By: Megan Prats


Substance and Critical Thinking

In order for the student to arrive to sound conclusions, she needs to apply sound principles to her analysis. These sound principles, or “rules”, allow the student to use a well-thought-out and tested conclusion as the foundation of her own so that the student’s conclusion is less subjected
to error. Now rules are the tool, or the substance, that the student uses to build her answer. The execution of that tool comes from critical thinking. So, the idea is that if the student has the right tool (right rule), plus critical thinking, the outcome will be less prone to error. Thus, rule application involves both substantive instruction as well as critical thinking development.

  • Substantive

When taking a substantive approach to rule application, you are pretty much explaining why the rule exists and the conditions precedent to warrant the rule’s application to the student. Thus, if you are discussing phonetics in English with the student and in accordance to the customized curriculum, the student learns that every syllable in English must contain a vowel, you should explain to the student that this rule exists because a syllable represents a continuous sound which if identified correctly, yields a better pronunciation of the word. Also, the conditions precedent to applying this rule are a word in English and vowels. Normally, the conditions precedent are located within the rule itself.

  • Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the how the student uses this tool – the rule – to arrive to her conclusion. For example, the student is trying to read “flyers” in English. Because the student struggles to read the word “flyers” at once, she knows that she must break it down into smaller parts to figure out the word phonetically. Thus, the student then looks to the syllable rule as the foundation for breaking the rule down. In order to use this rule for this problem, she should look at the conditions precedent as these clarify when the rule’s application is needed. In this case, the conditions precedent for the syllable rule are met – word in English with vowels – thus it can be applied.

Now, she’s got to use her critical thinking skills because the rule says that each syllable has a vowel but this word contains the letter “y” which, at times, is a vowel, but at times, is not
a vowel. So, she’s got to think “outside of the box” to determine whether or not “y” is a vowel and thus would justify “flyers” to be two syllables instead of one. The student first decides to look at the general phonetic rules to see if they touch on identifying “y” as a vowel. After reviewing those rules and not finding one that fits this situation, she decides to do some more research because being such a common and important phonetic distinction, a rule that caters to this situation most likely exists. Thus after further research, the student finds the following rule . . . The letter y is a consonant when it is the first letter of a syllable that has more than one letter. If y is anywhere else in the syllable, it is a vowel. Because this rule states for “y” to be a consonant, it has to be the first letter of the syllable and have more than one letter, “y” cannot be a constant in this case because if it was, “flyers” would become fl-yers which would leave the first syllable without a vowel, thus breaking the syllable rule. However, if y is a vowel and thus the student can separate “flyers” into fly-ers, the student would now be holding both the y rule and the syllable rule as true which means that her conclusion is more likely to be a good one since it is less prone to error. Thus, with critical thinking applied to rule application, the student was able to see “outside of the box” to do more research and then divide the word into syllables in a way so that both rules would be respected.

Rule application is a staple of the 2learn® Method as it forms the foundation of critical thinking development. In order to build a house, the student needs to have resources and the rules are the resource that the student utilizes to build her intellectual house. In 2learn®’s substantive focus, the student is best prepared to use her critical thinking skills when that substance is based on rules and fact. However, rule application, because it goes beyond just knowing the rule, takes critical thinking into consideration as critical thinking is what makes the use of the rule legitimate. Thus, rule application covers both substance and critical thinking at 2learn®.


Almost all rules are subject to exceptions. Additionally, rules may even contradict each other. Thus, rule application is not a one rule fits all practice but a critical thinking one because the student must adapt to the problem at hand to best execute rule application. This article seeks to discuss some sound strategies in how the student can best approach common conditions.

Before getting into the details, it is important to understand that rule application is all about matching the appropriate conditions to the appropriate rules. Thus, rules are normally designed in the following form – if X, then Y. For example, if there are two vowels in one syllable in English, the first one is normally long and the second is silent. So, in order to correctly apply the rule, the student must first decipher if the condition has been met. Thus, if the word is “goat”, the first clause of the rule applies so the condition for rule application has been met therefore, the student can safely apply the rule. So, the first step to sound rule application is for the student to match the condition with the rule. The following seeks to explain how the student should proceed from there.

  • All Met

If all of the conditions are met for a rule to be applied, then the student has found herself in the easiest area of rule application because she should be able to just apply the rule and get to the answer. For instance, every syllable has a vowel, would tell us that “bit” is one syllable because it only has one vowel.

The student should be cognizant that multiple rules can apply to a certain condition. Thus, for “bit”, both the every syllable has a vowel rule and if a syllable ends in a consonant, the vowel is short apply. However, because the two rules complement each other, all the student needs to do is apply them in a step-by-step fashion in order to solve this problem.

  • Contradict

Sometimes the conditions lead to rules that contradict each other. If this occurs, the student can’t apply all of the rules to the answer because the rules cannot exist in harmony. Thus, the student must determine by degree, which rule would function better for the problem.

For instance, my Mexican friend, Abimael, said, “Cuando estuve yiendo a la playa por un año, vi a muchos accidentes.”; when we were discussing bicycle accidents on Key Biscayne. Abimael, being a native Spanish speaker, chose to use the preterite form of estar instead of the imperfect form because as a native speaker, his instinct told him to. However, when I reviewed this problem with one of my students, I realized that you could make an argument that either preterit or imperfect would apply. Preterite could apply because Abimael was engaged in an action for a fixed amount of time (one year) and the preterite describes actions in the past that are countable. However, even though the duration was for one year, it was a habitual action (not just one) and we don’t know how many times he went to Key Biscayne during the year. Thus, in that regard the appropriate form of estar would be the imperfect because the imperfect is used in situations with habitual actions that aren’t countable. So, it seems that with this sentence, the student is presented with a situation where she has to choose one tense even though the conditions call for both. So, the student should ask herself, “Is this a more preterite or a more imperfect action?”, to decide. I personally would have chosen the imperfect because all of the conditions are met and for the most part, the past needs to be very specific for the preterit to be used. Because there are some hints of the preterit but its not specific enough to call for the preterit, pursuant to degree, I would say that the imperfect is a better choice.

Now, when it comes down to degree, normally its not a right or wrong question, instead its more of a personal preference question. Thus, if Abimael used the preterite and I used the imperfect in the same sentence, the message would still be communicated effectively but with a slightly different sentiment. But, to ensure that the student is conducting the degree question effectively, the student should be able to make arguments on both sides and qualify why she selected one over the other.

  • None

Then there’s the situation where the conditions have no rules (that the student knows of). This would be when the student is thrown into exception territory. For instance, the simple past form of “to make” is “made” but if the student applied the rule for regular verbs, the student would conjugate “to make” in the past as “maked”. A student who does this has appropriately applied the rules that she knows to the situation but because the rule that she didn’t know (to make is irregular in the past) wasn’t factored into the situation, her answer was incorrect. In these cases, the appropriate step for the student to take would be to do some more research to find the appropriate rule for the problem.

Rule application is imperative at 2learn® because critical thinking calls for rules to form part of its substantive foundation. The student needs to use her critical thinking skills to select the rules to apply and to determine how to apply them. It is important for the student to be ready for anything when it comes to rule application because the unknown is always present, which means that any problem can call for an exception. But, if the student applies the rules using the rule application techniques outlined in this article, 9 times out of 10 she’ll be on the right track.


© Megan Prats 2014

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