if he ever wanted to eat sushi again. Everyone howled. (I was just a bit red-faced. Just a bit. Yeah.)

Ever notice how all English swear words are perfectly phonetic? Very interesting.

We set up an agenda for the visit — and we check it off as we go. If we didn’t do that, Cinder would hide in his room the whole visit. So, on Cinder’s agenda was showing her the Tang Soo Do uniform, MineCraft, the garden, the trampoline, and one of his Lego sets. (Note the complete absence of… well, anything even remotely academics-related.) On Flora’s agenda was showing the facilitator Flora’s Museum of Natural Mysteries, a trick on the trapeze bar, and her book of drawings. On my agenda, negotiated at the cost of a celebratory sushi dinner, was Flora choosing a book to read, and Cinder doing the spelling. In retrospect, I’ve got to say, the last was a mistake—Flora loved performing, and Cinder does not, and he got extremely stressed and wound up even though he did what he had intended to do. I regret putting him in that position: I didn’t need to. If I’m brutally honest, I wanted to show off how far he’d come from last year, and I’m the only one who really cared about showcasing that—it wasn’t important enough to him to demonstrate, and our facilitator didn’t need to see it either—she had other “proofs.” Oh, well.

The way to hell is paved with good intentions, and the path of motherhood is littered with well-intentioned disasters.

I Solemnly Swear I Am Up To No Good

Harry Potter Overdose: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as bedtime reading; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on CD in the car and on DVD as the good night movie; Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on CD in the kitchen.

I’m expecting owls to fly in with the mail in the morning. Flora wants a broomstick and Austen wants to get “I solemnly swear I am up to no good” tattooed on his forehead.