I Love Words That Pop Like Tub, Rapid, Tintinnabulation and Beep!

About a month ago, we watched Ann Whiting’s students in Malaysia read poems they wrote.  We were so inspired that we immediately began thinking of what our own version of these poems would be like.  You see, the poems were about different kinds of words.  The words were not grouped in the typical way:  syllables, nouns, adjectives, plural, or compound.  These words were grouped by the way they made the poet feel … or by the way they felt during the act of being said.

So we played with words and their sounds and how they can touch, tiptoe, or even trample through a mouth on their way out.  What a delightfully refreshing way to think about words.  And how important to take a moment to remind ourselves why there ARE so many words.  We need them – need them all – to be able to choose the right word for the right feeling, the right image, the right meaning.

The 7th graders in Malaysia have learned more about the history of words than we have.  They can recognize that the way words sound and feel can be an indication of their roots.  Such an idea arouses my curiosity!  I need to learn more!

This Is How We Investigate Words!

My fifth grade students had the privilege of working with a class of fourth graders recently!  We wanted to show them how we investigate words by actually teaming them up with fifth graders and involving them in an investigation.  In recent weeks, the fourth graders have been studying the human body and its systems.  We asked them to bring some words that they would like to know more about.  It was decided that we would investigate the words <ventricle>, <aorta>, <atrium>, <circulation>, and <digestion>.  Students went off in pairs to begin their investigations.   I walked around the room, wondering what the fifth graders were explaining to the fourth graders and how they were approaching this task.  For many it begins with a hypothesis…

The students worked for about 50 minutes following leads, taking notes, finding evidence to either prove or disprove their initial hypothesis, and talking with their partner about making sense of what they were finding.

One week later we met again for 60 minutes.  For the first 30 minutes, the groups reviewed their previous findings and continued with their investigations.  During the second 30 minutes, I asked the students to get in five larger groups (representing each of the five words investigated).  Now the task was to compare the discoveries each of the smaller groups had made.  This day was busy with discussion.  There was the initial discussion of each group’s hypothesis and the explanation for it, as well as discussions about the evidence collected to prove suffixes and prefixes!  On this day, the fourth graders didn’t hesitate to take part.

Two days later we met for the third and last time.  I asked the groups to present their discoveries.  They were given the first 30 minutes to prepare what they would say and who would do the talking.  A few groups still had questions regarding their word, so I told them to present their current findings and to note that they still had questions to be answered.

One of the biggest things we have learned doing orthography is that we must remain open to the idea that at some point we may find more evidence that could change our hypothesis about certain words.  In other words, we dig as deep as we can with the evidence we uncover and our current understanding of it.  When we uncover more evidence, it alters our past findings and broadens what we understand about our language.  This is what is so exciting about orthography!

In this first video you will hear their findings about the words <ventricle> and <aorta>.  It was particularly interesting how the last four letters in <ventricle> brought recognition of several known suffixes.  There was <ic>, <cle>, <le>, and <icle>.  The groups spent a lot of time sorting all that out to come to a conclusion.

These are the matrices that the groups created for each of the words.


In this second video you will hear their findings about the words <atrium> and <circulation>.  With both these words there were ties to discoveries made earlier this semester.  Not too long ago, a student found that the suffix <ine> was referred to as a chemical suffix.  We looked on the period table and noticed that there were quite a few chemicals with that as a suffix.  We also noticed that the suffix <ium> was used a lot.  When the word <atrium> was being considered, the students remembered that discussion and began by finding evidence that <ium> is a suffix in this word as well.

Looking at the word <circulation>, the fifth grades remembered when they investigated the word <circumference>.  At that time they had decided that the base element was <circum>.  These two words have so much meaning in common, that they began to look for evidence that would connect the two words.

These are the matrices that the groups created for each of the words.


In this last video you will hear their findings about the word <digestion>.  What was interesting with this group of orthographers was that they were mislead for a while by the definition of digest.  They were, of course, thinking of the digestive system of the human body.  They were unaware of the well known concept of a “Reader’s Digest”.  It was a struggle for them to see what these two uses of the word <digest> had in common.

This is the matrix that the group created.

What a great experience this was for everyone.  We all learned new things about the meaning and structure of words.  We didn’t walk away with dry definitions to memorize, but rather images of what words mean.  It is much easier to remember that the atrium is an upper chamber of the heart when you picture an atrium in a hotel which has an open view to the sky.  Contrast that with the ventricles being the bottom chambers of the heart.  The image of a stomach or belly will help us all remember that the ventricles are in the belly of the heart!

Connecting Vowels? Prove it!

When we were investigating the word <diameter>, we came up with an interesting list of words sharing the base element <meter> which means to measure.  The original matrix created looked like this:

After looking this over, some wondered if some of the identified prefixes were really base elements with connecting vowels.  There was only one way to know for sure!  Working in pairs the words were researched with just that question in mind.



This investigation caused us to rethink our original matrix.  It also reinforced our motto, ” When we know more, we adjust our original hypothesis.”

With our new evidence, we found four of the words to be compound words with connecting vowels.  The remaining question raised is whether or not <meter> can be further analyzed.  Several students recognized <er> as a suffix, but the question we have come to ask at that point is, ” Is it a suffix in this word?”  The hypotheses suggested by my word investigators were <met> + <er> -> <meter> and <mete> + <er> -> <meter>.

A Half Score and Eight Years Ago …

I love doing big projects with my students.  There are so many skills that can be incorporated when the project is big and deep and fun!  Yesterday was our Civil War Wax Museum (the first for my students, the eighteenth for me)… it was the culmination of six weeks worth of research, writing, discussing, and experiencing.  Each student had researched a particular person who lived and played a role in the Civil War.  Yesterday they dressed as that person and shared their life with museum goers.

Periodically I interrupted the flow in the museum to introduce myself as Abraham Lincoln and then to ask the students to recite the Gettysburg Address.

At the museum, students each recited their line of the Gettysburg Address from wherever they were in the room.  I videotaped this version before we began so that everyone could be heard clearly.

The students also made hard covered books filled with their research, maps, and poems.  When I say they made the books, I mean that they measured out the cardboard, pounded nails so they could sew the pages together, and then covered the books with wallpaper.

In the afternoon, all of the third, fourth, and fifth graders visited our museum.  In the evening, parents, grandparents, neighbors, and siblings visited.   By 7:00pm my students and I were thirsty, sweaty, and tired.  But we were also exhilarated, proud, and deep down happy!  In the eighteen years I have been teaching about the Civil War and holding Civil War Wax Museums, I have never grown tired of watching my students exceed their own expectations.  That feeling is what fosters “growing up”.

It’s Time for a Math Break!

Today was such a fun Friday.  My math students have been improving all week when it comes to  staying focused during work time.  Staying focused means finishing work in class and making less errors.   Making less errors means less fix ups and a better chance of building a deep understanding of the skills being practiced.

Today we decided to take a break from learning math and instead focused on teaching math.  We are currently learning how to find the fraction of a number.  For example, do you know what 5/9 of 27 is?  If the answer doesn’t come quickly, watch this video and then see if you can figure it out.

I know.  Entertaining, wasn’t it?  But besides all that, do you think you could figure out what 5/9 of 27 is now?   Leave a comment, and we’ll let you know if you’re right.

What Have We Learned So Far?

I was talking with a teacher the other day about orthography.  She expressed an interest in trying some things but wasn’t sure where to begin.  My students and I have only been investigating words for three months.  We’ve learned so much that I had to pause before I answered her question.  And then I answered it like this … “Let me ask my students.”

So yesterday I asked them to brainstorm a list of things that they had learned and felt were important to know when investigating words.

It is obvious to me that my students enjoy orthography.  As we have investigated words and talked about morphemes, etymology, and phonemes, the students have gained confidence in themselves as word scientists, but also in a language they once had no hope of understanding.

The students have become so comfortable talking about free and bound bases.  Recognizing that bound bases are there, buried in words is so interesting!  They’ve always been there, but before this, we weren’t trained to look for them. My favorite line is at the end of the third video, when Maia admits that it is fun discovering a word’s history and word sum for yourself.  The teacher doesn’t have to know all the answers.  In fact they enjoy knowing that I don’t know ahead of time what they will find!

In this last video I specifically asked the students to describe how orthography has helped them.    As usual I love their candid responses.  For most, they feel that they are better spellers.  And in some respects they are.  Spelling errors have not disappeared from their work, but the approach we take when discussing the errors is completely different.  It is this awareness and learning to trust that spelling needs to follow rules, show relationships,  and make sense that will help spelling skills strengthen.

I love the fact that my students are learning spelling based on meaning and making sense, and not merely as a memorization task.  A few mentioned that they feel like they understand words and spellings without having had to work so hard at it.  The memorizing of spelling lists was daunting for some – a week of gimmicks, silly songs, and practice tests.  As you can hear in their voices, with orthography the joy and intrigue multiplies every day.