“Orthography Opens Your Curious Side!”

Another school year has come to an end.  The faces I have grown accustomed to will now grace someone else’s classroom.  I will be left with remembrances of the many times we learned together, stumbled together, and laughed together.

As we take some time to think of the ways this year has moved us all forward by increasing what we understand about our world, the topic of orthography comes to mind.  Back in September a few students lit up right away once we began talking about words and structure and reasons for spelling that had nothing to do with phonics.  The rest were quite sure that it seemed like a lot of work.

The students were used to having spelling and pronunciation be the most important thing to know about a word.  I flip flopped that thinking and asked them to consider the sense and meaning of the word before thinking about either of those.  It was really one of the toughest challenges I faced this year.

You see, when spelling and pronunciation are considered more important than a word’s meaning, then the word is an empty thing.  Learning its spelling becomes a memory task, much like memorizing digits of Pi.  The digits of Pi are random and there is no pattern to rely on.  The students had spent years memorizing words that were empty for them.  They did not see how knowing the meaning of a word would be helpful to understanding its spelling.  Long into the school year I would catch students who were trying to figure out the word sum for a word that they could not define.

Slowly but surely progress was made.  The students became more and more familiar with common prefixes and suffixes.  They began to understand that affixes affect the overall sense and meaning of the base.  They began to see words as having a structure that brings sense to the word’s spelling.  When the structure begins to be understood, then spelling doesn’t need to be memorized.  The student will be able to rely on their knowledge of that underlying word structure and suffixing conventions to spell words.

Today I asked students to think back on the orthography work we have done this year.  I asked them whether or not there is a benefit to studying it.  The following video says it all.  My students overwhelming wish other grade levels could experience it and learn some of what they have.

Over and over these comments mention that students felt a sense of depth when studying orthography that was lacking in their previous spelling programs.  Studying orthography required more writing, more thinking, more research, more discussion, more questioning and more project work than their spelling program had.  AND YET they liked it better!  There are so many great quotes I could use, but I’ll leave you with this one, “Orthography opens your curious side!”

The following video is a conglomeration of silly moments from our year together.  The students enjoyed making videos this year and were so patient with me when I was filming.  I put this one together just for them.



For [e]’s a Jolly Good Fellow!

For several months now, we’ve been discussing the final non-syllabic <e> and making a list of the roles it plays in various words.  It became evident to me that my students didn’t know why it was there.  Some would insert it where it didn’t belong, and some would leave it off when it needed to be present.

Currently we have a list of seven different roles it plays when in the final non-syllabic position in a word.  Every so often I would write one of the roles for the <e> on the board, and my students would write it in their Orthography Notebook.  Then we would collaborate on writing a list of words that illustrated that particular role of the <e>.

Sometimes I would list words on the board, and the students would list words beneath it that also had a final <e> that was fulfilling the same role.  After all the words had lists beneath them, the students would volunteer to verbally explain the role of the <e>.

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Looking at the list for face, the students who explained the role of the final <e> were able to point out that in the majority of these words, the <e> was doing double duty!  It was indicating that the <c> should be pronounced as /s/, and it was also indicating that the preceding vowel should have a long pronunciation.  There was only one word on this list that did not have a long medial vowel, and that was <trance>.  My favorite word on the list was <snice>.  I loved it because of the way the girl who wrote it, turned from the board with the biggest grin.  She discovered the word <snice> when we explored portmanteau words.  It is a blend of <snow> and <ice>.

As we were thinking about the phonology of <c>, we took a side trip and talked about it more specifically.

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The students again thought of words in which the <c> was followed by an <e>, <i>, and <y>.  In words with two <c>’s, I asked, “Why is this one pronounced /s/?  Why is this one pronounced /k/?  It didn’t take long for them to really understand the phonology of <c> in a way they hadn’t before.  One girl actually raised her hand and asked, “Why didn’t we ever learn this stuff back in third grade?”  My own thoughts are that earlier than that would have been even more helpful!


As usual, the minute we explore one facet of spelling, we run across something else that is worthy of examination.  Such was the case with the word <*changable> that was part of the list under the word charge.  We talked about the suffixing convention we follow when a word that has a final non-syllabic <e> is being connected to a vowel suffix.  The final <e> is replaced by the vowel suffix.  But then we wondered what the resulting combination does to the <g> in <change>.  We thought of words that have the letter <g> followed by an <a>.  The students thought of <gap>, <game>, <gash>, and <gable>.  In all of the words, the <g> had a hard pronunciation.  So we realized that we can’t leave the <g> without the <e> in the word <changeable>.  We reinserted it.

Having this word show up in this list was so timely!  I had just read a great post by Pete Bowers called “Noticing the Two-Step Word Sum” that he has posted at Real Spelling.  In his post Pete responds to a teacher who is wondering about the words manageable, noticeable, and even changeable.  Pete writes an interesting response and even shares his doubts about the final <e> in knowledge.  I encourage you to read it!

The list of words under the word continue was an interesting mix.  Besides this list of rhyming words, another class made a list with the words league and plague.  (Because of our earlier work with Latin twin bases, my students are familiar with the Latin twins <strue>/<struct>.  The words construe and misconstrue have become commonly heard words in our classroom conversations!)  As you can see, someone wondered about the word menu.  When we checked at Etymonline, sure enough, it was a French loan word and not a complete English word!

Last week I decided it was time to check what it is my students understand about the final non-syllabic <e>.  I gave them a list of seven words.  For each word I asked them to explain in writing what the role of the final non-syllabic <e> was, and then to write three other words that illustrate that same use of the <e>.  It is something they have done verbally many times as a class.  Now I wanted to see that understanding at an individual level.  Here are some of their responses.

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I am so pleased to hear the students explain so clearly the various roles of the final non-syllabic <e>!  And only in MY room would a student think to use phoneme as a word to illustrate a point!  Here are a few more responses about some of the other roles of the final non-syllabic <e>.

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You can probably tell that we spent some time feeling the difference between the pronunciation of the <th> digraph as it is used in with and the <th> digraph as it is used in bathe.  I described the <th> in with as unvoiced and the <th> in bathe as voiced.  But I have to say that thinking of the two as voiceless and voiceful is delightful and just as clearly stated!

The last word on the list was continue.  The students were all able to explain that the <e> prevented the word from ending with a <u>.  The following boxed answer was bonus information that followed that word and its example words.


I love it when students willingly share more than they have been asked to share.  To me it is an indication of what they found interesting enough to remember!

As we studied the various roles of the final non-syllabic <e>, we all realized just how important it is.  We realized that in the past we’ve all made a lot of reading and spelling errors because we didn’t expect that final <e> to give us so much information about words and their pronunciations!  As a way to help others, maybe even you, we made this video.  We hope that when you have watched it, you sing right along with us in the final chorus!