Monday, April 7, 2014

Pneumonoultra...WHAT?

Fifth graders can spell PUMPKIN, finally, but how about that OTHER "P" word...


At the beginning of any school year in my fifth grade classroom, it was not unusual to find an unusually long word scrawled (yes, scrawled, I was not one of those teachers blessed with Zaner-Bloser penmanship skills) across my board:

 PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOLCANOCONIOSIS.  


Yes, it's a real word, and yes, I expected my kids to spell it.  And yes, we learned its meaning, and most of my students would proudly recall it is a lung disease.  Factitious is another thing it is; not natural, contrived.

When fifth graders struggle with words that come out like FREINDS or THAY, why would I bother with some ginormous word like THAT?  My whole point was to show them that any word can be mastered, once we know its parts.  We broke that 45 letter word down into nine manageable units, and most of the kids conquered it soon thereafter.  It instilled pride and confidence, believe it or not.

People wrongly assume that people who critique spelling and word usage as a hobby have no faults of their own in the category of language.  This is just not true.  We are just extremely careful with our word selection.  If we have ANY doubts about our ability to spell a word perfectly, we find a suitable alternative.  If we are not ABSOLUTELY certain of a word's meaning or pronunciation, we grab our dog-eared dictionary or seek out the services of Google to find a suitable alternative.

Yes, any word can be mastered once we know it.  DUH.  And yes, there have been a few words along the way that tripped up this self-professed word fiend.  These moments caused diverted eyes and crimson cheeks, followed by some good-natured laughing at my own weakness.  Yes, even Superman has his kryptonite.


Learning a tough word like pneumonoultramicroscopicsilico-volcanoconiosis instills confidence. High schoolers approach me, letting me know they still remember how to spell it. I even had a college student taking a Freshman studies class let me know that when the professor put the word on the board, asking if anyone had any idea what the word was, she raised her hand. He asked her to pronounce it. She did, easily. He asked if anyone knew what it meant. She looked around the room first, and raised her hand again. He was dumb-founded. No one had ever known the word in his classes before.

Have you ever been absolutely certain you were spelling a word correctly, only to discover you were mistaken? Embarrassing, no? I will divulge some of those moments of humiliation at another time, but I will be the first to admit, this teacher has been "schooled" more than once in the spelling department!

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