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!

2 thoughts on “This Is How We Investigate Words!

  1. Thanks Pete!

    I had my students read your comment today. Then I asked them if they thought word investigations were really science. At first most murmured no. But then Maia pointed to the large poster I have on the classroom wall. She read each of the steps of the Scientific Method and explained how each pertained to a step we follow when we investigate words!

    The rest recognized that we have indeed been using the structure of scientific inquiry to better understand words and so much more!

  2. Yet more spectacular evidence of elementary students deeply engaged in scientific analysis of word structure and meaning. I had to emphasize this point in your post:

    “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!”

    I entirely agree, but want to emphasize that your last sentence could just as easily stated, “This is what is so exciting about doing science!”

    The learning about words that your students have demonstrated is so exciting. But from my perspective, the most important experience you are offering your students is that of learning how to develop, test and accept or reject hypotheses based on evidence.

    Every school I know subscribes to some sort of mission statement that they strive to support learning that prepares their students to be independent thinkers. That given the over-abundance of information in the 21st century, we need to prepare students to be effective problem solvers who know how to analyze and synthesize information.

    Spelling instruction is a domain that is typically relegated to mainly rote memory of lists of disconnected words. It seems to me that one would be hard pressed to find a more stellar example of a teacher preparing their students more effectively for a lifetime of learning through scientific analysis of evidence that what you have done in the months since you encountered Real Spelling.

    The rest of us owe you and your students a large thank you for lighting the way.

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