Rote and Wrote

When I was in the third grade my family moved from Lansing Michigan to San Angelo Texas for a short period of time. The change in school systems was shocking to me. Whereas in Lansing we had classes that separated students according to reading ability enabling the more gifted students the opportunity to be challenged with material that was at their level, at Rio Vista Elementary all the students were lumped in together to study at a level that was appropriate to the many students who were below average reading level because they were learning English as a second language. We also were forced each school day to recite the names of all 50 states in alphabetical order. Welcome to the world of learning by rote.

Studies have shown that, unless used on a normal basis, this type of learning is largely forgotten a few months after the repetition is no longer required. Knowing the names of the United States in alphabetical order is something that never comes up in real life, not even on Jeapardy. I would wager that not a single student from my class can now recite the first 15 states in a row. If this is true, then the net gain of the efforts to teach us the names of the states is likely zero.

Imagine my surprise then, when I read this article where an Ohio educator named Suzanne Kail describes eyerolling when told she would be required to teach her children Latin and Greek word roots as well as cursive writing, which she regarded as rote memorization. Yes, it is rote memorization, but involving something that is actually useful in the same fashion as memorizing the multiplication tables. Word roots and math are something that you will use your entire life so the benefits of these should be self-evident. The articles goes on to describe how Suzanne’s students soon were competing to produce lists of English words with Latin and Greek roots and how many of them benefitted by later being able to identify words with these roots on the SATs.

The requirement of learning cursive writing, however, is of a bit more dubious value. My ability to read and write in cursive is presently about as useful as correct-o-type (don’t even bother googling it because there aren’t any pictures). In fact, in studying Arabic I’ve become semi-proficient with the Arabic keyboard yet I still struggle with writing it because most of the work I do with it is on the keyboard. At minimum I must train myself to write Arabic legibly and correctly as the forms of the letters change depending on their placement in words.

The upshot of my studies is that in the process I’m learning the roots and pluralization of Semitic words which augments my knowledge base even of some English words which have been borrowed from those languages. The knowledge of these words is something I accomplish largely by rote which is something useful to me in this case so I ain’t mad at it.

A curious aside: in describing her initial objection to teaching Latin and Greek word roots as “the antithesis” of what she believed in most, one could respond:

anti: Origin:
Middle English < Latin < Greek, prefixal use of antí; akin to Sanskrit ánti opposite, Latin ante, Middle Dutch ende (> Dutch en and), English an- in answer. Compare ante-, and

thesis: Origin:
Middle English < Latin < Greek, prefixal use of antí; akin to Sanskrit ánti opposite, Latin ante, Middle Dutch ende (source, dictionary.com)

One Response to “Rote and Wrote”

  1. Phelps says:

    Actually, it could be useful in jeopardy because they often have “in order” categories where you have to do a set in alphabetical order, like “these are the three largest states”. “What is Alaska, California, and Texas”.

    Of course, you could also just learn how to alphabetize lists instead of memorizing them that way.

    I am having fun with the idea of some San Angelo tard making it into jeopardy, seeing that category come up and thinking “I GOT this!”

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