Leaving Plans for the Sub

I remember when I first started incorporating orthography into my lessons.  I was kind of panicky about having to be absent and needing to leave plans.  How could I create a worthy activity, and then give the substitute teacher enough background information to lead it?  Would opportunities for rich discussion go unnoticed by a teacher without real understanding of English spelling?  The nagging answer to that question was, “Of course they would.”  And because I couldn’t stand the thought of those teachable moments dissipating without notice, I left plans for other subjects, but not for orthography.

It didn’t take long before I felt guilty about that.  I mean, studying orthography has become the most important subject I teach!  Surely there were some activities I could put together that would keep my students thinking about words with or without me.  Over the years I have repeated several of the activities that I found worked well.   Just as importantly, I have learned how to set my lessons up for the substitute.  I include notes on what to say as the activity is introduced and also on what to expect from the students.  Recently I was absent for three days in a row.  I thought I’d share the activities I planned for those absences along with my reflections of the student work (which always results in ideas of what to do next).

Being gone for three days is unusual for me.  So what to leave for the students to do?  I wanted to vary the activities so that they weren’t doing the exact same things each day, yet I wanted to reinforce the idea of a word’s morphemic structure.

DAY ONE

10:05-10:35  Orthography

Write the word <make> on the board.  Have students get a piece of lined paper from the shelf near the door.  They are to put their name in the upper right corner of the paper. They are to write the word <make> on the top line of their paper.  Then they are to write the words you read aloud as word sums. We have done this several times, so they know what to do. Remind them they are to write synthetic word sums for each word you read.  Ask someone to explain to you what a synthetic word sum is. Ask them to skip a line on their paper between each word sum. Here are the words to read. Use them in a sentence if you can think of one.

maker
making
remake
makeup
filmmaker
troublemaker
makeover

Next, ask someone to collect the papers.  As they are being collected, ask for volunteers to write the word sums for each word on the board. Here is what the word sums should look like (although please don’t  correct anyone as they are writing them up):

make/ + er → maker

make/ + ing → making

re + make → remake

make + up → makeup

film + maker → filmmaker

trouble + maker → troublemaker

make + over → makeover

Once all the word sums are on the board, ask the class if they question anything that’s on the board.  If there are questions, hear them out and ask what others think of the point being raised. Once everyone is in agreement over the word sums,  ask for  volunteers to read each word sum.  They should be read as follows:

“M-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as m-a-k (replace the e)  e-r.” Ask the student reading the word sum why the final non-syllabic <e> is replaced.  I am hoping they say something like, “it is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“M-a-k-e plus i-n-g is rewritten as m-a-k (replace the e) i-n-g.” Ask the student why the final non-syllabic <e> is replaced.  I am hoping they say something like, “it is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“R-e plus m-a-k-e is rewritten as remake”.   Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e>.  I am hoping they say, “we are not adding a suffix”.

“M-a-k-e plus u-p is rewritten as m-a-k-e-u-p”.  Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e>.  I am hoping they say, “we are not adding a suffix. We are adding another base and making a compound word.  We only apply suffixing conventions when we are adding suffixes”.

“F-i-l-m plus m-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as f-i-l-m-m-a-k-e-r”.  Ask why we replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>. I am hoping they say, “because the e is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“T-r-o-u-b-l-e plus m-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as t-r-o-u-b-l-e-m-a-k-e-r”.  Ask why we replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>. I am hoping they say, “because the e is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“M-a-k-e plus o-v-e-r is rewritten as m-a-k-e-o-v-e-r”.  Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>.  I am hoping they say, “because we are not adding a suffix. We are adding another base and making a compound word, so the suffixing conventions can’t be applied”.

Save the stack of papers that was collected so I can look them over.

This is an activity I do fairly often with my classes.  I get some valuable information from the student work, such as whether or not students recognize certain suffixes and/or suffixing conventions.  Here are a few examples of what the student papers looked like.

Looking at this first sheet, I realized we would need to address  the random capitalization of <maker> and <making>.  I notice each year that students come in capitalizing certain letters whether or not it is warranted.  The next thing I notice is that although this student understands that the single final non-syllabic <e> in the word <make> can be replaced when followed by a vowel suffix, they are not recognizing that <up> is not a suffix here.  It is another base element and this word is a compound word.  This student did the same thing with the word sum <make + over>.  The suffixing conventions apply when a suffix is joined to a base, when a suffix is joined to another suffix, and sometimes when a connecting vowel is joined to a base.

Looking at this sheet, I see that this student is not writing out a full word sum for each word.  I will need to explain again how writing word sums will help them as spellers.  It will get them in the habit of thinking of words as elements that join to form a word, and that the word’s specific meaning is represented by the sense and meaning of the specific combination of elements.

Another thing to note is the unfamiliarity of the word <filmmaker>.  We will need to talk about what a filmmaker is (in case the substitute did not catch this or address it).  One last thing I see here is the word sum for <troublemaker>.  I’m pleased that this student recognizes that in some words, <-le> is a suffix.  Some examples are <sparkle>, <single> (from Latin singulus “one, individual” – not related to Old English singan “to chant, tell in song”), and <nestle>.  We’ll have to look at <trouble> together to find out if this is one of those.  Better yet, perhaps I can send each student (or each two students) on an investigation of a word with a final <le> spelling.  Then we could compile our findings and see what we notice.  Is it always a suffix?  Is it sometimes a suffix?  Is it rarely a suffix?

Looking at this paper I’m curious about the shifting spelling of the base element we are focusing on here – <make>.  This student is not consistently recognizing the spelling of the base as <make>.  This seems to happen when a student has learned the spelling of a word like <making>, but never really understood its structure.

 

DAY TWO

10:05-10:35  Orthography

Arrange the students in groups of two.  Make sure you have one copy of the matrix sheet for each pair of students.  They are to work together to list word sums for words that could be made using the matrix.  I’ve included (for you) the list I used when I created the matrix. Put the example word on the board and ask a student to explain it.  (I am unable to put the slash through the final <e> in the word sum when typing, so it appears behind it. It should go through the <e> to show I am replacing that <e> with a vowel suffix.  Most students can explain this to you.)

Have someone read aloud the directions, and then please ask if there are any questions about those directions.  After that, they may begin. I’d like these turned in before they go to the next class.  Save the stack of papers that was collected so I can look them over.

Here is the matrix sheet the students used:

Here is a matrix for the bound base <mote>.  Remember that we call this kind of a base a bound base because it isn’t a word by itself.  It is ALWAYS bound to another element (a suffix or a prefix or another base). I’d like to see how many words you and your partner can recognize and write word sums for.  Make sure your word sum looks like the example below:

mote/ + ive/ + ate →  motivate

  1. Make your list on lined paper.  
  2. Put both your name and your partner’s name on the top.
  3. Skip every other line. Take turns writing the word sums.
  4. Write neatly so I can read it easily.
  5. Once you are finished, read through your list together.  Make sure you could use each word in a sentence.  If you aren’t sure what the word has to do with “move”, look the word up in a dictionary.
  6. Turn your sheet in to the teacher.

I wanted the students to work in partners because we had not done this particular activity before and I thought that two sets of eyes would keep the activity going.  The substitute teacher said that she let the students in the second group (I teach three groups of 5th graders each day) know the largest number of words found by the first group.  Then she did the same for the third group.  The slight bit of competition kept students focused.  Here are a few of the student papers:

What I learned from this paper is that the students understand the suffixing convention of replacing the single, final non-syllabic <e> when the suffix is being added to a base element, but don’t realize that the same convention is applied between two suffixes as well.  I notice this in the word sum for <motivating>.

Something else that is interesting to note is the word <demotive>.  When the students create a word like this, I love to point out its structure.  We can make sense of this word’s structure, but can we make sense of its meaning?  So next I ask them to use it in a sentence.  If they can use it in such a way that we all understand what it means, then we call it a word.  We do this whether or not the word is listed in a dictionary.  These become our two criteria for whether or not we can call something a word.  Does it have a structure that we can identify through looking at its morphological relatives?  Can we use it in a way that other people understand what it means?

With the word <motorcyclist>, I need to reinforce the idea that <-ist> is an agent suffix.  I’ve mentioned it before, but there is so much new information that I’ve presented since the beginning of the year that much of it needs to be repeated!  It indicates that this noun refers to a person who is driving a motorcycle.  We might then brainstorm some other words with this same agent suffix (chemist, scientist, artist, cellist, pianist, etc.).

On a day that I am directing their attention to <-ist>, I might also direct their attention to <-er> which can also be an agent suffix.  After we have brainstormed a list of words with an <-ist> suffix, we will brainstorm a list of words with an <-er> suffix.  Then we might sort those into lists of words that refer to a person and words that do not.  Examples of words with the agent suffix <-er> are teacher, baker, driver, potter, gardener, and painter.  Examples of words with an <-er> suffix that are not referring to a person are bigger, wiser, tower, paper, water, and outer.  We might take the second list and divide the words up further by thinking about which of those words are used when comparing one thing to another and which just name things.

Look at what this group did!  They knew there was a meaning connection between automotive and automobile, so they tried to make automobile fit this matrix!  Interesting!  This tells me that some of my students are still unclear about letters that we replace.  We only replace single, final non-syllabic <e>’s.  We don’t replace consonants!  They are starting to see that our language is orderly and can make sense, but there are still lots of moments when they fall back into crossing off and adding letters willy-nilly because spelling has always felt that way to them.

The word right below automobile is also interesting.  The students saw the single final non-syllabic <e> on the base and thought that just adding an <r> would work.  They didn’t recognize that this word actually took an <-or> suffix.  They also did not recognize that there is an <-er> suffix, but not an <r> suffix.  This distinction could be made clearer if we spent some time brainstorming words with an <-or> suffix versus words with an <-er> suffix.  In the past when I’ve looked at these suffixes with my students, we’ve noticed that many bases that can take an <-or> suffix also can take an <-ion> suffix.  Examples are motor/motion, equator/equation, tractor/ traction, reactor/reaction, and director/direction.  An activity like that can be done as a whole class if everyone is looking at Word Searcher and thinking about the words listed that have an <-or> suffix.  How many of them might take an <-ion> suffix, and how many can’t?

The substitute teacher on this day was not the same one as the day before.  This one wasn’t any more familiar with orthography than the first one.  Even so, she personally enjoyed the activity.  I later found a list of words she made by using the elements on the matrix.  She had 39 words on her list!  I especially loved the note she left me:

Looks like my lesson made an impression on her as well as my students!

DAY THREE

Have the students get out their orthography notebooks.  They have the same list you see below in their notebooks.  We have been exploring the list below for a while now.  We began reviewing these bound bases last week.  Pair the students up and tell them they have 5 minutes to quiz each other about what the bound bases mean.  The list is below:
<bi> –  life
<ge> –  earth
<therm> – heat
<trope> – turn
<hydr> – water
<atm> – vapor steam
<strat> – layering, spreading
<mes> –  middle
<cosm> – universe, order
<lith> –  stone, rock
After they have practiced, lead a review game.  You say either a base or it’s definition and each group writes down the base AND it’s definition.  Tell them to do this quietly so you can see which group has the most correct answers at the end.  When checking to see who had the most correct answers, announce that the base MUST be spelled right, but no point will be lost if the definitions are misspelled.
Next have each person grab a sheet of lined paper, and tell them to write their name in the upper right corner.  Then read the following words and tell them to write a word sum for each.   Remind them that every word has an <o> connecting vowel and the base <sphere>.   I’ve put the word sum in parentheses below:
1.  cosmosphere   (cosm + o + sphere)
2.  lithosphere   (lith + o + sphere)
3.  geosphere   (ge + o + sphere)
4.  atmosphere  (atm + o + sphere)
5.  biosphere  (bi + o + sphere)
6.  thermosphere  (therm + o + sphere)
7.  stratosphere  (strat + o + sphere)
8.  hydrosphere  (hydr+ o + sphere)
9.  troposphere  (trope + o + sphere)
10.  mesosphere  (mes + o + sphere)
Collect so I can see where everyone is at with this.
Here are some of the student sheets that were turned in:
In the above list you can see another instance of random capitalization with geosphere.  I addressed that the first day I was back.  Another thing I addressed was the single, final non-syllabic <e> on <trope + o + sphere –> troposphere>.  I explained that the crossing out of the <e> happens when we are considering whether or not there are suffixing conventions that apply to this particular joining of elements.  So in a finished word sum, the single, final non-syllabic <e> would have a slash through it to show that it will be replaced by the <o> connecting vowel that follows it and will not appear in the finished spelling of the word.  When the finished word is being written, the student is thinking, “t-r-o-p-replace the <e>-o-s-p-h-e-r-e.
Another aspect of the <trope> base to discuss was the reason for the single, final non-syllabic <e> in the first place.  I began by reminding the students that:
– the bound base <cosm> was from Greek cosmos
– the bound base <atm> was from Greek atmos
– the free base <trope> was from Greek tropos
“When we were identifying the stem that has become a modern English base element, we removed the Greek suffix <-os>.  Why did I put an <e> on <trope>, but not on <atm> or <cosm>?”  There was a flurry of hands waving in the air and some hypotheses about pronunciation, but no one understood the reason.  So I said, “Let’s try to understand why that <e> is there by looking at two words that are more familiar to you.  I wrote <hope> and <hop> on the board.  “One of these has a single, final non-syllabic <e> and one does not.  What happens when we add a vowel suffix to each of these?
<hope/ + ed –> hoped>
<hop + ed –> hopped>
“Do you notice that the one with the single, final non-syllabic <e> did not have a double <p> in its final spelling, but the one without the <e> did?  You might say that that final <e> prevented the consonant <p> from being doubled.”  When we looked at the spelling of the related words <tropic> and <tropism>, we noticed that the <p> was not doubled.  If we didn’t place the final <e> on the base element after we removed the Greek suffix <os>, that <p> would double when we added the vowel suffixes <-ic> and <-ism>.
The bottom line is that we added the <e> to the base because the base was monosyllabic and had a final consonant with just one vowel before that consonant.  If we hadn’t, the doubling suffixing convention would have been applied.  The final <e> prevented that from happening.
The third day was part of an ongoing review of this particular list of words.  It began with investigations and continued with presentations of those investigations.  At this point I want to show them that knowing a word’s structure helps them think of the word as a joining of elements (often familiar).  Instead of memorizing this list by reciting the letter order of each over and over, they connect the base to other words that share that base.  Those connections are what make the base and its denotation easier to remember.  Then, of course, the reciting of word sums helps the students remember the spelling of each element in the word.  I discourage my students from pronouncing the elements as if they are completed words.  I ask them to spell out all parts of a word sum.
The following are pictures of another kind of review.  This is called the “Sixty Second Draw”.  I announce one of the words, and the student has sixty seconds to write its word sum, the denotation of the bases, and to draw something that they think of when they think of what that base means.  We did this today to reinforce their understandings of these bases and the shared structure of these words.
As part of our deeper look at the biosphere, we have been learning about food chains, food webs and, of course, photosynthesis.  Today, as we were watching a video called “Energy Transfers in Trophic Levels”, the word <hydrothermal> came up.  It was brilliant to see the recognition of these two bases among the students!  This word was used to describe the vents deep in the ocean that release heat from inside the earth.  Certain bacteria live in and near these vents.  Since there is no light reaching that depth in the ocean, these bacteria make their own food using chemicals.  Instead of doing photosynthesis, they do chemosynthesis!  Faces just lit up when the students saw the connection between these two words.  My face lit up just watching the students.
All three days my students practiced recognizing a word’s structure.  By reviewing their work, I was able to assess which skills and understandings still needed to be reinforced.  I even came up with lesson ideas for the coming weeks!   I had three different substitute teachers stepping in for me, and yet I feel like my students moved forward in their understanding.   Their learning deepened, my awareness of what they know and need to know deepened, and I aroused the curiosity of those teachers who visited my classroom!  What a great welcome back for me!

When Are You Ready Enough?

I get a lot of great comments about my blog, and about how lucky my students must be to be learning so much about English spelling.  I appreciate each and every comment.  It’s great that other teachers, parents, tutors, etc. recognize that the understanding I offer is very different to what they themselves learned when they were in fifth grade.  Instead of seeing spelling as a mindless exercise in rote memorization, my students see it as fascinating because of all the investigating and discovering they now know how to do.  There are stories and explanations embedded in every word, and every word is part of a family, complete with its own family tree!

What isn’t as obvious to my students, but is very obvious to me is how understanding the historical sense and meaning of a word can affect how a person uses that word when writing or understands that word when reading.  Since spell check came out, many people are thinking that teaching spelling is not as necessary as it used to be.  But then again, they are equating learning spelling with mindless memorization of strings of letters.  They have not visited my classroom.

The people who read what I am doing and just know deep inside that this is what should be taught in all classrooms, often accompany their enthusiastic comments with questions.

“I want to begin, but do I know enough?”
“Should I wait until after I take more classes?”
“What other classes do you teach?”
“When did you start?”
“What if the students ask a question, and I don’t know the answer?”
“I’d love to investigate words with my students, but where do I start?”

I get it.  When it comes to trying new things in the classroom, it can be a bit overwhelming.  Especially when there is no scope and sequence to follow.  As teachers, we are used to having step by step teaching guides that set a pace that we can follow.  I have always been one to understand that, and yet, I must admit, the professional in me has always felt a bit claustrophobic when using one.

Back when I began teaching 5th grade, I felt confident that I could effectively teach all subjects except two – grammar and spelling. The materials left behind by the previous teacher just felt ineffective.  The words, “Get out your English book” could quickly drain the color from the faces in front of me. The students weren’t involved enough in thinking about grammar and thinking about spelling.  Everything was “fill in the blank” and “write definitions using the dictionary”.  As a student, I used to find that kind of classwork super boring and usually finished the assignment without thinking about what I was doing or why.  As a teacher, I couldn’t honestly see any long lasting benefit to the work.  I knew I wasn’t really teaching children how the parts of speech they were learning about came together to represent a complete thought.  I knew I wasn’t really teaching children to understand English spelling.  But how could I teach what I, myself, didn’t understand?

That’s why I was thrilled back in 2004 to have had the opportunity to hear Michael Clay Thompson speak.

He changed my grammar teaching life!  His 4Level Sentence Analysis was intriguing to my students and they learned more about grammar than ever before.  MCT made grammar thought provoking, yet understandable.   Over the years, my students and I have done a lot of analysis at the board and had rich discussions about the role words can play depending on their placement and function within a sentence.  Students don’t just fill in a blank with a good guess.  They are able to state how they know that in a specific sentence, a word is a specific part of speech.  What follows is that they understand how the meaning of the sentence is constructed.  Since 2004, MCT has expanded his selection of age level grammar and writing books.  Find a full description and listing of his language arts materials HERE. The following video was taken in February of 2013.  I had already been using MCT’s grammar materials for 8 years, but this gives you an example of the kind of thinking required to analyze the structure of a sentence in this way.  [You might notice that the word ‘our’ as in ‘our wagon’ was incorrectly identified in this video as a pronoun, and that I did not spot the error.  It is the kind of adjective that is a possessive determiner.  It is pointing to the noun ‘wagon’.]

Because I was so impressed with the results I was seeing in my classroom, I also began using some of MCT’s other curriculum materials to enhance what I was required to use for spelling.  I started with his Building Language books and loved that my students began learning Greek and Latin word stems.  I also incorporated vocabulary words from his Caesar’s English 1 book.  Teaching some Latin and Greek stems gave my classroom learning experience a big boost!   I was satisfied with what I was doing … until I came across Dan Allen’s blog in late 2012.

In 2012 I decided to start a classroom blog, and went in search of other upper elementary classrooms to connect with.  When I happened upon Dan’s blog, I was fascinated.  He took what I was teaching my students using MCT’s Greek and Latin stems materials to a whole new level.   After a weekend spent reading every post on Dan Allen’s blog, I was raring to do what he was doing.  I just knew THIS was what I needed to do.  THIS was what would make a difference in the lives of my students.  Dan was digging into words and letting his students ask really deep, rich questions about spelling.  He was teaching his students that spelling is NOT just a random collection of letters, and that it is NOT meant to represent the pronunciation of a word.  By Sunday afternoon I had contacted Dan, and he put me in touch with Real Spelling.   Seventeen years into my teaching career, I finally began learning and teaching how English spelling works!

I’ve never been shy about trying something new in my classroom. I have always kept my eyes open for ways to make the learning memorable and at the same time for my students to enjoy having learned.  Studying English spelling by treating it as a science would be no different.  But in such a big way it was.  This wasn’t just a new and clever presentation of the same old thing.  It wasn’t a program, and it didn’t come in a shiny box with 1001 accessory books/assessments/teacher guides.  It didn’t even have a hefty price tag!  This was inquiry. This was looking at spelling with a scientific methodology.  My students and I could start working the minute we assembled the needed materials:  our questions, pen and paper to record our thinking, and dictionaries (regular and etymological).  Whoa!  I couldn’t think of any good reason not to jump right in!

So here I was, halfway through the school year, knocking on my principal’s door.  “Would it be okay if I abandoned our spelling books and tried something different for the second half of this year?”  I went on to explain what I understood at that time about Structured Word Inquiry, or as we were also calling it, Scientific Word Investigation.  Thankfully, my principal was open to the idea, and I was given permission to see if this way of learning about words could be as powerful in my classroom as it appeared to be in Dan Allen’s.

My next step was to write a letter to the parents of my students to explain what I was doing and why there would no longer be a spelling list or a spelling test.  Then, of course, I needed to pitch this idea to my students.  Quite surprisingly, not all were in favor of doing away with a spelling test.  But as you might guess, those who hated memorizing spelling lists were delighted.  And so we jumped in.  I reread Dan’s posts and also read Ann Whiting’s blog posts.  She was teaching a 7th grade Humanities class in Kuala Lampur and wrote inspiring blog posts.  (Ann is no longer teaching, but you can read her wonderful wonderful posts HERE and HERE).  I became part of an email group in which questions were shared and discussions ensued.  At that point, I mostly listened and learned.  I adapted activities from both blogs to use in my classroom.  And everyday we spent time investigating and understanding words like we never had before!  It was wonderful.

But was I prepared?  Was I knowledgeable enough?  No.  I really wasn’t.  But I didn’t pretend I was either.  My students knew I didn’t have answers to their questions.  I was very clear about that. I told them that I would be learning WITH them.  And that was the truth.  We asked questions of Real Spelling a lot in those first months.  I was also in contact with Ann Whiting and Dan Allen, who were both helpful and made me feel comfortable about asking so many questions.  To this day, that group of students holds a very special place in my heart because of the extraordinary shared learning we experienced.  Their enthusiasm and level of questioning played off of my own and our classroom became a place where thoughtful questions came to roost.  Here are two short  videos of those students in the midst of investigations.

By May, my students and I sat down to reflect on the learning.  It was unanimously stated that I should continue to study orthography with my next fifth grade group in the fall.  I felt the same way.  The students felt as if they had learned to spell without really consciously thinking about it.  In focusing on the elements in their word sums, and then how to apply suffixing conventions, they had indeed become more accurate in their spelling!  Besides spelling, they also felt more of a connection to words. After having investigated and discovered the stories of so many words, the students understood those words in a way that a dictionary definition just couldn’t match .  They had zeroed in on the denotations of base elements and the senses that affixes contribute to words.  They could compare what they knew a word to be revealing about its meaning to what a dictionary said about the word’s current usage.  So many rich discussions!

To reinforce the learning that we were doing, the students brainstormed words that might fit on a matrix for <star>.  I printed the matrix out, and scheduled time in each of the three second grade classrooms in our building to teach those students about word sums.  In this way, each of my students was paired with a second grade student and then taught them about writing word sums (and also the suffixing convention that deals with doubling).  At the time, I had a self-contained classroom (one group of students all day), so each of my students had three opportunities to teach word sums to second grade students.  My students found out that, “The best way to know if you know something is to teach it to someone else,” is a true statement!

When school was out for the summer, I needed to seriously consider what training/classes I would seek.  The first on my list was a 3 day training on Wolfe Island with Dr. Peter Bowers.  Having spent most of my life thinking there wasn’t anything to understand about English spelling, I found this training exhilarating!  Pete had spent ten years as a classroom teacher, so I knew he understood a teacher’s perspective.  His goal was to open our eyes to what was true about our language and contrast that with what we have been taught that could easily be falsified.  He gave us lots of opportunities to dig in and learn in the same way our students would. I met some great people who, like me, were excited to be finally understanding things about English spelling.  Many of those friendships have flourished since then, since we email or see each other in classes (through Zoom) once in a while.  These days Pete Bowers travels a lot and presents to teachers around the world.  If you are wondering whether he’s presenting near you, read more HERE.

In the years since, I have taken classes when I could, started a collection of reference books so I could research on my own, and continued to write blog posts like this one to share some of what happens with my students and some of what I notice on my own.  When posting here and when teaching orthography to my students each year, I am always cognizant and appreciative of how my story with Structured Word Inquiry began.  It was one teacher sharing and then connecting with another.  My regular posts on this blog have been my attempt to pay it forward.  I realize that not all who read my blog are classroom teachers, but if you are in any way giving a child truth about English spelling in place of gimmicky tricks that are designed to help a person remember what does not make sense, you are a teacher.

So if you know in your heart that Structured Word Inquiry will help a child in your life, think carefully about how long you intend to withhold that information – that adventure of inquiry.  Are you one who is most comfortable waiting for the understanding to gel in your own head before sitting down with a child?  Are you one who is most comfortable jumping in and asking questions as you go?  You have to determine when you are ready.  The child you are thinking of is ready already.  Don’t keep them waiting longer than necessary.  Luckily there are some introductory classes that will help you learn the terminology to use and some of the basic understanding needed as you begin.  Here is a list of introductory course offerings available in the SWI community:

Bringing Structured Word Inquiry into the Classroom  –  I teach a four episode (90 minutes each) online class.  Check this out HERE.

Introductory SWI Class  – Lisa Barnett at See the Beauty in Dyslexia offers a three episode (90 minutes each) online class.  Check this out HERE.

Intro to SWI  – Rebecca Loveless offers an online class.  She also offers an ongoing study group opportunity.  Check these out HERE.

An Introduction to Structured Word Inquiry  – Dyslexia Training Institute offers a six week (30-40 hours) class.  Check this out HERE.

I am also adding a link to the joint blog/workshop opportunities (Australia based) of Ann Whiting and Lyn Anderson:  Caught in the Spell of Words.  Check it out HERE.

The important thing to remember here is that you don’t have to have all the answers as you begin.  That being said, you do need to identify what it is you don’t know as you move forward so you can seek the understanding you need.  Do not be afraid of making errors.  Expect to make errors.  Celebrate the day you spot them and  replace them with a deeper understanding and new questions.  Investigate and present your findings to others.  Then have a dialogue about what you found.  The most wonderful learning happens when my students present their findings.  We all move our chairs so that we are close to the board and the presenters.  Then when the presentation is over, the questions, comments, dialogue and learning begins.

I am leaving you with this great quote that has inspired me through moments of self doubt:

 

Getting Going on Grammar

The beginning of the school year is an exciting time.  I always have big plans of what to make sure I get started on right away.  And it’s important to make those first week activities and explorations interesting.  I want my students to leave my classroom wondering what we will be doing the next day.  I want them to anticipate that whatever it is, it will be interesting and thought provoking which often makes it fun!

For me, one of the things I start in the first week is grammar.  There is so much to review and so much to introduce.  The sooner I get started, the sooner we can get to putting the pieces together and making sense of how it works in a sentence!

When I ask my students what they understand about nouns, they tell me that a noun is a person, place, thing or idea.  They know that a noun can be singular or plural, and common or proper.  Although by the looks on all the faces, not everyone is clear about those categories.  I tell them that a noun can be categorized in many ways.  So on a blank page in their interactive grammar books we identify eight of them.  I ask them to leave room for a title and then to divide the page into eight equal (roughly) sized areas.  The heading of the page will be NOUNS.  I draw something similar on the board and then begin labeling each section.  Once each section is labeled, we brainstorm examples to write in each space.  Here are a few pictures of student pages as we have finished:

These are the categories we focus on, but I mention that there are other ways to categorize nouns as well.  Now that everyone has these eight categories in their book, I take a few minutes to review what each category is with an activity.  I ask the students to find a partner.  Then they are to decide who will be “A” and who will be “B”.  The deal is that person A has 30 seconds to point out, let’s say, singular nouns found in the room to person B.  After 30 seconds, Person B has the responsibility of pointing out, let’s say, plural nouns found in the room to person A.  At this point I pause the activity to see if anyone named a noun that their partner questioned.  If there is, we discuss it.  We keep on in this way, until all eight categories have been addressed.  When we are finished, and the students are back in their chairs, we talk about which categories were difficult to find examples of in our classroom, and which ones were easy.  Everyone agrees that the abstract and non-count nouns were not as easy to spot as the rest of the categories.  So we discuss and try to think of a few more examples of each that we might find in our room (such as happiness, responsibility, fairness, water, and sand).

On the next day we review the eight categories of nouns and then prepare to make a mind map.  Mind maps are a great way to think about what you know about a particular topic and then to put that information onto a single sheet of paper.  Before we begin writing anything down, I ask the students to close their book and help brainstorm what we know to be a fact about nouns.  As each person raises their hand and offers their fact, I ask them to write it on the board.  When I think that the important things have been named, I will then check what has been written on the board and quietly fix any spelling errors.  Now the students are to copy down these facts onto their paper.  I encourage them to leave white space around each fact instead of clumping all of their writing into one spot on the page.  I encourage them to use a bit of color, but I warn them not to color over words or to create patterns that draw the eye away from the information.  Here are a few examples of noun mind maps.

Now it is time to review familiar aspects of pronouns and to introduce new aspects of them.  First we talk about the fact that pronouns often take the place of nouns.  We look at lists of the subject and object pronouns.  We talk about which ones are first person, second person and third person.  We note the difference between the singular and plural forms of these pronouns.  Then we are ready for the next activity. It focuses on memorizing the subject and object pronouns.  I tell them that I want these pronouns to be familiar to them later on when we focus on the parts of the sentence.  For now, we’ll have some fun as we memorize them.

For this activity I randomly split the class into groups of 4-5.  Then I assign each group either the subject pronouns or the object pronouns to memorize.  The fun part is that they can add movements and rhythm if they like.  They have 7 minutes to put something together and to then present to the class.

It is a quick way to get these two important groups of pronouns memorized.  It is also an opportunity to get my students up out of their seats and to laugh together.

Next it is time to think about other types of pronouns.  I have them turn to the blank page in their interactive grammar notebook.  I have them write “6 types of Pronouns” in the center and then split the remaining surrounding area into six roughly equal areas.  I do the same on the board so the students can see what I mean.  I label two of the sections as Subject and Object, and the students fill in those two sections with the appropriate list of pronouns that they just memorized.  I label the rest of the sections as Possessive, Demonstrative, Interrogative, and Reflexive.  As we go, we fill in each section with examples of each.

It isn’t necessary that the students memorize any of the other lists in this group since they now have this great page to refer to when we begin analyzing sentences.  I consider the subject and object pronouns important enough to memorize since they can play such important parts in a sentence.  As the students learn more about the parts of the sentence (subject, predicate, direct object, indirect object and subject complement) they will recognize that subject pronouns can be used as subjects or subject complements and that object pronouns can be used as direct and indirect objects!

The next day it is time for a pronoun mind map.  Once again, I write the word pronoun on the board and ask students to tell me one fact about pronouns.  When we have collected an accurate snapshot of pronouns, I invite the students to put the information on the next blank page in their grammar notebooks as part of our review.

As you can see, the students are bringing out their sense of creativity as they think of ways to arrange the information on the page.  In doing so, they are also nurturing a sense of pride for this notebook.

The next part of speech that I review/introduce is adjectives.  This year I am teaching my students that there are two special kinds of words that fall under the heading of adjectives.  I am speaking of words that modify/describe nouns and words that announce/determine nouns.  I know that there are people who would categorize determiners as a separate part of speech, but I also know that many grammarians think of them as adjectives.  I have found it worthwhile and helpful for my students to understand what a determiner is and where to find it, but I  know that the teachers my students will work with as they make their way through middle school and high school do not identify determiners at all.  They lump them in with adjectives in general.  So in response to that, I am having my students identify determiners as adjectives, but I am explaining that their function is different than that of an adjective that describes/modifies a noun.

Once we have talked about these types of adjectives and practiced a bit by brainstorming short noun phrases that have a determiner, a modifying adjective and a noun, then it is time to look at these parts of speech in a sentence.  In that way we can begin considering the context in which we are using these words.  Some words, such as articles, are always articles no matter which sentence we find them in.  But that is not the case with the majority of words we use.  Once we have talked about the characteristics of each part of speech, it is important to look at specific sentences so we can talk about specific words and their functions within those sentences.

As you will see in the following video, my students rely on their grammar notebooks to be their personal resource book.  They are learning where to find the information that will help them make some decisions about parts of speech and later on, parts of the sentence.  They make choices when they identify parts of speech, but then must also be able to explain their reasoning for those choices.

At this point, I have collected their books just once so I could see where they are at with independently identifying these three parts of speech in a set of four sentences.  I recorded either a 3 (they get it), a 2 (they have some understanding, but need more practice), or a 1 (start over) for the page.  It is not a grade, but rather a point of reference so that when we get to the next set of practice sentences, I can compare and look for improvement.  All scores were either a 2 or a 3.  It’s time to move on to verbs!

 

 

Some Sums Are Worth Practicing!

Today we focused on the importance of a word sum, and how a word sum is to be read. I picked the base element <joy> to work with because I was confident that  the students would be able to brainstorm a list of words that are morphological relatives of <joy>.  A morphological relative shares the spelling of the base and the denotation (is from the same etymological root).

As the students thought of words, I wrote them in a column to the right. When we had a good sized list, I asked if anyone could give me a word sum for one of the words. At this point, I emphasized that the base element was <joy> and could not be made smaller without losing its sense and meaning. I compared writing a word as a word sum to splitting a spelling into syllables. Syllables carry no meaning, but morphemes do. Syllables may or may not help you with pronunciation, but a word sum will always help you understand a word’s meaning. You will find words written as syllables in most dictionaries. There is no internet site or dictionary that lists word sums.  Word sums have to be reasoned out by you!

This last bit is extremely important.  Students are used to finding answers in books or on the internet.  They are used to answer keys with which to check their work.  At first they feel confused by word sum hypotheses.  That happens because they have not been exposed to enough word sums.  With time, they begin to notice patterns and recognizable clues which in turn help them write a more likely initial word sum hypothesis.  Through experience working with word sums, they better understand that all words have structure. They become less nervous in proposing a word sum hypothesis and instead are actually excited at the prospect.  Some of my past 5th grade students have said that proposing word sum hypotheses was one of their favorite parts of orthography!

As the students hypothesized each word as a word sum, I wrote the word sum along with the ‘is rewritten’ arrow to the left of each word. That way I had the full word sum represented for each word.

Next I modeled how I wanted each word sum read. I’ll use the first word as an example: <j..o..y  plus  ful  is rewritten as  j..o..y  (pause)  ful> … joyful.  The natural tendency was to pronounce the elements as if they were words. Changing that tendency was part of what today’s practice was all about.  We don’t pronounce elements until until the word is complete.  Since a word sum is a visual representation of the composing of a word, nothing is ready to be pronounced because the word is not completed.  Everything is spelled out.  I also encourage the students to announce the spelling of the suffixes a bit quicker than they do the spelling of the base elements.  I want them to think of the suffixes that they will be seeing often as recognizable units.  I want them to rattle off, for instance, suffixes such as <-ing>, <-ed>, <-ous>, <-ly>, and <-ic>.  Then when they are in the midst of spelling a word on paper, the spelling of that suffix is in their head and there is less chance of leaving a letter off.

A few other things came up as we looked over this list.  We talked about the difference in spelling between <-ful> the suffix and <full> the free base word.  I introduced the idea of announcing the suffix <-ness> as <n..e..double s>.  It was also an introduction to looking at what each element in a word sum contributed to the overall sense and meaning of the completed word.

I showed them a chart that would be at the board to remind them of the types of elements we might see in a word sum.  I pointed out that bases and affixes are written morphemes.  In the first few weeks of school, we have been talking about the difference between a base that is free and a base that is bound.  The students will be investigating twin bases later in the year.  Since the students (in groups of 2-3) have already begun investigating science words, we have also talked a bit about everything else on this poster.  Each small group is investigating a word similar in structure to <biosphere>.  Each word is compound with <sphere> as its second base.  Each word also has a connecting vowel – in this case an <o> because one or both bases in their compound word are Hellenic (from Greek).

I started at one end of the room, and asked each student to read a word sum and finish by pronouncing the completed word. When we came to the bottom of the list, we started over.  In that way, every child was able to individually read a word sum. In listening to the readings, the process became familiar to all.  This is a practice I will continue doing throughout the year when we collect any list of morphological relatives.  Hearing themselves announce the word sum will help this idea of a word sum become part of what they understand about all words.   When they are writing and asking themselves how to spell <really>, I want them to remember that the base is <real> and they are adding the suffix <ly> to it to form the word <really>.

A few students inadvertently said “equals” instead of “is rewritten as” when they saw the arrow. That was a great opportunity to compare a word sum to a math equation and to point out the use of “sum” in our use of “word sum”.

I also used this opportunity to talk about the difference between a synthetic word sum and an analytic word sum. I pointed to the poster card I now have on my board to remind them of these new terms and what they mean. (Check out the store tab on my blog if you are interested in a set of my cards. 🙂) I explained that the word <synthetic> means to put together and the word <analytic> means to loosen. So a synthetic word sum is the kind of word sum that begins with elements and combines them (puts them together) to form a complete word. An analytic word sum is the kind of word sum that begins with a completed word and loosens it into its elements.

I told my students that my goal is for them to spell a word by its morphemes.  I want to replace the often torturous memorization of “letter letter letter” type sequences with knowing that a word has, for instance, a base <joy>, a suffix <ful>, and another suffix <ly>.  This will not be accomplished by sounding out words, but rather by learning about structure and repeatedly seeing and using some common affixes and bases.

The students enjoyed this activity and asked if we could do it again sometime.  Yes.  We can and will do it many many times!  I promise!

Another wall of confusion comes crashing down!

For the second year in a row, I began the school year by showing my students how their names would be represented in IPA symbols.  The name tags on their desks were IPA representations of their names as well as the name tags on their notebooks.  When they came into my room at Open House (five days before the start of the school year), they were a bit bewildered.  They didn’t know how to find their desk.  I just greeted them with a smile and said that what they were looking at was not a spelling, but rather how pronunciation is represented.  “That is the pronunciation of your name,” I said.

Then I showed them which desk was theirs.  Most smiled and nodded.  A few said nothing, but held perplexed looks on their faces.  The parents who asked about it were very intrigued and jokingly asked if they could come and learn too.

Then in preparation for the first day, I made a large poster that included IPA representations of all 64 fifth grade names.  I hung it on my Smartboard so that my white board (adjacent) was available to write on.  I thought that having that many names in IPA might give the students more opportunity to see certain IPA symbols in many familiar names.  Then we could talk about the graphemes we use to represent those pronunciations.  Here is the large poster:

Even though it was the first day and I usually begin by introducing myself and the subjects I teach, the students were fired up to start with this.  As they came in they looked this poster over and began asking questions.

“Mrs. Steven, I see my name, but that isn’t how I spell it.”
“What language is this?”
“Why do we have to learn this?  It looks hard.”

I explained that these are not alphabet letters, even though some of them look exactly like the letters they are used to.  These are symbols used to represent pronunciations.  They are part of the International Phonetic Association’s system of symbols.  The word ‘International’ is there because these symbols are not just used to represent the pronunciation of English words.  Many languages can use this system.  Some of the symbols might look familiar, but some of them probably don’t.

Then I asked someone to point out a symbol and to say the pronunciation they think it might be representing.  Sam was the first to raise his hand and ask about the symbol that looked like an ‘a’ and an ‘e’ all smooshed together.  I explained that the symbol æ was once a letter in Old English.  It was called ash.  It is pronounced like the <a> in <ash>.  We recognized that pronunciation in Sam, Maddie, Maggie, Samantha, Addison, Travis, Hannah, Calli, Natalie, Danny, and Addy.  Having so many names in IPA was truly helpful.

Next it was Tommy who was curious about the <i> at the end of his name.  I told him that it wasn’t the letter <i> that we use in spelling.  This symbol represents /i/ and that in his name that pronunciation is spelled with the grapheme <y>.  I asked the students to see if that symbol was part of anyone else’s IPA representation.  They named Cally, Maggie, Casey, Cassy, Remi, Misty, Addy, and Danny.  Then we noticed that /i/ wasn’t always represented with the grapheme <y>.  In Remi’s name it was represented with a single <i>, in Casey’s name it was represented by the digraph <ey>, and in Maggie’s name it was the digraph <ie>.

The next to speak up was Scarlet.  She said, “You put a <k> in my name, but it is spelled with a <c>.”  So I explained that while that IPA symbol looks like a <k>, it isn’t.  These symbols are not the alphabet letters we spell with.

“The symbol represents /k/.  Is that how you pronounce the <c> in your name?”
“Yes.”

I wrote the letter <c> on the board.  I asked if anyone could tell me how to pronounce it.  Scarlet immediately said /k/.

“Have you ever seen this letter in a word in which it was not pronounced /k/ but something different?”
Finley raised his hand and said, “What about in city?  There it is /s/.”
“Exactly.  Using a symbol that we recognize as <c> wouldn’t work in IPA, because we wouldn’t know which pronunciation to use.”

Then we spotted the names Cora, Cally, Carter, Frankie, Christian, Cal, Kai, and Casey that all had /k/ in their pronunciation.  I asked about Christian.  “Is it just the <c> or is it the <ch> that is represented by the /k/?”  Someone recognized that <ch> is pronounced /k/ in chemistry too.

Finley pointed out the symbol that looked like a capital ‘i’.  We only found that pronunciation is two other names – Misty and Marissa.

Then someone asked about the weird symbol that was in Christian’s name.  In anticipation, I wrote /tʃ/ on the board and pronounced it.  I wrote the spelling of his name on the board and asked, “Now which letter in the spelling of his name represents that pronunciation?”  Students answered with several guesses, but no one guessed <t> by itself.  So I covered up the <ian> part of the spelling and asked how the letter <t> would be pronounced.  Everyone said /t/.  I asked them to notice how the pronunciation of that <t> changed when it was followed by the <ian>.  We then brainstormed the words creature and mention where the letter <t> is also pronounced /tʃ/.  “I bet you never thought a <t> could represent anything but /t/.  But here is evidence that it can.  As we learn more about spelling and pronunciation, you will learn that the letter <t> represents at least one other pronunciation as well!

When the next group of fifth graders came in (we rotate three groups and spend 90 minutes with each group), I erased the board and started an examination of IPA  with them.   Jacob wondered about the symbol at the beginning of his name.  I wrote and then pronounced /dʒ/ on the board.  Then I spelled his name next to it.  “In your name, what letter represents /dʒ/?”  He answered that it was the <j>.  “Is that the only spelling that can be pronounced that way?”  He quickly answered yes.  “Can anyone think of a word with that pronunciation in it?”  That’s when the name of our village came up – Cambridge.  “In this word, what letter or letters represent /dʒ/?”  Lauren recognized it was the <dge> combination.   (I’m jumping ahead to what happened with the third group of students when someone recognized that their last name had that pronunciation and it was represented by the grapheme <g>!  Look for it in the next picture!)

Next it was time to look at the two symbols (functioning as one) with a pronunciation of /oʊ/ and represented as the letter <o> in the name Dakota.  The students wondered why there were two symbols for this one pronunciation, so I asked everyone to pronounce it.  Then I said, “Get ready to pronounce the letter <o>.  Freeze.  Notice the position of your mouth.  Now pronounce it.  As I heard them finishing, I asked them to freeze again and notice that their mouth was not in exactly the same position.   We did this a few more times so that everyone could feel that our mouth glides to a new position as we pronounce the letter <o>.  This is called a vowel glide.  Now you can see why the two IPA symbols are used as one to represent the pronunciation of this letter.  We looked around to see if other names had this pronunciation.  We found Oden, Noah, and Owain.

Ava was the next one to raise her hand.  “My name begins with an <a> and ends with an <a>, yet each <a> has a different IPA symbol.  Why is that?”
“Well, do we pronounce them the same way?”
“No, we don’t,” she replied.

We focused first on the the first pronunciation in her name.  I asked everyone to say the letter <a>.  Just as we did with <o>, I asked them to notice the way our mouths begin in one position and finish in another.  “This is another vowel glide.  We see this one pronunciation represented by an IPA symbol that looks like two symbols.  Who else has this pronunciation in their name?”

The students found Adrianna, Casey, Taylor, Grayson, Aiden, Xaiver, Mason, and Jacob.  It was interesting to note the graphemes and digraphs that represented this pronunciation in the students’ names.

I pointed out the stress marks in each name and we noted that not everyone had a stress mark at the beginning of their name.  We practiced saying the names and feeling the stress.  We noted the difference in pronunciation between /məˈkɛnə/ and /ˈmɑkɛnə/.  Even though noticing stress is completely new to these students, this was a first step, and they recognized how it made a difference in Makenna’s name.

As we continued, the students kept using their own names and the names of their classmates to decipher the IPA symbols and the pronunciations they represented.  Along the way we talked about the symbol known as schwa.  We found this pronunciation symbol in many names including Norah, Addison, Sylvia, Alyssa, Natalie, Ian, Scarlet, Hannah, Shiras, Darien, and Shanna.  Again, we noticed that this pronunciation could be represented by several graphemes and digraphs.  I shared with them that the schwa is unstressed in a pronunciation.  It does not get the punch that a stressed vowel would get.  We compared the /ʌ/ in Hunter to the  /ə/ in Cora, and tried to feel the difference between that pronunciation being stressed in Hunter and unstressed in Cora.

By the end of the day, there were very few symbols that had not been discussed.  The students left the room abuzz with their new understanding.  I told them I would combine the observations from each class and make a key that we could all use to understand these IPA symbols as we move forward in our learning.  My!  It was a good day!

The next day I wanted to revisit what we had talked about and then take it a step further.  I modeled writing a spelling of someone’s name on the board and then putting the IPA symbols underneath.  But as I did so, I used one color to represent the grapheme and the corresponding IPA symbol that represented that grapheme.  I used another color to pair up the next grapheme (or digraph) with the IPA symbol that represented it.  I kept going, switching colors, until the name was spelled and the pronunciation was represented.  Then I asked the students to do the same thing with their own name in their notebooks.   When I had checked it, they wrote it out on larger paper so we could hang these in the hallway and share what we are learning!

As the first students finished, they asked me what they should do next.  I sent them to the large poster and had them practice pronouncing everyone’s name.  They were so proud that they could do it now!  We finished up with a discussion about the fact that spelling doesn’t usually help us know how to pronounce a word.  We used several names including Aaron’s as an example of that.  But now we understand IPA!  We have a reliable system that will represent pronunciation!  That means that we can look to spelling to represent a word’s meaning!

*****Right now those are words crafted into a statement that doesn’t mean much to my students.  I know that.  But in these two days we put some solid bricks in the foundation of our understanding of the English spelling system.  The rest will come.  It takes presenting evidence over and over for them to finally get that each word has a story and that it reveals that story and its meaning through its spelling.  One day at a time.  Our understanding has begun!

Below are the pictures of our hallway display.  We have seen many people stop to take a look.  That makes us happy!

 

 

Summer Time … and the learning feels easy

During the recent session of summer school, I had a small group of five students who signed up for my orthography class.  Two had just spent a school year studying orthography with me and three were new to it, but would be studying it in the fall.  I thought you might like to see the kind of explorations we did considering the experience levels of the students.

For the first few days, they helped me finish a video I had begun working on before the school year ended.  I shared a power point I had created explaining how the days of the week were named.  Next we read the script I had written and talked about a time when Latin was spoken.  It was when the Germanic people traveled and traded that they became aware of how the Romans named the days of the week.  The Germanic people were intrigued.  They decided to adopt what the Romans were doing, but made some changes to reflect their own culture. Here is the video we created:

This was a great introduction to orthography because I could acquaint my new students with some basic truths about English spelling.

~  We began with common words that are familiar to my students, and yet whose spelling they never questioned before.  It was the opportunity to present the truth that words are spelled the way they are for a reason.  Spelling is not random and nonsensical.  A spelling represents the word’s meaning.  This is such a basic truth regarding spelling, and yet it is one that is incredibly hard for people to believe.  From early on we are told that every letter represents a sound and that when we blend those sounds, we are reading a word.  While that might have a surface appearance of what we are doing, it just doesn’t work to explain spelling and reading beyond words like pat and dad.

There is a quote that I have always loved.  “If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.”  (I’ve seen it attributed to several people, but most often to Ian Stewart.)  I think I love it because when I ponder it, I feel encouraged to look at a human brain as this amazing organ that man may not ever completely understand.  We seek to understand the brain, of course, because seeking understanding is part of our human nature, but all the while we stand in awe of it too.  In a similar way, I see language as substantial, as beautiful and as amazing as, say, a brain.  It is something we seek to understand, but may not ever completely understand because it was created by a vast collection of human brains across time!  It is the legacy of the human race!

This is not to say that it can’t be understood. It can.  But that doesn’t happen — hasn’t happened — by people who have tried to simplify the instruction of reading.  That simplification (every word has a letter/sound correspondence, and if we just blend those sounds together, we will be able to read the word) does not hold true for the majority of words in our language.  And teaching beginning readers that spelling and words are all about pronunciation is the biggest problem of all.  There is just so much more to it.  There is meaning.  MEANING!  Instruction in reading should start with a word’s meaning.  From there a child should seek to understand the word’s structure and the morphological and etymological families it belongs to.  Then it is time to notice the grapheme/phoneme correspondences.  At that point, those correspondences that are affected by the word’s etymology will make sense.  At that point, those correspondences that are affected by the word’s morphology will make sense.  Once a student knows a word’s meaning and can relate its meaning to its spelling and ancestors, then that student is ready to pronounce the word and read it in context.  And because the word’s spelling is now understood, it will be more memorable.  It will have staying power. (No guarantees, but at the very least, a student will be able to quickly look up the information on his/her own and refresh that understanding.)

Of course I did not belabor this point with my students, but I did introduce this idea and show them that the days of the week were named as such to represent meaning.  It is no longer frustrating to try to remember the spelling of Wednesday if instead you can imagine the Germanic Chief God Woden and think of it as being called “Woden’s Day”.  Change the <o> to an <e> and flip the <en> and you have “Wednesday”.  It was difficult to pronounce both the <d> and <n> once the <en> was reversed, and in time the <d> was no longer pronounced.  It was left there, though, to remind us that this day was Woden’s Day.

~  Another great reason to start with learning about the days of the week  is that it gave the students the opportunity to understand that Modern English is directly descended from Old English.  When the students compared the days of the week as written in Old English, Modern English, Swedish, and German, they could see similarities in spelling and meaning.  Seeing the same days written in Latin and then in some of the Modern Romance languages like Italian, French, and Spanish, they could see the similarities in spelling and meaning among these languages as well.  At this point, the students are presented with the idea that many of the languages we are familiar with derived from Proto-Indo-European.  You see, in the late eighteenth century, Sir William Jones noted similarities between Sanskrit (an ancient language of India), Ancient Greek, and Ancient Latin.  He proposed that the similarities were because of a shared ancestral language.  He called that ancestral language Proto-Indo-European (often abbreviated as PIE).  Although there is no direct evidence (writing samples) of this language, experts in this field have been able to use linguistic reconstruction to suggest likely pronunciations of PIE roots and their meanings.  It is important to keep in mind that these PIE roots are suggested reconstructions.  That is why you see an asterisk next to the PIE root in an Etymonline entry.

If we think of the languages using the analogy of a tree, it might look similar to my drawing below.  My goal in drawing this was to point out that the Germanic languages would have been on a different branch than the Romance languages, but that they would both have had Proto-Indo-European at their roots.  Other than that, this drawing is NOT complete.  It is meant to suggest the idea of a language tree, and to point out the idea of different branches in the bigger idea of a language family tree.  During the school year, I will find a reliable and more accurate language tree to share with my students.

New Day – New Activity

I began by reading an article that I think is interesting.  HERE is a link to it.  It is called “Why is the ‘mor’ in ‘Voldemort’ so evil-sounding?” It began by naming some well known fictional villains. There’s Voldemort, Professor Moriarty, Morbius, Mordred, and Dr. Moreau. But what is it about that <mor> found in these names that links them together?  Before I went further, we stopped to check out a few things at the Online Etymology Dictionary.

I had my students look up some familiar words with this <mor> spelling. Notice that I’m not calling this a base element. I don’t really know what the connection is yet. I only know that this letter string appears in names given to some villains.

As the students searched and then read the entries at Etymonline, I recorded their information on the board.  In that way we could all see the basic information and make observations as they came into our thoughts.

Morbid

<Morbid> was first attested in the 1650’s. It is from Latin morbidus and morbus “disease, sickness, illness, ailment”. Perhaps it is connected to the root of mori “to die, looking like death.”  It is from the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) reconstructed *mer “to rub away, to harm, to die”.

Wow. That really got the attention of the students! One of the mentioned villains is Morbius.  That spelling reminded us all of the spelling in morbid.  The article mentions three villains named Morbius.  The first is Dr. Michael Morbius whose alter ego is something like a living vampire. He is featured in Marvel comics as an enemy of Spider-Man.

https://scontent.cdninstagram.com/vp/2208591b52c0d88a4475a5ef4d4cd0e8/5BD81007/t51.2885-15/e35/36745510_174672190069773_4707986606907195392_n.jpg

Another is the Time Lord war criminal known as Morbius from the British science fiction television series, “Doctor Who.”  For his crimes, he was captured and executed, yet he survived.

File:Morbius.jpg

The third is the Morbius who is an antagonist in The Forbidden Planet, a 1956 movie.  Morbius is a scientist who has been stranded on a planet for twenty years.

DR MORBIUS~ FORBIDDEN PLANET Comic Art

Mortal

Next they looked up <mortal>. It was attested 14c. and is from Old French mortel “deadly, doomed to die, destined to die, deserving of death,”and before that from Latin mortalis “subject to death.” This word too is from the same PIE reconstructed root *mer! That was interesting! The idea of “deserving of death” brought about a fascinating discussion. As a way of further understanding this word, I shared a quote from my favorite Dicken’s story, The Christmas Carol. It is spoken by Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Past is about to take him out the bedroom window. Scrooge says, “But I’m a mortal and liable to fall!” He is explaining that as a mortal he is subject to death should he fall from this height!

Murder

Next we looked up <murder>. It was attested 13c. and was Old English morðor (plural morþras) “secret killing of a person, unlawful killing, mortal sin, crime, punishment, misery”. Even though the modern spelling is <mur> and not <mor>, we found that in Old English it was an <mor> spelling.  AND again, we found it was from the same PIE reconstructed root *mer!  This entry brought about a discussion about a killing being in secret.  It was decided that since the murderer doesn’t usually want to get caught, they kill in secret.

The other thing the entry for <murder> brought about was a discussion about the Old English letters eth and thorn.

These are two of at least twelve letters that were once but are no longer part of our alphabet.  Since eth appears in the spelling of the Old English word for murder morðor, and thorn appears in the plural spelling of the same word for murder morþras, it makes sense to talk about them and share how they were probably pronounced.

The students were enjoying these connections, and they loved spotting that the connection between all three words was the PIE root *mer “to rub away, to harm, to die”.  But it was also pointed out by my two experienced students that we didn’t find a root that became a modern English base element.  We found no evidence that <morb> in Morbius was a separate base.  We found no evidence that <mor> in Moreau or Moriarty or Mordred was a separate base.  But what about <mort>?

As a way to connect our findings to something local, I asked if any of the students had ever been to Lake Butte des Morts which is in our state, but northeast of us. They had, but none of us knew what its name really meant. I looked it up and we found out that the lake was named by French settlers to honor the Native American Burial Mounds that were nearby. The name of the lake means “Mound of the Dead”.  Read THIS if you are interested in a brief history of how this name came about.  It is very interesting!

Image result for story of lake butte des morts

Next we looked up words with <mort> and found mortician, mortal, immortal, mortgage, and mortuary.  All of them are from the same PIE root *mer “to rub away, to harm, to die!”  They are all from Latin and have to do with “dead”.  This might explain villain names with the <mort> base, but it doesn’t explain the others.  Something else is going on here as well.

At this point we went back and read the rest of the article. We talked a bit about phonesthemes, and talked about how the <mor> might have something to do with that since we didn’t really have evidence of a base shared in all of the names.

Phonesthemes are fascinating to learn about.  They are not specifically a spelling.  Instead they are a specific pronunciation that carries with it a sense.  If we believe that the spelling <mor> might be a phonestheme, it is more accurate to represent it with IPA [mɔr] since IPA (International Phonetic Association) represents pronunciation, not spelling.  Another example of a phonestheme is [sn] having something to do with the nose.  We hear it in snooze, snore, snot, snout, sneeze, sniff, and more. 

This activity was interesting to the students and introduced/reinforced some orthographic truths:

~  Noticing things about words and their spelling is what scholars do.  Asking questions is much more important than securing answers.  What is important is that we notice things, contemplate them, think about what it is we don’t know, and then to ask questions.  In following this order, we identify for ourselves a specific focus for our research and reading.

~  Words have an attestation date.  That date gives us an idea of how long a specific word has been in use.  The date reflects the earliest date for which etymologists have written evidence of the word being used.  The word may have been spoken before that date, but we don’t have anything written prior to that date that includes it.

~  It takes some guidance to become familiar with reading the entries in any etymological dictionary.  By having the students read the entries and by me writing the important facts on the board, the newer students had a taste for the kind of information that is there.  First we noticed the earliest it had been found in writing.  Then we took steps backward in time from there to see the language of origin for the base of the word.  Many of the entries include information as far back as the PIE root.  We talked about what PIE means, and who the people were who spoke Proto-Indo-European.

~  I was able to introduce the concept of phonesthemes.  I didn’t spend a lot of time on it, but it will be slightly familiar when they hear me speak of it later in the year.  To me, a phonestheme is an unexpected yet delightful aspect of our language!

New Day – New Activity

I started by showing a short video in which students speak off the cuff about orthography.  Here it is:

As I had hoped, a discussion followed.  The two students who had just finished a year of studying orthography were in this summer school class because they had enjoyed it THAT much!  They shared some of the words they had investigated during the year.  Their favorites were the words they could choose on their own.  No surprise there!

At one point I told about a girl in a previous class who had found out that the word <nice> had drastically changed over time.  It wasn’t the spelling that had changed in the time since the 13th century, it was the meaning.  You see, if someone called you nice back then, they were calling you stupid or foolish.  Slowly that sense and meaning changed.  It wasn’t until 1830 that it was being used to mean kind and thoughtful.  Isn’t that a surprise?  The students thought that was very interesting, so I asked them to think about <terrific>.

I wrote it on the board and instead of asking the students to hypothesize a word sum (something I usually do),  I asked them to think of other words that look like they might be related in spelling.  The newer students chose to get out Chromebooks and look online at Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher.  The older students grabbed dictionaries that I had nearby.  They wrote the words on the board as they found them.  Here is the list of words they accumulated:

terrine                                  terrific
territorially                         terrorist
terrestrial                            Terraria
terrazzo                                terror
terrapin                                terrarium
territorial                             terracotta
terrible                                 terrorize
terrain                                  terrace
terrorism                             terra
terraform                            terracing

At this point I asked the students to take a step back and look at this group of words.  I said, “They all look like they could be related.  We see the same <terr> spelling in every word.  How about a shared sense and meaning?  Are they similar in their meaning?”

One boy began by pointing out that terrorist and terrain did not mean the same thing.  He knew that the terrain had to do with land and a terrorist was a person who committed violence.  Someone else added that a territory also had to do with land, but terrible was something that was bad.  Hmmm.  It was time to look up <terrorist> and <terrain>.  We needed some historical information to sort this out.  The Etymonline entry for <terrorist> led us to <terror>:

The experienced students recognized that terrere was the infinitive form of a Latin verb.  As such, they knew they could remove the Latin infinitive suffix <ere> and identify the root that eventually became the modern base element <terr> that we see in terror, terrorist, terrorism, and terrible.

From Etymonline:

This word comes from French terrain “piece of earth, ground, land”.  If we continue following its trail, the furthest back we can go before its PIE root is Latin terra “earth, land”.  This is where the modern base we see in terrain, territory, territorial, and territorially came from.  It is pretty clear that we have two very different base elements here!

The next task was to find out which word was related to which base!  The students went back to poring over their resources.  Everyone was busy in that room.  Each was looking up a different word and speaking up to let me know whether to underline a word in black (<terr> “earth, land”) or green (<terr> “fill with fear”).  It was kind of funny that one of the last words to be looked at was the one we began with — <terrific>!

What an interesting story this word has!

From Etymonline:

It is only since 1888 that <terrific> has had the sense of “excellent” associated with it.  In the two hundred years of its existence before that it meant to cause terror or to make something frightening.  How terrific is that?

Below you can see which words ended up underlined in green and which were underlined in black.  I told the students at this point that perhaps it would have been easier to organize our lists if we had written them on post-it notes.

This activity was engaging and interesting to the students and reinforced some of the things previous fifth graders liked about studying orthography (as mentioned in the video):

~  When you investigate one word, you find a whole bunch more that are related.  You aren’t just learning about a single word.  You are learning about a base element that in some cases is found in many words.  The fun in finding these families is to recognize how they are all related in meaning and then to identify their spelling differences by working out the word sums.  For example, compare these word sums:

terr + or –> terror
terr + or + ist –> terrorist
terr + or + ism –> terrorism
terr + or + ize –> terrorize

Can you see how spelling becomes less stress-inducing when a student sees the commonalities in a word family’s structures?

~  This activity illustrates how involved and engaged each student will be.  They get caught up in the search for understanding!  Being able to make sense of a word’s spelling is something they didn’t know they could do, and it brings about an excitement! Even as an adult, I admit that I get giddy sometimes when I make sense of a spelling or word’s meaning that I had never previously stopped to wonder about.

~ This activity also brings out a very important point.  Just because two things look alike, it doesn’t mean they are!  The chances are that when these students come across a word that has a <terr> base, they will stop to think about how its being used and which base it really is.  They will question and think about the word and its meaning when they probably wouldn’t have before.  Isn’t that exactly what we want our students to do?

New Day – New Activity

A tragic explosion had occurred in a nearby town on the previous day.  It was certainly something that was being talked about by the students and adults in our community, on the news, and on social media.  I decided it might benefit the students to investigate the word <explosion> and understand it better.  I wrote it on the board and asked students to hypothesize its structure. (The boys who had experience with writing out word sums put a circle around their plus signs.)

The first thing we noticed about the three hypotheses was that there was a consensus that <ex> was an element.  The boys knew it was a prefix.  I then asked for proof.  By that I meant that I wanted three words that had an <ex-> prefix.  They thought of:

It was also agreed that <ex-> had a sense of “outwards”.  The experienced students remembered studying exosphere last fall and that it was the outermost layer of the atmosphere.

Next we went back to the hypotheses and noticed that two of the three listed <ion> as an element.  It wasn’t a surprise to me that my experienced students knew the <-ion> suffix.  The newer student was no doubt pronouncing the word syllabically and figured the suffix to be <sion>.  To help the new students see for themselves that <-ion> rather than <sion> would be the suffix, I again asked for proof.  I wanted three words with an <-ion> suffix.

We read each of these with and without the <-ion>.  I specifically wanted to know if the students felt that <adopt> and <adoption> shared a sense and meaning.  As they read them, they could see that the <t> could not be part of the suffix because it was part of the base.  We looked at <act> and <action> in the same way and noticed the same thing.  The words <interact> and <interaction> were like <act> except for the sense of “between” added by the prefix <inter->.  But as far as the suffix, it had to be <-ion> and not <-tion>.  The last set was <emote> and <emotion>.  I let the experienced students explain that the base here is <mote> “move”.  The use of <emote> as a word is not real common, so the newer students hadn’t heard of it before.  The verb <emote> means to show emotions.

Now the question came up, “Do we ever see <explose> by itself?  Great question!  I asked everyone to keep that question in mind as we continued our investigation.  Now that we had identified the prefix and suffix in the word sum for <explosion>, we were ready to look at the base element.  The students were all convinced that the hypothesis that was most likely was:

One of the experienced students pointed out the need for the final potential <e> on the base.  I didn’t really address it much at that moment because I know how often we will see it and talk about it in the new school year.  There were plenty of unfamiliar things being presented to the new students and I saw no need to fully discuss every single one.  It was time to go to Etymonline to read the entry for <explosion>:

This entry had so much to offer towards our inquiry!  Notice that in the 1620’s it was used to mean “action of driving out with violence and noise.”  No surprise there, but as we go back further in time, we see that as Latin explosionem it meant”a driving off by clapping.”  By clapping?  What kind of clapping?  It’s time to follow the recommended link to <explode> to find out more.

Originally this word had a theatrical use.  Actors could be driven off the stage by clapping to show approval or hissing to show disapproval.  Notice that the Latin word that explode derived from was plaudere “to clap the hands, applaud.”  How about that?  The next time you are at a theatrical performance that has just finished, think of how the applause is like an explosion!

The next thing I did in guiding along this investigation was to write <explosion> on the board and <explode> next to it.  I asked, ” If we believe the base of <explosion> to be <plose>, what do you think the base of <explode> is?  Right away three voices called out <plode>.  I wrote those two bases side by side.  As soon as I did that, one of the experienced students called out, “twin bases!”

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“They have different spelling, but they share meaning and come from the same root.”

“Bingo!”

I asked each student to choose either <explosion> or <explode> and find other words in the word’s family.  Here is what was found:

   

We read through each list discussing the words to make sure everyone understood how each word could be used in a sentence.  As we were doing that, we also paid attention to the suffixes used.  It was noticed that words that had <plose> as a base were followed by either an <-ive> suffix or an <-ion> suffix.  In some cases there were other suffixes added onto those, but those were the only two that immediately followed the base.  No one found a word in which the <plose> base was NOT followed by some kind of suffix.  This answered our earlier question about whether or not <explose> was a word on its own.  We don’t think so.  We left it phrased like that because I want my students to have an attitude of being open to other evidence should we find it at some later time.

When looking at the suffixes used with <explode>, we noticed that they were the familiar <-s>, <-ed>, and <-ing> suffixes that we see with so many words.  It was also noticed that the suffixes used with one of these bases, would not be used with the other.  We tried to exchange them and just ended up laughing.

The one affix that was used with both bases was the prefix <im-> “into, in, upon”.  I wanted to make sure my students understood the difference between an implosion and an explosion, so I found a short video on Youtube of an implosion.

The video shows clearly how the structure falls in on itself.  This is a controlled way of demolishing a building.  We compared it to this video of an explosion.

This video is interesting because you get to see the explosion in slow motion at around the 2:08 mark.  A fair warning if you are showing this to children:  one of the men uses a questionable word at 3:18 or so.  You may want to preview before you share this.  Other than that, this is fascinating to watch.

This activity was a great choice because it centered around a word that was relevant in the lives of the students.  Along the way there were several orthographic truths to learn:

~  The students had another opportunity to hypothesize word sums.  One of the boys smiled and said, “Looking at a word and deciding what the word sum might be is one of my favorite things!”  And as they think about what the word sum might be, they are thinking back to what they’ve seen in other words.  They are thinking back to suffixes, prefixes, and bases they know.  They are not making wild guesses.  They are mentally engaged as they make these decisions about the structure of the word.

~  Having to prove the prefix and the suffix is a great activity as well.  It discourages a student from calling the last two or three letters of a word a suffix.  If they can’t find any other word with that as a suffix, they have just proven to themselves that it probably isn’t a suffix.  It is also an opportunity to think about the sense that an affix brings to the word.  What is the meaning sense that <ex-> brings to <expert>, <example>, and <exosphere>?  If they have to look at a dictionary to find out, that’s okay.  Again, this is part of knowing for themselves what is what with words and their meanings.  You should see how dog-eared my classroom dictionaries are.  Isn’t that marvelous?  I just smile when a colleague complains that his/her students don’t use dictionaries.  I really believe that my students have a need and a desire to know, and therefore, use the dictionaries on their own, asking dictionary navigation questions when they need to.

~  With this investigation, some students were introduced to the notion of twin bases and some had that notion reinforced.  What makes <plose> and <plode> twin bases is the fact that they do not share exact spelling, yet come from the same Latin verb, carrying the same denotation “a driving out by clapping”.  Remember that it was after the 1660’s that it also had a sense of driving out with violence and noise.  During the school year, we will more specifically address twin bases, and the students will investigate a Latin verb in small groups.

~  The base element in a word carries the main sense and meaning.  The affixes may alter that sense as they did in this situation.  An explosion is different than an implosion in important ways.  The prefixes determine that difference with the sense they bring to the base.  Being able to see those difference in the videos I found also makes the sense that these prefixes represent easier to remember.

Conclusion

Every day the students remarked that the hour we spent together went by incredibly fast.

“It’s really time to go already?”
“How does that happen so fast? Our time’s up ?”
“Awww.  Really?  Class is over?”

And then as they packed up they let me know what they thought about studying words.

“This is so much fun!  What are we going to do tomorrow?”
“I loved it today.  Can we choose our own words to look at tomorrow?”
“Thank you.  I had no idea it would be this much fun!”

The students don’t have to understand every bit of what they are being shown.  They should not be expected to have memorized any spellings at this point.  I am letting them discover that there is much about English spelling that is interesting.  They are beginning to understand that words have structures and understanding that structure helps us get to the heart of the word which is its base element/s.  Once we know its base, we can find out the word’s main sense and meaning and also learn this word’s story.  That story and the connections we begin to see between words is what keeps us investigating.  It is what keeps us asking questions.  It is what brings out the true scholar in each of us.  Children are no different that adults in this respect.  Once they believe that they CAN understand English spelling, they will think about words wherever they are and in everything they do!

“Outer Beauty Attracts, but Inner Beauty Captivates.” ~Kate Angell

Like many native English speakers, those who are learning English often express disappointment that words that have identical letter strings do not rhyme (bomb/tomb/comb, read/red, thought/though/through). It’s interesting to me that my own attitude about that has become one of fascinated interest. Where someone else might throw their hands up and cross their eyes, I smile and pause to consider what might be going on with those words. Then I head to a trusted etymological dictionary (usually Online Etymology Dictionary​ first) to investigate and check out my hypotheses.  At times I search through a second or even third etymological resource.  Maybe I end up in either my copy of Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary or Liddell and Scott’s  Greek-English Lexicon.  I might even be led to Richard Venezky’s book, The American Way of Spelling for further understanding.  The point is that I will look because I expect there to be an explanation.  Those who throw their hands up and cross their eyes have never been taught that an explanation is possible.  What a shame.  Because an explanation is not on the surface of the word, those people think it doesn’t exist.  I guess they’ve never applied the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” to a word.  What a difference that has made for my students and me!

This morning I was reading THIS ARTICLE in Huffpost called “35 Confusing Things About the English Language”.  Nine out of the 35 comments listed were related to the expectation that things with similar spellings should be similar in their pronunciations.  That’s 1/4 of the comments!

Since I don’t fluently speak another language, I’ve never stopped to wonder whether or not a letter or letter combination in another language is reliably pronounced one certain way.  I’ve just always understood that in English it’s not that way.  As my respected orthography teacher says, “English spelling represents the language we already speak.  Its job is not to teach us how to speak our own language.”  The job of English spelling is to represent meaning.  You see, words are a combination of morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest functioning unit in the construction of a word’s meaning.  As morphemes are joined, the word’s meaning emerges.

A morpheme, either alone or in combination with other morphemes, constructs meaning. Each morpheme on its own might not carry specific meaning, (I’m thinking of a connecting vowel here and perhaps some suffixes) but each has a function in connecting the morphemes that do. In a completed word, every morpheme can be identified, and its function (as it relates to the construction of the word’s meaning) explained. Morphemes are bases (free or bound) and affixes.  The base carries the principle meaning in the word.  Affixes are either derivational (alter the meaning of the word by building on the base) or inflectional (have a grammatical function).  All prefixes are derivational whereas suffixes are either one or the other.  Very few people have been taught to look at a word and automatically think about what its morphemes might be and what sense and meaning they bring to the total word.  Instead, most people look at a word and think that the spelling of the word dictates its pronunciation.  Then they get frustrated that sounding out the letters doesn’t always result in a recognizable pronunciation of the word in question.

I have to wonder if it isn’t our own fault that we have this unrealistic expectation that words spelled similarly must rhyme.  After all, think about how we teach reading in our country.  Imagine yourself looking in on a primary grade classroom where students are being taught that word families include words that  1) have a certain string of letters and  2) all rhyme.  Here’s an example:

What is at the head of this “family”?  It is a string of letters that carries absolutely no meaning.  After completing worksheets and lessons focusing on many many “families” like this, a student might very well expect that whenever a string of letters seen in one word is also in another, the two words will rhyme.  Why wouldn’t they after having it demonstrated to them over and over?  Are they ever told that it doesn’t always work that way?  Are they ever shown examples of words that share the same string of letters but that DON’T rhyme?  Right from the start children are being told something that isn’t always true, only they aren’t told that it isn’t always true.  In other words, we are setting them up with this unrealistic expectation.  As they begin encountering words for which this is not true, they look to their teachers for explanations.  Unfortunately many teachers were never given an explanation themselves, and so have no explanation to share.  And boom!  The English-spelling-is-crazy-and-makes-no-sense fallacy is born to yet another generation.

What if?

What if we used that idea of a word family to signal something more helpful to a child’s comprehension AND spelling of words.  What if we taught children right from the start that a word family is a group of words that share a base, and that a base carries the main sense and meaning found in all words built from that base.  And most importantly, that sometimes the base is pronounced the same among words within a family, and sometimes it isn’t.  Here’s an example:

The base element here is <sign>, and it has a denotation of “mark”.  Now look at all the words I’ve listed that are morphological relatives (that means that they all share the spelling of the base AND they share an ancestor.  Their etymological root is Latin signum “identifying mark”.  As you think about each of these words, think about their meaning and how it has something to do with making a mark, marking something, indicating something, a symbol, or a designation.

THIS is a word family.  There is a meaning relationship and there is a spelling relationship among these words.  The meaning relationship is verified by checking an etymological resource to find evidence that they all are from the same root.  I found out that the root in this case is Latin signum by looking at Etymonline.  I began by searching for <sign>.  I know it is a free base (is a word without needing affixes) and found it as both a verb and a noun.  Its use as a noun is just a bit older, but both uses were attested in the 13th century.  Then I read both entries to find the origin of <sign>.   According to Etymonline, other interesting facts about the various uses of this word over time include:

“Ousted native token. Meaning “a mark or device having some special importance” is recorded from late 13c.; that of “a miracle” is from c. 1300. Zodiacal sense in English is from mid-14c. Sense of “characteristic device attached to the front of an inn, shop, etc., to distinguish it from others” is first recorded mid-15c. Meaning “token or signal of some condition” (late 13c.) is behind sign of the times (1520s). In some uses, the word probably is a shortening of ensign. Sign language is recorded from 1847; earlier hand-language (1670s).”

Isn’t it interesting that <sign> became preferred over the use of <token>?  When we teach children to check whether two words share a root and therefore a denotation, it is likely they will also learn something about a word’s story (find themselves delving into etymology).  They will also have looked at the etymological evidence to see if there is anything that helps explain a word’s spelling.  This particular base has had the spelling of <sign> right from the start, but there are other words whose spelling makes sense once we know the word’s origin or influence by languages along its diachronical journey ending in our modern day use.

Teaching children about a word family like this results in them understanding that words have structure.  Every word has a base element.  We build related words by adding other bases or affixes to the base.  Look back at my word web to see how obvious the structure of most of these words is.  When we teach children about a word’s structure, we are teaching them about a word’s morphology.  Announcing word sums is a way to reinforce our understanding of word structure.  Take <designate>.  The word sum is <de + sign + ate –> designate>.  It would be announced as “d e  plus  s i g n  plus  a t e  is rewritten as  de sign ate.”  The elements are spelled out, the arrow is announced with “is rewritten as”, and when spelling the finished word there is a slight pause between the elements to show recognition of those boundaries.

The third major consideration in teaching children about a word family as I have described it is that pronunciation piece.  Studying a word family teaches children the reality about whether a common string of letters will always rhyme.  It won’t.  And with this kind of word family representation, they won’t ever think it should or be surprised that it doesn’t.  As an example, let’s look at the family for <sign>.  When we pronounce <sign>, <signer>, <cosign>, and <assignment>, the base is pronounced [saɪn].  But what happens when we pronounce <design> and <resign>?  The base is pronounced [zaɪn].  And when we pronounce <signal>, <signify>, and <signet>, the base is pronounced [sɪgn].  In these three words the <g> is pronounced.  But it isn’t pronounced in eight of the family members I’ve included in this web!

Just think about that.  If spelling were there so we knew how to pronounce a word, most of the words in that one family would have different spellings.  But they don’t!  They are spelled the way they are to represent the meaning that they all share!  The meaning and the shared spelling is what binds these words together into a family.  We don’t have to blame the English language because words that look like they might rhyme don’t.  Instead we need to appreciate the fact that the unpronounced <g> in this family is a marker letter, and as such, it marks its meaning connection to members of this family in which it is pronounced.   Pronunciation is not consistent enough to be the reason for a word’s spelling, but a word’s sense and meaning is!

You may be thinking that <sign> is a word that would not be studied in a primary classroom.  But why not?  Surely the children know some of its related words.  They don’t need to be able to read the words to understand that they all have <sign> in their spelling.  They can talk about what the words mean and the teacher can talk about the structure, meaning, and even point out the differences in pronunciations of the base.  More of the students will understand this than you might think, and the rest will be gaining a foundation for a more accurate understanding of how our spelling system actually works.  Any classroom should make it a point to look at words that interest the students no matter how many letters the word has!  If the focus is always on the structure, the meaning, the word’s relatives, and the interesting things to note about the word’s grapheme/phoneme relationships, then the word is the vehicle for the understanding.  Perhaps have an “I Pick – You Pick” philosophy for choosing words to look at.  It will really drum up interest!

Look at this word web that is centered around <dog>.  As you include more and more of these, you can start the discussion with, “What do you notice?”

It will not take long before students say things like, “I see the word <house> in <doghouse>”.  Then you know it’s time to talk about compound words.  This word web could also lead to a discussion about the final pluralizing <s>.  Maybe your students could quickly help you make a list of plural words and you could write them in two columns:  those in which the final grapheme <s> is represented by /s/, and those in which it is represented by /z/.  It won’t be long after that before they will be pointing that very thing out in plural words they are reading!  And then there is the doubled <g> in <doggy>.  It is not too early to talk about the doubling convention that happens when we add a vowel suffix to a base.  Explain it and talk about it as an interesting thing to notice.  Say something like, “I think I’ve seen that in the word <scrubbing> as well.  Keep your eyes open.  If you see a word that you think has a doubled consonant because of a suffix being added, let me know, and we’ll look at it together!”

Here’s another great tip:  Don’t put a word web like this away until you have given students a chance to think of other words that might belong to this family.  It will give you the opportunity to see what kinds of connections they are making.  What if they suggested ‘hot dog’?  Instead of responding yourself, give the other students the opportunity to respond.  “What do the rest of you think?  Does it belong?  Why or why not?”.

This kind of word family is the only kind of word family.  You can still talk about rhyming words if you want, but don’t call them families.  If you are using them to help a child read, begin incorporating true word families as I have suggested.  Sometimes we decide what our students can and cannot handle.  Sometimes we misjudge them.  If you are hesitant to study word families, your students will be the ones to convince you otherwise. When they point out something as they are reading in class, when they bring in a word web they made on their own at home, when they explain a suffixing convention you have previously explained, or even when they ask a question about a suffix that you didn’t expect them to, you will know they are on their way to building an understanding about the reliability of our spelling system.  And you can feel great knowing that the group leaving your classroom has been taught to see below the surface of the word.  They’ve peeked beneath the cover and are now judging a word by its structure (morphology), story (etymology), and grapheme/phoneme correspondences (phonology).  And they are captivated!

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I encourage you to click on the comments.  The link is just below the end of this post in small letters.  Peter Bowers has written a great response and has included links to research that may be of interest.  Like I said, check it out!

 

When Something Unexpected Turns into Something Spectacular!

This morning a student eagerly approached my desk.  “Mrs. Steven?  I have a question.  This weekend I was reading a book and came across the words <respect> and <suspect>.  I started wondering about them.  I’m pretty sure that <sus> is a prefix.  I remember seeing it during one of my word investigations.  So that left me thinking that maybe the base in that word would be <pect>.  But then, if these two words share a base, and I think they do, that would mean that the prefix in <respect> would be <res>, and I’m not so sure about that.” As you can imagine, I can think of no better way to start a day!  I thanked her for sharing her thinking about this situation, and promised that we would get the class to help us think further about this after they returned from the gym.  We began by writing the two words on the board.  Then I let Lauren explain her thinking about these words, and where she was stuck.

***When a question like this is raised, the air seems to change in our room.  The looks on faces indicate that thinking is going on.  No one is doodling or even futzing with desk things! Heads are lifted and are facing the board.  This is the look of engagement.  Each brain buzzing, considering what has been proposed. A hand went up.  “I agree that <sus-> is a prefix.  Our group was looking at <sub-> and that was a variation.” Another student jumped in, “Oh, right!  An assimilated prefix!” I asked, “What words can we think of that have an <sus-> prefix?”  In addition to suspect, the students thought of suspend, suspension, and suspicion.  We noted that the element following the <sus-> prefix began with a <p> in each of these examples.  That is not always the case.  If we had used Word Searcher to find more, we would also have found sustain, susceptible, and resuscitate. We thought about this word and the idea that <sus-> was assimilated from <sub->.  We tried to pair up the <sub-> with the <pect> that followed.   We talked about how <b> and <p> are formed using our lips and how difficult it is to pronounce them both in this context.  We all agreed that THAT didn’t work.  It makes sense that the <sub-> takes on an <sus-> form when the next element in a word begins with <p>. So now we had established that <sus-> was a proven prefix.  We turned our attention back to the two words on the board.  What next? Someone asked, “Maybe <res>is a prefix.  I’m thinking of the word <residue>. ” I wrote it on the board, and almost instantly someone said, “But couldn’t the word sum for that be <re + sid(e) + ue>?”

At this point I shared that a few years ago I had a student who investigated the word <president>.  He found out that the word sum was <pre + sid(e) + ent>.  The base <side> had a denotation of “sitting”.  A president is someone who sits before the people being represented.  (I wish you could have heard the swoosh of “Ohhh” ‘s that slid across the room!)  The student who had offered the word sum for <residue> then said, “And residue is something that just sits there!  It gets left behind and just sits there!”  There were smiles and nods all around. Now I posed the question, “What do you think is going on in the word <respect>?” The first student to respond said, “I think there is an <re-> prefix and an <spect> base.  After all, I can think of speculate and inspection.” Someone else called out, “Expect.”  (Perfect.  I wrote it below suspect and hoped it would inspire some thinking.  If not, I would point it out myself. But I was in no rush. ) “Great next step I said.  Can anyone else think of words that might be sharing this base?” “What about spectacles?  In Peter Pan, Smee wore spectacles!”  (We are 16 pages away from finishing this book.  Look for a future post about the rich conversations we have had about the many words we have encountered and thoroughly enjoyed!) A voice from the back of the room said, “Doesn’t <spect> have something to do with looking?  If you inspect something, you are looking at it.  If you wear spectacles, they help you see better.  When you respect someone, it is like you are looking at them, really looking at them, and seeing something cool that you didn’t see before.” “Yes!  Yes, it does.” I replied.  Think also of a spectator.  That is a person who has come to watch something.” The next thing I did was to underline the <spect> base we saw in the list we had accumulated.  The only two words that didn’t seem to fit that were suspect and expect. “Hmmm.  Who has
some thoughts about these two?”

Then from the back row someone said, “When we say the word <expect> there is already a /s/ as part of the pronunciation of <x>.” “You’re right!  Everyone say the word <expect> and feel the /s/ that is part of the pronunciation of <x>.  That’s some great thinking, Amelia!  Perhaps the initial <s> on the base <spect> elided with the /ks/ when this prefix and base joined.   So one hypothesis that might explain why the base element in <expect> does not include the initial <s>  would be that when the prefix <ex-> joined with the base <spect>, the initial <s> on the base was elided.  That means that the /s/ that was part of the /ks/ phoneme and the /s/ that was part of the <spect> base element became one.  They were not both needed.” I continued, “Would this same hypothesis work for what is happening with <suspect>? What do you think?” “Well, yes.  The /s/ at the end of <sus-> is pretty much like the /s/ in the /ks/.” ***Can you imagine how glorious it is to be able to have a discussion like this with 11 year old students?  Eight months of learning about our English language has brought us to this point.  I yearn for more time.  They know enough to think like scholars and ask questions like scholars.  They notice things about words that help them understand its origins, its structure, and its phonology. Now that we have a hypothesis, we need to do some research.  We checked at Etymonline.

expect (v.)

1550s, “wait, defer action,” from Latin expectare/exspectare “await, look out for; desire, hope, long for, anticipate; look for with anticipation,” from ex- “thoroughly” (see ex-) + spectare “to look,” frequentative of specere “to look at” (from PIE root *spek- “to observe”).
      
           
We talked briefly about the fact that this word hasn’t changed its sense and meaning very much since it was first attested in the 1550’s.  That’s pretty interesting!  We still use it to mean “wait, look out for, hope, long for, anticipate.”
 
In the middle of that discussion, a hand went up.  As soon as I called on the student, he said, “look at those two spellings in Latin!  The <s> was in one of them.  Does that mean that it was spelled both ways then?”
      
“It sure does!  Does anyone spot the Latin ancestor of this word?”
      
“Yes.  It’s spectare, and it’s an infinitive.”  At this point another student voice joins in and they say almost in unison, “There’s an <-are> infinitive suffix.  It’s a Latin verb!”
      
“What is its denotation?”
      
“To look.”
      
“Does that jive with what we thought when looking at inspect, spectacles, and speculate?”
      
Several answered, “Yes!”
      
“Has anyone noticed the sense given for the prefix <ex->?  It says “thoroughly”.  Hmmm.  What do we usually expect the <ex-> prefix to have a sense of?”
      
“Doesn’t it usually mean “out?”
      
“Yes, it does.  This just goes to show us that a prefix can bring more than one sense to a word.  In the word <exit>, the prefix <ex-> DOES have a sense of “out.”  The base element there is <it> “go.”  When you head for the exit, you head for the place you will go out.  But here the prefix has a sense of “thoroughly.”  When we expect something to happen, we are thoroughly looking ahead and watching for it.  We are focused on looking.  In your future, you may come across information that tells you that <ex-> means out.  You now know that it doesn’t always, and it doesn’t only mean that.  That is valuable information because understanding the sense a prefix adds to a word’s denotation effects the way you think about the definition of a word.”
      
When I asked if we found any evidence to support our hypothesis, I helped point out that the Latin stem was <spect> and that had the <s>.  I also repeated what was previously noted about the two spellings in Latin – one with the <s> following the <x> and one without.  What we DO know is that we don’t see it in this word today.  Next it was time to look at <suspect> to see if we could find any evidence there.

suspect (adj.)

early 14c., “suspected of wrongdoing, under suspicion;” mid-14c., “regarded with mistrust, liable to arouse suspicion,” from Old French suspect (14c.), from Latin suspectus “suspected, regarded with suspicion or mistrust,” past participle of suspicere “look up at, look upward,” figuratively “look up to, admire, respect;” also “look at secretly, look askance at,” hence, figuratively, “mistrust, regard with suspicion,” from assimilated form of sub “up to” (see sub-) + specere “to look at” (from PIE root *spek- “to observe”). The notion behind the word is “look at secretly,” hence, “look at distrustfully.”   Again we noted that the sense and meaning of this word hasn’t changed much since the 14th century.  We noticed that this word was used in Old French, but that didn’t affect its spelling.  (We have come across situations in which it did.)  Continuing on in the entry we saw that this word is from Latin suspectus which was the past participle of suspicere.  Once again the students noticed that both of these had Latin verb suffixes.  It made sense that suspicere would be the infinitive and suspectus would be the past participle.  That would mean that those two principle parts of this same Latin verb would come into English as the twin bases <suspic(e)> and <suspect>!

Someone said, “If we add an <-ion> suffix to the base <suspic(e)>, we’ll have the word <suspicion>!” “Right.  I am so impressed with how you recognize what to do with the information you are finding!” As we kept reading, we thought it interesting that the infinitive form <suspicere> was used to mean “look up to, admire, respect”, yet also “look at secretly, mistrust.”  Those are opposite meanings!  Even though it had those two senses at one time, today <suspic(e)> is used solely (I couldn’t find evidence to prove otherwise) to express a sense of mistrust or suspicion.  Over time, the sense of “admire, respect” became less and less associated with this word. The next thing we noticed was the identification of the prefix <sus-> as an assimilated form of <sub->.  It’s always great to find evidence to support what we were thinking earlier!

As we finished reading this entry, I again asked, “Did we find any evidence to support our hypothesis?” Well, yes and no.  We just found out that <suspect> is one of a pair of twin bases.  That means we can look at it as a base element that needs no further analyzing.  On the other hand, the entry at Etymonline does confirm that <sus-> is the assimilated form of <sub-> and that the modern base element is derived from Latin specere.  That is great information, but might leave a person with more questions than clarity. We saw that <expect> had a spelling in Latin that included the <s> after the <x> (exspectare).  We found out a lot of interesting things, but nothing that verified whether that initial <s> on the modern base had elided when the prefix and base were joined. ***The only time this becomes a question is when we think about the words synchronically and are trying to write a word sum or create a word matrix.  One thing we can say for certain is that we wouldn’t include expect or suspect on the same matrix as respect, spectator, inspect, or speculate.  I am not even sure I would create a matrix to represent the elements in <expect>.  I would prefer to write a word sum like this:  <ex- + (s)pect –> expect> and then explain why I included the (s).  Others might represent this differently, but the most important thing I want my students to understand here is that respect, suspect, and expect all come from the same Latin verb. There is another base element <pect> from Latin pectus with a denotation that is quite different.  We see it in pectorals and expectorate.  It has to do with the breast.  Pectorals were originally the breastplates men wore.  Now they refer to the chest muscles.  To expectorate is to spit or to expel from the chest.  This base element might look like the one we see in <expect>, but it obviously isn’t.  Let’s not get them confused. Here is one idea for representing these words in
a single visual:

All the words within the circle derive from the same Latin verb.  The fact that expect and suspect do not share the same spelling as the base of respect means they would not be on the same matrix as respect.  This matrix does not include all the possible elements it could, nor do the lists outside the matrix but within the circle.  I just wanted to illustrate one possible way to represent words in a situation like this. Just so you know, I’m still thinking about all this.  I’m thinking about what’s happening with inspire and expire, with exist, and exert.  I don’t feel like I have to have a ready answer for my students.  We just owe it to ourselves to investigate as we can and then think about what our current understanding is.  From there we identify what it is we still have questions about.  And then we move forward keeping our ears open for some piece of evidence or some bit of research that reveals a bit more and deepens our understanding. So our hypothesis still stands and awaits evidence.  My students have no problem with not finding  a clear and defining answer to Lauren’s question.  All an answer does is end that line of questioning, and what fun is that?

“Stop Learning and Start Thinking”

I shared this video with my students the other day.  It is about 7 years old, but its message is timeless and crucial if we are to teach our students how to be in charge of understanding their world.  The boy speaking is Jacob Barnett.  At the time this video was made he was 11 years old.  At present he is 19.  If you have not seen this, please watch it now.  It is 18 minutes long, but well worth your time.  If you have seen it before, watch it again.  Having Jacob’s voice in your head as you continue to read this post will give strength to what you read.

When it was over, I said, “Well, What do you think about what he said?”  One student mentioned how smart Jacob is.  Another said it was weird that Jacob wore sandals.  Another commented that he could tell Jacob was “different”.  Yet another noticed that he had the Greek letter phi (φ ) on his shirt.  (We’ve been learning the Greek alphabet). It got kind of quiet after that.  So I said, “What do you think Jacob means when he says you have to stop learning and start thinking?”  Now it was completely silent.  And the silence was paired with facial expressions that said, “I don’t have any idea what that could mean!”

At that point I shared my own thoughts:  When Jacob says to stop learning, I think he is talking about learning as it is typically done in schools.  You know how it goes – the teacher tells the students what he/she wants them to know.  They learn it. (This might include reading about it, writing about it, watching videos, etc.) Then the students take an assessment to see how well they learned it.

THAT is what Jacob wasn’t able to do when he was young – because of his learning differences.  THAT is what Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t able to do when attending the University of Cambridge – because the school was shut down with the outbreak of the plague.  And THAT is what Albert Einstein wasn’t able to do – because he was Jewish and turned away from the local university, so he ended up taking a job working in a patent office instead.

Each was prevented from following this model of learning, and in doing so, had time to think.  Jacob believes it was this time to think and question and seek understanding that lead each person to their discoveries.  Now, does this mean Jacob didn’t learn things by reading books?  Of course not.  When he had posed questions that he wished to explore and knew more information was necessary to move forward in his thinking, he read the books he needed to read!  In other words, he read books and focused on understanding what he was reading.  He was a motivated reader.  The information he learned while reading helped him formulate new questions and better understand whether or not his past questions were on the right track.  In this manner he was always motivated to deeply understand a specific topic in order to weigh whatever questions he was currently posing.

So did he in fact  “stop learning”?  I don’t think so.  I think he stopped being a passive participant in learning, and became an active one.  And he found his inner voice – that unique perspective that he has – that each of us has with which to do our thinking.  Jacob explored the questions he had in a way that came natural to him.  Unfortunately, the way schools are set up, students often lose sight of their own unique perspective as they get older.  They get used to waiting for an adult to tell them what to do next, what information to search for, what answer to find.  They become passive learners.  And as passive learners, they rarely go beyond what has been laid out as the expectations for a particular assignment.  If doing “a, b, and c” is what is required, very few will ask about “d”.  Sometimes teachers will comment that there are students who are capable of doing more, but lack motivation.  Do they really lack motivation, or have they become passive?  Are YOU sometimes a passive learner?

At this point Ella raised her hand.  “When we study words, we’re not passive.  It’s like how Jacob learns.  We do a lot of thinking about what the word means, and then we come up with a hypothesis for our word sum. We read whatever dictionary we need to while collecting our evidence and the word’s story.  But WE do it ourselves.”

I answered, “Yes!  You work independently and are actively involved in your learning!  You look at resource books when you need to.  You search for evidence to support or disprove your word sum hypothesis. You discuss with others what you are thinking about as you are finding information and hypothesizing.  And often another person’s unique perspective helps you stretch your own thinking.  You research and investigate and gather your evidence until you’re satisfied you understand as much as there is to understand at this time!  The best part is that you recognize that you have not found an answer.  You have found a temporary understanding that may in fact deepen should other evidence come to light!”

Ella continued rather proudly, “When we were taking the Forward Exam a few weeks ago, I was trying to think of what the word sum would be for <conversation>.  I knew about the two possible suffixes <ate> and <ion> on this word which left <convers(e)>.  I also recognized the prefix <con>, although I couldn’t remember what it meant just then.  That left <vers(e)>.  When I thought about that, I thought of how a verse is something I read, write, or talk about.  A conversation is talking between at least two people, so I knew I was on the right track.  I couldn’t look it up during the exam, but later I checked it out to see if what I thought made sense.”

I was not expecting Ella to point out this correlation between what Jacob was describing and what we do in class, but I was delighted she did!  The students can FEEL the difference between passive and active learning.  They recognize their own level of engagement, and how using a scientific lens to look at words has drawn them in and increased their level of interest.  The fact that Ella shared her thinking about the word <conversation> and how being able to do that helped her in a situation outside of class, proves that  Structured Word Inquiry has become the way she thinks about words!  Ella KNOWS that a word’s spelling is not random.  She KNOWS to expect its structure to make sense and to help her understand the meaning of that word.

I remember what a former student said at the end of her fifth grade year, “In fourth grade we had a list of words.  We wrote them on our white board over and over again until we could spell them without looking.  It got very boring very quickly.  In fifth grade it’s different.  We investigate a word to find out where it comes from, and what it’s word sum might look like.  We find out its history and how it’s been used.  Then we write about what we found, and after we’ve collected words with the same base we make a matrix.  It’s a lot more work, but it is also a lot more fun!”

Did you hear that?  It was a lot more work, but it was also a lot more fun!  We have to stop deciding what is too much work or what is too hard for our students.  We have to stop simplifying tasks to the point of rendering them uninteresting and requiring too little thought.

 

Structured Word Inquiry versus the Scientific Method

What my students do with spelling is not much different than what they do in preparation for our Science Fair.  The first step is to choose a topic or a word.  Next they do a bit of research.  For both spelling and science, they need to know enough about their topic to create a thoughtful hypothesis.  Let’s say a student is curious about the effects of music on a person’s heart rate.  Before writing a hypothesis, that student would benefit from finding out what a typical resting heart rate is.  It might even be helpful to find out what is considered to be an elevated heart rate.  The student might also want to know how many beats per minute specific music has. The student’s hypothesis can include those pieces of information, and later on, the data collected can be compared to that hypothesis.   The student investigating a word will want to brainstorm a few other words related to the targeted word.  Which structural pieces are the same?  Which structural pieces are different?  I am speaking of morphemes.  Does the student recognize affixes that could be removed in order to identify the base or bases?  A hypothesis in this situation means a possible word sum.  Oftentimes a student will consider two or three different word sum hypotheses.

The next step in either scenario is to research deeply.  The person preparing a science experiment will want to find out more about music types, heart rates, the effects music has on people, and maybe even music therapy.  The person investigating a word will want to find out when his/her word was first attested and what it meant at that time.  The person may consult several etymological references to find out the word’s language of origin and its spelling in that language.  What was the lexical stem in that language of origin that became today’s base element?  In the process, the word’s story is revealed.  It may have meant different things at different times in history.  It may have had its spelling changed (for a variety of reasons) by the different groups of people who used it over time.

Now it is time for the scientist to set up the experiment, run it, and collect the data.  This will take some time.  The person running the science experiment will select a group of people to participate.  Resting heart rates will be taken, and then music will be played.  Then heart rates will be taken again.  There will be tests for different kinds of music, and the group of participants will be tested several times for each type of music.  The student investigating a word will now focus on collecting words that share the word’s root (ancestor) which was found during research.  Words found that share both the word’s ancestor AND the base’s spelling are listed as morphological relatives.  Words found that share the word’s ancestor but NOT the base’s spelling are listed as etymological relatives.  In both cases it is important to keep a journal detailing this collection process in case the experiment gets repeated at a future time.

The data is collected.  What’s next?  The student who is preparing for the Science Fair will begin making graphs and/or charts of the data so this person can make observations.  After careful consideration of what the data shows, the student draws some conclusions. Does the data support the initial hypothesis or does it falsify it?  At this point, either outcome is valid.  The student learns about the effects of different types of music on a person’s heart rate regardless of whether or not their hypothesis was “right”.  Proving the hypothesis is what drives the experiment, but if the hypothesis isn’t proven, the experiment has not failed.  It has only moved the student in a different direction with their questions and thinking.  In so many respects it is the same for the student investigating a word.  This student looks at the morphological relatives found (the words that share a common ancestor AND the base element’s spelling) and writes those words as word sums.  As the student does this, special attention is paid to the the morpheme boundaries.  This is where the student’s understanding of the single final non-syllabic <e> as well as suffixing conventions come into play.  For example, let’s say the student was writing a word sum for <describing>.  If the student wrote the word sum as <de + scribe + ing –> describing>, I would know that the student understands the importance of the single final non-syllabic <e>.  The <e> is part of the base element in this word.  If it wasn’t, then adding the vowel suffix (<-ing>) would force the (then) final <b> on the base to double.  The student includes the <e> on the base element to prevent doubling!  When the words are all written as word sums, a matrix is created.  (Just as there are several kinds of graphs on which to display science data, there are other ways to present word collections as well.  A matrix is the one to use when looking at all the elements – affixes and other bases – that can be used with a common base.)

Once the graphs/matrices are made and the students have made a list of observations, it is time to share their findings with a larger group.  The student who is presenting at the Science Fair will pull out the journal with the detailed notes and type up a list of procedures, some of the research findings, the hypothesis, the observations and more.  Those will be displayed along with the graphs or charts and any pictures on a display board.  The student doing the word investigation will decide whether to create a poster, a booklet, a skit type presentation, a video, or some type of digital presentation (perhaps similar to Powerpoint).  This person will also go back to their journal with the detailed notes and share the word’s meaning, the attestation date, the language of origin, and other interesting things that were found out about the word’s history.  They will also share the matrix they created, the related words, and any observations they have made as they reflected on their investigation.  For instance, they may have noticed interesting things about the phonology in this word’s family.  Perhaps this word is Hellenic and has a <ph> grapheme that represents a /f/ phoneme.  Perhaps there are pronunciation differences in the base of the word family as there is in the family that includes predict, diction, and indictment.  The students usually include the word in IPA so they can specifically talk about the grapheme/phoneme relationships.

As each student presents, they walk us through their exploration.  They share the most surprising things they found out and ask for questions.  Their explorations, whether the kind shared at a Science Fair or the kind shared with fellow word enthusiasts in a classroom, always get great interaction from the audience.  The work investigated with this scientific lens is so worthy that audience members can’t help but become engaged themselves and think of their own questions.

  

It sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it?  I bet some of you are even thinking, “My students can’t do all that.”  But given the chance, your students will prove to you that they can.  My students begin fifth grade with very little true understanding about our written language.  But amazingly, within two to three months of school they are eager to investigate words on their own and in much this way!  They are so hungry to be actively involved in their learning!  As we continue through the year, they become more and more independent in their pursuit.  THIS is what Ella was pointing at when she said that our word work was a lot like what Jacob Barnett was describing.  When we investigate words (and conduct science experiments), we  “STOP LEARNING AND START THINKING!

 

 

Guess What? They’re ALL Silent Letters!

I found an article the other day that made me kind of sad.  The article was posted online by the Oxford Dictionaries and was called, “Why English is so hard to learn:  silent letters.”  Here is a link to the article.  The first thing that struck me was the term “silent letters”.  I am aware that letters that are unpronounced in a word are commonly referred to as silent letters, but that doesn’t make it accurate.  I also admit that in the not too distant past I called them that as well … because that was what I was told they were.  In a world where children are taught that letters routinely “say” sounds, as in the letter f says /f/, it might indeed seem to make sense to call the <g> in <sign> silent since it isn’t “saying” anything.

But I’ve come to realize how misleading that way of thinking is.  And it is.  Very misleading.

Letters produce sound?

Let’s begin with the underlying assumption here that letters do make sounds.  Obviously they do not.  Can not.  They’re just symbols printed on paper.  Yet we ask children to believe that they do.  In fact we begin a child’s reading instruction by teaching them that the consonants each “make” one sound and the vowels each “make” two.   What we really mean here, and what we should really be saying to children is that letters represent pronunciation.  So for example, we can say that the letter <s> represents /s/.  But don’t stop there.  If you don’t want to get into all of the pronunciations that the letter <s> CAN represent, then just say, “The letter <s> CAN represent /s/.  It can also represent other pronunciations, but right now we’ll focus on /s/.”   Using this wording leaves the door open to other pronunciations of the letter <s> as they will, without any doubt, notice in words.  The students won’t be gobsmacked when it happens.  They will have been waiting for it and looking forward to understanding why and when <s> has other pronunciations.

With this slight change in OUR explanation, we are switching from having children think something is possible (that even THEY can recognize is not) to simply stating the truth to children.  Changing your wording may seem trivial to you as you are reading this, but within a year or two of learning to read and write, children are already beginning to see our language as one that makes no sense.  And the fact that the adults don’t understand our language as well as they could, doesn’t help.  Many just repeat what they were taught or what some teacher manual says to repeat.  They don’t question what they don’t understand because their own education regarding our language has unintentionally taught them to believe that our language makes no sense.  I imagine that you have seen the same kinds of “proof” that I have where someone asks about house and mouse, and that if the plural of mouse is mice, why isn’t the plural of house hice?  There are lots of those kinds of questions offered up as proof that English spelling cannot be understood.  And perhaps, if the only aspect of English spelling that has been presented is that of the “sounds” of letters and words, then of course it might feel impossible to understand.

Learning letter, digraph, and trigraph pronunciations in isolation?

Can you imagine teaching children to read music by holding up a card with a musical note drawn on it and expecting them to sing it?  Of course that wouldn’t work because until they see the note on the proper line of the musical staff, or hear it in comparison to the note in front of it or behind it within a song, they won’t know the right note to sing.  Expecting children to recognize and accurately sing all of the notes before they see any of them on a staff or in a measure of music is ludicrous.  Before children learn to read music, they have sung hundreds of songs.  They have sung the notes in hundreds of combinations. But not in isolation.  Each note makes sense in its setting, in the context of its song.

Is it so different with children who are learning to read?  Why don’t we teach them letters, digraphs, and trigraphs in the context of a word or even a sentence?  Because THAT’S where those pronunciations become clear and predictable.  Perhaps begin with a word that is used in a story you are reading.  The child can get a feel for how the word is used and what it means by pulling it out of context for a closer look.  Maybe you’ll want to think of other words related to this one.  For example, if you are focusing on the word ‘dog’, maybe you want to talk about a dog house or dog food or dogs.  You can both count how many letters are in the word.  Then point out that each letter in this word represents a grapheme, and that each of those graphemes represents a phoneme.  Then pronounce each.  You might point out that in any word that has a final <g>, that <g> will be pronounced /g/.  Then you can brainstorm some other words with a final /g/.  Then again, maybe the student wants to pick out a word to look at.  Maybe it could be routine that every time you read a story together, you each pick out a word to look at and think about.  Review the names of the letters and compare the way letters are pronounced in words.  For example, compare the <s> in small to the <s> in dogs.  Find some other words with a final <s> and practice reading the words together and feeling whether the final <s> in those words is pronounced /z/ or /s/.  This might even be that opportunity to find letters in words that are unpronounced!

It is common practice to teach graphemes and digraphs in isolation.  I remember back a bunch of years.  Our spelling list included words in which the main vowel was called “long e” and pronounced as /i/.  The students would brainstorm different letter strings we could use to represent that pronunciation.  We came up with <ee> as in reel, <ea> as in read, <ei> as in received, <ie> as in chief, <e> as in be, <y> as the final letter in baby, and <e_e> as in these.  Every week we would brainstorm these patterns and then think of words that used those spellings for that pronunciation.  What busy work!  The students would ask, “How do you know which of those spellings is in a particular word?”  I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know.  After a while they stopped asking and they resigned themselves to empty memorization.  What I was doing didn’t make them better spellers unless they were already great at memorizing.  You see, looking at the vowel pronunciation and all the letter strings that might represent it just made matching them up feel very random.  To the students, it was like playing “take a guess.”

It makes much more sense to start with a word that a student has come across and that they are interested in.

So why are some letters in some words unpronounced?

Let’s focus on some of the letters identified as “silent” in the article.  We’ll look through a few at a time so I can explain some possible reasons for that letter not being pronounced in that word.

Let’s begin with read, as in “She read that book yesterday.”  The <a> cannot be considered unpronounced because it is not functioning independently in this word.  It is part of the digraph <ea>.  That means that the two letters are representing one grapheme which is representing one phoneme.  In this word, the digraph <ea> is representing /ɛ/ as it does in bread, feather, and breath.  This digraph can also represent /i/ as it does in team, eat, and bean.  The fact that this one digraph can be representing two different phonemes makes it perfect for this word.  If you look at other words in this family, you’ll see that both of these pronunciations are present: <ea> as /i/ – read, reading, readable, reader, readability, readership, misread, and <ea> as /ɛ/ well-read, read, misread.  The meaning of this base is constant, but the pronunciation of the base is dependent on the context in which we find it, as well as the affixes attached to it.

The next word on the list is crumb.  The <b> in this word is considered a marker letter.  It is marking its connection to other members in its family in which the <b> IS pronounced.  That would include words like crumble, crumbling, and crumbled.  If the <b> were removed from <crumb> just because it is no longer pronounced, we would not recognize this word as belonging to this word family and sharing its meaning.

Since dumb and lamb have a similar placement of <b>, let’s look at them together.  These two have a similar story.  The final <b> in both of these words marks their etymological origins.  The word dumb is from the Old English word dumb.  At that time it meant “silent, unable to speak”.  Even though it has come to mean other things as well, its spelling has not changed.  The word lamb has a story that is not very different.  It is from the Old English word which was spelled either as lamb, lomb, or lemb depending on where one lived.  In both dumb and lamb, the final <b> has been there from the beginning.  And even though we don’t pronounce it, it is part of this word’s identity.  When we see words like lambskin, lambkin, and lambswool, we instantly know these are related to the animal we know as a lamb.

In Modern English spelling, the consonant cluster <mb>, when found final in a word, is considered to be unpronounceable.  In that case, the last letter in the word is unpronounced.  This explains why we don’t pronounce the final <b> in crumb, dumb, lamb, tomb, bomb, and thumb, yet we DO pronounce that <b> in related words like thimble, crumble, bombard, and rhombus.

The word debt has a very interesting story to tell.  It’s etymological journey begins in Latin with debitum “thing owed.”  Its spelling changed for a while because of a French influence (dette, dete).  Sometime after c.1400, the <b> was restored.  So once again, this unpronounced letter marks a connection to this word’s root.  It is interesting to note that the <b> IS pronounced in the related word debit where we see the two letters separated by a vowel.

Next up is ascend.  This word is from Latin ascendere “to climb up, mount.”  The <c> would have been pronounced /k/ in Latin.  When we compare it to descend, we can hypothesize that the base element is <scend>.  The prefix is an assimilated form of <ad-> “to, near, at”.  The Etymonline entry for this prefix states that the <ad-> is simplified to <a-> before an <sc>.  That gives us information about the word’s structure, but not the pronunciation (or lack thereof) of the <c>.

In thinking about the <c> here, I wondered whether or not it IS pronounced in words in which it appears to be paired up with the <s>.  I went to Word Searcher and found a long list of words with an <sc> letter string.  Here are a few of them:  scone, scope, scoot, scrub, screw, scab, scale, scarf, scream, and rescue.  I also noticed other words in which the <c> seemed to be unpronounced.  Here are a few of them:  descent, scion, scenic, scent, obscene, scepter, scissor, and scythe.  In looking at the lists it became obvious to me that this is just a case of knowing the pronunciations that can be represented by the grapheme <c> and what governs that.  When followed by an <e>, <i>, or <y>, it will be /s/.  When followed by anything else, it will be /k/.  When the <s> AND <c> in a word would both be representing /s/, they function instead as a digraph representing a single /s/.

Two other words in this list have the <sc> pronounced as /s/.  The first is scene.  This word originated in Greek as σκηνικός “of the stage, scenic, theatrical.”  It is transcribed as skenikos.  When the Greek suffixal construction <-ikos> was removed and this word was transcribed into Latin, the <k>’s were written as <c> (scene), but the pronunciation of the <c> remained /k/.  As had happened in many many instances, this word was influenced by Middle French speakers (scéne) and the <c> lost its hard pronunciation.  Today we can recognize the <sc> as a digraph representing /s/.

The last word in this group is science.  This word is from Latin scientia “what is known, acquired by study.”  If we further analyze this word, we find the base element of <sci> “know, be able to separate one thing from another.”  It’s the same base we see in conscience, unconscious, and conscientious.  Do you see the meaning connections there?  Isn’t that fascinating?  A tangent, I know, but sometimes I can’t help it!  Back to the phonology of the <c> in science.  In Latin, the <c> would have been pronounced as /k/, but like scene, as this word journeyed through time, it was influenced by French speakers – (Old French science).  The <c> took on a /s/ pronunciation which persists today.

It’s time to look at Wednesday.  This day of the week was originally named for the Roman god that corresponded to the planet Mercury.  That is why the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) spell this day as Mercredi, Mercoledi, and Miércoles respectively.  When the Germanic people adopted this naming of the days, they switched out the Roman gods for their own gods who had similar characteristics.  The day known as Dies Mercurii to the Romans became known as Woden’s Day to the Germanic people.  Can you see now how Woden’s Day became Wednesday?  There is a slight difference with the letters which no doubt prompted the <d> to lose its pronunciation.  Once the <en> in Woden was reversed and the <o> changed to an <e>, the <dn> letter string became less pronounceable.  If you say the word ‘Wednesday’ several times, you can feel the elision happening and the <d> becoming unpronounced.

Next up is reign.  The Etymonline entry shows that the verb form of this word is from Latin regnare “be king, rule.”  Moving forward through time, this word was adopted and adapted in Old French where it was spelled regner.  In its noun form it gained the <i> and was spelled reigne.  Seeing that the <gn> has always been part of this word’s spelling, I looked for relatives of this word to see if is pronounced in any of those.  I found the words regnant “reigning, exercising authority” and regnal “pertaining to a reign.”  So it seems that in Modern English the <g> is pronounced when the base is <regn>, but not pronounced when the base is <reign>.

Next on the list is anchor and what an entertaining story awaits!  The Etymonline entry lists this word as beginning in Latin as ancora “an anchor.”  The information there also points to the Greek ankyra “an anchor, a hook” as being either an earlier ancestor or perhaps a cognate (emerging at the same time).  This information is especially interesting because of the Greek letter kappa being transcribed to the Latin <c>.  A modern English <ch> spelling that is pronounced as /k/ usually originates from the Greek letter χ (chi) which was transcribed into Latin as <ch>.  That did not happen here.  So why is the <ch> representing /k/ in this word?

Reading on at Etymonline, the story is revealed.  The <ch> is NOT etymological and was inserted in the late 16th century, “a pedantic imitation of a corrupt spelling of the Latin word.”  So even though the <ch> in this word is NOT derived from the Greek letter chi, it now looks like and behaves like it was, including being pronounced /k/.  The <h> is part of the <ch> digraph.  It is not operating as an independent grapheme.

So what about architect, character, and chord?  They each have <ch> representing /k/.  Do they share a Hellenic ancestry?  Well, architect is from the Greek αρχι-τέκτων “chief builder.”  That would have been transcribed by the Romans as archi-tecton.  As you will notice, the third Greek letter was χ (chi).  When that letter was transcribed by the Romans, they transcribed it as <ch> and pronounced it /k/.

Digging into the etymology of character we find that it is from the Greek χαρακτήρ “engraved mark”.  As you can see, the initial letter in Greek was again χ (chi).  This word was transcribed by the Romans as character .  The initial <ch> was pronounced /k/.  This word lost that <ch> spelling for a while.  At one point it was adopted and adapted by Old French and its spelling changed to caratere “feature, character”.  It was sometime in the 1500’s that the <ch> spelling was restored.

So what about chord?  Will we see that it too has a <ch> that derived from the Greek letter χ?  Prepare for another interesting word story!  This word has two entries. The first is as a noun meaning “two or more musical notes sounded together”, and is from 1608.  It is an alteration of Middle English cord, a shortened form of accord.  The second is as a noun meaning “a structure of the body, emotions figuratively considered as a string on a musical instrument, straight line connecting two points on a circumference”, and is from 1543.  The note of interest is this statement in the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology:  “English chord(2) and Latin chorda, both meaning a string of a musical instrument have influenced this word by association of form and meaning.”  If the Latin word was chorda, that initial <ch> is like the others we encountered in character and architect.  It was originally a χ (chi) in Greek.  The Greek word was χορδή “a string of gut, the string or chord of a lyre or harp.”

So what about the claim that in the words anchor, architect, character, and chord the <h> is silent (unpronounced)?  It is not.  The <h> is part of the digraph <ch> that represents /k/ in these words.  When you see this particular digraph representing /k/ in a word, it is usually marking a Hellenic heritage.

The words autumn and column have a final <n> that is not pronounced.  Why?  When we look at autumn we see it is from Latin autumnus.  Minus the Latin suffix, the spelling is a direct derivation.  Interesting side note:  This season was called Harvest by the English until Autumn displaced it in the 16th century.

The word column is from Latin columna “pillar.”  Again, the Modern English spelling is a direct derivation.  The final <n>’s in these words may not be pronounced, but they are pronounced in other members of these word families.  Think of autumnal, autumnally, columnist, columnar, columniation.  We can think of the final <n> marking a connection to its relatives!

The word psychology takes us back to Greek.  How do I know?  Check out the <ch> grapheme representing the phoneme /k/!  But with this word we are to focus on the initial <ps> cluster in this word.  This word was coined in the 1650’s from a Latinized form of ψυχικός “breath, spirit, soul.”  You see and recognize the third letter in, right?  It’s χ (chi).  It was transcribed by the Romans as <ch> since they didn’t have a letter that was its equal.  Well, look at the first Greek letter in the same Greek word.  It is the letter ψ (psi).  When it was transcribed into Latin, the Romans had no equivalent letter, and so transcribed it as <ps>.  In Modern English, this cluster is considered unpronounceable when it is initial in a word.  Both the <p> and the <s> are pronounced though, in words like biopsy, autopsy, and epilepsy.

Next on the list is pneumonia, and the focus is on the initial unpronounced <p>.  This word comes from the Greek word πνεύμων transcribed as pneumon “lung.”  The reason we no longer pronounce the inital <p> is because of its placement.  Richard Venezky (The American Way of Spelling) describes this cluster as unpronounceable when it is initial.  When we see this cluster in another position, that is not the case.  Look at apnea and tachypnea.

Now let’s look at receipt.  The focus here is also the unpronounced <p>.  This word is from Old French recete and before that from Latin recepta “received.”  According to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “The English spelling with p (in imitation of the Latin form) is first recorded in the late 1300’s,  but did not  become the established form until the 1700’s.”  So the <p> was in the spelling of the Latin word recepta, but disappeared as this word was adopted and adapted in Old French.  It reappeared sometime in the late 1300’s, and became part of the established form of the word in the 1700’s.  That explains its place in the word, but what about it not being pronounced?  Well, according to Richard Venezky, there are a small group of “borrowings and scribal tamperings” in which the <p> is unpronounced.  Besides receipt, examples include corps and coup.

With mortgage we’ll be looking at the unpronounced <t>.  According to Etymonline, this word was first attested in the late 14th century as Old French morgage “conveyance of property as security for a loan or agreement.” This Old French word is from mort “dead” and gage “pledge”.  This name is fitting because “the deal dies either when the debt is paid or when the payment fails.”  Old French mort is from Latin mortuus.  The <t> was not evident in the Old French word, but was restored in English based on the Latin.  This word is considered a French borrowing with the <t> restored to mark an etymological connection to its Latin root mortuus.  As such, the <t> is not pronounced.

The next three words have unpronounced <u>’s.  The first is build.  It is from Middle English bilden and earlier (probably 1200) it was bulden “dwelling.”  According to Chambers, “It was not until the late 1500’s that our spelling begins to appear with frequency.  Even so, the spelling is not accounted for, unless it is simply a composite of the two earlier spellings bilden and bulden.”  The sense and meaning of putting something together came about in 1667.  Although <u> is found in words like guild, guilt, guitar, and circuit, and therefore might appear to be a <ui> vowel digraph, it is not.  The <u> has a specific function in those words that it is not performing in build.  I will explain further in the next paragraph as we look at the words guess and guide.  In the word build, the <u> is unpronounced.

The word guess is from Old English gessen “infer, perceive, find out.”  According to Etymonline, the <gu> was late 16th century.  This sometimes happened in Middle English to signal a “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.   In this word, the unpronounced <u> is considered a marker letter.  It marks the pronunciation of the <g>.

The last word in this group is guide.  This word is from Old French guider “to lead, conduct.”  The <u> has always been part of the spelling of this word.  Here, the unpronounced <u> is considered a marker letter as it was in guess.  It is marking the “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.

This last group of words are all listed as have a silent w.  Let’s find out what we can about them.

First up is playwright.   According to Wikipedia, “It appears to have been first used in a pejorative sense by Ben Jonson in 1853 to suggest a mere tradesman fashioning works for the theatre.  Jonson described himself as a poet, not a playwright, since plays during that time were written in meter and so were regarded as the province of poets.”  You see, at the time, the word wright was Old English wryhta, wrihta “worker.”  Ben Jonson saw what he did as above the rank of a worker.  He referred to himself as a poet and not a playwright.

As far as the <wr> spelling, Etymonline notes that it was a common Germanic consonantal combination (and that we can see for ourselves when we look at the Old English spelling).  It is especially interesting to note that the <wr> combination often starts words that imply twisting or distortion.  A worker or crafter might indeed need to twist in order to craft something!  Etymonline goes on to note that the <w> ceased to be pronounced sometime c. 1450-1700.

The next word on the list is sword.  This word is from Old English sweord, swyrd, sword “cutting weapon.”  As you can see, the <w> has been part of its spelling since its beginning and was no doubt pronounced at that time.  Even though that <w> is generally unpronounced in this word, we can consider the <w> as marking its language of origin.

Now let’s look at wrap.  This word was first attested in the 14 c. as Old English wrappen “to wind something around something else.”  This is the same common Germanic consonantal combination we saw in wright that starts words that imply twisting or distortion.  To wind something is certainly to twist it!

Wreck was first attested in the early 13th century, “goods cast ashore after a shipwreck.”  Before that it was from Anglo-French wrec and before that from a Scandinavian source.  A note of interest here from Etymonline is that “wrack, wreck, rack, and wretch were utterly tangled in spelling and somewhat in sense in Middle and early modern English.”  And, again we see that same Germanic consonant pair <wr> that can imply twisting or distortion when initial in a word!

I bet you already see the Germanic consonantal combination in wrestle and can see the implication of twisting and distortion in this word’s meaning.  This word has a frequentative suffix <-le>, which means the action happens over and over.  The base wrest is from Old English wræstan “to twist, wrench.”  Once again, the <w> may no longer be pronounced, but it is marking that etymological connection to Old English and the <wr> combination here implies twisting and distortion.

Next up is wrist.  I bet YOU could tell ME about that <w> this time!  Yes, it IS from Old English.  It was spelled wrist and the notion was “the turning joint.”  In other words, the <w> is unpronounced and marks the etymological connection to its Old English roots and the <wr> combination here implies twisting and distortion.

Now let’s look at write.  It is from Old English writan “to score, outline, draw the figure of.”  Once again we have the <w> marking its connection to its language of origin, Old English, and that <wr> implying twisting and distortion.

The very last word on the list is wrong.  Surely this word will have a different story to tell.  Let’s see.  It’s from late Old English “twisted, crooked, wry.”  According to Etymonline, “the sense of not right, bad, immoral, or unjust was developed by c. 1300. Wrong thus is etymologically a negative of right, which is from Latin rectus, literally straight.”  You will recognize the Latinate base <rect> in the word correct!  As for the <w>?  It functions just like the <w> in playwright, wrap, wreck, wrestle, wrist, and write.  It marks the connection to the Old English heritage each word has.  And when paired with <r> in words of Germanic heritage, an initial <wr> often implies a twisting and distortion of some sort.

Here’s a list of the words once more with an explanation for the unpronounced letter in each:

read … the <a> is part of the digraph <ea> and as such is not an independent letter in this word.
crumb … the <b> marks a connection to other members of the word family in which it is pronounced, such as crumble and crumbling.
debt … the <b> marks a connection to the word’s root and related words in which the <b> is pronounced, such as debit.
lamb, dumb … in Modern English, the <mb> is considered an unpronounceable cluster and as such the final letter is unpronounced.
ascend, scene, science … the <sc> represents /s/, so the <c> is part of a digraph.
Wednesday … the <d> followed by an <n> caused the <d> to be elided (unpronounced).
reign … the <g> is unpronounced but marks a meaning connection to a related base <regn>.
anchor, architect, character, chord … the <h> is part of the <ch> digraph representing /k/ which signals a Hellenic heritage.
autumn, column … the <n> marks a connection to other members of the word’s family in which it is pronounced, such as autumnal and columnist.
psychology … the <ps> marks a Hellenic heritage.  When the <ps> is initial, the <p> is unpronounced.
pneumonia … when the <pn> cluster is initial, the <p> is unpronounced.
receipt … the <p> is unpronounced in this word as well as in corps.  It is part of a small group of “borrowings and scribal tamperings” that have unpronounced letters.
mortgage … the <t> marks the historical language of origin (Latin) of <mort>.
build … the <u> is unpronounced and although there are ideas about the historical phonology, I could not find an agreed-upon explanation.
guess, guide … the <u> marks the “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.
sword … the <w> marks the language of origin (Old English) and a time when the <w> was pronounced.
playwright, wrap, wreck, wrestle, wrist, write, wrong … the <w> is part of the Germanic <wr> consonant cluster that implies twisting and distortion.

Labeling letters as silent is a problem.

The problem with calling a letter silent is that feels like an explanation to someone who is learning to read.  “Oh.  Don’t worry about the <g> in sign.  It’s a silent letter.  Just skip over it.”  That learner will probably become as complacent as the adults around him and not even look for an understanding as to WHY it is not pronounced in that word.  And, of course, by just moving on, thinking there is no reason for it to be there, they will miss out on understanding a whole lot about digraphs, markers, etymology, word families, and phonology.

Just imagine what it would be like if letters COULD talk.  What if they could each tell you their history or how pairing them up with other letters matters!  What if they could tell you that their coming together in a spelling is like music and the melody each word creates is in their sense and meaning!

Until then, let’s speak on their behalf.  Let’s not lump all unpronounced letters into one mislabeled group.  Unpronounced does not mean uninteresting or without purpose.  Let’s celebrate the history and individual awesomeness of each!

So what is the truth here?  Are these letters silent?  Sure they are.  But then again, so is every other letter in the alphabet.  A better attitude to instill in our young learners would be, “That letter isn’t pronounced?  Well, it MUST be there for a reason.  I wonder what it is?  Do you want to help me find out?”