I had a student once, let’s call her Leah.  She was a transfer during the first few weeks of school. We were alerted that she had some “problems.” I always begin the year with a study of word stems, and expect students to learn certain common roots, prefixes, and suffixes because then they have a base for understanding thousands of words. They memorize 10 or 15 at a time—a list like this one:

bi = 2

tri  = 3

anti = against

ante = before


We also do other activities with the stems, including making lists of all the words we know that use them and how the meaning relates to the stem. The test at the end of the week requires that they know the one-word definition—I don’t give them a word bank or anything like that. After all, the point is that they start to analyze words when they see them in their reading. If they can’t recall the meaning of the stem, they can’t analyze the word. I can’t remember ever having a student who wasn’t capable of acing such a test if s/he tried.

When Leah joined the team, my collaborative teacher, an exceptional child expert, thought we should modify more for Leah so she would be successful and have a good start to the year. True to expectations I suppose teachers had for her in the past, she failed our first stem quiz.

She came to see me about it. She asked if she re-took it and got some of the stems right, would I give her an A? That was my clue that she had been told in the past that if she tried just a little, she could do well. I said no—I said she could do better than that. My collaborative teacher was not happy with me. I remember her saying, “Robin, this student came from a one-on-one situation at her other school. She can’t do this.” I wanted to be absolutely sure she couldn’t before I lowered my expectations for her.

She aced her next test and came to me beaming. We both knew what she could do, and she lived up to the expectation.