Why Study Orthography?

I have been reflecting on my previous post and the great comments I received on that post from people I admire and respect.  In an email to these same friends, I described my students and me as on “a road less traveled”.  It seemed fitting to borrow a line from Robert Frost’s poem, since it was a poem whose idea surfaced and resurfaced in our room all year.  Picture it like I do.  In the line  “two roads diverged in a yellow wood”, the wood symbolizes public schools. One of the roads represents traditional spelling instruction and the other orthography.  I’ve been on “the road less traveled” for a year and a half now.  And choosing this road really and truly has made all the difference.

When watching the videos from this year and last, it has been soul-satisfying to hear how studying orthography has made my students feel.   As Dan Allen says (in the comments of the previous post), it IS about language and spelling, and yet it is about so much more.  My students loved getting so involved in the search.  The more they learned about searching and what they were seeing, the more fun it was to set forth.

By the end of the year, students eagerly began investigations on their own and planned out presentation posters in all sizes.  Finding unfamiliar words in their personal reading was no longer a thing to be ignored.  Those were the words that they wrote word sum hypotheses about.  Those were the words they chose to investigate.  Those were the words that brought images and life to the story because they now carried meaning.

Questioning each other became an everyday activity, and no one was threatened by it.  It was freeing for all of us to realize that we weren’t searching for that one right answer, but rather an answer built on our research, our knowledge of the rules of English, and our logical thinking.  As we learned bits about Greek and Latin, they too were incorporated with glee!  Every bit of new information was welcomed because it helped us make sense of a subject that never made sense before.  No matter how hard we all worked at it, traditional spelling instruction only ever taught us to memorize one word at a time, 20 words a week, 360 words a school year.  But success was only for the few who could memorize well.  And let’s face it.  That is not the majority of students.

Does this mean students in my class never misspell words?  Of course not.  It means, though, that they can have a conversation about whether or not the consonant before the suffix should or should not be doubled.  They can have a conversation about what the prefix is and how it modifies the meaning of the base.  They can make a hypothesis about what the word sum might be, and they can defend that hypothesis.  They can have a conversation about pulling off suffixes and whether or not the base has a final ‘e’.  They spell out bases, prefixes, and suffixes because they know that none of these has a pronunciation until it surfaces in a word.  They can use resources (online and hard copy) independently to back up their investigation findings.  They can question their classmates with an air of genuine curiosity, earnestly seeking to make sense of new information and incorporate it into current understandings.

Since we’ve dropped traditional spelling instruction and become orthographers, we expect spelling to make sense.  This basic premise intrigues us.  We are ecstatic that we can silence the voices of our pasts that say, “sound it out”,  “just memorize it”, or  “nobody knows why”.  We feel like we are cracking unsolved cases wide open!  We feel joy and satisfaction and pride in what we know!


Why We Love Orthography!

Today I asked my students to brainstorm things they have learned this year while investigating words.  When it was time to share, I was impressed with their honest responses and their sincere smiles.  Just listen to the first boy as he shares his favorite word from the year … a word he will understand and appreciate all his life.  His proud smile as he finishes sharing the word sum says it all.  When he was done, someone mentioned that the base <phot> is probably <phote>.   Yes, I thought.  But did you see the confidence and pride as he mentioned the connecting vowel <o>?

Further into the video, a girl mentions that she was interested in the prefix <cide> which means kill.  As she finished her comments, a wonderful conversation sprouted.  Someone recognized that <cide> is really a base.  Someone else asked about the word <suicide> and wondered if the prefix was <sui>.  Then other words were thrown out like herbicide, pesticide and homocide.  With each word, students offered definitions as the word related to ‘kill’.  As word scientists, it is never a big deal to make a mistake.  Mistakes are like springboards for fascinating discussions!  They are an opportunity to clarify thinking.  My classroom has become a safe place to question each other without seeming critical.

My favorite comment is the last one.  I think it is beautifully put!