Syllable Use Helps With Spelling? Not Likely!

I walked into a classroom last week and had an opportunity to really and truly understand how breaking words into syllables does not help students learn spelling.  Let me explain.

The lesson was focused on the base word <male/mal>.  There were 10 words written on the board and they were all divided into syllables to aid in pronunciation.  I asked if pronunciation or meaning was the most important thing this teacher wanted her students to know about these words.  She said meaning.  I tried then to point out that by breaking the words into syllables, she had disguised the word parts (morphemes) that HAD meaning.

Here’s an example using the word <malevolent>.  The syllable breakdown on the board was <ma + lev + o+ lent>.  So how hard have we as teachers just made it for the students to recognize that one of the base words here is <mal> which means bad … or that the other one is <vol> which means will?

Instead of a syllabic breakdown I would suggest an orthographic word sum that looks like this:  <mal> + <e> + <vol> + <ent>.  In an orthographic word sum, the word is separated into morphemes (a word part with meaning that cannot be made smaller).

With this kind of examination, the students will learn several things.  First, once they have researched this word, they will find the meaning of it — not just the general meaning, but the meanings of the morphemes <mal> and <vol>.  While researching (using Etymonline), they will also learn the history of the word and these bases.

With teacher guidance they will learn about the connecting vowel <e>.  They learn that with two bases in one word, this word is a connected compound (meaning it is a compound word with a connecting vowel between the bases).

Lastly the student will recognize that <ent> is a commonly used suffix (based on previously investigated words with that suffix  and also a list of words compiled by students in which <ent> is clearly the suffix).  By separating a word into syllables, the suffix <ent> is not recognizable because it is visually paired with an <l>, forming a familiar word <lent>.

None of the syllables in the word <malevolent> have meaning.  They do not enhance a student’s understanding of what the word means.  What if … instead of having students break words into meaningless parts that may or may not make the rote memorization of the word easier, we have them break words into meaningful parts that the student can then relate to what they know of other words and other spellings?  Gina Cooke referred to this process as peeling back the layers of a word in her video called “Making sense of spelling“.  What a beautiful way to think about a word and its affixes.

Initially, the teacher said that she wanted her students to be able to pronounce the words.  Teaching the students IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) would be better suited to this end than syllables anyway.

Celebrating Pi Day with Pizazz!

Pi.  Pi.  Mathematical Pi!   We had so much fun today!  We sang songs.  Some were based on familiar Christmas tunes, one was a rap, and one went to the tune of American Pie.  We learned about William Jones who first recorded the symbol for Pi.  We  read about Gaurav Raja who at one time held the record for reciting 10,000 digits of Pi.  We learned about Ludoph van Ceulen who had the first 35 digits of Pi engraved on his tombstone (until his wife swapped it out for something more proper)!

We felt that in order to really understand Pi, we needed to really understand circumference, diameter, and radius.  The class divided into three groups and the word investigations began!  With limited time, no group quite finished, but they made great progress.  I find it interesting that many students still fall back on old habits of dividing words by syllables instead of beginning with their lists of tried and true affixes.  Patience and practice.  They must discover the logic of that for themselves.   In one part of the video, the group investigating the word <diameter> started laughing.  I had just asked if the words they found that begin with <dia> had to do with the definition of <dia> which is through.  You see, diarrhea was on the list and they definitely saw the connection!

Next we held a Pi Digit Contest.  We were looking to see who could memorize the most digits of Pi with only two days of preparation.  Our first place winner recited 65 Pi digits!  In second and third place, students recited 46 and 42 places respectively.  The fourth, fifth, and sixth place winners recited 36, 28, and 27 places.  What an amazing accomplishment for all who gave it a try!

Then there were the pies!  Yum!  We had cherry, lemon meringue, apple, turtle, peanut butter, chocolate, toasted coconut creme, pecan, banana creme, and brownie pies.  Heavenly!

During math, we actually measured circles of all kinds and calculated Pi for ourselves by dividing the circumference by the radius.

Lastly, we sang our favorite Pi song just one more time.  Love Pi Day!


Partner Sentence Analysis

Normally, I would put a sentence up on the whiteboard and call on students to identify the

A) Parts of speech
B) Parts of the sentence (subject/predicate/direct object/indirect object/subject complement)
C) Phrases (prepositional/appositive/infinitive/gerund/participial)
D) Type of sentence (declarative/interrogative/exclamatory/imperative) and sentence structure (Simple Independent Clause/Compound I,cc I/Complex ID/Complex D,I)

But since our work with word investigations, I’ve noticed how much the students love figuring things out in small collaborative groups.  So I wrote out sentences on long pieces of construction paper.  Each pair of students was given a sentence and asked to analyze it.  I created two of each sentence so that when groups were finished they could compare their analysis with the other group that analyzed the same sentence.  The last step will be for the four who analyzed each sentence to present their analysis on the whiteboard.

I was so pleased to hear the students use reason and logic in making their decisions.  Team members felt comfortable challenging suggestions being made, and each pair ultimately made their decisions based on evidence from either a dictionary, their brochure, or their Grammar Examiner notebook.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are past the days of wild guessing and instead, expecting the order of things to make sense!

I was particularly impressed that with such interesting and complicated looking sentences, they ended up making very few errors.  At this point in the semester, the students are discovering that one word can be more than one part of speech, depending on its use in the sentence.  It’s interesting to listen to them critically think about which identification is most likely.


We Would Read Books Anywhere!

As part of the “Read Across America” celebration Friday, we found out some interesting things about Dr. Suess.  It’s so easy to recall our favorite books from those days when we were early readers.  So many of them were by Dr. Suess!  We created this short fun video in honor of him.  We hope you recognize how he was our inspiration!

Teach It! Then You’ll Know If You Know It!

Our class was invited to teach the three second grade classrooms in our building about word sums!  With great enthusiasm and excitement, we accepted.   We chose the word <star> because we knew they were studying the solar system.  Next, the fifth grade students brainstormed a list of words with <star> as a base.  Once we had that list, we sorted out the compound words from the “base plus suffix” words.  Someone volunteered to create the matrix based on our brainstormed list, and we were ready to practice.

For three days, the students practiced explaining what they knew to a partner.  We talked about naming bases and suffixes.  We talked about adding vowel suffixes to <star>.  We talked about spelling out loud while writing the word sum.  We talked about the “is rewritten as” arrow.  We talked about having in mind a logical order in which to share all this. We talked about compound words.

I was fascinated by our first visit.  The second graders were eager to please.  A few of the  fifth graders weren’t as secure in their own understanding as I thought.  I heard the “is rewritten as” arrow referred to as “equal” and “combines”.  There weren’t enough second graders spelling out loud.  But there were also these lovely moments when the joy of teaching and the joy of learning lit up each pair of students.



After that first experience, my students were looking forward to visiting the second and third classrooms and doing it again, only better!  We talked more about the importance of repeating the spellings out loud and of having slight pauses between two bases (compound) or between a base and a suffix.  I also stressed the importance of teaching that the arrow be referred to as “is rewritten as”.

With experience grows confidence.  The fifth graders thoroughly enjoyed being the teachers.  I enjoyed seeing them cement the cracks in their own understanding.  One second grade boy was paired up with his fifth grade sister.  He asked if she would teach him more when they got home!  Another second grader asked why there wasn’t another matrix on the back side of the paper!  Both groups decided this was fun!