Every Angle of a Word

First thing first.

I started teaching Robert the ordinal numbers more than 12 years ago. My efforts to teach:  first, second, third, and so on coincided with teaching Robert to follow simple directions of the form, “Color the third duck red , Circle the last duck. ” I was introducing, at the same time, directions and ordinal numbers.  It seemed logical to me, and only by observing and analyzing Robert’s struggles,  I realized how difficult it had to be for Robert to respond  to  such directions as “underline, draw a circle above, put a spot on”  when the addition of  “first, second, third” complicated the tasks.

Nonetheless, that was the first time  Robert heard and/or read the word “first”.

Later, Robert encountered the same word again in a different role.  This time word “first ” was organizing events in a timely order.  Robert had to put the events (sentences) from a   story in a sequence of  “first,  next, then, and last”.

I believed that I made a strong connection between the words “first” and “one” .  I believed because, the first character in a line had a   number 1 written on it or below it.

At some point Robert also understood that January is the first month of the year, and knew that Sunday is the first day of the week.

So I was surprised that just a few days ago Robert couldn’t answer the question, ” What day of the week is the first day of February?” He had a page from a calendar spread in front of him.  He could say what day of the week was the fifth day of the month, and 23rd day of the month.  He couldn’t say what week day was the first day of the February.

So the question is,” Does Robert know the concept of the “first”, or he doesn’t?”

I felt the obligation to bring that question up, as it is almost a natural one, the one that expresses some anxiety about what my child knows or does not, but I am not concerned about it myself.  Instead I am troubled by another problem, “How to teach all the angles, meanings, and uses of a new concept/word?”  All at once?  Separately? Spaced by time as not to confuse? In contexts? .  Should I treat the word’s each use as a new concept, or should I present it as a variation of other applications of that word?

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