Now Presenting … Our Orthographic Caboodle!

Ever have a student finish an assignment before everyone else and ask, “What should I do now?”  Recently I asked everyone to write an editorial.  We all started at the same point, but once the writing started, everyone was in their own lane and working at their own pace.  When the first few were done, they asked that question.  “What should we do now?”   I gave them things to investigate.  Some finished their first investigation and asked for a second.  All the while, other students were still working on their writing.  And it was all good.  No one felt rushed in their task.

We have moved on from editorial writing, but in the meantime, I assigned three more projects.  One involved partner work in which students investigated Latin verbs. They removed Latin suffixes to see whether their particular Latin verb became a modern English unitary base or a set of twin bases.   (They will be featured in a future blog post.)  Then a poem was assigned in which the students were to use the digits of Pi to determine how many words would be on each line.  (They will be featured in a future blog post.)   The third project involved creating a pseudosaur.  Inspired by the work of Skot Caldwell’s Grade 5 students (use this link) in Canada, we wanted to create our own.  Most of the students are still working on those.  But that also means that plenty of students have finished all major projects and continue to ask for things to work on.  I’m loving it.  Students are investigating all sorts of things!

The unplanned investigations have been of benefit to all of us because the investigator presents his or her findings with the class.  This gives us the opportunity to talk about lots and lots of things we might not have talked about otherwise.  I am thrilled.  Here are some examples of the types of investigations going on:

Looking at specific letters and noticing that that letter can represent several pronunciations, depending on the word it’s in.


This type of investigation gave us the opportunity to talk about the investigated letter being initial, medial, or final in the word.  We also had the opportunity to begin learning about IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet).  The IPA is a standardized representation of the sounds of spoken language.  In looking at each of these symbols, we have paused to feel where in our mouths we vocalize these letter representations.  In doing so we have better understood the symbols.  For example, when pronouncing the <t> in <tap>, we felt our tongue tips touch the ridge right behind our teeth just before air pushed it off.  When pronouncing the <t> in <partial>, we noticed that our tongues came close to that ridge, but never actually touched it.  When we pronounced the <t> in <question>, our tongues once again touched the ridge, but in a different way than with <tap>.  It was more the sides of our tongues.  What we heard reminded us of the pronunciation of <ch>.

One other interesting thing that was observed is that when the <t> is represented with a /tʃ/ pronunciation as it is in question, the <t> is usually followed by either an <ion> suffix or an <ure> suffix.  We compared that to the suffixes on the words in which the <t> is represented with a /ʃ/ as it is in imagination.  Most of the words on this list had an <ion> suffix.  That raised the question of why the <t> is pronounced as /tʃ/ in question, but /ʃ/ in imagination?  The thought was that there was an <s> in front of the <t> in question, and that wasn’t the case in any of the words in which the <t> was pronounced as /ʃ/.  So our hypothesis was that the <s> affected the pronunciation of the <t> in the word question.  It was agreed that we needed to gather more evidence.

The look at <c> was interesting too.  After Alexis finished collecting words in which the <c> was pronounced /s/ and in which the <c> was pronounced /k/, I asked her to look at the letters following the <c>.  She came back and reported that when the <c> was pronounced /s/, it was followed by either an <e>, <i>, or <y>.  If the <c> was pronounced /k/, it was followed by either an <a>, <o>, <u> or a consonant.  We practiced reading the words out loud and took turns explaining the phonology of the <c> in each word.  Then we looked at words with two <c>’s, explaining the pronunciation of each one.  In the end, one student suggested we create an activity to take to the second grade classroom so they could learn this too!

Another letter we looked at was <d>.  I asked Oliver to investigate three pronunciations of <d>.  He collected words in which the <d> was pronounced /d/, in which it was pronounced as /ɾ/, and in which it was pronounced /dʒ/.  When sharing this with the class, we all talked about the way we pronounce <d> as /ɾ/.  Even though we see two <d>’s, we hardly pronounce a clear /d/ at all.  With a word like <glad>, we feel our tongue touch the ridge behind our teeth.  With a word like <wedding>, our tongue barely touches the ridge!  We quickly pronounce the two <d>’s as barely one!  When Oliver read off the list of words in which the <d> is pronounced /dʒ/, we talked about why these words might sometimes be misspelled.   Someone pointed out that in every word, the <d> was followed by a <u>.  We wondered if that is always the case ( we realized this was a very short list and wasn’t a big enough collection from which to draw conclusions).

Looking at specific digraphs and noticing that that digraph can represent several pronunciations, depending on the word it’s in.

In looking at the <ch> digraph, we recognized the IPA symbols /tʃ/ and /ʃ/ again.  We were now becoming familiar with the pronunciation represented by those IPA symbols.  We practiced feeling where those pronunciations were made in our mouths again.  We noticed that when the <ch> is represented by /tʃ/, the <ch> can be initial or final in the word.  We recognized that many of the words in which the <ch> is represented by /k/ are from Greek.  We agreed that we couldn’t assume all of them were since we hadn’t looked them up.  (I put “checking out the origin of these <ch> word with a pronunciation of /k/” on the list of possible future investigations for some curious student.)  When we read the list of words in which the <ch> is represented by the pronunciation /ʃ/, I asked if anyone knew if many of these originated in a specific language.  They guessed it was Spanish, so I added this list of words to my “list of possible investigations for some curious student” as well.  It will be interesting to find out the language origin of these words.  When the presenter hesitated to pronounce <chalet>, but did not hesitate with <crochet> and <ricochet>, I asked him what all three had in common.  I pointed out that they were from the same language and would be pronounced the same.  He pronounced it, but was totally unfamiliar with the word, so we talked about what it meant.

Comparing <ge> to <dge>, <ch> to <tch>, and <k> to <ck>.  If they represent the same pronunciation, when is each used?


The investigation comparing <k> to <ck> was completed by Ana and was presented on Google Slides, so I am sharing screen shots. We noticed  interesting things here!   We noticed  that <dge>, <tch>, and <ck> were final in the words looked at by the students and were always preceded by a short vowel.  Ana noticed that when <k> was final in a word, it was preceded by either a vowel digraph or a consonant.  Brayden noticed that when <ge> was final in a word, it was preceded by either a long vowel or a consonant.  When the <ge> was preceded by a short <a>, that <a> was part of the <age> suffix.

Comparing British English spelling to American English spelling

I asked Jada and Natasha to find differences between British English spelling and American English spelling.  Most were familiar with the difference between words like favourite and favorite, but were surprised at organise and organize.  You can’t see in these pictures, but lower on Natasha’s poster she compared words like centre and center.  We have talked about that list of words and how it makes better sense to spell the base with an <re> finally instead of <er>.  Think of this word sum using the British English spelling of the base: <centre> + <al> –> <central>.  Now think of this word sum using the American English spelling of the base:  <center> [<cent(e)r(e)] + <al> –> <central>.  We have to think of the base as having a potential <e> both in front of and behind the <r>.  Wouldn’t you agree that the word sum using the British English spelling of the base is more elegant and straightforward?  Now ask yourself why we have different spellings for British English and for American.  The answer is Noah Webster.

In 1807 Noah Webster, who was a very educated man, set out to write a comprehensive dictionary.  It was completed in 1828 and called The American Dictionary of the English Language.  It was his belief that English spellings were too complex, so he made some changes to certain words and created American English spellings.  He preferred color to colour, meter to metre, license to licence among others.  He also added American words (skunk and squash) which had not been listed in British dictionaries.  He set out to make things easier, but in some ways mucked things up!  This is a great reminder that dictionaries are written by real people!

<f> and <ve> have a very special relationship

This was Saveea’s investigation.  She started by collecting words that had an <f> when singular but the <f> was replaced with a <ve> when the word was written as a plural.  In her search she came across some other words that had one form with an <f> and another form with <ve>.  We couldn’t think of others to add to the list at that moment, but we are keeping it in mind and hope to find more examples!

Words whose meaning has changed drastically over time

Petra enjoyed investigating <terrific> and <nice>.   She decided that a timeline for each would best tell the story of how the meaning changed over time.  If we begin by looking at terrific, we see that in 1660, it meant “frightening”.  In 1809 the meaning was more of “very great or severe” as in a terrific headache.  By 1888 it meant “excellent” as in a terrific idea!   Now when we look at nice, we see that in the 12th century it meant “careless, clumsy, poor and weak”.  By the 13th century it meant “foolish, stupid, senseless”.  How about that?  In the 1300’s it meant “fussy, fastidious”.  In the 1400’s it meant “dainty and delicate”.  In the 1500’s it meant “agreeable or delightful”.  By 1769 it was being used to mean “kind and thoughtful”.  Isn’t that a turn around in meaning?  Since learning this information, when someone uses the word nice in class,  someone else always asks, “Do you mean 12th century nice or present day nice?”  We are definitely having fun with these!

Oliver investigated the word <fabulous>.  He found out that in the early 15th century it meant “mythical and legendary”.  In the 1550’s it meant “pertaining to fable”.  In the 1600’s it took on a meaning of “incredible or enormous, immense, and amazing.”  Ever since the 1950’s it has been trivialized to merely “marvelous or terrific”.  We had a great discussion about the fact that it was trivialized in it’s meaning between the 1600’s and present day.  In the 1600’s, there must have been a feeling of awe surrounding its use that has been lost.

On the left side of Oliver’s poster, he began in the middle with the uniliteral base <f> with the denotation “say, speak, talk” (from Latin fari).  Follow the orange line to <fable> which is built from the base <f> and suffix <able>, and then to <fabulous> “that which is celebrated in fable”.  Fabulous, fabulously, and fabulousness all share the base <fabul>.  At this point, Oliver’s orange lines take you in two directions.  The line to the left takes you to the portmanteau <fantabulous>.  Oliver enjoyed looking at portmanteau words earlier this year and recognized this one right away.  The other orange line takes you to <fab> and let’s you know it is a clip of <fabulous>.  If you follow the line to the top, you’ll see the the word <fab> was popularized by reference to the Beatles!   From the discussions I had with Oliver during his research, I could easily follow his visual on the left.  I hope I’ve helped it be clear to you as well!

We put these investigations on pause when we need to.  Earlier this week I asked the students to write their own graduation speech.  But within two or three days,as students finish that, they eagerly get back to these.  Currently, there are other investigations going on as well.  I have students looking at assimilated prefixes, frequentative suffixes, and diminutive suffixes.  As you can imagine, each investigation broadens the understanding of how amazing, fascinating, and alive the English language is!  These students love investigating because they love learning! 

Don’t Just Tell Me, Offer Evidence So I Can See for Myself.

We had talked earlier in the year about the bound base <fer>, so I thought it was time for a review.  I listed the following words on the left side of the board:


We began by reading the words.  Next we discussed each one, often using it in a sentence as well as defining it.  I pointed out the suffixes used and how they indicated a specific part of speech.  After that I asked someone to underline the base in each word.  Now we were ready to build a matrix.  This particular matrix became interesting when we came to the word <preferring> and were looking to represent it on the matrix.  One of the students explained that the <r> was doubled because we were adding a vowel suffix.  So then I pointed to <offered> and <suffering> and asked why the <r> wasn’t doubled in those words.  The vowel suffix <ing> was the same suffix used in <preferring>.

At this point we needed to talk about stress.  I had the students say the words out loud, switching the stress from the first syllable to the second.  Then we began to notice how that affected the doubling convention.

I led students through this activity three times today.  The video below was taped with the third group, although all three classes were engaged and participated with enthusiasm!  My favorite part of the video is where the students have one of those “light bulb” moments and it is clear that they understand when to double the final <r> in the base before adding a vowel suffix and when not to.  To quote one of the students, “That is so cool!”


“Learn to see what you are looking at.” –Christopher Paolini

The first time I heard the term phonestheme mentioned, I was taking an online class.  The presenter was talking about words that have in common a specific set of letters representing a specific pronunciation. The surprising thing is that the words also share a broad meaning.  Let me give you an example:  The letter string <gr> is initial in the following words:  groan, growl, gruff, grump, grunt, grouch, grate and grief.  Pretty obvious, right?  Now when you stop and think about the meaning of each of those words, there is a common theme here.  It is one of low unpleasant sounds.   Cool, huh?

Here’s another:  The letter string <ump> is final in the following words:  bump, dump, stump, lump, slump, hump, and rump.  When you stop and think of the meaning of each word, there is a shared sense of heavy and compactness, isn’t there? Once you begin an investigation of your own, you will be surprised at how many of these phonesthemes there are.  If you are like me, you will ask yourself, “How could something be right there in front of me all my life, yet I didn’t see it?”

With phonesthemes, it takes a bit of slowing down and thinking about each word to really appreciate what has happened here.  These words share a sound and a broad meaning without sharing a heritage.  They do not all originate from the same language, and they do not all share a root.  It makes a phonestheme all the more fascinating.  When I ask my students to investigate phonesthemes,  they willingly agree.  It seems like such a simple assignment.  If the phonestheme is initial, I recommend they grab a dictionary so they can check to make sure there is a shared sense of meaning.  A surprising number of words have phonesthemes, but just because a word has a letter combination (<gr> for instance),  it doesn’t necessarily mean the word shares this phonestheme for sure.  Here are some of the posters my students created.

So now what?  My students have each had the opportunity to collect words that fit as a particular phonestheme.   Last year I asked my students to write poems using a particular phonestheme.  Some of the poems were fantastic.  Some felt forced.  I wanted to have them write, but we needed to talk about poetry in general first and the role sounds of pronounced words play.

I pulled out my new book by Michael Clay Thompson, A World of Poetry.  I read to them, “Poetry is not just expression in words.  It is also expression in sounds.  Poets compose sounds; they choose words that contain the sounds they need, and then they arrange the words into a composition that is an artistic combination of words and sounds.”

I read more from his book.   We talked about the vowels and the consonants, and how some consonants are breathy (like /s/, /f/, or /h/).  We said aloud other consonants like /v/,  /j/, and /z/ and found them to be hummy and buzzy.  We talked about how some pronounced letters remind us of movements or nature sounds.  I read examples of poems with end rhyme, internal rhyme, eye rhyme, and even no rhyme at all.  And then we were ready to play, to experiment, to explore.

The directions were to go out into the hall and look at all the phonestheme posters completed by classmates.  While reading the lists of words, they were to think of something to write a poem about. It was to be a poem that could incorporate words from several lists.  The words needed to fit.  I was not looking for every other word to be a phonestheme, and the poem to be about nothing.

I let them think through this and begin writing for about 15 minutes.  Then we stopped and talked again.  Some really knew what I was looking for, some did not.  I asked for some volunteers to share what they were working on so far.  I have found that this step gives the students who are unsure a better idea of what others are writing, and then they are able to think of what to write for themselves.  The point was to use the feel and meaning of the words with phonesthemes to improve the feel and meaning of the poem!  Here are a few of the finished poems.

The Former World Has Passed Away

The former world
has passed away.

All trees
have turned to stumps.
Lush lands
have turned to dumps
as we attacked each other
with fire and metal.

Now the only
beauty in the world
is the glimmering glaze
of stars above.

                                                   ~ Perry

The Wind

You swish my hair as I walk by
You blow like a trumpet
yet sometimes you’re hard to find

You knock leaves off trees
You push logs to the river
You swoosh and move plants

Blowing, moving,
huffing and puffing
in your courageous way

If only I was as powerful as you,



He fled.
With a whoosh
he was gone –
gone down
that glossy field.

No time to flinch.
No time to whimper.

He was a flash,
a glimmer of speed,
a whisper taken away,
a glowing star.

The flick of his feet,
the glamor of his stride,
and when he finished,
a glint of pride.


My Little Sister and Me

My little sister
flings dust
in the places
I already swept
because I told her
to get out of the room.

I get so mad
I hit her.
She whacks me back.
I flip out,
my anger
flashing in flames.


Roots of the Past

See that stump?
It used to be a tree.
Now it’s just a clump
of what it used to be.

The tree is dead.
The stump is here.
The canopy’s lost its head.
The poor tree’s fate is clear.

Forever eternal



The swoosh of air that I feel
as I enter the water to swim.

The sweat tearing off my skin
into the swaying water.

Swoosh!  I pass everyone else
swimming next to me.

And that sweep of success
when I swoosh into the wall.


The Candle

There was a candle
so bright and new
until somebody lit it.

The flame flickered and flicked
and magically grew.
It glittered and glistened
and gleamed out of sight
and swiftly swooped down
and died in the light.


I saw this poetry writing as an opportunity to play with words as one might play with Play-Doh.  We don’t always know where we are going to end up, but we start by picking something to create.  Then we add and take away  and keep doing that until we are pleased enough to share.



To my Valentine … the valiant valedictorian of my heart!

Just last week we started talking about Latin verbs and their principal parts.  We looked at several Latin verbs and practiced identifying which of the 4 principal parts is helpful to us as orthographers.  We became a bit familiar with the infinitive suffixes that can be removed.  We became familiar with the supine suffix and stem suffixes that can be removed.  We practiced recognizing whether or not the removal of those Latin suffixes resulted in a modern English unitary base or modern English twin bases.  Then the students searched for words that shared those bases (and denotations).  That was just last week.

Today I wrote the following principal parts on the board along with this Latin verb’s denotation:

          valeo    valere    valui    valitus
“be strong, influential, healthy, of worth”

I asked, “Which two parts are we going to work with as orthographers?”  As students gave answers, I had them come to the board and label the second and fourth parts.  Then I asked, “What is the infinitive suffix we can remove?”  Several hands went up and I asked someone to come up and draw a single line through it.  Next I asked, “What is the past participle suffix that can be removed off the supine?”  I chose a volunteer to come and cross it off.  But before I could ask my next question (Is there a stem suffix?), a student waved her hand and said, “There’s a stem suffix too!”  I had her draw a line through it as well.  Lastly I asked someone to come and write what was left of the infinitive next to what was left of the supine, so we could compare the spellings.  Here is what this ended up looking like on the board:

Next I put the students in random groups of 3 or 4.  I told them I wanted to see which group could find the longest list of words that share this base.  They had to be able to prove that their word shared the base <val(e)> and was not just a word that coincidentally had that same string of letters.  I also told them that if they found unfamiliar words there were to jot down a quick definition so that they could explain how the word related to the denotation of the base.

I don’t normally set up orthography work in a timed fashion, but I wanted the students to be focused and to work productively.  Sometimes, with longer term projects, I see them working at a slower pace.  I wanted to see what would happen.  See for yourself.

I was very impressed and knew that after 20 minutes it was time to share our findings.  I shared a matrix for <vale> on the Smartboard and asked each group to look for the words they found on the matrix.  I told them that even though this matrix looks complete, it probably isn’t.  A word they found might not be on the matrix.

As they shared words off their lists, we talked about how we would use the word and what its connection was to the denotation of <vale>.  Then a volunteer wrote its word sum on the board.  They used the matrix to double check their hypothesis of the word sum.  We went from group to group, writing words they found on the board.  It didn’t take long before the board looked like this:

What rich discussions about each word.  Tomorrow we will talk some more about this family of words and which words the students didn’t expect to find!

“Words are how we think. Stories are how we link.” ~Christina Baldwin

You know the practice of teaching someone a new language by immersing them in that language?  Putting them in a situation where no other language is spoken or written?  I imagine it is a bit scary and frustrating at first for the learner, but I also imagine the new language is acquired more quickly and spoken more fluently than with other methods.  Well, a little less dramatically, that is what I do when I ask my students to investigate and report on a word of their choosing.  Yes, we have investigated words together as a large group, and yes, the students have investigated words with a partner, but all-by-yourself is different.

Some feel like they have been plunked into the vast ocean of information at Etymonline with only swimmies (little experience) to help them navigate.  Others have surfaced successfully with a smile and a cool story about their word.  Regardless, all students need my guidance.  For several days, I hear my name so often it is crazy!  But every question needs to be honored and every student needs to be steered in the direction of the information they are seeking.  Some need explanations for concepts and ideas that are so new to them.  Often times these explanations become something I bring to everyone’s attention – whether it be that day or just put on a list for another day in which we can spend time collecting more examples that will make the concept more visible.

Because I teach orthography, writing, grammar and science in a 90 minute block to three groups of fifth graders, the students work on these posters for only a portion of their time with me.  They do not finish these in a day and only a few finish within a week and a half.  For some it even takes a month.  But no worries.  Sometimes the students who finish more quickly ask to investigate a second word.  Sometimes I give them something else to investigate.  By the end of a month and a half, I have students working at different places on different projects.   The students like working at their own pace.  It doesn’t feel like a race.  At some point, I decide which investigations are required and I make a list on the board.  Once everyone has completed the items on the list, we are ready to move on as a class.

Here are some pictures of the hallway outside my room.  My students have named it our “Word Gallery”.

These posters are across the hall from each other, so if you are reading one wall of words, you need only turn around to look at some more.  When I look at them now that they are finished, I remember so many of the conversations that took place during each investigation.  For instance:

When Alex asked to investigate <inimitable>, I said he sure could, but wondered what his connection to this word was.  When he said he heard it used in the Broadway show “Hamilton”, then I knew it was a good choice for him.  (He and I share a love of the soundtrack!)  Following the links in Etymonline, Alex was able to collect a lot of related words right away.  As he followed the first hyperlink to <imitable>, I saw this: [1550s, from French imitable (16c.), from Latin imitabilis “that may be imitated,” from imitari “to copy, portray”].  Having taken Latin 1 and Latin 2 Spellinars at Real Spelling, I recognized the Latin verb imitari.  I told Alex that if he searched imitari at Etymonline, he would get a list of words derived from it.  The words that came up were:


As we looked at this list together, I asked him if he could see which letters they all had in common.  What might the base be?  Because of the word ‘image’, the common factor was <im>.  I asked about words with an <age> suffix.  Between the two of us we thought of package, postage, and footage.  That made it feel obvious that the base would be <im>.  Except that we must always consider the potential of a final <e> on the base.  If we spell the base as <im> and then add a vowel suffix such as <age>, won’t that force the doubling of the <m> as it does in cottage and baggage?  Since there isn’t a doubled <m> in ‘image’, we thought that the bound base should be spelled <ime>.  That made sense in the word sum <ime> + <age>.  Then Alex started looking at the other words on the list and building word sums for each.  I turned his attention to ‘imitate’ and ‘imitation’.  Alex knew that <ion> was a suffix in ‘imitation’.  I asked if the remaining letters were a familiar word.  At the same time he said “imitate”, be said “Ohhh.”  I replace the <e> that was covered up by the <ion>.  In this fashion he worked through the word sums before he made his matrix.  I see that on his poster, he has the word sum for ‘inimitability’ as <in> + <ime> + <it> + <able> + <il> + <ity>.  It’s interesting to me that he didn’t recognize that what he thinks he hears there is already in the suffix <able>.  I have noticed that with several students.  I think it must be the transition between working with syllables and working with morphemes.  They are still looking for syllable type chunks that are about sound in and of themselves rather than recognizing that pronunciation within a morpheme considering stress shifts that might occur.

My favorite part of Alex’s poster? When he asks his viewer to “Think about it.  Inimitable means something can not be imitated and image is a copy of imitation of the original.  Imitation and image share a meaning by copying the original thing.”  Alex now understands the meaning of this word, the structure of this word, and how this word relates to others in its family. Boom!

Here’s another:

Frankie chose the word ‘animals’.  She mentions on her poster that it was attested in the early 14th century, but not used often until the 16th century.  What Frankie didn’t mention is that ‘beast’ was the preferred term prior to the 16th century.  The delightful part of the story with this word was the relationship between the words ‘animal’ and ‘animation’.  As Frankie says, “Animate has something to do with bringing something to life.”  It’s like giving a drawings a life and making drawn characters breathe and move as if alive.

What’s interesting about the word ‘animosity’ is that when attested in the early 15th century, it had a sense of vigor and bravery.  But by the 16th century, it had a sense of “active, hostile feeling”.  Over time, the sense of vigor and bravery disappeared from this word completely.

As Frankie was preparing to make a matrix by writing out the word sums, she noticed the suffix <ate> and how many suffixes could follow it.  We talked about the <or> suffix and recalled an earlier classroom discussion about it often being an agent suffix.  So an animator is a person who does animation.  I also mentioned to Frankie that when a base takes an <ion> suffix, it can also take an <or> suffix.  As an example, ‘animation’ can become ‘animator’ if the <ion> suffix is replaced with an <or > suffix.  Other examples are ‘creation’ and ‘creator’, ‘action’ and ‘actor’, and ‘invention’ and ‘inventor’.  When we compare the agent suffix <or> to the agent suffix <er>, we see that bases that can take an <er> cannot take an <ion> suffix.  Look at ‘baker’, ‘dancer’, ‘banker’, ‘healer’, or ‘jumper’.

Here’s another one:

Saveea’s word gave us the opportunity to talk about frequentative suffixes.  I shared what she and I discovered with all three classes.  The <le> suffix on ‘spark’ lets us know that the action is ongoing.  There wasn’t just a spark and then it stopped.  It kept on catching our eye because it kept going.  It was a sparkle!  The <le> suffix is also a frequentative suffix in ‘crackle’, ‘crinkle’, ‘tremble’, and ‘waddle’.  See?  These are ongoing activities, and the <le> suffix tells us that!

Here’s another:

Alexis thought it would be fun to find out more about the word ‘octopus’.  She wasn’t disappointed!  She remembered being in my Orthography summer school class where we spent time looking at the Greek alphabet.  So she wrote this word that was originally a Greek work in Greek!  She told a great (and true) story about the plural of ‘octopus’ being ‘octopodes’ at one time.  Many people still use that plural form.

Over time, people noticed what happens to ‘stimulus’ and ‘fungus’ and ‘alumnus’ when they change to the plural form.  The <us> switches to an <i> suffix.  They become ‘stimuli’, ‘fungi’, and ‘alumni’.  Since ‘octopus’ has what looks like the same final <us> in its singular form, people assumed it would be made plural in the same way and become ‘octopi’.  But the thing is … stimulus, fungus, and alumnus are of Latin origin and they follow Latin suffixing conventions.  Octopus is of Greek origin and follows Greek suffixing conventions.  If you pluralize ‘octopus’, the proper plural form is either ‘octopodes’ or ‘octopuses’.

Here’s another:

When Zoey picked ‘like’, she didn’t expect to find such an interesting story!  The first thing she found out is that it has been many different parts of speech!  Then she found out the original spelling was gilik.  If you cover up the first two letters, it looks like our present day spelling (minus the final <e>).   Zoey and I enjoyed talking about the Old English pronunciation of this word.   The <ġ> was pronounced [j] as in Modern English yes.  The <i>was pronounced  [i] as in Modern English feet.

The other fun thing with this word is how easy it was to build a rather large matrix!  I appreciated having the opportunity to discuss the base ‘busy’ and that when adding the <ness> suffix, the <y> becomes an <i>.  This happens with bases that have a consonant in front of the final <y>.  Other examples are when happy becomes happiness or lazy becomes laziness.

Here’s another:

Continue reading

Photosynthesis … More Amazing Than We Knew!

Our performances are over.  Two weeks of running lines and rehearsing ended with two days of wowing our crowds with our knowledge and our sparkle.  Today Sam called to me from his locker where he was tying his shoe.  “Hey, Mrs. Steven!  I have a new appreciation for a leaf now.  I never realized that the leaf is where the sugar and oxygen is made!  Now I like leaves more than ever!”

And well he should!  One of the amazing facts students read towards the end of our performance is, “One million acres of corn can produce enough oxygen in eleven days to supply ten million people with enough oxygen to breathe for a whole year!”

One of the big things learned here was the fact that we have a pretty amazing relationship with plants.  Think of it.  We’re sitting around exhaling carbon dioxide.  The plants are sitting around “exhaling” oxygen.  We are happy to use their byproduct, and they are happy to use ours!  One might call our relationship symbiotic!  We are two living organisms receiving mutual benefits.


Since we finished our play, I wanted to know what each individual student understood about the photosynthesis process.  First I gave a short answer test.  By short answer I mean full sentences – as many as needed to answer each question.  Out of 58 students, only 10 missed more than 3 questions!  I call that success!  But I am never satisfied with only one assessment type.

Next I asked the students to write out the process as if they were explaining it to someone who had never heard of it before.  The subject matter didn’t require any further research.  The play provided all of the information needed.  All the students had to do was to retell the information in a logical way and develop paragraphs that would enhance the reader’s overall understanding of photosynthesis.

Students began by freewriting.   That means that they retold the story without stopping to check on spellings.  When they felt they had written what they understood about photosynthesis, I asked them to check their paragraphing.  If they had only one paragraph, they were to mark where they might split that one into several.  I suggested they look at their use of the word ‘then’ to begin sentences.  Often it is used as a transition word.  (Often it is overused as a transition word!)


“Chloroplasts are very, very small beings (so small that you need to look at a thin slice of leaf under a high-powered microscope to see them) that live inside cells in a plant.  They make food for the plant and oxygen, which we need, using photosynthesis.”      ~Brynn G.

“This process happens in the chloroplast.  The chloroplast is super duper tiny and it lives in the cell.  First the chloroplast traps some fresh light energy direct from the sun.”      ~Cade

“Water gets pulled out of the roots by a tube called the xylem.  Water normally doesn’t flow up, but in a plant and even in a tree, water is sucked out of the roots.  This process is called transpiration.  The water will mix with the carbon dioxide to make sugar.”      ~Jada

“The next step is the carbon dioxide which comes in the underside of the leaf.  There are little openings on the underside of the leaf called stomata.  A huge amount of air molecules every second (like millions of air molecules) come into the cell.”         ~Carter L.

“The light energy gives energy to the carbon dioxide molecules and the water molecules.  Together they make one molecule of sugar (or food) and six molecules of oxygen. ”        ~Perry

“When the sugar is made, oxygen is made also.  But the plant always makes more than is needed, so all the extra oxygen will have to leave the plant.  The extra oxygen will leave through the stomata.”      ~Mara

“The sugar that is made is used to help the plant grow.  The sugar is sent to different parts of the plant that need it.  Some is sent to the stem, some is sent to the fruit part of the plant, and some is sent down to the roots so they can get bigger.”       ~Alexis

“There is another tube called the phloem.  The two tubes are like elevators.  The xylem takes water up the plant and the phloem takes sugar down to the roots of the plant.”        ~Hailey J.

“Photosynthesis helps everything on planet earth that breathes oxygen.  Without photosynthesis, everything would die out because nothing else can produce oxygen.”            ~Elijah


Having my students write a narrative of the photosynthesis process has been great for two reasons.  First off I can tell how much they really understand about what happens when a plant makes food.  Overall, I was very impressed with the detail they remembered from the script.   Secondly, I can look at their writing skills.  Many of my students do not yet fully understand how to convert a thought into a written sentence.  They either connect sentence after sentence after sentence with conjunctions (will this ever end?), or they isolate a prepositional phrase, capitalizing its first word and putting  ending punctuation after its last word.

This writing was a great opportunity to address the idea of transition words.  As I was able to conference with each student about revising and editing, writing a sentence became a bit clearer of a task as well.  We just need to keep on writing!



“Please don’t judge me on my looks!”

Have you ever written a word spelled two different ways on the side of your paper, and then tried to decide which one looked right?  Of course you have.  Lots of people do it every day.  When we decide whether or not it looks right, what are we basing that decision on?  Well, we are trying to remember what the word looked like the last time we wrote it down, or what it looked like when we first memorized its spelling.  But you have to wonder this:  if we already memorized its spelling, why are we still unsure?  Should we blame our memory?  Our memorizing strategies?

How about rethinking the way we teach spelling?  Typically, students are given a list of “related words” to study.  I used quotes because the relationship among the words is usually based on similarly pronounced vowels and is unreliable at best.  For years I taught spelling in this way.  Our textbook listed the pattern of the week as (let’s say) long /e/.  The students would help me brainstorm all the letter patterns that might be used in words to achieve the long /e/.  We thought of <ee> as in feet, <ea> as in read, <ei> as in receive, <ie> as in field, <e> as in scene, and <ui> as in suite.  But at the end of the day, how was that helpful?  The task of memorizing the words wasn’t easier.  It was now up to the students to memorize which word contained which letter combination.  I was not able to explain why a specific letter sequence was used in a specific word.  When you really think about it, I wasn’t teaching anything that was helpful because I wasn’t giving them any understanding about how our language works.  Currently, many schools have students sort words into piles so that they see the words over and over which will supposedly help the student remember the spelling when the student uses the word.  See?  Students are still being taught to judge a spelling by its looks.

What if we didn’t pick a false spelling pattern to focus on for the week?  What if we picked a base instead?  What if the list of words our students worked on for the week were words that were really and truly related?  In order for two words to be related, they need to share an ancestor (etymon).  And when they share an ancestor, they will also share meaning (denotation).

For example, last week I decided to focus on the bound base <fer>.  Its ancestor is the Latin verb ferre, “to bring, to bear”.  All of the present day English words that share this bound base will share its meaning as well.  The addition of prefixes and suffixes will affect how we think of the denotation “to bring or to bear”.

I wrote the bound base on the board along with its Latin root and denotation.  Then I wrote the word ‘conference’.  I asked students to tell me what they hypothesized the word sum to be?  The fact that I already had the base of this word on the board, helped them focus on the affixes.  Someone suggested <con> + <fer> + <ence>.   We talked about the prefix <con> and that in this word it brings a sense of ‘together’.  A conference is the bringing of people together to talk to and to listen to each other.  I also pointed out that this same prefix can sometimes be an intensifier.  In the word ‘confidence’ for example, the <con> prefix brings a sense of intensely trusting (the bound base <fide> from Latin fidere “to trust”).  I was also able to discuss the idea of assimilated prefixes, and that depending on the letter following the prefix, the prefix <con> might also be spelled <com> (complete) or <co> (costar).  The suffix <ence> gives us some grammatical information. It indicates that this word is a noun.

So what have my students just learned about this word?

1)   They have learned that this word (like all words) has a structure.  It is the structure that is reliable in helping spell the words we use daily.  It is the structure that reveals the meaning of the word and the language of origin (which helps us understand many things about spelling).

2)  They have learned that a prefix is found before the base.  Sometimes prefixes have assimilated, and if we recognize the variation in spelling among these prefixes, we will recognize that those variations represent one prefix, not many.

3)  They have learned that a prefix doesn’t have a denotation in the same way that a base does.  A prefix can sometimes simply intensify the base’s meaning.

4)  They have learned that a suffix can give grammatical information.

The next word I wrote on the board was ‘different’.  Again I asked for someone to hypothesize a word sum.  Someone suggested <dif> + <fer> + <ent>.  The prefix <dif> is another example of an assimilated prefix.  Depending on the first letter of the morpheme that follows the prefix, it might also be spelled <dis> as in dismiss or <di> as in digest.  In the word ‘different’, the prefix brings a sense of “apart from”.   So when something is different, it is carried apart from the rest.  The suffix <ent> is used with both adjectives and nouns.  With the word ‘different’, the students agreed that <ent> indicated an adjective, but with the word ‘student’ it would indicate a noun.  They made these decisions by thinking of how they would use these words in a sentence.

The next word I wrote on the board was ‘suffer’.  When I asked for a word sum hypothesis, most all students were now confident enough to raise their hands.  Someone suggested <suf> + <fer>.  Once again I had the opportunity to talk about assimilated prefixes.  This suffix can also be spelled <sug> as in suggest, <sub> as in subtract  and <suc> as in succeed.  It can bring a sense of under, beneath, behind, a little, and close to (as well as other things depending on the base it is paired with).  The word ‘suffer’ has to do with bearing either pain, punishment, or some kind of judgement.  The suffix brings a sense of under.  It is thought that when we suffer, we bear the pain under our hearts.  It’s why we say our chest hurts when we have emotional pain.

In order to help the students understand why prefixes have assimilated to these various spellings, I show them what this word would look like if the <sub> spelling were used.  I write ‘subfer’ on the board.  Then I ask them to say the word.  Then I ask them to say it five times.  What always happens is that they end up saying ‘suffer’.  The final <b> in the prefix assimilated to an <f> because the first letter of the next morpheme is an <f>.  Then we looked back at the previous two words to see that the final <s> in <dis> also assimilated to an <f> because the bound base <fer> begins with an <f>.  And this observation led to the important distinction that the word ‘different’ has two <f>’s because one is part of the prefix and one is part of the base.  The students won’t have to try to remember whether there is one <f> or two if they understand the structure.

The next word on the board was ‘offer’.  Someone suggested that the word sum would be <of> + <fer>.  At this point the students are catching on that the base in the words I am using is constant and what changes are the affixes.  Again we have the opportunity to talk about the prefix <of> and how it is an assimilated form of <ob>.  We go back to the word ‘suffer’ and remind ourselves that the prefix <sub> had a final <b> as well that assimilated to an <f> when paired with this base.  It is also a great opportunity to point out the difference between the prefix <of> and the preposition ‘of ‘.  Finally, I pointed out that the prefix <of> brings a sense of to or toward to the base.  When something is offered, it is brought forward.

At this point I asked for questions or reflective comments.  The students felt that this was pretty straight forward.  They understood and thought the idea of assimilated prefixes was interesting, even if they weren’t totally solid on recognizing them yet.

I was ready to point out the reason I picked this base in the first place!  I drew their attention back to the words ‘conference’ and ‘different’.  We all read both words aloud.  Then I shared that these two words get misspelled often by people.  I wondered if they could pinpoint what the misspelling might be.  One person suggested that ‘different’ might only have one <f>.  Again I was able to reiterate how important it is to understand the structure of a word.  If you know the prefix, base and suffix of this word, spelling is less stressful.  It is simply spelling out the morphemes and considering any suffixing conventions that might apply.

The next suggested misspelling is the one I see most often, and the one I was hoping to highlight.  A student pointed out that the <e> in the base <fer> gets left out.  Exactly! We were able to talk about pronunciation differences between the word confer and conference, and how as speakers of the language we tend to say *confrence rather than conference.  The <e> is so unstressed in this word (AND in the word different) that it’s as if it isn’t there!  This is one reason (one big reason) students should be taught to spell words using morphemes rather than pronunciation!  The spelling of the base does not change, even when the pronunciation (as affixes are joined to the base) does!

The following day I asked them to take out a piece of paper.  I read some these words, and also a few others that share the <fer> base.  My expectation is that they would write down the word sum as such:

con + fer + ence –>  conference

I read the following 7 words, along with a definition for each that tied the meaning back to the base <fer>.  I also used the word in a sentence:


After the students had written these on their paper in this fashion, I asked for volunteers to write the word sums on the board.  We had a lovely discussion about ‘conifer’.  Some recognized it would be a compound word with an <i> connecting vowel, but none recognized that the first base would be <cone> and not <con>.  I pointed out that conifer means cone bearing, so the <con> we see has a final <e>. It was replaced by the connecting vowel <i> when the two morphemes joined.  I also pointed out that even though the prefix <con> in ‘conference’ is pronounced the same as the base <con> in ‘conifer’, it doesn’t mean they are the same morpheme with the same function!  As word scientists, it is our responsibility to provide evidence to support our hypotheses.  **Yet another reason to break away from judging a word’s spelling by its looks alone!

With the word ‘circumference’ we were able to talk about writing <circum> and calling it a stem if we were unsure whether or not it could be further analyzed.  Sometimes it is better to do just that rather than going with an unsubstantiated idea.  Then we listed words like circus, circle, and circulation.  We felt that <circ> might be a base here, but we definitely needed further research.  The point I was trying to make with the students here is that they shouldn’t leap to conclusions.  Evidence collecting and reference checking is a must.

The last convention that presented itself was the convention of doubling the final consonant when adding a vowel suffix.  We had the words ‘offered’ and ‘suffering’ on the board already.  So beneath the word ‘prefer’ I wrote ‘preferred’, and asked if anyone had thoughts about why the final <r> would be doubled in this word when it wasn’t when vowel suffixes were added to ‘offer’ and ‘suffer’.  There wasn’t a single student all day who had an idea about this one.  Time to talk about syllable stress!

We read all three words aloud.  A few recognized which carried the stress, but not all.  I decided to switch the focus to ‘begin’ and ‘open’, thinking these are more commonly used by my students.  We pretended we were calling both words to dinner.  “Be -giiinnn!  Oooo-pen!”  It became a bit more obvious which syllable carried the stress in each word.  Knowing where the stress is becomes important when applying the  suffixing convention regarding consonant doubling.  If the stress is on the second syllable (in a two syllable word), then the final consonant is forced to double before a vowel suffix.  If the stress is on the first syllable, then the final consonant is not doubled before a vowel suffix.  So ‘begin’ becomes ‘beginning’ and ‘open’ becomes ‘opening’.

Back to ‘preferred’.  The students could now identifying that the stress was on the second syllable which forced the final <r> on the base to double, whereas in ‘suffering’ and ‘offered’, the stress was on the first syllable in each word.  As a final question to the class I wrote:

garden + ing –>

Will the final spelling reflect one <n> or two?  Confident replies of  “One!” quickly came back at me!

How in the world can we compare the benefits of empty memorization to a true understanding of spelling?  The things my students have learned in these two days will show up as they read aloud and alone.  They will show up in their writing.  They will show up in discussions.  For now the students see a relationship between these words that has to do with their present day base and the shared nugget of meaning in this family of words.  They will begin to spell relying on morphemes rather than letter order memorization.  And they won’t waste a minute writing down two or three versions of a word’s spelling to see which looks right.  Because they are learning that looks don’t matter.  Substance does.  Meaning does.  Structure does.  History does.  Relatives do. Phonology does.


Questions Send Us on Wondrous Quests!

It all started with a routine activity – that of checking my email.  As my eyes scanned the subject lines, the words “Our class has a word question”  stood out.  “Ooooooooo!”  I said out loud as I opened it with delight.

“We have a question which we hope you can help us with.  Why do some words have letters that you can’t hear?  We were reading about a bird in the arctic called a Ptarmigan.  We have also heard of dinosaurs called Pterodactyl or Pteranodon.  We wonder why there is a silent ‘p’ at the beginning.  We also wonder about words like “know”, “why” and “what”.  Can you help us?”

“Yes, yes, yes!”  With a great big smile, I got up from my chair and did a bit of a happy dance!  There is just so much to love about this request!

  1.  The third graders are thinking about words!
  2.   They thought of other words that also have an initial unvoiced <p>.
  3.   They thought of yet other words with unvoiced letters.
  4.   They want to understand!

I immediately started typing up a response.  Not because I had any  intention of replying by email, but because I wanted to collect my thoughts and lay out what I understood on paper.  I wanted to reread the entries at Etymonline for <what>, <why>, <know>, <pterodactyl>, and <helicopter>.  I wanted to reread my notes from Gina Cooke’s LEXinar on Old English.  I wanted to reread the information listed on my <what> LEX InSight Word card.  I wanted to reread the information on the <wh> card in my LEXeme Deck.  I have learned so much in the last few years that I like to check my facts so that I don’t miss sharing any fascinating parts of each word’s story!

Shortly after that, I went to find the third grade teacher to thank her for such a delightful email.  Then I invited her students to my room so we could talk.  Before they came, I shared all of this with my fifth graders.  I wanted to share not only the information, but the curiosity and inquisitiveness of the third graders.  This was indeed something to be celebrated!

We began by looking at <know>, <what> and <why> since they were all from Old English.  I began by showing them the following video.  The man speaks Old English and I wanted them to know what it sounded like.  Since the sound isn’t the best on this video, I sometimes stopped, backed up and let them hear certain words twice.

We talked a bit about the Old English words that they could understand.  One of those was roof.  I wrote the Old English spelling hrof on the board so they could see that the spelling might feel strange and unfamiliar, but the pronunciation of many Old English words is sometimes more familiar than we expect!

I wrote on the board as we continued our talk.


The Old English spelling of <know> was cnawan.  The <c> and the <n> were both voiced in the pronunciation.  The <an> indicated to the people who spoke Old English that this word was a verb.  It’s denotation was to “perceive or understand as a fact or truth”.

The past tense spelling of <know> (knew) was spelled cneowan.  Again, if we cover up the final <an> which indicated to the speakers of Old English that this was a verb, we see cneow.  The students noticed the <e> that is still in the present day spelling of <knew>.

By Middle English, the <c> was replaced with a <k>, but that didn’t change the fact that the <k> and <n> were still voiced.  It wasn’t until 1750 that the <k> was no longer voiced.  What is interesting here is that sister languages to English (German, Dutch and some Scandinavian languages) still voice both of these letters.  Ours is the only language in which voicing the <k> faded into nothing!

I wrote the word <acknowledge> on the board to point out the <c>.  At Etymonline, Doug Harper calls it a parasitic <c>.  He suggests that perhaps the <c> is there to preserve the historical <kn>, with each letter voiced as it was in Old and Middle English!  In my mind I imagine it latching on to the <k> as a parasite would, in order for there to be a <ck> consonant cluster which can only represent /k/, and thus restoring the voicing of the <k>!  Such a noble story this word has!

Next we looked at <what> and <why>.  I wrote the Old English spellings for both: <hwæt> and <hwi>.

After the 14th century, it was common to see the <hw> reversed to <wh>.  If we look at the questioning words: what, why, when, where, which, whether, who, whom, and whose, we can imagine that all of these were once spelled with the <h> before the <w>, because they are all of Old English origin.

As far as the pronunciation of the <wh>, the only three of those questioning words that do not begin with a /w/ are who, whom, and whose.  The fact that these three words have an <o> following the <wh>, indicates that the initial pronunciation will be /h/.

Now it was time to take a look at Ptarmigan, pterodactyl, and pteranodon.  I put an asterisk next to Ptarmigan and told the students we would come back to it.  Then I focused on three words that have an initial <pter>.



According to Etymonline, a pterodactyl is an extinct flying reptile.  The word entered the English language in 1830.  The first base in the word is from the Greek word pteron “wing”.  The second base is from the Greek word dactylos “finger”.



According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the pteranodon is a large tailless pterosaur (flying reptile) with a long toothless beak, a long bony crest, and a wingspan of 7 meters.  The <pter> bound base denotes “wing”, the <an>privative prefix denotes “without”, and the second bound base <odon> denotes “teeth”.  This last base took us to a brief look at words like orthodontist and dentist, tooth and teeth, foot and feet, and <pod> (tripod) and <ped> (pedicure).  Interesting relationship between these words!



According to the Oxford American Dictionary, a pteropod is a small mollusk with wing like extensions.  It uses them for swimming.  The first base is <pter> and denotes “wings”, and the second base is <pod> and denotes “foot”.  It appears to have a body similar to that of a snail or slug.

As we were all looking at the pteropod and wondering where such a thing might live, one student raised her hand.  “How come you didn’t underline the <o> in the word <pteropod>?”

As if my day wasn’t already aglow!  “Now that is a great thing to have noticed! The first base is <pter> and the second base is <pod> and the <o> is not part of either!  It is a connecting vowel.”

Then I went on to ask if anyone knew the word< speedometer>.  They all did.  I asked what a speedometer did.  They knew that it told how fast a car was moving.  I pointed out the <o> in that word.  Was it part of the first base <speed>? No.  Was it part of the second base <meter> denoting “measure”?  No.  In this word it is pretty obvious that the <o> is just connecting these two bases together.  It is a connecting vowel.  Again – what a brilliant observation!

Now I told the students that I found some more words with <pter>, except that the <pter> was not the first base in the word.



The Oxford American Dictionary describes <lepidoptera> as the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths.  These insects have four large scale-covered wings.  The children knew about butterflies and thought the wings were dusty.  As we were discussing the scales, another student raised her hand and asked, “I see that this word has a connecting vowel, but what about the <a>?  Why isn’t that underlined?”

Another fabulous question!  I told her that it is a suffix that is used with some scientific words.   I wrote the word <pupa> and <pupae> on the board and explained that the first is singular and that the second is plural.  I know this by the <a> and <ae> suffixes.   But afterwards I started to wonder about what I had said.  I had a nagging feeling that I was mixing up my Latin and Greek suffixes.

My own question took me to the Oxford American Dictionary.  I found out that <pupa> and <pupae> are clearly of Latin origin.  Lepidoptera was listed as having a Modern Latin (plural) origin, yet the bases and connecting vowel are clearly of Greek origin. Etymonline explains that the <a> suffix is a “nominative neuter plural ending of certain nouns and adjectives in Latin and Greek that have been adopted into English”.  Since I know Lepidoptera is a plural noun, this makes the most sense to me.



The Oxford American Dictionary describes coleoptera as an order of insects which includes the beetles.  It is the largest order of animals on the earth!  The wings on these beetles are close fitting and protective.  The first base is from koleos (<cole>) “sheath” and the second base is from pteron (<pter>) “wing”.



The Oxford American Dictionary describes hymenoptera is a “large order of insects that includes the bees, wasps, ants, and sawflies.  These insects have four transparent wings and the females often have a sting”.  The first base is Greek <hymen> “membrane” and the second base is <pter> “wing”.



The Oxford American Dictionary describes an ornithopter as
“a machine designed to achieve flight by means of flapping wings.”

The first base is from Greek <ornith> “bird” and the second base is also from Greek <pter> “wing”.  Because both bases are of Greek origin, the connecting vowel is an <o>.

Now it was time to list the words we just looked at:


I underlined the Greek base <pter> in each of the words.  Then I added <helicopter> to the list.  I was right in guessing that all of the students knew that word and what it meant.  Then I asked this question, “When the <pter> base is first in the word, you already noticed that the <p> is not voiced.  What happens when the <pter> is final in the word?  Is the <p> voiced or not?

Everyone got busy pronouncing this list of words to find out.  In the end it was decided that when the base <pter> is final in a word, the <p> is voiced.  When the <pter> is initial in the word, the <p> is not voiced.

So the important take-away is that the <pter> bound base (from Greek) has a denotation of “wing”.  When we see this base initially in a word the <p> is not voiced, but when we see this base final in a word the <p> is voiced.

But what about the word <ptarmigan>?  This is, after all, where this particular quest began!  I asked the students to carefully look at our list of words with <pter> and to compare that spelling with what we see in <ptarmigan>.  Right away someone noticed that there was an <a> in <ptarmigan> where there had been an <e> in words sharing the <pter> base.  Excellent noticing!


Willow ptarmigan on snow

The Oxford American Dictionary describes the ptarmigan as “a northern grouse of mountainous and arctic regions with plumage that changes to white in winter.  This word originated in the late 16th century from Scottish Gaelic tàrmachan.  Etymonline adds that the <p> was added in 1680’s as a mistaken Greek construction (perhaps based on pteron “wing).

Ptarmigan shares an idea of having wings and an initial <pt> spelling, but does not share a base or Greek heritage.  And now, because of these wonderful questions that sent us on these wonderful quests, we all (third graders, fifth graders, me and you) share an understanding of the <p> in <ptarmigan> … and so much more!


“While We Teach, We Learn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Component of Science – Engineering

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

Here are some interesting things the students learned:

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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