Once Again Orthographical Discussions Provide Intrigue

As my students and I were reading about the characteristics of living things, we came across the word <unicellular>.  I said aloud, “Calling a one-celled organism unicellular makes perfect sense to me.  Does anyone else feel that way?”  In response I could feel a pinging of recognition going on around the room.

“Yes.  I’m thinking of the word unicycle.  It has one wheel.”
“And what about unicorn?  It has one horn.”
“And then there’s the universe!”
“What about unit?  Is it related?”  (We put that one on the ‘Wonder Wall’ for later investigation)
“What about united?”  (Added it to the ‘Wonder Wall’)

Then I asked  two people to come to the board and write possible word sums for <unicellular>.  What a wonderfully thought provoking activity that was! Here are a few of the word sums from throughout the day:

<un> + <i> + <cell> + <ul> + <ar>
<uni> + <ce> + <llu> + <lar>
<uni> + <cell> + <ular>
<uni> + <cell> + <u> <lar>

There was talk about the meaning of unicellular.  If the word was basically about the cell, it made sense to look at <cell> as a possible free base in this word.

Students also wanted to talk about the possibility of the prefix (at this point and without further analysis, the consensus among the students was that we were looking at a prefix) being either <uni> or <un> plus the connecting vowel <i>. One boy had an interesting comment.  “If the <i> is a connecting vowel, and the prefix is just <un>, ….. isn’t there already a <un> prefix that means not?”

First of all, I was thrilled that this boy was bringing what he felt was a secure understanding of the prefix <un> to the discussion.  Secondly, this observation raised some questions about when connecting vowels are used.  Thirdly, what a perfect opportunity to talk about changing the way we reference prefixes and their denotations, and thereby broadening our word sense .  The boy was confident that <un> was a prefix that meant not.  And why wouldn’t he be?  Throughout our years of schooling, we have  been taught that each word or prefix has a definition.  And in order to aid in memorization of that definition, it has been trimmed down to one word when possible.  But in doing so, we have given ourselves a very narrow  (and sometimes quite incorrect) sense of these morphemes.

My current endeavor to learn about the etymology of words has made that clear.  It is as if we have been looking through a dirty smudgy window that had only a fist sized clean spot.  With practice at this type of research we understand more and more of what we are seeing.  The clean spot on the window is getting larger and larger.  We visualize and understand more and more about each word’s sense and meaning.  There is true fascination when we recognize one word’s ties and kinship to so many others.

To illustrate what I am talking about, think of the prefix <un>.  Most students can tell you that it means ‘not’.  But does it?  Always?  In a word like <unhappy>, the prefix <un> does indeed indicate that something or someone is not happy.  But what about the word <unbutton>?  To not button something is different than to reverse the process of buttoning something.  See what I mean?  Now look at the prefix <re>.  Most students think of it as an indication that something has or is happening ‘again’.  In the word <rewrite>, that is the case.  But what about the word <remarkable>?  Here the <re> prefix is intensifying or adding emphasis to the base.

By simply changing the way we refer to morphemes (and so much more, really), we will help leave the students open to the possibility of these differences.  So instead of saying, “Re means again,” I say, “<Re> CAN indicate something is happening again.”  Or,” One of the things <re> indicates is the sense of something happening again.”

Getting back to the word <unicellular> and our classroom discussion…..

We were ready to investigate the word to find out if:

-<un(e)> was a base and <i> was a connecting vowel
-<uni> was a prefix
-the suffix(es) is/are <ular> or <ul(e)>+>ar>

At Etymonline we found that <un(e)> is from the Latin unus meaning one.  So this is a compound word with <une> and <cell> as bases, joined by the connecting vowel <i>.  We also found that <-ular> can be further analyzed as <-ule>(indicating small or little)+<-ar>(meaning pertaining to).  Therefore, the evidence we’ve found at Etymonline supports the following analysis of this word:  <une/> + <i> + <cell> + <ule/> + <ar>.

When we searched the Latin unus, we came up with these words that relate to the sense of one, oneness, sameness, uniqueness:  unite, unity, unique, commune, universe, triune,
unanimous, inch, unilateral, ounce, union, and even the phrase “E pluribus unum”, which the students recognized as something they have seen on a quarter.  It has been the motto of the United States since 1782 (the end of the American Revolutionary War).  Looking a bit closer at what Doug Harper (Etymonline author) had to say about it,  the <E> gives a sense of ‘out’ for it is a clip of the prefix <ex>, <pluribus> gives a sense of ‘many’, and <unum> is that sense of ‘one’.  So, ‘out of many – one’.  Out of many states we become one country.

But I have to say that when doing this kind of scholarship in class, it is quite the opposite.  It is usually ‘out of one word – many”.


Knowledge and Imagination: A Perfect Pairing

One of the activities we did while studying the hydrosphere was to set up stations and take a trip through the water cycle.  Each student started with a paper loop that had their name on.  The class was divided so that there were a few at each station.  The stations were:  River, Lake, Ocean, Cloud, Soil, Groundwater, Plant and Animal.  At each station the person first in line added a loop to their chain that identified the station they were at. They then rolled a big die.  Following the directions on the die, they either moved on to another station in the water cycle, or they stayed and went to the back of the line.

Once everyone had 10 loops on their chain we stopped.  We sat at our desks and talked about how a water molecule would transition between these places in the water cycle.  It came up that the dice at the Ocean and Cloud stations were marked in such a way that there was only a small chance of moving on.  This led to great discussions regarding the size of the ocean and the role of the water molecules in clouds and oceans.  And those discussions led to discussions about the role water plays in all of the areas of the water cycle.  We reviewed all of the forms of precipitation and talked about how groundwater might find itself in a lake or a well.

Now it was time to pair knowledge and imagination.  Using the chain each student made while visiting the stations, each student wrote a story of their journey.  I was particularly interested in whether or not the students really understood how a water molecule moves from the ocean to the clouds, or from an animal to the soil.


Here is an excerpt from Hailey’s story:

“It all started in a very large animal.  I don’t actually know what it was.  When I was in its stomach, there was lots of grass, hay, and grain.  Whoosh!  Next thing you know I was going through its body so fast.  I was so scared.  Before I knew it, I was leaving its body with a bunch of other water molecules.  We were spilled out onto the ground.

After a while I got evaporated.  It felt really weird.  It felt like I was swimming through air.  When I got in the cloud, there were many other water droplets.  Guess what?  My BFF Emma was up there.  We got to meet many other water drops.  We even saw some of our old classmates.  While we were talking, it started to get colder.    We didn’t know what was happening until an older water droplet said that we were turning into snow.  So back down we went.  But as we fell we turned into beautiful ice crystals.”


Here is an excerpt from Sam’s story:

“It all started in the stem of a rose.  It was really dark.  I felt alone.  All of a sudden the xylem sucked me up to the chloroplast where I helped make food for the plant!  When I got done, I left the leaf through the stomata and was immediately evaporated up to the clouds.

When I got up there, I saw there was a party with other molecules.  I had a blast.  Then the cloud started coughing.  The cloud was about to sneeze.  I ended up falling with big ice balls into the ocean!  I was falling so fast!  Splash!

I wasn’t there very long before I melted away from the other water molecules in the ice ball.  As the sun came out, I started to drift upwards into the sky once more.  “Here I go again!”


Here is an excerpt from Lilly’s story:

“One day I was swimming along in the river when I was swallowed by a small fish.  I made my way to the gills of the fish and peeked out.  I didn’t jump out though.  I liked being in the fish.  It was fun!  That is until a big sharp object came in the mouth!  It was scary.  I backed up, but I didn’t fall out of the fish.  The fish was pulled out of the water and onto land.  A dude shook the fish and that’s when I fell out of the gills and onto the soil.

I found a hole and slid carefully down.  This was worse than being in the fish!  The fish was just cold and kind of slimy.  This hole was dry, cold, stinky and super slimy.  Believe it or not, I like to be a clean water molecule.  Down here under the ground it was so dark that I couldn’t see anything really well.  I was hoping to connect with some other water molecules.  Eventually I found some others and we traveled a bit faster.  We ended up seeping into a lake.”