Last week, I worked more than forty hours at my part-time job. And that’s only counting the hours that I was upright. Because even long after lights-out, sometime past eleven o’clock one night, I was still awake, staring at the ceiling and trying to think of multisyllabic words that featured o’s short sound. Computer didn’t work—obvious schwa. Content, as in comfortable and happy, was similarly disqualified, although content, as in table of contents, was not. But I had used content before with this boy, at least three times, meaning that he may have memorized it. I eventually settled on combat (the noun) and contact. That victory came near midnight, and then I fought myself for another fifteen minutes before turning on the light, finding a pad of paper and a pen, and writing the winning words down. After that, I was out.
I could rest easy at that point because I knew that combat and contact would work well. The student would easily hear and echo the appropriate stress in each word, which would strengthen his chances of being able to correctly identify the vowels that are making those clear, short sounds. Like most students, this one cringes at the very mention of stress, but it doesn’t matter that he is less than content with this type of content. Stress carries weight in words; it can dictate meaning. Stress decides what we emphasize, how long a vowel is held, and how much breath we spend on each syllable we speak.
Even leaving stress aside, though, combat and contact also lent themselves beautifully to a single, perfect sentence: They made contact during combat. It’s actually pretty rare when that happens with so little struggle. So I definitely planned to share that sentence with my student, for vocab. But I couldn’t dictate it to him as part of our spelling drill, and it wasn’t the allusion to violence that would make that request inappropriate. I couldn’t use the sentence because my student couldn’t spell any of the five words in it.
One of the cornerstones of the Orton-Gillingham (OG) approach, the approach that I am trained in, is that lessons are presented in a manner that is both sequential and cumulative. That’s a fancy way of saying that if I haven’t directly taught a student every sound, spelling, and rule that he would need to know in order to correctly encode a word, then I can’t ask him to spell it. Aside from being a cornerstone of OG, you could also call that simple fairness. Except that fairness, in this case, feels very far from simple.
Is it fair, for example, to ask a tenth grader, a boy who is nearly sixteen, to spell the word cat? Probably not entirely. Is it fair that he has about a fifty percent chance of spelling it correctly? Definitely not. But here we are, and we are butting hard up against another of OG’s cornerstones, which also happens to be the one that I hold most dear: emotional soundness. That’s the one that leads me to hide the word cat in the word catacomb. I have my student tap out the syllables and then spell only the first, which just so happens to be spelled c-a-t. I used combat and contact the same way; my student spelled only the syllables com and con. I was proud of myself when I came up with that idea, on another late night. I was over the moon, actually. Because emotional soundness is tough. No one wants to read as much as a high school student who still can’t. But they will never admit it. I had one student like that a while ago, fourteen years old. He looked down and to the left whenever I checked his work. That boy was absolutely convinced that there was no way that he got it right—any of it. Kids like him are the students who keep me up at night and make lesson planning feel like fine sculpting might, if I tried to do it with dynamite.
The new school year is nearly here, one of the busiest times in my year, and I find myself thinking more and more about appropriate stress, fairness, and emotional soundness. I am working too much while not sleeping well at all. When I am stressed like this, I think, and think, and think. And since I am not a visual person, I tend to think in strings of words. I say them to the ceiling, just under my breath. It is, in a way, time well spent. Those words are not wasted. They become content. But I am not content.