“Traveler, there is no path, the path is made by walking.” ~ Antonio Machado

Last fall Daniel came into my classroom with writing that was almost indecipherable.  Even the most common words were misspelled.  When asked to read his writing, he stumbled, often saying, “I don’t know what that says.”  But he had a lot to say.  His head was full of humorous stories and his life was full of interesting moments.  This was fifth grade!  I wondered, “How did he get this far with such an obstacle?”

Knowing that whatever happened or didn’t happen in his previous years of schooling wouldn’t help me now, I put that on the back burner in my brain.  The only consideration given to those thoughts was the recognition that I had something to offer Daniel that hadn’t been offered to him before.  Orthography.  Perhaps this would be the year when misunderstandings about English would stop blocking his ability to express his ideas in written form.

All you need to do is read back through this blog to see the kinds of activities and explorations that happened in my class during the last year.  Beyond what I’ve posted about, we spoke ‘words’ every day.  Often I pulled misspelled words from student work, and we talked about them.  I wasn’t looking to spot out “wrong” spellers, but rather what the student might have been thinking about as he/she spelled the word.  What strategy was being used?  How might this misspelling benefit us?  What might we all learn from it?  Often times it was this activity that dictated the direction we needed to take next.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the suffixing conventions.  We started with knowing when to replace the final non-syllabic <e> and when not to.  I used a flow chart so that they could see the predictability of this convention.  It didn’t take long before the majority of the students were writing <making> instead of  *makeing.  We looked at the other suffixing conventions in the same way.  There was always an immediate effect in their writing.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the use of <k> and <ck> in words.  Students made a list of words whose spelling included <ck>.  They compared that to a list of words whose spelling included a <k>.  When comparing, they looked at the position of the phoneme within the base (initial, medial, final).   For instance, the <ck> in <picking> is not medial, it is final.  The base is <pick> and the <ck> is final in the base.  When they got the hang of keeping their focus on the base element, they found that <ck> is most often found in the final position of a base and is never initial.  The next thing to compare were the letters immediately preceding the <k> or <ck>.  They noticed that a single vowel always preceded the <ck>, and it was always short.  They also noticed that when <k> was final in the base, there were either two vowels preceding it or a consonant (usually <r> or <n>).  Students conducted research in the same way for <ge> and <dge>.  This particular research felt so scientific that I had the students calculate percentages to represent how often they found certain things (<r> before a final <k>, for example).

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the phonology of <c>.  Students made lists of words in which the grapheme <c> represented /s/ and /k/ in words.  We made lists for several days in a row, until students could confidently explain why the /s/ or /k/ pronunciation was used.  Knowing that there was a reliable way of knowing how to pronounce the grapheme <c> in a word was a light bulb moment for my students.  “Why didn’t we know this in second grade?  It would have been so helpful!”

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the phonology of <t>.  Students made lists of words in which the grapheme <t> represented /t/, /ʃ/, or /tʃ/.  Students who have already memorized the spelling of <motion> know that *moshun is wrong, but they don’t understand that the mistake is related to the phonology of the <t>.  In order to talk about these three phonemes, I needed to explain that the IPA symbol /ʃ/ represents the pronunciation of <t> in words like <lotion>, <action> and <edition>, and the IPA symbol /tʃ/ represents the pronunciation of <t> in words like <creature>, <actual>, and <question>.  This inquiry really made the students slow down and think about pronunciation.  It also made them aware of what is really going on in the spelling of the word – especially since they wrote the words in the lists as word sums.  They began to realize that pronunciation of a final <t> in a base element can change depending on the suffix that follows it.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at assimilated prefixes.  In groups of three, students were assigned a prefix group to explore.  For example, one group looked at <con->, <com->, <cor->, <col->, and <co->.  Another group looked at <in>, <il>, <ir>, and <im>.  Once they realized that many prefixes have variations in their spelling, the students slowed down and spent a moment considering when making hypotheses about a word sum.  I began seeing <immature> instead of *imature, <illegal> instead of *ilegal, and <corrode> instead of *corode.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the role of the final non-syllabic <e> in various words.  It didn’t take the students long to be able to share with others at least 6 or 7 reasons for it to be there.  One way of sharing what was learned was to make a video called, “For <e>’s a Jolly Good Fellow“.  Knowing why the final non-syllabic <e> is in a word makes it easier to remember to include it when spelling!  I began seeing <change> instead of *chang and <breathe> instead of <breath> (when breathe was what was needed).

There was certainly much more we learned by looking at the words my students were using and misspelling, but I think you get the idea of how I turned “spelling mistakes” into something rich and useful.  Which takes us back to Daniel.  The orthography we were doing encompassed wonderful things he had never been asked to think about before.  But was it enough?  Will his next teacher wonder about his writing obstacle the way I had last fall?  The truthful answer is, “maybe.”

Daniel made a lot of progress.  He improved his writing in a lot of ways.  Besides looking at orthography, we studied grammar and writing.  There was a lot of practice at all of it.  But when I ran into Daniel’s mom a week after school was out,  I offered to tutor him for the summer.  Why had I done that?  What did I think I could accomplish in a few sessions that I wasn’t able to accomplish in a school year?

Some things that I learned about Daniel during the school year:   He is a dodger.  Anytime he is in a group, he counts on someone else to take the lead and he waits for their direction. He does what they tell him.  He writes what they tell him. It’s easier that way.  He pretends to be listening in class, but isn’t always.  He does not ask questions when he is confused.  His misspellings and poor writing have been pointed out so many times that he accepts failure as the norm.  He is not angry, just accepting.  He sees no point in trying to fix something that is part of the definition of who he is.  The strategy that he sticks to (that gets him into more spelling errors than not) is to “sound it out”.

I knew he “hid” in a larger class.  If I worked with him one-on-one, I felt he stood a better chance.

I started our first session by asking him to write a few sentences about his summer.  As usual, I was looking for mistakes he was making in his writing.  As it turned out, he wrote great sentences and there was only one word misspelled.  It was *calfes.  This led to a great investigation of pluralizing words such as <wolf>, <wife>, <half>, <knife>, and more.

After that I pictured a spelling error I had seen him make during the school year.  He had used the letter sequence ‘ints’ when he should have used the suffix <-ence>.  He was trying to sound out the word and spell it according to what he though he was hearing.  So he and I made two lists.  We made a list of words with the <-ence> suffix and a list of words that had a final ‘nts’ letter sequence.  The first list included words like <difference>, <reference>, <influence> and <evidence>.  The second list included words like <cents>, <quotients>, <agreements> and <payments>.  When asked to compare the two lists, Daniel recognized that the second list of words were all plural!  Then we went through each word, identifying its morphemes and talking about how it is used, and then spelling it out.  By that I mean he wrote it down, and then spelled each word aloud with a pause between each morpheme.  By doing this, he saw that <-ence> was consistently a suffix.

During the next session we reviewed the phonology of <t>.  We made lists and he spelled the words out.  We talked about the morphemes, their sense and meaning, and any related words.  We also reviewed <wolf> to <wolves>.

At the most recent session, we went back to the <-ence> suffix.  I wanted to fluctuate between <-ence> and <-ent>.  So I asked him to spell <evidence> and then <evident>, <influence> and then <influential>  (Reviewing the phonology of <t>).  We talked about them, and then I had him spell them out.  When we came to <dependence>, we paused to talk about the bound base <pend>.  We talked about a pendulum and a pendant and how they relate to being a dependent child.  Daniel spelled the word on paper and then out loud.  Thinking about another related word, I threw out the word <independence>.  Daniel quickly explained how the prefix <in-> brought a sense of “not” to the word before he proceeded to write the word on his paper.  When he spelled it out, I was surprised.  He had spelled <in – du – pend – ence>.

Interesting!  I asked him why the spelling of the prefix <de-> changed when we added the prefix <in-> to the word.  He said, ” I don’t know.  It just does?”  Interesting.  So even as I’m training him to spell out with morphemes, he’s still listening to the Queen of Hearts in his ear bellowing, “Sound it out!”

It was time to switch gears and talk about stress and the schwa.  When we pronounce the word <dependence>, the stress is on the second syllable.  Even though the first syllable is unstressed, the <e> is still pronounced clearly as a long <e>.  When we pronounce the word <independence>, there is stress on both the first and third syllables.  Some might consider the third syllable to be the primary stress in this word and the first to be secondary stress.  Either way, the second syllable becomes even more unstressed than it was in <dependence>, and the <e> in <de-> is pronounced as a schwa <ə>.  In this word, the schwa pronunciation is similar to the way we pronounce a short <u>.

To illustrate the point better, I brought up the word <chocolate>.  I asked him to say it.  We both noticed that when you say the word, there are two syllables, but when you go to write it, you think of three.  That <o> in the middle is a schwa with zero pronunciation when this word is spoken!  He played around with this idea for a bit and smiled as he spoke and the schwa syllable disappeared.

This discussion led us back to the first time Daniel spelled <dif-fer-ence> as *dif-r-ints.  I showed him both spellings and asked why he might have missed the <e> in the bound base <fer>.  The idea of written syllables versus spoken syllables was becoming slightly comfortable one.  The idea of a vowel having a schwa pronunciation was almost a relief!  When we meet again, we will pick up where this left off.  I’ll be ready with a list of words in which the schwa has altered the way the letter used might typically be pronounced.

*** Note to reader:  Daniel is a real student.  Daniel is not his real name.



4 thoughts on ““Traveler, there is no path, the path is made by walking.” ~ Antonio Machado

  1. Mary Beth, I always love getting a glimpse into your classroom and with this post, into your private tutoring. I had not thought of “chocolate” as one of those words where the written word has more/less syllables than the spoken word. Today a student I tutor spelled “toil” as *”toyoil” and then “toyol” . Obviously we needed to look at the position of the graphemes . But I noticed from his spelling that he was feeling two syllables when he pronounced “toil” and was trying to spell another syllable, adding a vowel or digraph to his first pronounced syllable’s spelling. Thanks for adding another word to our conversation about words like “different, family, & fire” where sounding out just won’t give you accurate spelling.

    • Thank you Laure!

      Gina’s newest Lexinar, Stress and the Schwa, has been wonderful. The subject matter isn’t new to me, but making sense of how it works in pronunciation and then spelling is definitely something I needed to think about!

      The words you mentioned (toil and fire) are very interesting! I’ve often seen students use a lot more letters than needed to spell those. A discussion about syllables and how they relate to spelling in situations like this will be a must this fall!

      Mary Beth

  2. Thank you! Since I stopped using spelling lists, I’ve started learning – really learning – about words, their stories, and their spelling.

    Spelling lists weren’t following patterns as much as they were grouping words with a coincidental same letter sequence! I wondered for years why ‘business’ and ‘businesses’ were on separate lists. It makes so much more sense to study bases and related words so that students can practice applying suffixing rules and noticing stress change in pronunciation when suffixes are added.

    Instead there were these lists. The word ‘sign’ was on one, ‘design’ on another, ‘signal’ on another, and ‘signature’ on another. They belong to the same family because they share the same base and denotation. The phonology of the ‘s’ changes in the word ‘design’, and because the stress changes, the ‘g’ is pronounced in ‘signal’ and ‘signature’. Spelling lists obscure wonderful connections like this. They focus on artificial relationships and forced fake pronunciation in order to memorize letters in order.

    About three months into studying orthography I told a colleague, “It’s like I just found out the world is round! I can never go back to thinking otherwise!”

  3. As always….I learn so much from your posts and can’t wait to try the new ideas on my students! Studying orthography is so much deeper and meaningful than studying a list of spelling words, even if they follow a convention or pattern. Daniel is a lucky young man!

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