TouchPaper Problem #1 – The Spelling of a 1000 Words

This is the first blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013

  1. What is the shortest period of a time in which a person with dyslexia can be taught to spell the 1000 most common words in English?

This question is fraught with perils, I know, but let me explain….

In teaching we often face the issue of: “How do I do x?” So, how do I teach my class about symbolism, or how do I get Janine to use full stops properly? What would therefore be ideal is if teachers had a range of principles from which they could derive the best solution. I.e., I know something about what symbolism is, I know how such a concept typically can be transferred, and I start to craft an activity which transfers that kind of knowledge to the students in front of me. The difficulty arises in that we don’t really have many clear and well-known rules of thumb to help answer these kind of “how do I…” questions.

So, I started thinking. What questions do teachers regularly ask, and my first thought was: “How can I help my students spell?”

But it needed to be more specific, otherwise TouchPaper Condition 3 (having a defined end-point) would not be met.

So I changed the question, “How can I help my students spell the 1000 most common words in English?”

I picked the most common words for practical reasons: they are the ones they will use most often. I also suspected, although this may not be true, that across those 1000 words there would be lots of variations which would help students to start to see how spelling works.

But then I wondered to myself how useful this question is. After all, most people learn to spell – at least well enough that they can spell the 1000 most common words. As it stood it may be a problem but answering it is not really challenging. At least not ‘million quid’ challenging.

So then I thought about who find things difficult in spelling. Now Dyslexia can be debated. I know David Didau has doubted it. BUT, it is something seemingly ‘testable’ to which a ‘diagnosis’ can be made. As with anything a person may be mildly or severely dyslexic, but we can assume that most people cluster around an ‘average’ or ‘most common’ point. And if we taught that person the 1000 most words, and we did it quickly, then that would be quite something. Because not only would that student now have an incredibly useful skill, but to answer that problem we would have to do several things. INCLUDING:

  1.  Work out what dyslexia is and what it is doing in the brain
  2.  Find a way to work around or ‘with’ the dyslexia, and
  3.  Speed up those techniques so that knowledge transfer can happen most quickly.

Now, a few criticisms have been thrown my way. So let’s see if I can answer them:

What if people with dyslexia are no different to people without dyslexia in terms of the way they learn to spell? That’s fine. If uncovered this could be added to the ‘proof’, and the problem would be solved merely by answering how quickly any ‘average’ person could learn the words.

What if we find out that the shortest period is, say, 5 minutes – but it involves torturing children via electrocution (or some other equally nasty method)?  So…obviously I hope we don’t find this out, if only because the legalities of torturing children are quite clear and I don’t want to be responsible for anyone going to jail. BUT – let’s say by a miracle of chance we did work this out without torturing anyone (phew). then I’m afraid I still believe that would be a good thing to know (though obviously not do). As Matthew Hunter has said before, education research isn’t going to tell us what to value. But if we know that the quickest way to learning is through violence, then we must face that and then make an informed decision about what we will do. My hope is that we would say “Darn. Okay, let’s use that second quickest way to resolve this issue” and in doing so encourage everyone else to leave their torture instruments to one side. But being afraid of what we might find is, for me, not a reason to shirk an important problem.

Is this really about the technique rather than the shortest time and should the question reflect that?  Thing is, techniques are what we will uncover once we have figured out the principles underlying the questions above. But the motivating problem is the time, if only because it seems to me an inherently good thing to learn this stuff quickly. If you can learn a 1000 words in a week, then you could (potentially) learn a lot more in the next year or so. Why wait?! And so for me I want to stay focused, problem-wise, on the shortest time because it is motivating. In terms of what teachers would get from this being solved, however, would be all the knowledge that had to be developed in order to figure out the answer.

Next up will be TouchPaper Problem #2: How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation? Get your thinking caps ready…

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