“Start Where You Are. Use What You Have. Do What You Can.” ~ Arthur Ashe

We are learning about orthography by jumping right in.  I know, I know.  Some will wonder how I can do that when my students don’t really solidly understand about morphemes, about bases being bound or free, about word sums or even suffixing conventions.  But it is still what we are doing.  Because while we are treading orthographical water, the students will look around and begin noticing things.  Yes, there is a lot of splashing at first.

“Mrs. Steven, it doesn’t really say anything at Etymonline.”
“Let me look with you.  Read it to me and we’ll find the word’s history together.”

In the first two days of letting the students jump into some research, I explained ‘denotation’ and ‘word sum’ twenty times.  But it needed to happen that way.  They needed to be writing word sums to understand word sums.  They needed to be writing the denotations of the bases to understand what a denotation is.

So here’s what we did.  This is actually the third year I have started the year with a look at these particular compound words.  As the science teacher, the topics we will begin studying are biosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and atmosphere.  As the orthography teacher who was looking to highlight the fact that these words have similar structures, I added a layer of the geosphere (lithosphere) and four layers of the atmosphere (troposphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and cosmosphere).  Now I had enough words that shared this structure to accommodate students working in groups of two.

To begin with I wrote all of the words on the board and invited the students to notice things such as  similarities or differences in how the words were built.  Right away someone noticed that they all had <sphere> in the word.  Great opportunity to review the difference between a free and bound base, and also to talk about the <ph> representing /f/ – a definite signal that the word is likely from Greek.  Then someone noticed that there was an <o> in front of <sphere> in every word.  Great noticing!  Sometimes an <o> in that position can be a connecting vowel signaling a word from Greek.  Since the <ph> in <sphere> already gave us the same clue, the fact that the <o> could be a connecting vowel was something worth keeping in mind as we researched to find out the structure of the rest of each word.

As we looked once more at each word, I reminded the students of their goal:  “So the group investigating <biosphere> will be looking to see if the first element is <bi> or <bio>.  And the group investigating <lithosphere> will be looking to see if the first element is <lith> or <litho>.”

Once they had a definition for their word, I sent them to Etymonline to see how old the word was, and if there was any evidence to help them determine that first element.  I then circulated to help them see how the information is laid out at that site.  The word <cosmosphere> was not included at Etymonline, so I had the students look in our collection of dictionaries to find a word with the same beginning spelling and meaning that we could find at Etymonline.  It was a great opportunity to demonstrate that we don’t find everything we’re looking for in one source!

As the students and I found the first base in each word, I had them complete the word sum we had started on the board underneath each word.


We also added next to each word the Greek word it came from:

bios                         atmos                      cosmos
geos                         hydros                    thermos
lithos                                                        tropos

Having the completed list of word sums on the board helped the students realize that all of the words were from Greek and each Greek word had the same <-os> suffix.  I explained that we can remove that Greek suffix to find the etymon or root that has become our modern English base.  It was an opportunity to talk about a word’s ancestors as opposed to a word’s modern relatives.  Our evidence clearly shows that the bound base in this word is <bi> and the <o> is a connecting vowel.  Here was another great opportunity to point out that if we just look at the word <biosphere> and recognize the free base <sphere>, it would be easy to assume that the first base is what’s left: <bio>.  But we are learning to be word scientists, and what scientists do is search for evidence to support whether or not their hypothesize is true.  Without evidence, we make no assumptions.  It is better to leave a word unanalyzed than it is to make our best guess at its structure when we have no evidence to back us up.  We can, however, voice our ideas and keep searching for the evidence that will one day support it.

Another great way to provide evidence that the bound base is <bi> and not <bio> is to find a word that has the <bi> but no <o> and comes from the same Greek word bios.  The word the students found was <amphibian>.  The simple fact that the <bi> is not followed by an <o> means that <o> is not part of the base!  What is an amphibian?  It is that which lives two kinds of lives – both on the land and in the water!

So far we have proven that <o> is a connecting vowel in each word on our list, and that like the <ph> representing /f/, it is signaling a word from Greek.  We have also proven that all of these words are compound words and share a structure.  In all but one situation the first base is bound and the second base is free.  Each base has its own denotation.

The next task was to further explore the first base in these words – the base that was less familiar (and in most cases completely unfamiliar).  I asked the students to find a list of words that share that first base.  They found these words by again looking at Etymonline, by looking in hardcover dictionaries, and by looking at Word Searcher online.  I asked them to first choose the words they were familiar with, and then to choose some unfamiliar words, including definitions.  It is so important for my students to understand that they are no longer being asked to make lists of words they don’t understand and can’t use in context.  It isn’t about creating the longest list, but about choosing words for your list that demonstrate a family relationship to each other based on the denotation of the base.  The fun is in finding words that share the base but highlight a connection never noticed before.  An example of this is finding that <dehydrate> and <hydrosphere> share a base and a denotation and belong on the same matrix!


The last thing I asked them to do in their notebook was to write word sums for their list of words, and to then draw a matrix.  I had drawn a few matrices on the board to model this for them a few days earlier, but I knew that now, while they were making their first matrix, is when the understanding of the matrix structure would begin to make sense.  So I circulated, explaining the layout and why certain morphemes would be placed in certain places.

I told them that if we had affixes that we could easily identify, we would pull them off in the matrix, but that we might not fully analyze all words represented on these first matrices.  Then I pointed out a few words such as <biochemistry>.  It was represented in the matrix as <bi> + <o> + <chemistry>.  We agreed that we could probably find out more about the structure of <chemistry>, but that for now we would leave it, focusing instead on the many words that share the bound base <bi>.  If we hadn’t been able to understand what <chemistry> was, then it would have been important to find out more.

Once all these things were in their notebooks and I had glanced at their work, each group fetched a big piece of paper and began a poster.  I wrote this list on the board to remind them of what I expected to see on the poster:

~your word
~the word sum for your word
~the denotation of each base in your word sum
~the year this word was first attested
~a list of words that share the first base in your word
~word sums for your list of words
~a matrix

For the next three days, everyone was busy!



On Thursday we started to share the posters. The students have been surprisingly eager to share!  Explaining their research.  This is where the students begin to feel comfortable, treading in the orthographical water.  It doesn’t take long before the idea that words have structure begins to be an understanding.  Especially as they read the word sums for the words on their list.  Base plus suffix.  Or base plus connecting vowel plus base plus suffix.  Or prefix plus base.  There is structure, and it is consistent.

We talked about the structure of the matrix and identifying suffixes.  How do we prove that certain letters at the end of a word are indeed a suffix?  What other words can we think of that have that same string of letters in that position?  How many suffixes can a word have?  Even with many other things to mention, we kept the overall focus on the relationship between a base and all the other words that share it, and we made mental notes of what we would do different on our next posters as our understanding of all this grew.

This poster sharing is also where I stress that being in the audience is not a passive role.  Everyone brings their chair up to the front of the room.  I expect audience members to relate the base to other words they can think of, to ask questions if anything said is confusing, and to notice things that may not have been noticed or pointed out by the presenters.  Audience participation is where the best, unexpected yet delightful learning takes place for all of us!

So far we have discovered that the difference between a macrocosm and a microcosm is size.  The macrocosm is the bigger universe that encompasses everything, and a microcosm is a smaller world, perhaps it could be life inside a snow globe or a drop of water or an ephemeral pond.  We discovered that a megalith is a very huge rock, and that a megaphone makes a sound bigger.  We already knew about a thermometer and that it measures body heat, but were able to now understand that an atmometer would measure steam or vapor.  We discussed tropisms and acted out the difference between phototropism, geotropism and thigmotropism.  And the students thought it was cool that one of our new bound bases <ge> was in a word with another of our new bases <trope>.  They delighted to find out that the name George shares the base <ge> and that the first George was probably a farmer.  Further delight came when I told them the first name of a retired teacher who comes to our school everyday to take children for walks through the woods out back.  She is the driving force for environmental projects and activities at our school, and her first name is Georgia!  We wondered how her parents knew that it would be the perfect name for her!

With only a third of the posters presented, the learning is already rich and the fascination is ignited.

thigmotropism          phototropism
otropism – turning and                   Phototropism – The plant turns toward
touching, growing upward                          the source of light


Geotropism – the roots turn toward the earth and the
stem and leaves turn away from earth




Where to Begin When There’s So Much to Say

I thought carefully for most of the summer about the best way to introduce the spelling truths (which I like to think of as the fabric of orthography) to my new fifth graders.  Hmmmm.  Where to begin?  What to start with?  What is the ground level understanding they will need in order to pursue independent inquiries?

It was obvious to me that they needed to understand some linguistic terminology, the fact that words have structure, and the fact that it is more important to understand the meaning and sense of what a word brings to the context in which it is found than it is to be able to pronounce it.  Beyond that, further orthographical discoveries will be more like delightful and savory surprises.

Even with the determination of what I deemed an essential foundation, I continued to ponder what to start with.  The students before me would not only be new to fifth grade, they would also be new to the idea of “spelling makes perfect sense”.  There is very little they understand about “why” when it comes to spelling.  They have spent their time sorting, grouping, using in sentences, copying and over-pronouncing words with the hope that the exposure alone will help the student memorize each word’s spelling.  So, one word at a time, the students have been asked to memorize spellings.  How deadening to the student who needs to understand in order to make a spelling stick!  How unprofitable to the student who can easily memorize those spellings, but is never shown the relationships words have with one another.

So it isn’t just that the students are coming to me with a lack of understanding, they are also coming to me with little interest and low expectations that studying spelling can be anything but dry and dull.  I thought some more.  What will ignite their eagerness to know more?  As I thought, I thought back to what ignited my own eagerness only three and a half years ago.  What were those word examples that made me believe that I was indeed staring spelling truths straight in the face?  Which matrices made convincing evidence obvious to me when I wasn’t even looking for it?  Which orthographic nuggets made me lift my eyebrows and smile?

Here’s what I did.  On day one I wrote three words on the board:  <to>   <too>   <two>.  The students were aware that these were homophones.  They understood that homophones share a pronunciation but not a spelling.  Next I asked them to give me a definition of each word.  They found it easier to use the words in sentences than to define them, especially with <to>.  At this point, I brought up the idea that words can be categorized as either function words or content words.  Function words tend to have less letters than their homophone partners, and are less easy to define in isolation.  The list of function words is closed as opposed to the list of content words.  We identified <to> as a function word that is commonly used as a preposition.

Then we talked about the spelling of these three words, and noticed that the first had one <o>, the second had two <o>’s and that the third couldn’t have three <o>’s.  That is something we don’t see in a complete English word.  So why is there a <w>?  A third <o> couldn’t be used so the next best thing was a <w>?  Hmmmm.  Interesting.  Perhaps there is an explanation to be found if we look at words related to <two>?  I asked if anyone could think of a word that had a <tw> letter combination and also had something to do with the number two.  Almost immediately someone thought of <twelve>.  As that person was explaining the connection to the number two, other hands shot up.  We ended up with a list on the board that included twenty, twice, twilight, twist, twin and between.  Suddenly the spelling of the number two was less weird, less random.  The <w> was there to mark a connection between the number two and other words with <tw> that also have something to do with two.

On day two I began by showing Gina Cooke’s video Making Sense of Spelling.

It reaffirmed what they had realized yesterday about the <w> in <two> and led them to other interesting things.  At its end we discussed things like free and bound bases, prefixes and suffixes, and the terms ‘word sums’ and ‘word structure’.  We also addressed the appearance of a single non-syllabic <e> in the word sum <one> + <ion>, but not in its final form <onion>.  Every student in the room knew that there would be a final non-syllabic <e> in the word <hope> and that the <e> was not in the word <hoping>, but because they do not know WHY it is in one and not the other, they don’t expect that same convention to happen in other words!

I followed our discussion by having the students brainstorm a list of words with <hope> as the free base.  After the list was completed, I drew a matrix on the board to share a way to organize the morphemes that are part of completed words that share a base.  When the hand drawn matrix reflected the words we listed, I quickly typed in the same list at Mini-Matrix Maker and created a computer drawn matrix.  We compared the two and reviewed why some affixes seem to be in compartments and some seem to be part of a list.  Then we practiced recognizing words by choosing morphemes in a specific order.  Here is the matrix we made:


I patiently listened as the students pronounced the suffixes as if they were words, knowing that on day three I needed to show them why morphemes need to be spelled out and not pronounced.

On day three I wrote the word <sign> on the board and asked if it was free or bound.  It was identified as free because it could be used without adding any affixes.  Then I went to my desk and pulled Etymonline up on the SmartBoard.  We looked together at the entry for <sign>.  I talked a bit about the “early 13c.” that began the entry.  I explained that that is when the word was first attested.  Doug Harper, the author of Etymonline, looks at written documents to find the earliest date he can in which the word in question was in use.  If he finds a written document with the word, he notes the date and looks at written documents from before that date.  He stops when he cannot find the word in any earlier written documents that he has access to.  Does that mean the word couldn’t have existed before that?  No.  It means we do not have evidence of it existing before that.  I wanted to make sure that my students know that scholars rely on evidence, and if we are going to be scholars, we will need to rely on it too.  We went on to read the rest of the entry and found out how recent the term sign language really is (1847).

Next I walked over to the white board again and began a matrix for the free base <sign>.  After having read the full entry for <sign> at Etymonline, it was decided that “to mark” would be a denotation we could use.  The students brainstormed words that belonged to this family, and I filled in the matrix.  It didn’t take long before someone suggested the word <design>.  “Say that again,” I asked.  “Are you pronouncing the base in <design> the same way you would if the <de> prefix were not there?”  The students noticed that the <s> was pronounced as /z/ in <design> and /s/ in <sign>.  This is a reason to spell out our morphemes instead of pronouncing them as if they are words.  Until a word is complete, we don’t know how to pronounce it.

After students suggested <signer>, <designs>, and <signing> there was a pause.  “Can you think of any others?” I asked.  A hand went up and a boy quietly and uncertainly asked if <signature> might be one.  “Well, does a signature have anything to do with making a mark?”, I asked.  While the students were agreeing that it did, someone else blurted out excitedly, “And this word is evidence for having the <g> in the base!”  That was like music to my ears!  More quickly than I expected, they are connecting dots!  The final word added to our matrix was <signal>, to which someone blurted, “…more evidence for why there’s a <g>!”  But it was also evidence to support the practice of spelling out morphemes until a word is complete and ready to be pronounced.

On day four I shared with the students my understanding of how the days of the week were named.  None of the students really knew anything about this, although they had some pretty imaginative guesses.  I began by sharing the names given by the Romans:

dies solis
dies lunae
dies Martis
dies Mercurii
dies lovi
dies Veneris
dies Saturni

One boy quickly raised his hand and said that they looked like planet names.  I smiled, commented “Nicely done,” and pointed up to the new poster on our wall:


I told them that the Latin word dies (day) has the bound base <di> that we see in our modern word <diary>.  That made sense since a diary is where we do daily writing.  They knew that solis had to do with the sun because they thought of  <solar>.  They knew that lunae had to do with the moon because they thought of <lunar>.    As for the rest of the days, they named every planet except Jupiter (lovi).

The Romans, like the Greeks, paired up the planets with their Gods and the characteristics attributed to their Gods.  When the Germanic tribes decided to use this idea of naming the days of the week after the planets and their associated Gods, they used their own Gods that matched in characteristics to the Roman Gods.  Here is how the Germanic people who spoke Old English named the days:

sunnandæg                         Sun’s day
monandæg                          Moon’s day
tiwesdæg                             Tiw’s day
wodnesdæg                         Woden’s day
thurresdæg                          Thunor’s day
frigedæg                               Freya’s day
sæternesdæg                       Saturn’s day

At this point, we could definitely see that the names were becoming familiar!  We especially enjoyed learning that <Friday> and <friend> share a base, and therefore a denotation! Friday was named for Venus which was associated with the characteristics of love and affection.  Isn’t a friend someone for whom you have a level of love and affection?

Telling the story of the days of the week gave us an opportunity to understand how people can shape the spelling of words.  The Germanic people liked the idea of naming the days after the sun, the moon and the planets.  They even liked the idea of associating those planets with Gods.  But they had their own Gods, and they adopted and adapted the weekday names to reflect their own Gods.  Perhaps this has happened with other words in other places as well.  Telling the story of the days of the week also gave us an opportunity to talk about letters that don’t exist anymore, as with the letter ash <æ> that has since become a single <a>.  Perhaps there are other letters that were once common, but no longer exist as part of our alphabet

As we were finishing up our discussion of how the days of the week were named, one boy turned to the student next to him, put his hands to his head, and made a gesture as if his mind had just been blown!  It was just the reaction I had hoped for!  The eagerness is settling in.  I can feel it.

On day five, I shared a video of two 6 year old boys who were investigating <carnivore> in Jim and Lyn Anderson’s classroom.

When it was finished, I asked if anyone thought that <carnivore> was a pretty big word for first graders.  Lots of students raised their hands.  Then I asked if anyone in the class had ever been fascinated with dinosaurs at the same age.  Only a few hands went up, but the children those hands belonged to were ready to relive that enthusiasm and tell about their favorites!  I was making the point that 6 year old children are not intimidated by large words.  It is the adults and the writing programs they use who decide what length of word is appropriate at what age.  How confining and insulting!

Secondly, look at the comfort these boys have in using the online resource Etymonline.  They do not stop and embarrassingly try to pronounce a word in Late Latin.  Instead they spell it and learn from it what they need to know – how its spelling compares to the word they are investigating.  And they aren’t just blindly copying things down in their notebook.  They are talking about what they are discovering and can easily explain their understanding without having to read it out of their notebook.

I wrote <carnivore> and <herbivore> on the board.  We reviewed that the boys had said the base of <carnivore> was <carn> and meant “meat”.  I reminded them that the teacher had mentioned a second base which was <vore> and that the boys had defined it as “eat or only eat”.  I wrote a word sum:  <carn> + <i> + <vore>.   I didn’t say anything about the <i> just yet.  Then we looked at <herbivore>.  I began a word sum, bracketing the known base <vore>.  Someone spotted the familiar base <herb> and could even tell me it was a free base.  I finished the word sum:  <herb> + <i> + <vore>.  I wondered if anyone recognized what these two word sums had in common.  That is when we turned our attention to the <i> in both words.  I explained that it is a connecting vowel, and that because it is an <i>, we know that it is from Latin.  Someone asked if it is like a conjunction.  In a way it is.  It is an affix that connects two morphemes in a word. Then I shared the word that first convinced me that a connecting vowel was a real thing:  <speedometer>.  This is a compound word with two free bases.  It is obvious that the <o> is not part of either base, but is there to connect the two.  And because the connecting vowel is an <o>, I know this word is from Greek.

We talked about the fact that these are both compound words because there are two bases in each.  I pointed out that they have the same structure:   a base + a connecting vowel + a base.  All words have a structure.  I demonstrated this by bringing back the examples we saw in our <hope> matrix and our <sign> matrix.

So that is how the first week went.  I feel good about the choices I made in regards to what I shared and what was introduced.  I’ve seen the eyebrows go up and the smiles cross their lips.  At the end of day five, a girl told the class that every night her mom asks her what she learned that day.  She hasn’t always had something to tell her mom.  But this year it’s different.  Every day this week she taught her mom some orthography!



“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!


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.


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.


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?”




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.



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.


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!


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.