The Almost Right Word

Molly Wright Starkweather, Kaplan University Tutor


Photo © 2015

There is an old quotation from Mark Twain about word choice: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” When teaching my daughter the word “bubbles” recently, I learned that there are some situations in which that stark line between the right word and the almost right word is blurred, in a good way. I was blowing bubbles from a toy wand for her, and I said, “Look! Bubbles!” Then I looked her in the eye and said, “Can you say ‘bubbles’?” She looked at my mouth and then responded: “Bubba. Bubba!” I could see her realization that she could try to say it, and I could tell how proud she was of how she worked the syllables together. It was not the right word, but it was almost the right word. That almost was closer than she had ever been before when I asked her to repeat the word, so I was proud and congratulatory.

When we work with children, the learning process involves an understanding that a new skill is not going to be taught and demonstrated to a child with the child in turn performing that skill perfectly immediately afterward. In fact, if we look at the fact that many toddlers go from knowing zero words to learning one or two new words a day, we are impressed by the rate at which new knowledge is acquired. How can a parent or caregiver know that his or her child recognizes a word if the child cannot pronounce it perfectly? The teacher (whether parent, caregiver, or classroom instructor) works individually with the child, gets to know him or her, and recognizes attempts to demonstrate skills. By starting with recognition that the child did not know the skill before being taught, any forward progress can be acknowledged and celebrated as a “good job” (as I often say to my one year old).

When tutors work with adults, the expectation is that the learner comes in with a strong skill set, one that has led him or her to show an aptitude for further learning. Adult learners already know quite a bit about communication through writing, as many different types of careers use writing daily. The problem for many tutors (myself included) is, when I work with a student who has mastered one skill but has not mastered another, I look from a default position of expecting the student writer to have equal mastery among all skills in a set. In other words, if a student writer comes in and has mastered thesis statements, then I expect that same student to have mastered comma splices. As the old saying used to go in another tutoring center I used to work for, “If a student cannot even put a sentence together correctly, how can that student express complex ideas?” Questions like these not only disregard proven pedagogical research about Lower Order vs. Higher Order Concerns, but they also set the student up for failure.

I propose a fairer question. “What is the student working to do that he or she has not been able to do?” Start with that question right at the beginning of the tutoring session. What is the purpose of the tutoring session? Perhaps it is to establish a thesis statement. Maybe it is to find an accurate, credible source to support an idea. It might be to cite a certain kind of source properly in the reference list. Whatever the purpose, acknowledge that the student has the skills to make forward progress in learning that skill. If the student creates a citation that includes information in the correct order but it is not punctuated correctly, then that answer is not wrong. It is not right, either, but it is almost right.

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3 Responses

  1. Molly, once a gain a great blog! Can’t believe your daughter is already 1 year old, oh how time does fly! Blessings to you both. She is so lucky to have you as a mom. KB

  2. Thanks for the great post. It reminds me of learning process described by Dewey when he talks about putting new learning beside the old learning. Students (and teachers and tutors) can only start from their starting place. We can only build on what we already know, and we understand only in relationship to what we we know. There is no point in being disappointed or punishing a student for what they do not know at the beginning of learning something new. The role of a tutor or teacher is to help the student take at least one step toward the knew knowledge. Maybe their Bubbles is Bubba for a while like Molly indicated, but they are moving in the right direction.

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