Analogy crosswords, for struggling spellers and others…

I remembered the other day that Mindware makes a book of analogy crosswords (several books, actually, at different levels of complexity).

Like anything else, these crosswords are no good when forced on unwilling doers, but for kids who have asked for help with spelling or those who enjoy tasks that bend the mind, inviting the formation of new neural connections, they’re quite effective and even enjoyable. (What makes them a relatively fun way to work on spelling is that they offer the hint of how many letters the word has, and occasional letters from other words.  For struggling spellers with agile minds (which is most of them, I find), the job of figuring out which letters are involved is rendered less arduous by that of figuring out which word it is in the first place.  Then the hint offered by the number of spaces and intersecting words acts as a bit of scaffolding.  It’s a little interim boost  – makes the task more manageable in the short term so it isn’t abandoned all together for being too much to handle.)

Here they are on amazon.  Sample pages at

Because they’re crosswords, you’ll have to forgive the makers for (what I would consider) an occasional… stretch… in the name of fitting an answer into both an analogy and a particular configuration of letters. It’s worth it, though.  Even the ones that seem slightly off invite useful mental gymnastics, in my opinion…

Their own devices

It’s tough to use this phrase without getting derailed by the obvious pun or irony available given the various portable game consoles, MP3 players, and smartphones that populate many a modern child’s existence.  But I still often find it asking for my attention when I see young people at work on whatever is truly their own; when they’re left to what are actually their own devices –the mechanisms that operate in their minds and internal worlds, made visible in what they create and share with their speaking, drawing, singing, building, imagining, and other art and craft.

Yesterday I saw a series of drawings penned by a nine year-old I know.  One of what I would call this child’s own devices is a knack for telling terrifically dramatic and often ironic stories on paper, with spare line drawings and few words.  At first my eye was tempted to wince at the size and shape of her lettering.  And it would be easy to mistake what she’d drawn and written for an unsophisticated product for someone her age.  It would be easy to worry that she’s behind.

But the plots of these stories, the behavior of the characters, and the choice of words in the dialogue betray their author and illustrator’s wisdom and knowledge.  More than once as I was looking over the body of work I heard myself saying “I’ve never seen that done before.”

Kids’ own devices are often of this nature – a surprising and subtle confluence of the distinct neurological wiring they arrive with and the things they’ve seen and heard along the way that shape and inspire them.  When we’re distracted by how well they are or aren’t forming their letters or whether or not they can remember, quickly, the difference between 17 and nine, we can miss their best stuff.

Which is a shame, because it’s much easier to practice your letters once you find reason to do so, or devise a strategy for managing calculation, than it is to reclaim an authentically original and unique way of responding to the world after it’s been pushed aside or snuffed out all together.


The other day I was drafting a piece of writing on paper and I spelled the word probably with two p’s instead of two b’s, so it became “propably.”  (I mention the paper only because the error couldn’t be blamed on typography.  I just plain spelled it wrong; some sort of temporary glitch in letter retrieval.)  This was an ironic error because I’d been working on the spelling of this very word, several days earlier, with a 10 year-old I know.

I sent her an email right away to tell her.  And I’d be willing to wager that after learning of my mistake (and after the good-natured teasing that I’m likely to endure from her in the coming weeks), she’s unlikely to misspell it again herself.

In my own time as a young student, I learned (by watching) that the job of an adult is to appear as error-free as possible.  But later when I became one of those adults, I discovered that there’s something surprisingly powerful about an adult’s willingness to be fallible, imperfect. There’s something about it that renders a child available for the acquisition and retention of information and skill that few other factors do.

Or maybe, actually, it’s not surprising at all.  Maybe it makes perfect sense.  The opportunity to see the possibility of error, in someone a child is expected to look up to and model after, erases the chasm between child and adult – the one that can make children feel as though they’re less, to feel as though it’s a great wide sea they have to cross to get to where the adults are.

For the child I informed of my spelling error, the notification will be connective.  My mistake will give the two of us something to talk and laugh about.  “Propably?” she’ll likely exclaim the next time I see her.  And at least for that moment, we won’t be teacher and student – one charged with appearing perfect and the other charged with trying to get there as soon as possible, no matter the cost and stress.  We’ll just be two people making our way in the world of writing stuff down, sometimes getting the words the way we mean to, other times messing them up.

It may seem like setting such a tone would make for shoddy work, but in my experience it doesn’t.  It makes the work feel real, and safe, and when things feel real and safe, the mind is freed up to do its best most adventurous work.

Invitations to read, write, spell

In much the same way a set of tiles on the fridge can quietly alleviate fraction woes, a set of Bananagrams* tiles can introduce a lightness to the realm of spelling, writing, and reading for kids who are timid about any or all.  There are many ways to use these and other letter tiles beyond the rules that come with the game.  (Bananagrams is like Scrabble, but without the turn-taking and the points.  It can be played competitively or not.  According to the rules of the competitive game, players work on their own crossword array while others work on theirs so it’s easy to level the playing field when players have highly divergent skill levels.)

Here are a few ways to use the tiles (all of which I’ve seen enjoyed by kids at one point or another):

• Arrange groups of letters in funny sayings or family in-jokes on a shelf or ledge somewhere.

• Leave notes written in tiles.

• Spell nonsense words or extremely long or short sentences.

When we use something like letter tiles as an instrument of connection between people, we offer kids an appealing invitation into the realm of words.  There’s no pressure to GET anything, just an example of what’s available in participating.  It’s the kind of invitation that’s possible for kids to accept on its own merit, independent of shame or fear of failure or, probably most salient of all, disappointing us.

*The tiles from an old Scrabble game can do the same trick, or any other game with letter tiles.  I will say, however, that the combination of the tactilely pleasant Bananagrams tiles and the zippered cloth banana that houses them has a certain allure.

Will it get in the way?

I have an acquaintance who’s a published author but never quite got the hang of spelling.  And a friend who’s a research scientist with a PhD who has never been able to add or subtract very well.

Spelling and quick mental computation can be helpful, without a doubt.  But even for their highest-order relatives (like professional writing and scientific research), proficiency in some things we call basic are not necessarily necessary.  What we often forget to ask ourselves, when kids are struggling, is whether or not the absence of a particular proficiency is going to get in the way. Is our attention in the places where we actually want it?  Are we sometimes (or often) distracting ourselves and kids from pastimes that will prepare them for what they’re best suited to?  I’ve quoted Stuart Brown before, regarding a discovery of the Cal Tech Jet Propulsion Lab:

“Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been the United States’ premier aerospace research facility for more than seven decades… [In] the late nineties, the lab’s management was saying, ‘JPL, we have a problem.’ As the lab neared the new century, the group of engineers and scientists who had come on board in the 1960s, those who put men on the moon and built robotic probes to explore the solar system, were retiring in large numbers. And JPL was having a hard time replacing them. Even though JPL hired the top graduates from top engineering schools like MIT, Stanford, and even Cal Tech itself, the new hires were often missing something. They were not very good at certain types of problem solving that are critical to the job.  The experienced managers found that the newly minted engineers might excel at grappling with theoretical, mathematical problems at the frontiers of engineering, but they didn’t do well with the practical difficulties of taking a complex project from theory to practice…. They found that in their youth, their older, problem-solving employees had taken apart clocks to see how they worked, or made soapbox derby racers, or built hi-fi stereos, or fixed appliances. The young engineering school graduates who had also done these things, who had played with their hands, were adept at the kinds of problem solving that management sought. Those who hadn’t, generally were not. From that point on JPL made questions about applicants youthful projects and play a standard part of job interviews.”

It’s not that offering a child the chance to learn to spell and calculate has to mean that that child won’t have the chance to play, or problem-solve, or the myriad other things there are to do in the course of a day.

But imagine a child who is quick and accurate with mental computation, because that’s where we’ve put our emphasis, but the child can think of only one way to solve any given problem.  She’ll get all our accolades as a young student, all the support and encouragement she’ll need to be successful throughout her young academic career.  But as an engineer?  Or as a doctor?  She’ll be missing a key ingredient.  Or a child who spells flawlessly, never misses an editing mark on his daily proofreading exercises, can organize a paragraph with precision, but doesn’t much like stories.  He’s encouraged to major in English, goes on to study creative writing or journalism.  But he’s missing a key ingredient.

What do they actually need, and will the things we’ve always held as paramount really hold kids back if they’re not mastered?  Answering the question requires a bit of imagination and a lot of pragmatic perspective.  What are these things really useful for?  What do they actually bear on?  And what are the actual building blocks for success and security?  My author and scientist friends would tell you it’s not spelling or computation.  They’re living proof of that.

This could feel like good news or bad news.  I think it’s good news, if it means that we can let go of the traditional mandates that wreak such havoc on the confidence of young people and waste so much of their time, in the often false name of preparation.  It might feel like bad news in the sense that it means we can’t just keep sending them to school, trudging them through standardized progressions of academic material. At least not if we really want them to be prepared for (and inspired to go after) the kinds of livelihoods that are actually out there. It’ll take more in the way of imagination, and actual information gathering.  We’ll have to look at what it really takes to make it in the world today, what actual jobs and professions require of their employees and participants.  And then we’ll have to invent what the pathways to those true requirements might look like.  Lots more effort, but if it means we end up with young adults who are truly prepared, not just academically apt, such that they can get busy solving problems, finding purpose, supporting themselves, it’ll have been worth it, and then some.

Spell check

***This week I’m starting a series of posts that are responses to specific (and common) questions or concerns I’ve heard from parents.  I thought I’d start with spelling!

Q: My child doesn’t spell well and I don’t know whether I should let her write on the computer and use spell check.  I don’t want it to be a crutch that allows her not to learn to spell at all. Should I let her use it, or should I make her wait until she can spell better on her own?

My response:  The thing about spell check is that it makes a big difference how it’s used.  When used responsibly, it can actually help a person get better at spelling.

If you let it do your spelling for you – just typing along without paying attention to the substitutions and corrections it’s making, you’re likely to stay the same speller you’ve always been.  And you’ll likely embarrass yourself eventually with something spell check did to your writing that you didn’t notice. This happens to adults quite often.

The alternative is to let spell check support spelling. This approach will not only decrease the incidence of potentially embarrassing errors, it can also actually help a person improve their spelling.  If you show your daughter that she can watch what spell check does when it has an objection to something she’s typed, her awareness of how things are spelled will increase, her familiarity with the spellings of various words will increase, and she’ll grow more confident in her ability to notice when something’s off.

Spell check has the reputation for being a substitute for thinking, and if a person really wants to get out of thinking it’s hard to stop them from using it that way.  But most kids I know who use spell check as a support mechanism (rather than as a substitute for thinking) seem to feel more confident knowing that they’re getting better by using it this way.  They also like feeling as though they’re not out there on their own – they have a useful tool on their side.  They also tend to be more courageous with their word choice because they know they can figure out how to spell things they may otherwise steer clear of…


The other morning, I used the word “swathe” in an email to someone I don’t know and who I’d prefer didn’t think I was stupid.  I suspected I may not have spelled the word correctly, but my mail program didn’t throw squiggly lines at me about it so I left it. A few minutes later I was reading a blog post elsewhere which also used the word, only this time, spelled without the e. In a panic, I scrambled to the Google search window and entered it the way I’d spelled it.  Surely it meant some other terribly embarrassing thing, I thought to myself.  It was over for me as a person anyone could consider literate. Continue reading