Old school: Teach word roots, math facts and …

Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts, and Word Roots), writes Annie Murphy Paul in Time. New researchsupports the effectiveness of “old school” methods such as “memorizing math facts, reading aloud, practicing handwriting, and teaching argumentation,” she writes.

Suzanne Kail, an English teacher at an Ohio high school was required to teach Latin and Greek word roots, she writes in English Journal, though she abhorred “rote memorization.”

Students learned that “sta” means “put in place or stand,” as in “statue” or “station.”  They learned that “cess” means “to move or withdraw,” which let them understand “recess.”

Her three classes competed against each other to come up with the longest list of words derived from the roots they were learning. Kail’s students started using these terms in their writing, and many of them told her that their study of word roots helped them answer questions on the SAT and on Ohio’s state graduation exam. (Research confirms that instruction in word roots allows students to learn new vocabulary and figure out the meaning of words in context more easily.)

For her part, Kail reports that she no longer sees rote memorization as “inherently evil.” Although committing the word roots to memory was a necessary first step, she notes, “the key was taking that old-school method and encouraging students to use their knowledge to practice higher-level thinking skills.”

I learned Latin and Greek word roots in seventh grade. It was lots of fun.

Drilling math facts, like the multiplication table, “is a prerequisite for doing more complex, and more interesting, kinds of math,” Paul writes.

Other valuable old-school skills:

 Handwriting. Research shows that forming letters by hand, as opposed to typing them into a computer, not only helps young children develop their fine motor skills but also improves their ability to recognize letters — a capacity that, in turn, predicts reading ability at age five. . . .

Argumentation. In a public sphere filled with vehemently expressed opinion, the ability to make a reasoned argument is more important than ever. . . .

Reading aloud. Many studies have shown that when students are read to frequently by a teacher, their vocabulary and their grasp of syntax and sentence structure improves.

I’d add memorizing and reciting poetry as a valuable old-school skill. What are some others?

About Joanne


  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    She mentions reading aloud and I strongly agree. The act of reading with an adult or more skilled reader on a consistent basis is priceless in developing vocabulary, pronunciation, and fluency.

    I volunteer at a charter school in a disadvantaged area of Jersey City and this is our primary activity. We sit with a struggling reader and provide gentle correction/feedback while they practice. I’ve watched many kids blossom with a fair amount of consistent practice. To me it resembles learning how to play the piano.

  2. twitter_11thdegree says:


    It’s difficult to read these articles in which young people discover old-school skills.

    It’s like we bury them then dig them up then bury them then dig them up. It’s a big make-work project. Like with hemlines, but with devastating consequences for children whose parents don’t listen to the prevailing wisdom of educators.

    I recall when my son was in kindergarten, and our elementary school was looking to adopt Trailblazers math, and they wanted to get parent buy-in. I didn’t buy into it, and protested, but the school found useful idiots among parents to tell me that old-school skills, like memorizing the multiplication table, was going to turn my son into a “robot.”

    Well, I didn’t listen to her. My “robot” is a junior taking AP Calc BC and enjoying himself.

    It’s a matter of social justice that all kids get a shot at old-school skills, not just the ones whose parents teach them at home. How does that level the playing field?

    • Wow I need to do better with my grammar. ;)

      …devastating consequences for children whose parents don’t ignore the prevailing wisdom of educators.

      • Me too! I should have said, “I think it’d be useful to bring back diagramming sentences, despite its limitations.”

  3. Despite its limitations, I think it’d be useful to bring back diagramming sentences.

  4. Kids need explicit instruction in phonics, grammar (including diagramming) and composition. The “wisdom” out of Teachers’ College (the wrongheaded Lucy Calkins, of the Readers’/Writers’ Workshop) is that grammar should be “caught, not taught” but the only kids with any likelihood of “catching” are very bright kids from very advantaged backgrounds who read humongous quantities of high-quality fiction and non-fiction; in other words, almost nobody. Bring back the “sage on the stage” and demand that kids be explicitly taught the fundamentals.

    Also, return to chairs in rows and individual work. Groupwork is not only horrendously inefficient, but it is torture to shy (and especially ASD) kids and opens the door to shunning and bullying. At bottom, it amounts to kids pooling their ignorance.

  5. My humble apologies if this comes across as crass self-promotion (this is my first time visiting after Ed Realist metioned Joann’s blog to me in an email just yesterday). This post touches on exactly my own sentiments, and the work a friend and I have started to make math apps for home-schoolers and similarly interested parents. In fact, I’m pretty unapologetic about it in our philosophy statement, “In our grandparent’s time (the same folks that invented jet aviation, the silicon transistor, split the atom, launched rockets to the moon and satellites beyond our solar system) much of early math was learned by rote… [it] wasn’t always fun or easy, and no one pretended otherwise.”
    We’re still two weeks away from release of our first math app for Kindles and Nooks (shooting for Black Friday release), but it is about as old-school as you can get on a tablet… the computer generates a math problem and the student writes/draws on a plain black screen to solve it. We screenshot the child’s work so parents can review it later. No animation. No talking animals. :-)

  6. To answer the question, “I’d add memorizing and reciting poetry as a valuable old-school skill. What are some others?”

    I’m a strong believer in the adage, “if you want to remember something write it down.” Does pecking at buttons on a keyboard work the same way? I don’t think it does. I’ll choose handwriting over keyboards for pre-high schoolers every time.

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Bring back proofs in geometry, too.


    Where have we heard these terms before?

    They are the key to structured thought… Which is the key to all sorts of content-rich deliciousness.

    • Careful! You almost said that there is something valuable to learn from a bunch of dead White European males…….

  8. Hi Joanne and Friends,

    I think you and your followers would be interested in the Math Fact quizzes and online flash cards at http://JapanMath.com. Everything is free and it is very fundamental in its approach with their printable timed math quizzes and even advocated the use of an abacus.