“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.

dscn6900      dscn6904

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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



Learning From 16th Century Scribes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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



Fall Fun, Halloween Hilarity

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

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

Monster Mash

Monster Rap

Funky Ghost

I Will Survive


‘Multi-‘ or ‘Poly-‘?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When A Quick Review Turns Into Something Grand

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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










Involve Me and I’ll Understand…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

bios                         atmos                      cosmos
geos                         hydros                    thermos
lithos                                                        tropos

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

For the next three days, everyone was busy!



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

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

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

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

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

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


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