Ok, That’s a bit of a mixed metaphor.  But let me explain!

I’m thinking a lot about process vs. content lately.

Something that gets me really excited about the instruction we are providing to our students is that we are process focused.

What does that mean?

You know that adage, “Give someone a fish and they will eat for a day; teach them to fish, and they can eat for a lifetime”?

Too often I see tutors that are focused on content knowledge. In these cases, what gets taught and studied gets learned, but it doesn’t really get the child any further ahead!

For example, they study spelling lists and spelling tests, but what good does memorizing 15 words do? Do these 15 words get retained and stored, or are they dumped from memory and replaced by the next 15 words? I have a similar issue with flashcards. Is the idea that you are going to “memorize” the way all the words in English look, without actually learning how to read them?

(By the way, the average 8-year-old has a spoken vocabulary of 10,000 words; so, if you think your child needs to see a flashcard 5 times before they learn a word, then you have 50,000 flashcard drills to look forward to in your future just to get your child to a Gr. 2 level … !!!)

I also HATE it when I hear children reciting useless “rules” to help them read and spell. For example, over and over I meet children who tell me that when “two vowels go walking the first one does the talking”. This is content, and it doesn’t help a child apply skills to reading and spelling (and it’s also simply untrue … In this day and age, we have equal opportunity for vowels and they just as often don’t let the first walker be the talker … think of the words “great”, “fiend”, “tour”, “plaid” etc.)

As another example, I’m sure you’ve heard children taught to use “I before e except after c”. I CONSTANTLY meet children who recite this “tip” and in the next moment spell “freind”.

This is content learning.  This gives the child a fish. The child learns this declaratively – they can “say” this rule, but it does not impact their performance – the application or process – of how they actually read and spell. Declarative learning and content learning rarely make the difference when we are working on a process-based skill like reading or writing.

Consider teaching someone how to ride a bike. How do you describe balance? You can give them a 100-page free e-book with content on how to ride a bike, but until someone engages in the process of riding a bike, and applying the principles of balance, they are destined to fail!

(The I before e “rule” is rather useless as well, as we see in the words “efficient” and “weird”).

Process learning is much more powerful for learning a skill such as reading. What does a process make available? It provides a student with something to draw from when they encounter an unfamiliar word.

It provides a systematic way to approach a task based on experience and previous learning.

Reflect for a little while and think about where you learned a process that was empowering for your life. Did someone teach you how to change a tire or cook pancakes?

Think about where you are teaching content vs. process. I see this all the time with the Autistic students I work with. They learn a “rule” that they have to say goodbye, and they say “goodbye” in exactly the same way with exactly the same words each time, no matter the circumstance or who they are providing the farewell to.

What if you taught them the purpose of the farewell – WHY we say goodbye, and then taught a process of fulfilling that PURPOSE with different words, phrases, and levels of emotionality?

So often we get caught up in the WHAT that we want children to be doing. For example, “kids need to say goodbye because it is polite, and we want kids to be polite”. So, we create a “little robot” that has learned a rule to say goodbye … but we haven’t actually taught them HOW to be polite or WHY to be polite.

The process of providing an effective farewell to someone – to let them know that they are important to you, that you have appreciated your time together, that you will miss them or that you look forward to the next time you can meet – THAT can be taught to a student with Autism, and it opens up a whole WORLD of perspective taking, relationship management, and social communication. That is what process vs. content makes available.

And that is just how it works in our instruction. We teach our students a process of how the sounds and words that we use when we speak can be represented on paper or on a screen. We teach them how to “unpack” words into syllables, onset-rimes, sounds, and lexical stress, and then represent these elements with letters. Through this process, children learn to crack the code. Once the code is cracked, children can read and spell accurately. This opens the door for increased efficiency and automaticity. Our students are off to the races.

In our instruction, we teach metalinguistic and metacognitive strategies while teaching reading. Using strategies gets children closer in their spelling and reading attempts – often close enough to figure it out rather than having “no idea” or making a random guess. They also promote independence and confidence.

Our students learn these strategies not only declaratively, but also implicitly. That means they can not only tell you the strategies, but also apply them logically, and reflect on whether or not they were effective.

And though we are process driven, we do dabble in content. However, our content instruction is driven by discovery. Through a process of unpacking and representing words, children discover rules, patterns, and exceptions to the rule. We have strategies that support this discovery, and then children develop independence in the process of using those strategies to unpack and discover other rules and patterns. Useful ones. That actually apply to English.

For example, in a closed syllable, you need 2 vowel letters to represent a long vowel sound. That is an English letter-sound correspondence pattern that is dictated by a linguistic constraint that helps you read and spell in English!!

language AirdrieI don’t actually teach this pattern to students. Or at least, I don’t tell it to them in those words. However, when we engage in a process of spelling “green”, “rain”, “boat”, and “fear”, and then do some SPEECH based exercises to LISTEN for a short or long vowel, and to attend to the open or closed syllable shape, and then write the numbers 1 and 2 under the vowel letters once we map the sounds into letters … well, my clever students start to ask WHY are we doing that, and they start to SEE a process for how to use vowel letters and vowel combinations to represent vowel sounds. And they discover that there is, after all, some logic to English. THIS is teaching a child to fish!

A focus on process, and on strategy acquisition and application, develops metacognition. This allows children to reflect while reading and writing to think about “which strategies do I know? Which strategy would help me in this moment”?

When students have some things they can try, this fosters independence. Rather than sitting and waiting for a cue from an adult, or asking which letter to write, they have some ideas about what they can try – independently.

This, in turn, fosters confidence – it provides a feeling of control. As the child begins to see the logic of the letter-sound correspondence system in English, they begin to see for the first time that reading is possible – that they CAN do it.

How far would the simple act of being able to read and spell long vowel sounds, with 2 or 3 vowel letter combinations, take YOUR child’s literacy skills? We can often teach that PROCESS in 20 minutes! How many flashcards can you get through in 20 minutes? 10? 20? 30? Only 49, 970 more to go …