“Traveler, there is no path, the path is made by walking.” ~ Antonio Machado

Last fall Daniel came into my classroom with writing that was almost indecipherable.  Even the most common words were misspelled.  When asked to read his writing, he stumbled, often saying, “I don’t know what that says.”  But he had a lot to say.  His head was full of humorous stories and his life was full of interesting moments.  This was fifth grade!  I wondered, “How did he get this far with such an obstacle?”

Knowing that whatever happened or didn’t happen in his previous years of schooling wouldn’t help me now, I put that on the back burner in my brain.  The only consideration given to those thoughts was the recognition that I had something to offer Daniel that hadn’t been offered to him before.  Orthography.  Perhaps this would be the year when misunderstandings about English would stop blocking his ability to express his ideas in written form.

All you need to do is read back through this blog to see the kinds of activities and explorations that happened in my class during the last year.  Beyond what I’ve posted about, we spoke ‘words’ every day.  Often I pulled misspelled words from student work, and we talked about them.  I wasn’t looking to spot out “wrong” spellers, but rather what the student might have been thinking about as he/she spelled the word.  What strategy was being used?  How might this misspelling benefit us?  What might we all learn from it?  Often times it was this activity that dictated the direction we needed to take next.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the suffixing conventions.  We started with knowing when to replace the final non-syllabic <e> and when not to.  I used a flow chart so that they could see the predictability of this convention.  It didn’t take long before the majority of the students were writing <making> instead of  *makeing.  We looked at the other suffixing conventions in the same way.  There was always an immediate effect in their writing.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the use of <k> and <ck> in words.  Students made a list of words whose spelling included <ck>.  They compared that to a list of words whose spelling included a <k>.  When comparing, they looked at the position of the phoneme within the base (initial, medial, final).   For instance, the <ck> in <picking> is not medial, it is final.  The base is <pick> and the <ck> is final in the base.  When they got the hang of keeping their focus on the base element, they found that <ck> is most often found in the final position of a base and is never initial.  The next thing to compare were the letters immediately preceding the <k> or <ck>.  They noticed that a single vowel always preceded the <ck>, and it was always short.  They also noticed that when <k> was final in the base, there were either two vowels preceding it or a consonant (usually <r> or <n>).  Students conducted research in the same way for <ge> and <dge>.  This particular research felt so scientific that I had the students calculate percentages to represent how often they found certain things (<r> before a final <k>, for example).

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the phonology of <c>.  Students made lists of words in which the grapheme <c> represented /s/ and /k/ in words.  We made lists for several days in a row, until students could confidently explain why the /s/ or /k/ pronunciation was used.  Knowing that there was a reliable way of knowing how to pronounce the grapheme <c> in a word was a light bulb moment for my students.  “Why didn’t we know this in second grade?  It would have been so helpful!”

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the phonology of <t>.  Students made lists of words in which the grapheme <t> represented /t/, /ʃ/, or /tʃ/.  Students who have already memorized the spelling of <motion> know that *moshun is wrong, but they don’t understand that the mistake is related to the phonology of the <t>.  In order to talk about these three phonemes, I needed to explain that the IPA symbol /ʃ/ represents the pronunciation of <t> in words like <lotion>, <action> and <edition>, and the IPA symbol /tʃ/ represents the pronunciation of <t> in words like <creature>, <actual>, and <question>.  This inquiry really made the students slow down and think about pronunciation.  It also made them aware of what is really going on in the spelling of the word – especially since they wrote the words in the lists as word sums.  They began to realize that pronunciation of a final <t> in a base element can change depending on the suffix that follows it.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at assimilated prefixes.  In groups of three, students were assigned a prefix group to explore.  For example, one group looked at <con->, <com->, <cor->, <col->, and <co->.  Another group looked at <in>, <il>, <ir>, and <im>.  Once they realized that many prefixes have variations in their spelling, the students slowed down and spent a moment considering when making hypotheses about a word sum.  I began seeing <immature> instead of *imature, <illegal> instead of *ilegal, and <corrode> instead of *corode.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the role of the final non-syllabic <e> in various words.  It didn’t take the students long to be able to share with others at least 6 or 7 reasons for it to be there.  One way of sharing what was learned was to make a video called, “For <e>’s a Jolly Good Fellow“.  Knowing why the final non-syllabic <e> is in a word makes it easier to remember to include it when spelling!  I began seeing <change> instead of *chang and <breathe> instead of <breath> (when breathe was what was needed).

There was certainly much more we learned by looking at the words my students were using and misspelling, but I think you get the idea of how I turned “spelling mistakes” into something rich and useful.  Which takes us back to Daniel.  The orthography we were doing encompassed wonderful things he had never been asked to think about before.  But was it enough?  Will his next teacher wonder about his writing obstacle the way I had last fall?  The truthful answer is, “maybe.”

Daniel made a lot of progress.  He improved his writing in a lot of ways.  Besides looking at orthography, we studied grammar and writing.  There was a lot of practice at all of it.  But when I ran into Daniel’s mom a week after school was out,  I offered to tutor him for the summer.  Why had I done that?  What did I think I could accomplish in a few sessions that I wasn’t able to accomplish in a school year?

Some things that I learned about Daniel during the school year:   He is a dodger.  Anytime he is in a group, he counts on someone else to take the lead and he waits for their direction. He does what they tell him.  He writes what they tell him. It’s easier that way.  He pretends to be listening in class, but isn’t always.  He does not ask questions when he is confused.  His misspellings and poor writing have been pointed out so many times that he accepts failure as the norm.  He is not angry, just accepting.  He sees no point in trying to fix something that is part of the definition of who he is.  The strategy that he sticks to (that gets him into more spelling errors than not) is to “sound it out”.

I knew he “hid” in a larger class.  If I worked with him one-on-one, I felt he stood a better chance.

I started our first session by asking him to write a few sentences about his summer.  As usual, I was looking for mistakes he was making in his writing.  As it turned out, he wrote great sentences and there was only one word misspelled.  It was *calfes.  This led to a great investigation of pluralizing words such as <wolf>, <wife>, <half>, <knife>, and more.

After that I pictured a spelling error I had seen him make during the school year.  He had used the letter sequence ‘ints’ when he should have used the suffix <-ence>.  He was trying to sound out the word and spell it according to what he though he was hearing.  So he and I made two lists.  We made a list of words with the <-ence> suffix and a list of words that had a final ‘nts’ letter sequence.  The first list included words like <difference>, <reference>, <influence> and <evidence>.  The second list included words like <cents>, <quotients>, <agreements> and <payments>.  When asked to compare the two lists, Daniel recognized that the second list of words were all plural!  Then we went through each word, identifying its morphemes and talking about how it is used, and then spelling it out.  By that I mean he wrote it down, and then spelled each word aloud with a pause between each morpheme.  By doing this, he saw that <-ence> was consistently a suffix.

During the next session we reviewed the phonology of <t>.  We made lists and he spelled the words out.  We talked about the morphemes, their sense and meaning, and any related words.  We also reviewed <wolf> to <wolves>.

At the most recent session, we went back to the <-ence> suffix.  I wanted to fluctuate between <-ence> and <-ent>.  So I asked him to spell <evidence> and then <evident>, <influence> and then <influential>  (Reviewing the phonology of <t>).  We talked about them, and then I had him spell them out.  When we came to <dependence>, we paused to talk about the bound base <pend>.  We talked about a pendulum and a pendant and how they relate to being a dependent child.  Daniel spelled the word on paper and then out loud.  Thinking about another related word, I threw out the word <independence>.  Daniel quickly explained how the prefix <in-> brought a sense of “not” to the word before he proceeded to write the word on his paper.  When he spelled it out, I was surprised.  He had spelled <in – du – pend – ence>.

Interesting!  I asked him why the spelling of the prefix <de-> changed when we added the prefix <in-> to the word.  He said, ” I don’t know.  It just does?”  Interesting.  So even as I’m training him to spell out with morphemes, he’s still listening to the Queen of Hearts in his ear bellowing, “Sound it out!”

It was time to switch gears and talk about stress and the schwa.  When we pronounce the word <dependence>, the stress is on the second syllable.  Even though the first syllable is unstressed, the <e> is still pronounced clearly as a long <e>.  When we pronounce the word <independence>, there is stress on both the first and third syllables.  Some might consider the third syllable to be the primary stress in this word and the first to be secondary stress.  Either way, the second syllable becomes even more unstressed than it was in <dependence>, and the <e> in <de-> is pronounced as a schwa <ə>.  In this word, the schwa pronunciation is similar to the way we pronounce a short <u>.

To illustrate the point better, I brought up the word <chocolate>.  I asked him to say it.  We both noticed that when you say the word, there are two syllables, but when you go to write it, you think of three.  That <o> in the middle is a schwa with zero pronunciation when this word is spoken!  He played around with this idea for a bit and smiled as he spoke and the schwa syllable disappeared.

This discussion led us back to the first time Daniel spelled <dif-fer-ence> as *dif-r-ints.  I showed him both spellings and asked why he might have missed the <e> in the bound base <fer>.  The idea of written syllables versus spoken syllables was becoming slightly comfortable one.  The idea of a vowel having a schwa pronunciation was almost a relief!  When we meet again, we will pick up where this left off.  I’ll be ready with a list of words in which the schwa has altered the way the letter used might typically be pronounced.

*** Note to reader:  Daniel is a real student.  Daniel is not his real name.

 

 

“Orthography Opens Your Curious Side!”

Another school year has come to an end.  The faces I have grown accustomed to will now grace someone else’s classroom.  I will be left with remembrances of the many times we learned together, stumbled together, and laughed together.

As we take some time to think of the ways this year has moved us all forward by increasing what we understand about our world, the topic of orthography comes to mind.  Back in September a few students lit up right away once we began talking about words and structure and reasons for spelling that had nothing to do with phonics.  The rest were quite sure that it seemed like a lot of work.

The students were used to having spelling and pronunciation be the most important thing to know about a word.  I flip flopped that thinking and asked them to consider the sense and meaning of the word before thinking about either of those.  It was really one of the toughest challenges I faced this year.

You see, when spelling and pronunciation are considered more important than a word’s meaning, then the word is an empty thing.  Learning its spelling becomes a memory task, much like memorizing digits of Pi.  The digits of Pi are random and there is no pattern to rely on.  The students had spent years memorizing words that were empty for them.  They did not see how knowing the meaning of a word would be helpful to understanding its spelling.  Long into the school year I would catch students who were trying to figure out the word sum for a word that they could not define.

Slowly but surely progress was made.  The students became more and more familiar with common prefixes and suffixes.  They began to understand that affixes affect the overall sense and meaning of the base.  They began to see words as having a structure that brings sense to the word’s spelling.  When the structure begins to be understood, then spelling doesn’t need to be memorized.  The student will be able to rely on their knowledge of that underlying word structure and suffixing conventions to spell words.

Today I asked students to think back on the orthography work we have done this year.  I asked them whether or not there is a benefit to studying it.  The following video says it all.  My students overwhelming wish other grade levels could experience it and learn some of what they have.

Over and over these comments mention that students felt a sense of depth when studying orthography that was lacking in their previous spelling programs.  Studying orthography required more writing, more thinking, more research, more discussion, more questioning and more project work than their spelling program had.  AND YET they liked it better!  There are so many great quotes I could use, but I’ll leave you with this one, “Orthography opens your curious side!”

The following video is a conglomeration of silly moments from our year together.  The students enjoyed making videos this year and were so patient with me when I was filming.  I put this one together just for them.

 

 

For [e]’s a Jolly Good Fellow!

For several months now, we’ve been discussing the final non-syllabic <e> and making a list of the roles it plays in various words.  It became evident to me that my students didn’t know why it was there.  Some would insert it where it didn’t belong, and some would leave it off when it needed to be present.

Currently we have a list of seven different roles it plays when in the final non-syllabic position in a word.  Every so often I would write one of the roles for the <e> on the board, and my students would write it in their Orthography Notebook.  Then we would collaborate on writing a list of words that illustrated that particular role of the <e>.

Sometimes I would list words on the board, and the students would list words beneath it that also had a final <e> that was fulfilling the same role.  After all the words had lists beneath them, the students would volunteer to verbally explain the role of the <e>.

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Looking at the list for face, the students who explained the role of the final <e> were able to point out that in the majority of these words, the <e> was doing double duty!  It was indicating that the <c> should be pronounced as /s/, and it was also indicating that the preceding vowel should have a long pronunciation.  There was only one word on this list that did not have a long medial vowel, and that was <trance>.  My favorite word on the list was <snice>.  I loved it because of the way the girl who wrote it, turned from the board with the biggest grin.  She discovered the word <snice> when we explored portmanteau words.  It is a blend of <snow> and <ice>.

As we were thinking about the phonology of <c>, we took a side trip and talked about it more specifically.

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The students again thought of words in which the <c> was followed by an <e>, <i>, and <y>.  In words with two <c>’s, I asked, “Why is this one pronounced /s/?  Why is this one pronounced /k/?  It didn’t take long for them to really understand the phonology of <c> in a way they hadn’t before.  One girl actually raised her hand and asked, “Why didn’t we ever learn this stuff back in third grade?”  My own thoughts are that earlier than that would have been even more helpful!

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As usual, the minute we explore one facet of spelling, we run across something else that is worthy of examination.  Such was the case with the word <*changable> that was part of the list under the word charge.  We talked about the suffixing convention we follow when a word that has a final non-syllabic <e> is being connected to a vowel suffix.  The final <e> is replaced by the vowel suffix.  But then we wondered what the resulting combination does to the <g> in <change>.  We thought of words that have the letter <g> followed by an <a>.  The students thought of <gap>, <game>, <gash>, and <gable>.  In all of the words, the <g> had a hard pronunciation.  So we realized that we can’t leave the <g> without the <e> in the word <changeable>.  We reinserted it.

Having this word show up in this list was so timely!  I had just read a great post by Pete Bowers called “Noticing the Two-Step Word Sum” that he has posted at Real Spelling.  In his post Pete responds to a teacher who is wondering about the words manageable, noticeable, and even changeable.  Pete writes an interesting response and even shares his doubts about the final <e> in knowledge.  I encourage you to read it!

The list of words under the word continue was an interesting mix.  Besides this list of rhyming words, another class made a list with the words league and plague.  (Because of our earlier work with Latin twin bases, my students are familiar with the Latin twins <strue>/<struct>.  The words construe and misconstrue have become commonly heard words in our classroom conversations!)  As you can see, someone wondered about the word menu.  When we checked at Etymonline, sure enough, it was a French loan word and not a complete English word!

Last week I decided it was time to check what it is my students understand about the final non-syllabic <e>.  I gave them a list of seven words.  For each word I asked them to explain in writing what the role of the final non-syllabic <e> was, and then to write three other words that illustrate that same use of the <e>.  It is something they have done verbally many times as a class.  Now I wanted to see that understanding at an individual level.  Here are some of their responses.

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I am so pleased to hear the students explain so clearly the various roles of the final non-syllabic <e>!  And only in MY room would a student think to use phoneme as a word to illustrate a point!  Here are a few more responses about some of the other roles of the final non-syllabic <e>.

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You can probably tell that we spent some time feeling the difference between the pronunciation of the <th> digraph as it is used in with and the <th> digraph as it is used in bathe.  I described the <th> in with as unvoiced and the <th> in bathe as voiced.  But I have to say that thinking of the two as voiceless and voiceful is delightful and just as clearly stated!

The last word on the list was continue.  The students were all able to explain that the <e> prevented the word from ending with a <u>.  The following boxed answer was bonus information that followed that word and its example words.

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I love it when students willingly share more than they have been asked to share.  To me it is an indication of what they found interesting enough to remember!

As we studied the various roles of the final non-syllabic <e>, we all realized just how important it is.  We realized that in the past we’ve all made a lot of reading and spelling errors because we didn’t expect that final <e> to give us so much information about words and their pronunciations!  As a way to help others, maybe even you, we made this video.  We hope that when you have watched it, you sing right along with us in the final chorus!

 

Assimilated Prefix Family Feud!

Assimilated.  Among the things that can be assimilated are people, ideas, cultures, and nutrients.  Oh! and prefixes.  When we generally think of something being assimilated, we think of it being absorbed or integrated into a particular group until it is similar to members of that group.  A new student becomes assimilated into the classroom.  A religious tradition becomes assimilated into a culture.  Proteins in the foods we eat are assimilated into our bodies.  But a prefix?  How does that become assimilated?

Let’s look at the prefix <sub->.  We can all name quite a few words that have <sub-> as part of their structure.  I can easily think of subcontract, submarine, subterranean, subway, subordinate, and subside.  But now let’s think of the word <suffix>.  Would you have guessed that the structure of this word is <suf-> + <fix>?  The prefix <suf-> is just one of the prefixes assimilated from the <sub-> prefix.  Go ahead and replace the <suf-> prefix with the <sub-> prefix.  The resulting word would be <subfix>.  Say it out loud a few times very quickly.  You can feel the <sub-> prefix assimilating to <suf-> as you speak.  Whereas the pronunciation of <subfix> calls out the <b> and <f> separately, the pronunciation of <suffix> feels as if the last letter of the prefix has been absorbed or assimilated into the first letter of the base.

My students have recently explored assimilated prefixes.  I gave each group of two or three students a prefix “family” to look at.  Much like “The Great Suffix Challenge” they did at the beginning of the year changed the way they think about suffixes, this has changed the way they think about prefixes.  As an example, look at the poster below.

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With this group, I told them to find words that had the following prefixes:  <ob->, <of->, <oc->, and <op->.  As they collected words, they had to be ready to prove to me that the targeted letter combinations were indeed prefixes and not just the first two letter of the base or stem.  Next I asked them to notice things about the base when the prefix was <of->, or when the prefix was <oc->.  It was pretty easy to notice that when the prefix <of-> was used, the base always began with an <f>.  Once they were focusing on the base of each word, I said, “Keep going!  What do you notice about the initial letters of the bases paired up with each of the prefixes?”

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I also asked them to note what the prefix brought to the word.  What a mistake to think that all members of a prefix family bring a single meaning to the words they help create!  We have learned that a single prefix can bring many senses to a word.  We have also learned that a prefix can also be there to intensify the base!

Even as many of the students are still finishing up their posters, we paused today to share what we have learned.  The sharing comes in the form of a new video.  We call it the “Assimilated Prefix Family Feud”.   We hope you enjoy for sure, but mostly we hope you learn something new!

An Opportunity to Find Out What Works and What Doesn’t

“Your mission, ladies and gentlemen, is to make a balloon travel along a string.  Once you are satisfied that you have successfully accomplished that, you are to adjust your design to make the balloon travel faster.  In the end I would like you to see just how fast you can get the balloon to travel to its destination at the end of the string.”

Those were the instructions.  The materials each team of two started with were a balloon, a straw, and whatever length of string they wanted.  If they wanted to use additional materials, they had to ask.  I said yes to all requests that did not present safety concerns.  And they were off!

This was such a fascinating process to watch.  Most immediately began blowing up the balloons and tying them off – but then what?  Why were they given a straw?  “Do we have to use the straw?  How long should the string be?”

“Yes, use the straw.  Cut the string where you think it should be cut.”

There was that slight hesitation.  Those moments of letting the idea sink in that I wasn’t going to give them step by step directions.  But quickly that hesitation turned to excitement and concentration on the task.  I stepped back at this point and became the observer and recorder of the event.  I did not blow up balloons, and I did not get drawn into any group’s brainstorm.  I was eager to watch how each group would work this out.

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At least two groups tried to use what they knew about balloons.  They rubbed the balloon in their hair to create static electricity.  They were disappointed to see that it wasn’t enough to keep the balloon sticking to the straw.

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They tried seeing if the static electricity they were creating could be strong enough to pull the balloon along the string.  At this point the balloon was taped to a straw through which the string was threaded.   Then the balloon was rubbed in hair.  The girl followed the balloon as it was released on the string,  hoping her charged hair would pull the balloon.  This worked, but it was not speedy.  They abandoned the idea of using static electricity in this process, although other groups were curious by what this group was doing, and I saw them trying things with it as well.

Most everyone knew that by having one end of the string higher than the other, gravity would help that balloon move along the string.  There was one group, however, that created a two person game.  They rigged the strings in such a way that each person held the end of two strings.  As the first person pulled one string back, the balloon moved toward the other person.  Then the second person pulled one string back, and the balloon traveled back to the first person!  They added to the fun of their new game by drawing a face on their balloon.  What an unexpected invention!

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Those who were taping one end of their string to the wall quickly learned that masking tape sticks better than scotch tape!  I did not let anyone attach their string to the ceiling, so they reached up along the wall as high as they could reach.  It was interesting to see the groups experiment with the angle of descent.  They learned that it indeed made a difference!

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While some were learning that the angle of descent was important, others were learning that the tautness of the string was important.  A few trials in which the balloon slowed and stopped along the way down, made the members of those groups tighten up the string.  One group even rubbed the string with closed markers, hoping to make the straw move more smoothly.

The next interesting thing I saw happening was weights being added.  This came in different ways.  Some added the weight by taping it directly to the balloon.  Others taped it to the straw.  Sometimes the weights were added in random places on the balloon and sometimes the weights were equal on either side of the balloon.  There was so much experimentation going on!  And as I had hoped, trying out each great idea always seemed to inspire another!

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It was interesting to note that some models had the balloon traveling above the string and some had it hanging below the string.  It appeared that the faster model had the balloon above the string and the weights attached to the straw.  One group used the cardboard tube from gift wrap and taped baggies full of Jenga blocks to it.  That balloon went really fast, but the baggies which were taped to the tube with duct tape kept falling off upon impact.

Another innovative idea was to tie two strings side by side.  The straw was cut in half and the strings were threaded through each piece.  The balloon was then taped to the two straws and set on its descent.  I loved that they thought of it and tried it.  In the end they learned that using two strings slowed the balloon down rather than to speed it up.

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Now if you are like me, you’ve been wondering when someone would think to blow up a balloon but NOT tie it off.  Instead, hold it shut while it gets taped to the straw.  Then let go and watch the balloon power itself!  Funny, but only five out of the thirty groups that experimented throughout the day played around with this idea.  One of the groups that used the untied balloon as an “engine” combined it with other great ideas.  They had a tied off balloon taped to the bottom of the straw with weights (markers and glue sticks) taped to the straw.  They blew up a second balloon and taped it to the top of the straw just before launching.  After a few successful descents, they dressed up their model with airplane-type wings and called it the U.S.S. Static Electricity!

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I think I enjoyed this 45 minute activity as much as the students.  They were never done trying out different ideas.  There was that one group that in the first five minutes said, “We can’t get it to go.  We can’t do this.”  But given five more minutes, they were busy, busy, busy.

After clean up, I gathered everyone together and asked what they had learned.  You see, the point of this was never to have the fastest balloon in the class.  The point was to keep modifying or trying different ideas and to improve the original design several times.  To that end, everyone achieved success!

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Encourage Questions and You’ll Encourage Curiosity

Recently, at a teacher website I frequent, a question was thrown out about encouraging curiosity in students.  The teacher asking the question recognized that the time constraints we are given and the way we are asked to teach can sometimes squash the students’ tendencies to be inquisitive or curious.

The statement that immediately came to my mind is one I have heard many times, but only recently come to fully  appreciate.

The question is more important than the answer.

Add to that the following statement that Michel Rameau uses frequently in his Spellinars.

The question is eternal; the answer is only temporary. 

When these statements become integral to the daily structure of my day, I am then encouraging curiosity in my students. 

The way I see it, putting more importance on asking questions than on giving answers benefits the students (all of us, really) in two respects.   First, the answer is no longer the end-all be-all.  It becomes okay to have partial understanding of something.  Secondly, all minds become focused on making sense and understanding of whatever is being talked about.  The questions come quite naturally, and everyone in the room knows these questions will not be discouraged or rated on some kind of disheartening scale.

Stating that the answer is less important than the question does not imply that the answer is not important.  Usually it is our way of checking what we understand about something.  But thinking of our answers as temporary helps us think of our understanding as part of the bigger picture in time.  If I begin my answers, “As I understand it at this point in time, ….”, I am admitting that the answer is temporary.  I am open to having an even deeper understanding of the question at some later point in time.  I am open to the idea that there is, no doubt, more to learn about the specific topic, and that as I learn more, my answer to that question will alter also.  It also helps us think of an answer, not as an end point, but as a checkpoint.   With an answer that is thought of as temporary, the question remains open, whereas answers that are thought of as final, end our further contemplation of the question.

The best kinds of questions asked in a classroom are those asked by students.  A teacher can learn a lot about where a student’s understanding is by the question the student is asking.  A question can also reveal how engaged the student is in the learning.  I especially love when students ask big questions that can’t necessarily be answered just then.  It tells me they are extending what they understand and trying to apply that understanding to the so-much-out-there that they don’t understand!  Sometimes we just sit for a second and appreciate the largeness of the question and the fact that none of us can even attempt to answer it, yet we can all appreciate it!  Recently a student was presenting a slide show about sink holes.  The students in the audience had a lot of questions, at least six of which neither the presenter nor I could answer.  What a wonderful end to a presentation.  Those questions were all curiosity driven, and I couldn’t have been happier!

I’ve never been one of those teachers who is uncomfortable leaving a question unanswered.  I have known some who are.  Those teachers drive themselves crazy trying to prepare for any question about an activity or topic that might arise.   But the sad part is that they also box themselves in a bit.  They end up needing to keep the activity or discussion within the boundaries of what they know and can answer.  To my way of thinking, that puts boundaries on the students’ curiosities as well.

I definitely want my students to know I have a level of education and am qualified to teach them the subjects that I am assigned, but I also want them to know that I don’t know it all.  I continually take academic classes and read topic specific books, sharing my passion and excitement for learning with my students.  I want them to know that when I send them off on an investigation of prefixes for instance, that I have not personally conducted such an investigation and am looking forward to seeing what they find!  I use the knowledge I have gathered to guide and steer their inquiry, but I don’t allow preconceived ideas to close me off to what we might all notice that we have not noticed before.  The very first year I began teaching orthography, I jumped in without having a complete understanding of many facets of our language.  The students were thrilled!  They loved that I didn’t have all the answers.  We were truly all learning something valuable from each other.

So are students the only ones who get to ask questions?  Of course not.  Here are my favorite questions to ask:  “What are you wondering now?  What questions does that stir in you?  What does this new information cause you to think about?  What evidence do you have to support that?  Can you prove that?”

Questions happen when our curiosity bubbles up and erupts into words.  It is at that point when we begin our quest for information and ideas with which we will construct an understanding.  Temporary answers allow us to check that understanding, while keeping the question alive.  In the meantime our minds are open, and our curiosity aroused.  We don’t know when evidence will come along, or how long our minds will juggle with an idea before we reach that deeper understanding that develops in response to a question once asked.

Reviewing a Word’s Structure While Getting Better Acquainted with its Family

Almost all of the students have presented the Latin verb poster they put together.  We have had wonderful and rich discussions with each one.  And as we talked we noticed that not all Latin etymons became productive modern English bases.  Some of the bases we identified are found in a remarkable number of words while others are found in only a few.

For example, the twin bases <mote> and <move> are two that have become very productive in English.  My students can easily name words like remote, demote, promote, motion, emotion, motor, motel, movement, remove, moving, removal, movable and immovable.  That is certainly not a complete list, but it does demonstrate how common these two bases are.

Some of the Latin etymons became modern English bases that have not become very productive.  Take the Latin verb frango, frangere, frego, and fractus for example.  By removing the Latin suffixes on the infinitive and supine forms of this verb, we get the Latin etymons <frang> and <fract>.  The modern English bases that are derived from those etymons are spelled exactly the same!  You will no doubt recognize the following group of words with <fract> as the base: fraction, fracture, fractal, refractive, diffraction, and infraction.  But the only words my students found that share the <frang> base are frangible and refrangible.  See what I mean?  In English <frang> has not become a very productive base.

Since we have lined our hallway with Latin Verb posters, all we had to do was take a walk in order to identify those very productive modern bases!  We chose ten.  Some are twin bases and some are unitary.  We have decided to spend time looking at the words in these ten families and seeing what else we can notice.

We began with the bases <lege> and <lect>.  The denotation of these twin bases is “to gather, select, read”.  I asked the students to get out a piece of lined paper.  I read some words from this family and asked them to do two things. They were to write the word and they they were to write the word sum, keeping in mind that the base would either be <lege> or <lect>.  Some of the words they wrote down were lecture, select, lectern, collection, election, legion, legible and legibly.  The next step was for the students to come to the board and write the word and word sum up there so we could look at it and talk about it.

One of the first things I noticed was that someone wrote the word sum for <lectern> as <lect> + <urn>.  I wonder if that is a result of misguided practice in which students have been asked to search for a word within a word.  If this word was split into syllables, it might just be seen as ‘lec – turn’.  Anyway, I adjusted the suffix to read <ern>.  Then the students helped me list words with that suffix.  I got them started with lantern and cavern.  They added eastern, western, govern and modern.  Even though most knew that the suffix in <lecture> was <-ure>, we still brainstormed other words that use that suffix like treasure, pleasure, measure, nature and capture.

A third interesting thing to discuss was the way most students used an <-able> suffix in <legible> instead of an <-ible> suffix.  One certainly can’t choose which to use based on pronunciation!  I asked for  <-able>/<-ible> to be written on the Wonder Wall.  I have more information in a Smartboard presentation and will show it next week.

The most important thing of all, though, was how the students felt when they saw that they could spell these words when they concentrated on the morphemes.  They didn’t have to struggle with thinking about all the letters at once!  Instead they focused on each morpheme as it came and the spelling fell into place!

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Yesterday when the students walked in the door, I had <scribe / script> on the board with its denotation “to write”.  I didn’t even have to ask them to get out paper.  They sat down and quickly pulled out paper and pencil.  I read words like describe, subscription, prescriptive, scribble, scripture, subscribe, and scriptorium.  More students volunteered to write their word sums on the board than had volunteered yesterday!  They were enjoying seeing what they could figure out.

With this collection, we had the opportunity to talk about the way the <t> (final in the base <script>) represented a different sound in <prescriptive>, <subscription>, and <scripture>.  I’m sure that in their minds (until yesterday) the letter <t> represented only one sound – /t/.   When I saw that a boy in the front row had spelled <subscription> as ‘subscripshen’, I said out loud, “Wouldn’t it make sense for someone who has been told to sound out words when spelling to use an <sh> in <subscription>?  But look what is really happening.  The pronunciation of the letter <t> can be altered by the first letter of the suffix.”  We all said the three words so that we could feel the difference in pronunciation.  We talked about how some people pronounce <scripture> as if there is a <ch> following the <p> and some people pronounce it as if there is a <sh> following the <p>.  Another great opportunity to prove to the students that spelling is not about pronunciation.  It is about meaning!

An additional highlight with these particular twin bases (besides the students smiling at their increased level of successful today!) was the word sum for <scriptorium> that someone had written on the board.  It was written as <scriptorium> –> <script> + <or> + <i> + <um>.  I wasn’t so sure about there being a connecting vowel between two suffixes, and when I mentioned that, the students thought that made sense.  But instead of leaving it at that, we scheduled a Zoom session with our favorite French friend, Old Grouch!

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He helped us understand the Latin stem suffix <-i>, the Latin suffix <-um> and the present day English suffix <-ium>!  He showed us his own scriptorium and the students decided that a person who does the writing would be called a scriptor.  This recognition also lead to a discussion of agent suffixes (those that indicate the noun is a person).  That discussion led to a review of using the agent suffix <-or> instead of <-er> if the base can take an <-ion> suffix.  The examples Old Grouch used was profession/professor and action/actor.  Later, the students added animation/animator, instruction/instructor, and division/divisor!  My personal favorite is one that I noticed at an airport I visited in November.  The pair is recombulation/recombobulator!  If I was in the recombobulation area after going through security, and I was getting all of my things back in order, then I was a recombobulator!

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We are so grateful to be able to ask Old Grouch questions.  We always walk away smiling, and with a head full of interesting information to ponder!  Knowing that we began our Zoom session at 8:20 a.m. and knowing that it was 3:20p.m. where Old Grouch lives, one of the students asked if he had a nice siesta.  When he was remarking that he had, he also asked if we knew the word <siesta>.  We did not.  He explained that it is from Spanish for six.  Siesta is held six hours after daybreak!  Like I said, we always walk away smiling, and with something interesting to ponder!