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TEACHING PUPILS TO EXECUTE
In the preceding chapters we were occupied with a discussion of the teaching of subjects dealing with matters of content, or perhaps with ideas, as distinguished from forms, or the means of expressing thought. When we were considering the method of presenting content studies to pupils, we were interested wholly in the development of thinking ability; but now that we must give attention to the acquisition of form subjects, we will need to inquire how pupils can most readily and economically gain facility in the use of technique in spelling, in penmanship, in singing, and so on. The attainment of clear thinking should be the end kept in view in teaching history, science, geography, and the like; but automatic execution must be the goal to be aimed at in the teaching of all symbolic or technical subjects. The functions of the content vs. the technical subjects are essentially different in human life, and they ought to be taught differently in the schools. Let us first glance at the teaching of spelling, which is a good example of a technical subject in Spelling as a typical which the aim must be to technical subject acquire automatic facility in execution. It is probable that no subject in the curriculum is so much discussed in our times as spelling. Newspaper writers are constantly complaining of the inability of graduates of common schools to spell ordinary words correctly. These writers lay emphasis upon spelling as the most essential thing in the school. Of course, bad spelling is easily detected. One can not express himself in writing at all without revealing his ability or the lack of it in this regard; and this is one reason why deficiencies in this subject are so readily detected by laymen.
Recently a pupil in the fourth grade in a good school, as schools go, brought to his home a list of words to be learned for his spelling lesson. Here is the list: Honest, farmer, fence, potato, summer, cultivate, generally, harvest, threshing, company. These words were taken by the teacher from the selection which the pupils had in their reading lesson that morning. It is her practice to have the spelling lessons depend upon the reading, geography, and language lessons. She says that in this way she can select words which the pupils understand; and she is an ardent advocate of the theory that the child
should be able to spell anything he can read. She believes, too, that if a pupil can spell a word he will be able to read it the more readily, so that the spelling will help the reading if the two be developed together.
See, now, how one's educational theories may often persist in spite of obvious facts indicating A practical quite contrary principles. The pupil retest
ferred to above was asked by his teacher on the day he was given the agricultural spelling list to write a little essay on some experience he had had on the way to or from school. When he proceeded to his task, he declared he could not write anything. “What shall I say?" showed the vacuity of his mind. The teacher had to “develop” the notion that on the way to school he had seen several birds, and she instructed him to tell something about them. So, after much wriggling in his seat, and gazing around to see what his classmates were doing, he finally produced the following: “On the stret (street) to school I saw sevn burds tha (they were robins I tryed to cetch (catch) them but tha flu (flew) away tha were going sowth (south) for winter."
The teacher had in her career handled a great many "essays" similar to the specimen given, but still she held to her view that the way to teach a child to spell is to take ten words a day from his reading and other lessons, and cause him to learn them as a list. At the same time, she would not think of asking her pupils to write essays in which they would employ words as difficult to spell as those they were being drilled on in their formal spelling exercises. When I suggested that, instead of asking the children to prepare an essay on some subject they had observed on the way to or from school, she should require them to write a story, using the ten words of the spelling lesson, she objected vigorously. It seemed to her to be unreasonable to ask young pupils to treat such a difficult subject, and her point was well taken, probably, considering what experience the children had had in expressing themselves in this way.
I have been interested for some years in keeping the spelling lists of a group of children, and noting Ability to use
the relation between these lists and words the the development of the children's true test
actual spelling ability. I have found, and this may be familiar in principle to all my readers, that pupils may commit to memory lists of words every day, but be quite unable to spell many of them when they need to express themselves. And
the reason for this disparity between learning for mere recitation and learning for use seems clear. It is one thing to learn a word as a separate, isolated entity, and an altogether different thing to master it so it can be employed in its connections in a sentence.
I am now observing a pupil who is required to memorize ten words a day; and he so establishes them in his visual memory that if I begin pronouncing at the bottom of the list, he may start spelling at the top. If I start at the beginning and go down to the fifth word, say, but skip it and go to the sixth or seventh, he will spell off the fifth with perfect confidence. He fixes the words in a mechanical order only. He really does not establish connections between the sound of any given word and its visual form. Much less does he gain such familiarity with words that he can use them as instruments of expression, simply because he does not have experience in using them in this manner. Do you suppose one could learn to use knives by simply learning the names of all the varieties made at Sheffield, and arranged in lists? The only way a pupil can acquire the ability to employ words readily and accurately is to learn them as he will need to employ them in the practical situations of life.
Does this mean that it is useless to have spelling lists? Not at all. But it does mean that spelling