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  • Pam Koutrakos

How can I bring a sense of DISCOVERY to word study?

“The important thing is to not stop questioning:

curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

-Albert Einstein

I am an optimist... possibly an eternal optimist. I have a tendency to focus on the positive- even when it is particularly challenging. This is why research that shows students ask significantly fewer questions once they enter formal schooling is particularly upsetting for me. One of my highest teaching priorities is to help students embrace their sense of wonder. I know I am not alone in this commitment. In my attempts to cultivate curiosity, I use a discovery approach to classroom learning as much as possible. There are easy tweaks we can make to our word study instruction to help sneak in a sense of inquiry and wonder.

In word study, we focus on thinking of words in many different ways. Outside-the-box observations and connections are shared and celebrated. Students take risks and are playful with the ways they work with words.

The first few days in a word study cycle focus on the meaning of words. During this time, one activity students might choose to participate in is a “category sort.” Here, students group words from the sort. They sometimes add in additional words not in the sort. Meaning is heavily emphasized: Students are not yet sorting based on spelling/what they see or hear words have in common.

As students share their categories with one another and partners try to literally “guess the category,” they ask each other questions. These questions invite conversation, in-depth thinking, and added discovery. Partnerships work with independence; I often worked with other groups while students were doing a meaning sort. If present, my role would only be to coach into partnership talk - it is up to the students to follow their imaginations, wonder, and ask each other questions:

Later in a word study cycle, we take some time to play around with what we see and hear the words have in common. Even when we focus on spelling patterns, we start by doing “open sorts.” Students are encouraged to again, be playful and sort words in multiple ways- thinking about how different groupings add to their knowledge and understanding. Questioning is an integral part of this process. I have tried to emphasize to students that this is a questioning and wondering activity just as much as a spelling routine. Often, students start the year by looking for the one “correct” way to categorize the words. It takes time, encouragement, and plenty of modeling to increase students’ confidence in being flexible and playful in their approach. However, all efforts are well worth it. By encouraging questioning and multiple lines of thought, students grow in their understanding of words and connections between words.

Socrates once said, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” I often spend a great deal of time thinking and talking with colleagues about big picture shifts to incorporate more discovery and inquiry into each day. However, like many things, little tweaks can also have a powerful impact. The level of interest and investment in word study was lifted simply by widening my own views of how we look at words. By teaching students to question, we show we value different kinds of thinking. Students are then more likely to value their own thoughts and ideas. These are often the lessons that make me feel most professionally fulfilled. How about you?

This blog is the fourth in a five-part series. You can find the first three blogs here, here, and here. The last blog in this series will be centered around finding meaningful ways to assess in word study.

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