Today at the elementary school where I volunteer, I completed a reading test with a student who is behind in his literacy skills. This child is a joy to work with: he really wants to learn, and he exerts a lot of effort to acquire (and then use) knowledge. While he still doesn’t possess mastery of the full list of ‘sight words’ that all second graders “should” know, he works very hard to apply the rules he does know to figure out the words he doesn’t. However, English can be a fickle language – and today, I got to see first-hand just how complex my native tongue can be (in a semi-humorous way).
I began the session with the student by asking him how yesterday’s field trip went (the class visited a science museum) – and immediately received a beaming grin as he told me all about the various interactive, hands-on displays he explored. After a minute of trading stories, the student and I got to work, and he began reading down the list of second-grade sight words. “Gain, science, early, empty…” and so on, until we arrived at the word “whole”. This student pronounced the word as it looks (i.e., “wuh-o-el”), and I gently corrected him with “hohl”. He stopped, then looked at me, a bit irritated. “That ain’t right, that word starts with a ‘w’, and you didn’t say it.” He paused, then continued a bit more gently, “You missed the ‘wuh’ part of the word,” he tried to explain. I smiled gently at him, and responded, “Actually, this word is kind of strange – you don’t say the ‘w’ for this one. The ‘w’ is silent.” The student looked at me incredulously. “Silent?” he asked, completely unconvinced. I nodded. He furrowed his brow, did a slight head shake “no”, but continued reading down the list.
“Father, America, wait, certain…”, and pronounced ‘certain’ as “ker-t-ai-n”. Again, I gently corrected with the proper pronunciation (‘sur-tn’), and again the student looked at me, thoroughly irritated. “That word begin with a ‘c’, not a ‘s’,” he protested. “You can’t say it sound like ‘ssss’ when it start with ‘c’!” He was ticked that I was trying to change the rules on him. Though he never spoke these words, his voice and body cried out, “Unfair!”
I know buddy, this language is a tough one. I tried to assuage him. “You’re doing really good, J. Some of these words are tricky, and they don’t always do exactly what we expect. Remember how the ‘s’ in “island” is silent?” He nodded. “Well, this is another word that isn’t quite what we expect it to be. But it really is pronounced ‘sur-tn’.” He looked at me, clearly struggling to remember all of these exceptions he was being confronted with, while still wanting to hold on to the rules that he thought were reliable. He looked down at the page, and again resumed reading.
Near the end of the list, the word ‘certain’ appeared a second time. Upon seeing this nemesis the student paused, then carefully said, “Well, you say it sound like ‘sur-tn’, so I guess that what it be today…” When I praised him heartily for both his recognition and remembrance of this tough word, he half-smiled at me in a placating kind of manner, but at the same time gently shook his head ‘no’ – as if to say, “I know you think you right, but lady, you still wrong; that word be ‘ker-t-ai-n’”.
Rules are great – until they don’t work. This student was confident that he was right; but during our time together, he tried his very best not to upset me. He tried to explain to me that I was wrong – but in a gentle, caring kind of way. His pairing of tenacity and empathy warmed my heart. Even if he never becomes a great reader, he’s going to grow up to be an outstanding man.