“While We Teach, We Learn.”

“While we teach, we learn.”  This quote is attributed to Seneca the Younger, the Roman Philosopher and Statesman who lived c. 4BC – 65 AD.  In my own experience I have certainly found this to be true.  Today my students had a chance to test it out as well.

Late in October one of the second grade teachers caught me in the teacher’s lounge.  She hoped that my students would be willing to present a lesson to her students.  I was thrilled we were being invited back.  The last time we presented a lesson to her students (last year), we had focused on the <igh> trigraph.  She was so impressed that from that one lesson, second graders were able to recognize <igh> in words for the rest of the school year!  I suggested that this time we focus on the suffix <-ed>.  She said, “Perfect!”

I knew we had a lot of projects in the works, but this was something I looked forward to.  Each of my three groups of fifth graders prepared materials and practiced using them.  Then today I took the classes one at a time to the three second grade classrooms.  Here is how I introduced the lesson.  Then the fifth graders and second graders worked one-on-one to practice adding the <-ed> suffix to various words.

It wasn’t until I reviewed this film after school that I noticed the boy holding the two letter p’s.  He is obviously confused about when it is doubled.  He doubled it when the <-ed> suffix was added to <jump>, he doubled it when the <-ed> suffix was added to <tape>, and he doubled it when the <-ed> suffix was added to <tap>.  Now I know exactly what I have to do with all three classes tomorrow.

We will reenact this activity in front of the room, pausing to point out the effect the <-ed> suffix can have on a spelling.  I am quite confident that my students know that the <p> is not forced to double in the word <jumped>, but I bet they will struggle with explaining why it isn’t.   I will then thank this boy for giving us the opportunity to take our understanding to a level beneath the surface!

As the students sorted words into the three categories (1.  just add the suffix, 2.  double the base’s final consonant, 3.  replace the final <e>)  I circulated to listen to the conversations.  Back when we were preparing the post-it notes for this activity, we began by brainstorming lists of words that would fit each category.  One of the words suggested was <agreed>.  It was a great word to talk about then, and it was a great word to hear fifth graders explain to their new friends.  The word sum for <agreed> would be <agree> + <-ed> –> <agreeed>.  We don’t replace the final <e> on the base in the same way we would replace the final <e> in <raked>, because the final <e> in <agree> is not individual like the final <e> in <rake>.  Rather it is part of an <ee> digraph.  On the other hand, we wouldn’t leave this word <agreeed> with three e’s.  No complete English word has three e’s.  So for THAT reason, we write the word <agreed> with two e’s instead of three.

Once the students had completed the activity on side A of the construction paper, they gathered up their post-it notes and flipped the paper over.  On the other side were the three distinct pronunciations that can be the result of adding the <-ed> suffix to a word (1.  /d/,  2.  /Id/,  3.  /t/  ).  Here is video of that activity.

As one of the second grade teachers was watching this activity, she overheard me asking two students about words in which the <-ed> had a pronunciation of /t/.  Every word on their list had a base with either a final <p> or a final /k/.  I looked up at her and said quite truthfully, “I never noticed that before today!”  She replied by saying, “Me neither!  One of the best things about your students coming to do these lessons is that I learn something new too!  Will you please come back to do the <igh> trigraph lesson next time?”

Today was splendid!  We were warmly welcomed into each room.  The second graders were happy to participate and enjoyed working with the fifth graders.  The fifth graders took their role seriously, explained things thoroughly and left feeling pleased with themselves.  And, of course, having to explain things to the younger students definitely strengthened their own understanding!  After all, a wise philosopher once said, “While we teach, we learn.”

A Component of Science – Engineering

The first engineering project this year was building locker shelves.  The students had to identify how many shelves they would need and how those shelves would be used.  Then they were ready to begin researching existing shelving units and collecting building materials.  The project challenge was to use as many recycled materials as possible, and to build shelves that would still be functioning as such in eight months time.  The students made drawings in their notebooks that included measurements.  Then they started building.

Here are some interesting things the students learned:

~Once cardboard is bent, it isn’t stiff like it was before.
~The thicker the cardboard, the stronger the shelf.
~Many layers of thin cardboard work as well as one layer of thick cardboard.
~A piece of cardboard cut to the exact measurements of the locker can be wedged in place and not need supports of any kind.
~Circular supports such as cardboard tubes from paper towels or soda cans make great support columns.
~Shelves can be supported with string/rope/yarn stretched across the width of the locker.
~String is stronger than yarn, and rope is stronger than string.
~One support in the middle makes the shelf a bit wobbly when weight is put on it.

They were given four days to build/rebuild.  Once the due date was past, there were two more days built-in for groups wanting to add finishing touches at their recess time.  Then it was time to take a look and reflect on how well everyone did with this project.  I gave every student a post-it note.  They were to look at all of the locker shelving and write a compliment to the locker they felt was the most functional, fun, and likely to still be standing come May.  Then they were to stick it to the inside of the locker they liked.  It was a nice surprise for students to later open their locker only to see nice comments waiting for them.

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After a month and a half, we noticed that many students had developed a strange habit as they  headed out to recess each day.  Instead of setting their planners and folders in their locker, they were dropping them on the floor in front of their locker!  It prompted me to take a peek at the conditions of the shelving.

Most of the shelves had fallen or partially fallen, making them unfit to hold much of anything.  A few looked like a storage space for cardboard!  As engineers, this gave us the perfect opportunity to rethink these shelves!


In the first picture, only the middle shelf was functional.  The shelf above it was covered in duct tape, but unable to hold anything.  The shelves below were also to weak to be used.


In the second picture, two wooden shelves were held up by rulers.  That worked until something was set on the shelf.  The more that was set on the shelf, the more the shelf slid downwards.


In the third picture, someone had built shelving using PVC pipes.  I think the intention was that the structure would be set in the locker turned 90 degrees from its current position.  Unfortunately it doesn’t fit in that way and as a result very little fits on the shelves (except for the top shelf).

As engineers, this gave us the perfect opportunity to rethink these shelves!We began with a discussion about the purpose of building shelves in the first place.  The personal locker was needed to house outside clothing and backpacks, and the shared locker was to be used to house school supplies.  In this way the school supplies would stay dry during rainy or snowy weather because it would be separated from the wet outer clothing.

I created a rubric and shared it with the students so that they would be able to keep in mind the goals of this project.


The students had a second chance to make it work.  What would they do differently?


This first locker shows shelves that were once supported by rulers that didn’t hold much weight.  Now the shelves are held in place by a network of string, and they are very sturdy!  The rest of these show some designs that have been improved and are now quite functional!  It is interesting that there are as many shelves built up from the bottom as there are suspended from above!  I think some great improvements were made!

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I loved the innovation in the last locker shown.  See the extra shelf suspended on the inside of the door?  This was a fascinating process to observe!



Learning From 16th Century Scribes

At the beginning of the year I asked my students to write me a letter.  It was a way for me to get to know them.  It was also a way for me to assess their writing skills.   I gave them prompts for each paragraph so that they didn’t have to wonder what to write.

The first time I read through them I just plain enjoyed hearing each student’s voice – the way they talked to me on paper.   I got a peek into their “outside of the school day” life.  I will look back at these letters often throughout the year to remind myself that each child is so much more than what I see in 90 minutes each day.

The second time through I kept track of things so I would know which writing skills each student needed to improve on.  I specifically made notes about:

sentence structure
friendly letter format
margins – left, right, bottom

One of the unexpected finds was inconsistent letter formation.  Lower case g’s, j’s and p’s were the same size (height-wise) as a’s.  The letter p was often capitalized, even when it didn’t make sense to do so.  Lower case h’s and n’s were difficult to tell apart, as were i’s and j’s!  This made some student writing very difficult to read.  Not everyone’s letter formation was this inconsistent, but paired with the students’ lack of awareness for white space on the page, I made a decision to teach them script.

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I am so glad I did!  As we moved forward with this and learned about proper posture and paper placement, I began to notice some rather peculiar ways in which students gripped their pen!  Most involved forcing the joint nearest the index finger tip to bend counter to its natural bend.

I recognized that tightfisted grip because it’s the same one I have used for most of my life.  For me, it forced the pencil or pen I wrote with to push against the same first joint of my middle finger, and I ended up with a rather large callus.  I remember that my elementary teachers called it a “writing bump” and spoke of it as a wonderful thing that indicated how much I loved writing.  Even though it became painful to write with such a huge callus,  I accepted that explanation in the same way I accepted so much other misinformation about writing and our language.  After all, what other way was there?

Imagine my joy in learning that writing doesn’t have to be a laborious painful activity.  Instead it can be fun … really fun!  It can be a pleasure to write and a pleasure to read.  It can be oh, so satisfying!    I want that for my students.  I want my students to feel pride in what they write and also in the presentation of what they write.

Learning a more comfortable pen hold felt odd at first, but within a month, most were enjoying the switch.The students have been able to choose between two pen holds.  One is similar to what they were using, it’s just that the index finger remains relaxed along the length of the pen.  The middle joint is free to control the movement of the pen instead of the wrist (which controls the movement when the pen is held in a tight grip).  I personally use a plume hold so that my index finger doesn’t fall back into its old habit of forcing that joint closest to the finger tip to bend in an unnatural way.

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I first learned script from Real Spelling.  I’ve taken the spellinar offered, and I’ve watched the dvd’s, pausing to practice certain letters and flourishes. Chancery Script itself dates back to the early 16th century.  An Italian scribe, Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi, wrote a pamphlet in 1522.  It remains quite influential as it describes the writing of Chancery Script.  It is called La Operina.  Chancery Script was developed by scribes who spent their lives copying documents and needed a comfortable yet aesthetically pleasing writing.  Here is a sample of Arrighi’s writing from La Operina.


For starters, we focused on holding up our hands and imagining that the body of each lower case letter had a consistent height.  You will understand this best if you try it.  Hold up your hand and draw an X across the palm with your finger.  That is what we call the “X height”.  If you are writing the letter b, you would begin in the ascender area (tips of your fingers) and pull down to the bottom of your palm (bottom of the X).  Then you would bounce back up to the X height’s right corner before pulling down again to complete the letter.  As the combination of proper posture, a relaxed pen hold and the use of a fountain pen meld together,  the pen strokes become less independently drawn, and become more of a flowing movement, as if the pen is dancing across the page!

We spent time each day practicing our lower case letters and the ligatures we might use to connect certain letters.  We learned some flourishes to use with lower case letters, and practiced them so we could make personal decisions as we developed our personal style of script.


The capital letters are done a bit differently.  They are drawn.  They can be of a different size then the rest of the letters depending on your purpose for writing and the space you have available.  The students were enthusiastic to see possibilities for the initial letters of their names.  They were particularly impressed with Queen Elizabeth’s signature and wanted to develop their own.  Here are some samples of the students practicing Queen Elizabeth’s signature.  The first picture is her signature.  Notice the flourish at the beginning of the lower case b and the knotting below the z!

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The following pictures are of the students practicing some capital letters.

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As you can see, the students write on unlined paper, but use an underlay so that the writing remains straight.  The lines on the underlay are a bit wider apart than regular lined paper.

The next step was to create a sheet of writing in script.  Some had already been turning in assignments in script, but not all.  I asked each student to write a fall poem.  I gave them a poem to model it after.  The poem would have three stanzas.  In this way we could practice not only script, but also using white space on a page.  As the students finished their poem (which was now a work of art on several levels), I hung them in the hall.

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There’s quite a difference between the first day letters and these poems!  Not all students are using script consistently yet, but the majority already feel a personal pride they never felt before!  In the following video, the students explain what it is they like about writing in script.



Fall Fun, Halloween Hilarity

We had our Fall/Halloween party last week on a half day of school.  The class was divided into thirds and each third was responsible for either decorations, games, or food.  The result was an hour of fun!  A cool last minute touch were balloons with glow sticks in them!  Between the glowing balloons and the orange lights framing the white board and door, we were able to keep the lights off and play “Pin the Stem on the Pumpkin”, “Find Differences in These Two Pictures”, and dance! But before we turned out the lights, we filled our plates with sausage and crackers, apple slices, fruit-cheese-brownie kabobs, candy corn, and popcorn!  See?  Fabulous parties happen when there is collaboration!

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And no Halloween season would be complete without JibJabs!  We love watching them, and the students love starring in them.

Monster Mash

Monster Rap

Funky Ghost

I Will Survive


‘Multi-‘ or ‘Poly-‘?

Friday was one of those days when we were all needing to get our hands on some science!  I purchased some supplies from Steve Spangler Science and the students had an introduction to polymers.  Of course the first thing I did was to write the word <polymer> on the board.  No one had ever heard that word before, but right away they wondered if it was related to <polygon>, <polyester>, and <polyhedron> because those were words that they HAD heard before.  I wrote those to the side.  It was obvious that the small collection of words all had <poly> in common, but no one was sure what it meant.


Next I wrote the words <multisyllable> and <polysyllable> on the board.  I said that these two words meant the same thing.  Since we had recently talked about multicellular and unicellular in science, the students knew that <multi-> had a denotation of “many or much”.  They were able to tell me that a word that was multisyllabic was a word with more than one syllable, and that a polysyllabic word would also be a word with more than one syllable.  Then I shared that I am currently taking a LEXinar with Gina Cooke and that during the last session she spoke about these two words.  Even though multisyllable is used quite commonly, Gina said that she preferred to use polysyllable.  And here’s why.

I pointed out the medial <y> in <syllable> and wondered if anyone remembered the probable origin of words with a medial <y>.  No one did.  Then I said, “Remember when we looked at <gymnasium>?”  Almost immediately, there was laughter and several said, “Greek!”  (The laughter had to do with the Etymonline entry of <gymnasium>.  I won’t spoil it for you.  Go find out for yourself!)  Next I pointed out that <poly-> was also of Greek origin.  When we can put two morphemes together that are each from Greek, the whole word has Greek ancestry.  If we use <multi-> with <syllable>, we are using a Latin stem with a Greek stem.  That is called a hybrid.  It still works as a word, and people understand what that is, but it’s like this — once you know the origins of morphemes, you are more likely to want to see them paired with morphemes of the same origin.  That is why Gina prefers <polysyllable> over <multisyllable>.  The students understood and accepted that logic.

Then I wrote the words <multicellular> and <unicellular> on the board.  I underlined <multi-> and <uni-> in each word.  I posed this question:  If the stems <multi-> and <uni-> are from Latin, what language do you suppose <cell> is from?  They guessed Latin.

I asked, “What would happen if we paired <poly-> with <cellular>?
Luke said, “We’d have a hybrid word.”
“Would we all understand what it meant?”

I wrote <monocle> on the board and underlined <mon->.  At least a few students in each class knew that a monocle was a single lens used to see.  I pointed out that <mon-> was the opposite of <poly-> and was also from Greek.

I asked, “What would happen if we paired the stem <mono-> with the stem <cellular>?
Brynn said, “We’d have a hybrid.”
“Would we all understand what it meant?
“Now that we know that the stems <multi-> and <uni-> are from Latin, and the stems <poly-> and <mono-> are from Greek, perhaps we will be more interested in pairing them up with a stem of the same origin.

Then, without prompting, Carter raised his hand and said, “I’m thinking about <universe>.  Is the <verse> part from Latin then?”
“What we now know about the stem <uni-> certainly makes it seem likely.  Is there a way to find out for sure?”
“Carter replied, “Etymonline!  Can I go look now?”

It was time to go back to where we started.  The students could now tell me that a polygon could have many angles (from Greek gonos).  Surprisingly, one student even knew that a polyhedron was a solid shape with many faces (from Greek hedra)!  I explained that polyester is a synthetic textile made from many polymers.  So what was a <polymer>?

They knew that <poly-> had a denotation of “many” and I added that <mer> From Greek meros had a denotation of “parts”.  We were going to look at a thing with many parts.  In this case the parts are called molecules and they link together under certain conditions as a long chain.  The powder we had mixed in the warm water would create such a condition.  When I squirted the blue liquid into the bowl at each table, the molecules in the liquid would instantly form long chains known as polymers.

After the students had a chance to play with their worms and discover that the outside felt more like a balloon skin and the inside was liquid and watery, there was yet another interesting word to talk about.

The worms were a dark blue until I came around and put hot water in the bowls.  When the students dipped the worms into the hot water, they faded to an almost white color.  I directed their attention to the board once more and told them that the worm goo was made with a thermochromic dye.  It felt so good for the students to come across an unfamiliar word, and yet to be able to say without hesitation that its meaning had something to do with heat!  One of the boys enthusiastically remarked, “The hot water triggered a color change!”

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On Monday I intend to revisit the word <thermochromic>.  I’d like to talk more about the stem <chromic> and then do a simple activity with chromatography.  We’ll use markers to draw on coffee filters, and then dip one end in water and watch the marker separate into a range of colors.  The most surprising for me is always the range of colors in black marker (not Sharpie).  We’ve been encountering the base <graph> quite a bit, and this will be just one more opportunity to see it in another word.  I will start by asking for word sum hypotheses for <thermochromic>, <chromatography>, and no doubt <monochromatic>.  I know they will enjoy this!


When A Quick Review Turns Into Something Grand

Yesterday I gave the students a piece of paper that was divided into 10 areas.  In each space I had written one of the following bases:


I had them start in the top left space.  I told them they had 60 seconds to:

  1.  Write the base as a compound word with <sphere> as its second base.
  2.   Quickly draw something that came to mind when thinking of the base’s denotation.
  3.   Write at least one other word that shared the base.

They panicked about the 60 seconds at first, but when the 60 seconds were over, they realized it was plenty of time to do what was asked.  I chose 60 seconds so that they would draw the first thing that popped into their head.  I did not want them to think too hard about the perfect thing to draw.  I had them draw because many students will be able to remember the image of the denotation more quickly than the denotation by itself.

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After we finished the tenth base, it was time to review and share.  Volunteers read aloud each compound word, pausing slightly between morphemes. It was so obvious that they understood that all of these words shared a structure.  Students who would have balked at spelling these words several weeks ago, now confidently spelled them.  Their understanding of morphemes and the meanings they contribute to a finished word has been growing!

When I asked for the words they thought of that shared the first base, things got interesting!  The white board quickly filled up.  I had to start making a list of words that I wasn’t familiar with.  “After all,” I said to my students, “just because I haven’t heard the word doesn’t mean it isn’t in use somewhere!”  The thing is, all of the words they suggested looked and sounded convincing.  In other words, structurally they all worked!

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I am thrilled that these students could put together such an interesting collection so quickly!  I am also thrilled that they are playing with what they understand about the structure of words!  But I also know that structure is only half of it.  A word’s meaning is always echoing, even if faintly, the denotation of the base.  If the word is structurally sound and if the denotation of the base/bases is represented in the definition, then we have to see how the word is used by people.  Ultimately, that will decide how productive the word is.

For example, one of the words suggested by a student was <lithotrope>.  Structurally it is sound.  Its word sum or algorithm is <lith> + <o> + <trope>.  But what does it mean?  The student who offered it quite confidently said it was a turning rock.  “You know, the earth!”

I replied, “I love it!  I have no idea whether that is a word we’ll find anywhere else or not, but I will look for it!”  I put it on my list to verify.  I was pretty sure my student invented it, but I was open to whatever I would find.  Some other words I had on my list were mesographic, mesothermal, geolithic, and geotherapy.

At this point it would be good to mention the TED video I showed my students last week.  Erin McKean is a lexicographer.  She writes dictionaries.  In this video she encourages her viewers to make up new words and she suggests several ways to do just that.  As you might guess, my students were ready to invent new words, and between yesterday and today they did just that without really planning to!  They were delighted!

Today I was prepared to talk about the words on my list plus quite a few of the other words that had been on the board yesterday.

When I first heard it, I wondered if it wasn’t some sort of mud bath for humans.  Well, I did find it used in that way, but I also found that it could refer to humans correcting a situation within an environment.  Geotherapy is the process of remineralizing the soil in an ecosystem that has suffered a loss.  It is definitely an established word.

While this one sounds impressive as a science word, I could find no evidence of it being currently used, and when different groups of students were asked what it might mean, there was only a shrugging of shoulders and the words, “Earth rock?”  We decided it was not currently in use, and we weren’t sure that it had a place in our science conversations.

Mesothermal refers to the climate in temperate zones where it is moderately hot and not cold enough for snow to stick to the ground.  We all smiled as we recognized how the denotation of each base gave us a clue to what this word meant!

Another impressive sounding word with an understandable structure, but without a recognized use according to our dictionaries and Google!  The students couldn’t decide precisely how this word would be used, so we appreciated it, and moved on.

Although we could not find this word in use anywhere, it was one of our favorites.  When I asked students in my other classes if they thought we could refer to the earth as a lithotrope, they paused to think about it, smiled and said, “Sure!  Cool!”

When we googled images of the hydrangea, students recognized this flower.  It can be white, blue, pink, or even purple.  But what is its connection to water?  Why the <hydr> spelling?  At Etymonline we see that the word <hydrangea> means “water vessel” or “water capsule”.  It is so named because the seed pod is cup-shaped!  Such an interesting detail!

We had been talking about this word on and off for a week, but I still wasn’t sure the students understood how it involved water.  We watched the following video which really helped.  We imagined the syringes with the colored water as they would look on a large machine, covered in metal and moving specific parts.

Such is a classroom where learning orthography is a way of learning about the world.  What I thought would be a quick 15 minute review of the Greek bases we have been looking at, turned into something more, something fascinating, something satisfying!










Involve Me and I’ll Understand…


There’s a quote attributed to the Chinese Confucian philosopher, Xun Kuang that goes, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”  It’s a quote that I think of often as an educator.  What does it look like “to involve students” so that they understand?  It seems obvious to me that if I want them to understand the steps of experimenting or engineering that they need to actually experiment or engineer something on their own.  That is why I offer a Science Fair in the spring and several engineering projects throughout the year.   But it doesn’t seem so obvious to me when it comes to subjects that are not typically taught as a science.  When we observe the emphemeral pond out back or sample the macroinvertebrates in the creek, the students are physically involved.  They are out of their seats and using all of their senses.  How do you recreate that total involvement for subjects like writing, grammar, and orthography?  Below are a few things we’ve done so far this year.

As an introductory activity to the general topic of writing, I involved my students in an experience that would help them see just how similar writing is to sculpting.  Both demand creative ideas and persistence.  That is where we began.  I gave each student a small can of Play-Doh.  I asked them to just pull, mash, break, and squeeze.  I wanted them to get used to the material they would be using.  I then compared it to the materials of a writer – words, pen, paper, thesaurus, dictionary.  Then I gave them a task.  They were to create a pencil holder.  Having this focus helped them have a goal in mind as they worked.  In writing, this would be the main idea of the piece of writing.  What do you want your reader to know?  How do you want them to feel?

As I looked around and saw a variety of shapes ready to hold pencils, I asked everyone to smoosh their design.  Completely mash it up!  “That was just your first draft,” I told them.  “Maybe you want to try some other way to approach it this time.”  Again they flattened, rolled, and sculpted until they had something that they liked.  Something that would work.  That’s when I told them to smoosh it again!

This time they really moaned.  “It’s fine.  That was your second draft.  Start again.  Show yourself that you have even more ideas in that creator of yours!”  As they worked I continued to talk about how this was similar to writing.  I shared with them my personal writing process.  I write.  Then I reread and change some things.  Then I start all over again with a whole different approach.  I write.  I read.  I change.  I write.  I read. I change.  I do this until I am satisfied my writing says what I want it to say and in the way I want it said!

As I asked them to begin their fourth and final pencil holder, I told them they could choose to create something completely different, go back to a design they loved, or combine one or more of their previous ideas.  The whole point here was that the creative part of us has lots of ideas.  When it comes to writing, it’s no different.  “Let your creator drive you in the beginning writing stages and don’t ask your editor to come out until the final stages of your writing!”

When they were ready for their first edit, I asked them to get feedback from one other person.  Perhaps they would make a change, perhaps they would not.  I asked them to look at the pencil holder from many angles.  I told them this was like revising writing.  Making sure what feels clear to you as the writer is also clear to your reader.  Then we were ready for final editing.  In writing that would mean checking spelling, punctuation use, paragraphing, and other writing conventions.  In the art of pencil holders, it meant adding a small amount of one other color for some finishing touches.

Since then we have played with writing ideas.  We haven’t finished anything, but we are getting familiar with the materials a writer uses.  We have tried some story starters and a few were ignited enough to take home their notebooks to write more.  We are trusting that our creator is indeed full of ideas and we are enjoying being pleasantly surprised at ourselves!

Orthography and Science…..
In my last post I described how I involved the students during orthography by asking them to create posters that illustrated the structure of a specific science word.  There were only two in a group, so in order to keep the project moving forward, each needed to contribute!  The students wrote out the word and then wrote it again as a word sum or algorithm.  They researched the word to find the denotation of each base (all words were compounds).  Next they found words that shared the first base in their words.  So, for instance, the group that investigated <thermosphere> shared a list of words that included:


As you can imagine, looking at these words and discussing their relationship to their shared base <therm> which has a denotation of “heat” is a great way to understand not only <thermosphere> and this specific list of words, but also of words they may encounter in their future that have <therm> as part of their morphological structure!

But as wonderful as that process is, I realized this week that for many of my students brand new to the idea of a bound base, morphemes such as <bi>, <ge>, <atm>, and <hydr> seem foreign and totally unfamiliar.  They are so used to working with lists of words that are unrelated to each other, that they don’t expect words to be related to each other (unless the examples are walk, walks, walked, etc.)    It is extremely difficult for them to see <atm> and not think of the ATM machine near the bank.  So I needed to go back to the idea of involving them in yet another way in order to make <geosphere>, <atmosphere>, <hydrosphere>, and <biosphere> memorable.

This time I thought of using their bodies and their voices paired up with good old fashioned repetition and rhythm.  I worked the denotations of <bi>, <ge>, <atm>, and <hydr> into what they chanted as a class.

As we continue our discussions and discoveries about the bases we are encountering in these science words, we are also noting how often we see the bases <graph>, <meter>, and <loge> used with them.  That in itself has led to connections between the words biology, geology, astrology, zoology, and hydrology, biography, geography, lithography, and thermography, thermometer, atmometer, geometry, and hydrometer.

At least once a week I overhear someone say, “Mind blown!”  The first time I heard it I was delighted.   The fact that it has become frequent gives me even more satisfaction.  They are understanding like never before!  With some patience (you can’t push the river), these students will discover for themselves the fascinating stories that await them when they look closer at words!  They will know for themselves that words have structures that are reliable, and that English spelling makes more sense than the majority of its speakers realize!

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”  I know I teach with a combination of all three.  I tell, I show, and I involve.  And I keep trying to get the balance right — which means load heavily on the “involve me” end!





“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.