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I’ve written before about using a child’s writing as a way to understand what she needs from her instruction. This weekend provided me with more insight into Anna’s (our 6 year old) development by showing me what she’s “using but confusing,” a term used by Donald Bear and colleagues in their research in word study.

The girls’ Sunday chore was to organize their dresser. Always industrious, Anna took it a step further and labeled each drawer. You can see her work in this photo:


She’s trying to figure out this thing called the apostrophe! When to use it, when to leave it out… lots of questions. On her dresser labels, you can see she used the apostrophe twice, but didn’t use it to spell the word “pants.”

For teachers, this using but confusing (UBC) stage is the zone in which instruction should occur. For Anna, a well planned mini-lesson would help her understand that apostrophes are used to indicate possession and in contractions, but are not used to pluralize (as she did with socks and pajamas). She could use the books she’s reading in school to find examples of words with apostrophes and plural words. She could make columns and sort these words into different categories (contraction, possession, plural). And, because she’s only six, I’d leave out too much discussion of irregularities and what to do with those pesky words that end with ‘s’ but need a plural.

It’s important to recognize what students use but confuse. If something is totally absent from their work (a silent ‘e’ to mark a long vowel, for example) then it may not be the right time to introduce that spelling feature. If a child consistently uses the silent e marker correctly, you don’t need to use your precious instructional moments on that skill. Its when he or she starts marking every word with a silent e (and they will do that, trust me!) that he or she will get the most out of your instruction on that skill.

For now, the labels on Anna’s drawer look just fine to me. We’ll see what she thinks in a week or two. I’ll bet we’ll have some new labels up there!

About the Author

Along with her background as a professor, researcher, writer, and teacher, Joanne Meier is a mom. Join Joanne as she shares her experiences raising her own young readers, and guides parents and teachers on the best practices in reading.

Publication Date
April 20, 2009