Category Archives: > K-12 Topics/Teaching

Review: David Crystal’s Book on Grammar

MAKING SENSE: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, by David Crystal
281 pp. Oxford University, $24.95.
Peter Sokolowski, NY Times: “The indefatigable linguist Crystal’s latest book, “Making Sense,” is a surprisingly entertaining historical and scholarly tour of the mechanics of English.
Grammar can seem as technical and off-putting as math or physics to many people who nevertheless can speak, read and write very well, and while some books on language prey on readers’ insecurity with lists of word-choice peeves and classist language shibboleths, Crystal efficiently punctures such snobbery.
His approach is to explain the points of grammar and their natural acquisition in the order in which a toddler develops language skills, a brilliant strategy that allows him to begin with the most basic concepts and build upon them while simultaneously exemplifying the descriptive nature of his work.
He illustrates the lingering “pernicious” effects of trying to fit the square peg of English into the round hole of Latin grammar, responsible for centuries of confusing information about how English works.
Discussions of semantics (what we are trying to say) and pragmatics (how we are trying to say it) give a more concrete nature to grammar, and are used effectively here to explain away the silly admonition against the passive voice in writing.
A primer on corpus linguistics and a short explanation of how our language evolved from Old English help complete Crystal’s masterly telling of why a living language’s grammar, like its vocabulary, is not only unfinished, it is unfinishable. One could not have a more genial guide for such a tour.”
Reading/Spelling tutor in Columbus OH: Adrienne Edwards 614-579-6021, or email

8 Things You Might Not Know About Vowels

by Arika Okrent

A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y is not all you need to know about vowels. There’s more to these workhorse members of our linguistics inventory than you might think.



A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y are the letters we define as vowels, but vowels can also be defined as speech sounds. While we have six letters we define as vowels, there are, in English, many more vowel sounds than that. For example consider the word pairs cat and car, or cook and kook. The vowel sounds are different from each other in each pair, but they are represented by the same letters. Depending on the dialect, and including diphthongs, which are combinations of two vowel sounds, English has from nine to 16 vowel sounds.


The most common vowel sound in English doesn’t even have its own letter in the alphabet. It does have a symbol, though, and it looks like this: ǝ. It’s the “uh” sound in an unstressed syllable and it shows up everywhere, from th[ǝ], to p[ǝ]tato, to antic[ǝ]p[ǝ]tory. You can discover nine fun facts about it here.


In addition to pure vowel sounds, there are diphthongs, where the sound moves from one target to another. American English is full of them. The vowel in the American pronunciation of no is a diphthong that moves from o to u (if you say it in slow motion, your lips move from a pure o position to a pure u position). The vowel in the Spanish pronunciation is not a diphthong. It stays at o, and that what makes it sound different from the English version.


The u sound (pronounced “oo”) is a vowel. It allows an unrestricted airflow through the vocal apparatus. Consonants, in contrast, are created with a blockage of air flow, or point of constriction. A u sound can sometimes serve as that point of constriction, and it that case the u is considered a w. In the word blue, the u is the most open part of the syllable, and a vowel. In want it is the constriction before the main vowel, and thus a consonant. Similarly, an i (or “ee”) can also be a y, which helps explain why is Y a sometimes vowel.


Most languages have at least i, a, and u, or something close to them, though it may be the case that the extinct language Ubykh had only two vowels. It is hard to say what the highest number of vowels for a language is because there are features like vowel length, nasalization, tone, and voicing quality (creaky, breathy) that may or may not be considered marks of categorical difference from other sounds, but in general, 15 seems to be a pretty high number of distinct single vowels for a language. The International Phonetic Alphabet has symbols for 34 different vowels. You can listen to the different sounds they represent here.


In English, we can add an ending like –ness or –y onto any word and the form of the ending doesn’t change. I can say “the property of vowelness” or “his speech is very diphthongy.” In languages like Hungarian, the vowels of the ending must harmonize with the vowels in the word it attaches to. For example, the multiplicative ending, for forming words like twice, thrice, etc. is –szor when it attaches to a word with a back vowel (hatszor, “six times”), -szer when it attaches to a word with a front vowel (egyszer, “once”) and –ször when it attaches to a word with a front rounded vowel (ötször, “five times”). Other languages with vowel harmony are Turkish and Finnish.


Many words we have today were pronounced very differently before the 14th century. Boot sounded more like boat, house sounded like hoos, and five sounded like feev. English underwent a major change in the 14th and 15th centuries. Words with long vowels shifted into new pronunciations. The changes happened in stages, over a few hundred years, but when they were complete, the language sounded very different, and spelling was a bit of a mess, since many spellings had been established during early phases of pronunciation. The change may have been initiated by the volume of French words that entered English shortly before the shift, or by the movement of populations with different dialects during the Black Plague.


In 1969, George Perec, a member of the French experimental literature group known as Oulipo published La Disparition, a 300-page novel written only with words that did not contain the letter e. It was published in English as A Void, also without using the letter e. The Spanish translation, El Secuestro, used no a. Works created with this kind of restriction are called lipograms, explained here in an e-less lipogram.


Orton-Gillingham Tutoring in Columbus OH: Adrienne Edwards 614-579-6021, or email

+ Random House Teacher Awards for Literacy

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Random House Bertelsmann, in partnership with The Random House Foundation, Inc. will present its Teacher Awards for Literacy this year at the November National Council of Teacher of English (NCTE) conference.  The awards recognize innovative projects in support of cultivating literacy and lifelong readers.

The Random House teacher awards recognize the nation’s most dynamic and resourceful teachers who use their creativity to inspire and successfully instill a love of reading in students.

The winning teachers will be awarded grants to help make their innovative reading programs possible.

  • First Place $10,000
  • Second Place $5,000
  • Third Place $2,500

The awards will be presented by National Book Award (NBA) winning author Jonathan Kozol at the NCTE conference on November 16, 2012.

Winners will be notified in advance of the annual NCTE meeting.  In addition to the giant monies noted above, the First Place winner’s conference registration, travel and lodging will be covered.

For details go to


  • Eligibility:  Fulltime or part-time teacher of students in grades K-12; teachers in public schools in the United States (private and parochial schools are not eligible)
  • Criteria (must meet all or some):  Teachers who foster a passion and love of reading through programs and curricula that are innovative  (perhaps multimedia, interdisciplinary, or interactive), original and have measurable success; who take risks in presenting books and literature in a unique way; who are committed to reluctant readers and are visionary in methods of reaching them; who create distinctive programs and activities that support and promote a community of readers.
  • Award: $10,000, $5,000, and $2,500 grant awards for use by the teacher and made payable to their respective schools; $2,500 in Random House Inc. titles for their respective schools; transportation, lodging and conference registration to attend the Awards breakfast at the NCTE conference in Las Vegas on Nov. 16, 2012 to the First Place winner only; multimedia coverage of the winning teachers and schools via the Random House, Inc website, press releases and newsletters.
  • Evaluation: The Foundation’s Director and consulting educators will review all applications and send the strongest to a committee of selected Random House executives, authors and educators who will determine final winners; winners to be announces by October 15, 2012 and posted at
  • Application process: Complete the Application Form — either the “self-nominating section” or the “nominating someone else” section; attach two letters of support, each not to exceed one page, one from parent or student and the other from a supervisor or peer (if nominated by someone else supervisor or peer letter is not necessary); attach professional resume; submit by September 1, 2012. 

Jonathan Kozol

Jonathan Kozol is the National Book Award-winning author of “Death at an Early Age.”  On that day he will also discuss and sign his new book “Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the  Poorest Children in America,” which draws on his decades of work with children in inner-city schools.


Orton-Gillingham tutoring in Columbus OH: Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021 or email  

+ New: Free MA in Education at American Museum of Natural History

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An article in the NY Times explains that the American Museum of Natural History will introduce its first Master of Arts in teaching program. 

According to Douglas Quenqua, they are looking for a small group of science majors, no teaching experience needed, to spend 15 months learning to become science teachers.

Tuition is free, thanks to the New York State Board of Regents.  Students will receive $30,000 stipends and health benefits.

President of the museum Ellen V. Futter says “We’re looking for people who want to make a career of teaching and stay in the business, whether they be just out of college or former participants in a volunteer corps or career changers or veterans.”

The program aims to produce 50 new science teachers over two years for the state’s middle and high schools, which are coping with a critical shortage of math and science instructors.

The catch is that graduates must commit to spending four years teaching in a high-needs public school; they may be assigned anywhere in New York State.

At an open house which drew about 90 people, the museum had an opportunity to pitch the program.  They also had to sell the concept of museum-as-classroom.

Question and answer sessions were held in the Astor Turret, a cylindrical, high-ceiling room that overlooks Central Park West.  Then Rosamund Kinzler, director of science education at the museum, led participants through the gem and minerals collection.

“The courses will be graduate-level science courses,” said Kinzler, “but they’ll be taught specifically with an eye toward preparing individuals to teach science in the classroom.”

Students will study and eventually teach planets and their orbits, water and weather, and basic geology.  The physical environment of New York — including Central Park across the street — will also play an important role in the courses.

Andrea Lewis, principal of Murry Bergstraum High School for Business and Careers in Manhattan, is happy about the program. 

She says “I’m looking to find teachers who can bring the exterior world into the classroom, take their kids outside the building, to really learn how to analyze, and hopefully get involved wtih science because of the experience they’ve had.”

For the entire article, visit

Orton-Gillingham tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards, 614-579-6021 or email

+ Spelling Facts from IDA

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From IDA, the “Spelling Fact Sheet,”which was prepared by IDA with the help of Louisa Cook Moats, Ed.D.   Following are some of the points in the paper. 

How common are spelling difficulties?

Spelling is difficult for many people, but there is much less research on spelling than on reading to tell us how many people spell poorly (or believe they spell poorly).  

We know less about spelling competence in the general population than we know about reading achievement.  Why? — because there is no national test for spelling.  In addition, many states do not test students’ spelling skills.

But almost all dyslexic people struggle with spelling and face serious obstacles in learning to cope with spelling problems.  Many individuals with dyslexia eventually learn to read fairly well, but spelling (and handwriting) difficulties can persist as long as one lives.

And so instruction, accommodations, task modifications and understanding may be required from those who teach or work with these students.

What causes spelling problems?

A mistaken (but common) belief is that poor visual memory for the sequences of letters is at the root of the problem.  But recent research shows that general visual memory plays a minor role in learning to spell.

Spelling problems, just like reading problems, originate in language learning weaknesses.  We all know people with excellent visual memory for pictures, color schemes, design elements, mechanical drawings, who cannot seem to spell.  The kind of visual memory necessary for spelling is closely “wired in” to the language processing networks in the brain.

A poor speller has trouble remembering letters in words.  That is because he or she can’t notice — then remember — then recall — the features of language that those letters represent.

Such students have weaknesses in the underlying language skills that can perceive individual sounds in words.  Often you can hear that in their cluttered or garbled oral speech.  Those misapprehensions will show up in their written productions.  We spell what we hear.

Spelling ability, like other aspects of dyslexia, is influenced by inherited traits.  While some of us are born to be better spellers,   those who aren’t can be helped by good instruction and accommodations.

Diagnosis of spelling problems

Simple tests of phoneme awareness and letter naming can predict later spelling problems (reading problems as well).  The earlier these tests are administered, the better.  

When students struggle to remember spelling words a standardized spelling test should be given.  This type of test will identify which sounds, syllable patterns or meaningful word parts the student does not understand or remember.  A spelling diagnostic test (developmental spelling inventory) will tell a teacher exactly which consonant, vowel, syllable and word spelling the student needs to learn.

In addition, students should be tested on their knowledge of the most commonly used and written words. 

How do children learn to spell?

Children gradually develop insight into how words are represented by letters as they progress through preschool, kindergarten, and first grade.  The process moves most quickly and successfully if instruction in sounds and letters is systematic, explicit, and structured.  Multisensory instruction (tracing letters, manipulating letter tiles) is necessary as well.

Children should learn that words are made up of separate speech sounds, and gradually be taught  how certain patterns work.  They will then notice recurring sequences of letters that form syllables, word endings, word roots, prefixes and suffixes.

Memories for whole words are formed much more quickly when children have a sense of language structure, and are given enough practice writing the words.

Is our English spelling system predictable?

The spelling system of our language is not crazy or unpredictable.  We can teach it as a system that makes sense. 

  • Nearly 50 percent of English words are predictable based on sound/letter correspondence alone.  Think of the words “slab,” “pitch,” and “boy.”
  • An additional 37 percent of our words are almost predictable except for one of its sounds:  think of “knit,” or “boat.”
  • A third type of information informs students about word origin (French, Latin, Greek, Old English). Information about word meaning. can also offer a clue to the spelling of a word.
  • In fact, only four percent of English words are truly irregular and may have to be learned through whole word memorization.  (We use a method of tracing and saying letters in order to cement them in long-term memory.)

So it is possible to approach spelling instruction with confidence that the system by and large makes sense.  You can reassure your students that won’t be guessing blindly any more; they will be learning to make correct spelling predictions.

Implications for teaching

Spelling instruction that explores word structure, origin and meaning is the most effective, even for dyslexic students with word recall problems.

Students who have learned the connections between word sounds and letters,  who have become acquainted with recurring letter patterns in English syllables, and who understand meaningful word parts such as prefixes, final syllables and suffixes, can gain proficiency in remembering whole words.

Classroom spelling programs should be organized to teach a progression of regular spelling patterns.  Note that after first grade, spelling instruction should follow and complement decoding instruction for reading.  Children should be able to read the words in their spelling lesson  (most learners can read many more words than they can spell).

Understanding correspondences between sounds and letters comes first.  Before spelling a word, a student should be able to orally take the sounds of the word apart.  Do one syllable at a time if it’s a multi-syllable word.  After recalling the letters that spell the sounds in each syllable, the student can recall the letters that spell those sounds.

Students should learn the patterns of the English language’s six basic syllable types, since those patterns represent vowel sounds in predictable ways.

Finally, students should be taught a few basic rules for adding endings to words, such as when letters should be doubled, when y is changed to i, and when to drop silent e.

Practice a few (only a few) irregular words — sight words — every lesson.  These are words that don’t “play fair,” such as come, they, their, who.    This can be done by tracing and saying the letters, building the words with letter tiles, copying and writing in sentences.  As such words are learned, help the student to build fluency by offering word and sentence dictation.  Have students keep a list of their own particular “spelling demons” to help them with future proofreading.

Note: it’s important that students learn words for writing and not just for spelling tests.  Transfer words into everyday writing.  Also teach a proofreading procedure that checks one element at a time: capitalization, organization, punctuation, spelling.

Be aware that computer spell-checkers are not helpful unless the student has already achieved basic spelling skill (about a fifth-grade level) and unless the student receives other proofreading help.  Spell-checkers don’t identify all errors.

Accommodations and task modifications

Dyslexic students should be offered these accommodations and modifications:

  • written work can be graded primarily on content
  • correct spellings can be written over the incorrect one; limit rewrites to a reasonable amount
  • provide proofreading assistance
  • encourage students to dictate their thoughts before writing; give them spellings of key content words to use
  • allow students in intermediate grades and higher to type exams and papers (or to use a voice-translation device)
  • encourage students to hand in early drafts of research papers and essays, to allow for revision before grading.

This information was taken from a”Just the Facts” sheet on SPELLING from the International Dyslexia Association. As mentioned above, this one was prepared with the assistance of Louisa Cook Moats, Ed.D.   It was included in the latest newsletter.  For more Fact Sheets, on a wide-ranging array of issues, visit the IDA website at

Orton-Gillingham tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021 or email

+ OH Legislature Passes Dyslexia House Bill 96!

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House Bill 96 clarifies the definition of learning disabilities in the Ohio Revised Code to specifically include dyslexia.

 House Bill 96 also creates a pilot project at the Ohio Department of Education including one urban, one suburban, and one rural school district to forge a partnership with the local library system to provide early screening and intervention services for children. Existing funds within the Ohio Department of Education will be used to pay for these screenings, and the inclusion of libraries will help ease the financial burden on school districts.
Next Steps:
House Bill 96 goes to OH Governor John Kasich for his signature.
Orton-Gillingham tutoring in Columbus OH  614-579-6021  or email

+ Khan Academy Takes YouTube Approach to Classrooms

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An article by Somini Sengupta in the NY Times describes a classroom in which the teacher wanders the room and watches each math student do their work.  He’s watching their work as it appears on the laptop he carries.

He sees a  girl zipping through her geometry exercises; he notices that one boy is stuck on long equations.  Another boy, he sees, is getting a handle on probability.

The software that has made this possible is the brainchild of Salman Khan, an Ivy League-trained math whiz and the son of an immigrant single mother.

Khan, 35, is the online sensation whose Khan Academy math and science lessons on YouTube have attracted up to 3.5 million viewers a month.

This new venture is more ambitious, and is still being tested.

This semester at least 36 schools nationwide are trying out Khan’s experiment — according to Sengupta, “splitting up the work of teaching between man (sic) and machine, and combining teacher-led lessons with computer-based lectures and exercises.”

Hundreds of companies are trying to sell their products to school systems, making confusing claims and offering big contracts.

“Why shouldn’t it be free?”

But Khan’s venture stands out, in that the lessons and software tools are entirely free.  They’re available to anyone with access to a reasonably fast Internet connection.

The core of our mission is to give material to people who need it.  You could ask ‘why should it be free?’  But why shouldn’t it be free?

Says Sengupta, it is too early to know whether the Khan Academy software makes a real difference in learning.

A limited study in Oakland this year suggests that children who had fallen behind in math can catch up equally well if they used the software or were tutored in small groups.

The research firm SRI International is working on an evaluation of the software in the classroom.

For the entire article, and more about Khan’s background and the impact of his model, visit

Orton-Gillingham tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021 or email