“Start Where You Are. Use What You Have. Do What You Can.” ~ Arthur Ashe

We are learning about orthography by jumping right in.  I know, I know.  Some will wonder how I can do that when my students don’t really solidly understand about morphemes, about bases being bound or free, about word sums or even suffixing conventions.  But it is still what we are doing.  Because while we are treading orthographical water, the students will look around and begin noticing things.  Yes, there is a lot of splashing at first.

“Mrs. Steven, it doesn’t really say anything at Etymonline.”
“Let me look with you.  Read it to me and we’ll find the word’s history together.”

In the first two days of letting the students jump into some research, I explained ‘denotation’ and ‘word sum’ twenty times.  But it needed to happen that way.  They needed to be writing word sums to understand word sums.  They needed to be writing the denotations of the bases to understand what a denotation is.

So here’s what we did.  This is actually the third year I have started the year with a look at these particular compound words.  As the science teacher, the topics we will begin studying are biosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and atmosphere.  As the orthography teacher who was looking to highlight the fact that these words have similar structures, I added a layer of the geosphere (lithosphere) and four layers of the atmosphere (troposphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and cosmosphere).  Now I had enough words that shared this structure to accommodate students working in groups of two.

To begin with I wrote all of the words on the board and invited the students to notice things such as  similarities or differences in how the words were built.  Right away someone noticed that they all had <sphere> in the word.  Great opportunity to review the difference between a free and bound base, and also to talk about the <ph> representing /f/ – a definite signal that the word is likely from Greek.  Then someone noticed that there was an <o> in front of <sphere> in every word.  Great noticing!  Sometimes an <o> in that position can be a connecting vowel signaling a word from Greek.  Since the <ph> in <sphere> already gave us the same clue, the fact that the <o> could be a connecting vowel was something worth keeping in mind as we researched to find out the structure of the rest of each word.

As we looked once more at each word, I reminded the students of their goal:  “So the group investigating <biosphere> will be looking to see if the first element is <bi> or <bio>.  And the group investigating <lithosphere> will be looking to see if the first element is <lith> or <litho>.”

Once they had a definition for their word, I sent them to Etymonline to see how old the word was, and if there was any evidence to help them determine that first element.  I then circulated to help them see how the information is laid out at that site.  The word <cosmosphere> was not included at Etymonline, so I had the students look in our collection of dictionaries to find a word with the same beginning spelling and meaning that we could find at Etymonline.  It was a great opportunity to demonstrate that we don’t find everything we’re looking for in one source!

As the students and I found the first base in each word, I had them complete the word sum we had started on the board underneath each word.


We also added next to each word the Greek word it came from:

bios                         atmos                      cosmos
geos                         hydros                    thermos
lithos                                                        tropos

Having the completed list of word sums on the board helped the students realize that all of the words were from Greek and each Greek word had the same <-os> suffix.  I explained that we can remove that Greek suffix to find the etymon or root that has become our modern English base.  It was an opportunity to talk about a word’s ancestors as opposed to a word’s modern relatives.  Our evidence clearly shows that the bound base in this word is <bi> and the <o> is a connecting vowel.  Here was another great opportunity to point out that if we just look at the word <biosphere> and recognize the free base <sphere>, it would be easy to assume that the first base is what’s left: <bio>.  But we are learning to be word scientists, and what scientists do is search for evidence to support whether or not their hypothesize is true.  Without evidence, we make no assumptions.  It is better to leave a word unanalyzed than it is to make our best guess at its structure when we have no evidence to back us up.  We can, however, voice our ideas and keep searching for the evidence that will one day support it.

Another great way to provide evidence that the bound base is <bi> and not <bio> is to find a word that has the <bi> but no <o> and comes from the same Greek word bios.  The word the students found was <amphibian>.  The simple fact that the <bi> is not followed by an <o> means that <o> is not part of the base!  What is an amphibian?  It is that which lives two kinds of lives – both on the land and in the water!

So far we have proven that <o> is a connecting vowel in each word on our list, and that like the <ph> representing /f/, it is signaling a word from Greek.  We have also proven that all of these words are compound words and share a structure.  In all but one situation the first base is bound and the second base is free.  Each base has its own denotation.

The next task was to further explore the first base in these words – the base that was less familiar (and in most cases completely unfamiliar).  I asked the students to find a list of words that share that first base.  They found these words by again looking at Etymonline, by looking in hardcover dictionaries, and by looking at Word Searcher online.  I asked them to first choose the words they were familiar with, and then to choose some unfamiliar words, including definitions.  It is so important for my students to understand that they are no longer being asked to make lists of words they don’t understand and can’t use in context.  It isn’t about creating the longest list, but about choosing words for your list that demonstrate a family relationship to each other based on the denotation of the base.  The fun is in finding words that share the base but highlight a connection never noticed before.  An example of this is finding that <dehydrate> and <hydrosphere> share a base and a denotation and belong on the same matrix!


The last thing I asked them to do in their notebook was to write word sums for their list of words, and to then draw a matrix.  I had drawn a few matrices on the board to model this for them a few days earlier, but I knew that now, while they were making their first matrix, is when the understanding of the matrix structure would begin to make sense.  So I circulated, explaining the layout and why certain morphemes would be placed in certain places.

I told them that if we had affixes that we could easily identify, we would pull them off in the matrix, but that we might not fully analyze all words represented on these first matrices.  Then I pointed out a few words such as <biochemistry>.  It was represented in the matrix as <bi> + <o> + <chemistry>.  We agreed that we could probably find out more about the structure of <chemistry>, but that for now we would leave it, focusing instead on the many words that share the bound base <bi>.  If we hadn’t been able to understand what <chemistry> was, then it would have been important to find out more.

Once all these things were in their notebooks and I had glanced at their work, each group fetched a big piece of paper and began a poster.  I wrote this list on the board to remind them of what I expected to see on the poster:

~your word
~the word sum for your word
~the denotation of each base in your word sum
~the year this word was first attested
~a list of words that share the first base in your word
~word sums for your list of words
~a matrix

For the next three days, everyone was busy!



On Thursday we started to share the posters. The students have been surprisingly eager to share!  Explaining their research.  This is where the students begin to feel comfortable, treading in the orthographical water.  It doesn’t take long before the idea that words have structure begins to be an understanding.  Especially as they read the word sums for the words on their list.  Base plus suffix.  Or base plus connecting vowel plus base plus suffix.  Or prefix plus base.  There is structure, and it is consistent.

We talked about the structure of the matrix and identifying suffixes.  How do we prove that certain letters at the end of a word are indeed a suffix?  What other words can we think of that have that same string of letters in that position?  How many suffixes can a word have?  Even with many other things to mention, we kept the overall focus on the relationship between a base and all the other words that share it, and we made mental notes of what we would do different on our next posters as our understanding of all this grew.

This poster sharing is also where I stress that being in the audience is not a passive role.  Everyone brings their chair up to the front of the room.  I expect audience members to relate the base to other words they can think of, to ask questions if anything said is confusing, and to notice things that may not have been noticed or pointed out by the presenters.  Audience participation is where the best, unexpected yet delightful learning takes place for all of us!

So far we have discovered that the difference between a macrocosm and a microcosm is size.  The macrocosm is the bigger universe that encompasses everything, and a microcosm is a smaller world, perhaps it could be life inside a snow globe or a drop of water or an ephemeral pond.  We discovered that a megalith is a very huge rock, and that a megaphone makes a sound bigger.  We already knew about a thermometer and that it measures body heat, but were able to now understand that an atmometer would measure steam or vapor.  We discussed tropisms and acted out the difference between phototropism, geotropism and thigmotropism.  And the students thought it was cool that one of our new bound bases <ge> was in a word with another of our new bases <trope>.  They delighted to find out that the name George shares the base <ge> and that the first George was probably a farmer.  Further delight came when I told them the first name of a retired teacher who comes to our school everyday to take children for walks through the woods out back.  She is the driving force for environmental projects and activities at our school, and her first name is Georgia!  We wondered how her parents knew that it would be the perfect name for her!

With only a third of the posters presented, the learning is already rich and the fascination is ignited.

thigmotropism          phototropism
otropism – turning and                   Phototropism – The plant turns toward
touching, growing upward                          the source of light


Geotropism – the roots turn toward the earth and the
stem and leaves turn away from earth




Where to Begin When There’s So Much to Say

I thought carefully for most of the summer about the best way to introduce the spelling truths (which I like to think of as the fabric of orthography) to my new fifth graders.  Hmmmm.  Where to begin?  What to start with?  What is the ground level understanding they will need in order to pursue independent inquiries?

It was obvious to me that they needed to understand some linguistic terminology, the fact that words have structure, and the fact that it is more important to understand the meaning and sense of what a word brings to the context in which it is found than it is to be able to pronounce it.  Beyond that, further orthographical discoveries will be more like delightful and savory surprises.

Even with the determination of what I deemed an essential foundation, I continued to ponder what to start with.  The students before me would not only be new to fifth grade, they would also be new to the idea of “spelling makes perfect sense”.  There is very little they understand about “why” when it comes to spelling.  They have spent their time sorting, grouping, using in sentences, copying and over-pronouncing words with the hope that the exposure alone will help the student memorize each word’s spelling.  So, one word at a time, the students have been asked to memorize spellings.  How deadening to the student who needs to understand in order to make a spelling stick!  How unprofitable to the student who can easily memorize those spellings, but is never shown the relationships words have with one another.

So it isn’t just that the students are coming to me with a lack of understanding, they are also coming to me with little interest and low expectations that studying spelling can be anything but dry and dull.  I thought some more.  What will ignite their eagerness to know more?  As I thought, I thought back to what ignited my own eagerness only three and a half years ago.  What were those word examples that made me believe that I was indeed staring spelling truths straight in the face?  Which matrices made convincing evidence obvious to me when I wasn’t even looking for it?  Which orthographic nuggets made me lift my eyebrows and smile?

Here’s what I did.  On day one I wrote three words on the board:  <to>   <too>   <two>.  The students were aware that these were homophones.  They understood that homophones share a pronunciation but not a spelling.  Next I asked them to give me a definition of each word.  They found it easier to use the words in sentences than to define them, especially with <to>.  At this point, I brought up the idea that words can be categorized as either function words or content words.  Function words tend to have less letters than their homophone partners, and are less easy to define in isolation.  The list of function words is closed as opposed to the list of content words.  We identified <to> as a function word that is commonly used as a preposition.

Then we talked about the spelling of these three words, and noticed that the first had one <o>, the second had two <o>’s and that the third couldn’t have three <o>’s.  That is something we don’t see in a complete English word.  So why is there a <w>?  A third <o> couldn’t be used so the next best thing was a <w>?  Hmmmm.  Interesting.  Perhaps there is an explanation to be found if we look at words related to <two>?  I asked if anyone could think of a word that had a <tw> letter combination and also had something to do with the number two.  Almost immediately someone thought of <twelve>.  As that person was explaining the connection to the number two, other hands shot up.  We ended up with a list on the board that included twenty, twice, twilight, twist, twin and between.  Suddenly the spelling of the number two was less weird, less random.  The <w> was there to mark a connection between the number two and other words with <tw> that also have something to do with two.

On day two I began by showing Gina Cooke’s video Making Sense of Spelling.

It reaffirmed what they had realized yesterday about the <w> in <two> and led them to other interesting things.  At its end we discussed things like free and bound bases, prefixes and suffixes, and the terms ‘word sums’ and ‘word structure’.  We also addressed the appearance of a single non-syllabic <e> in the word sum <one> + <ion>, but not in its final form <onion>.  Every student in the room knew that there would be a final non-syllabic <e> in the word <hope> and that the <e> was not in the word <hoping>, but because they do not know WHY it is in one and not the other, they don’t expect that same convention to happen in other words!

I followed our discussion by having the students brainstorm a list of words with <hope> as the free base.  After the list was completed, I drew a matrix on the board to share a way to organize the morphemes that are part of completed words that share a base.  When the hand drawn matrix reflected the words we listed, I quickly typed in the same list at Mini-Matrix Maker and created a computer drawn matrix.  We compared the two and reviewed why some affixes seem to be in compartments and some seem to be part of a list.  Then we practiced recognizing words by choosing morphemes in a specific order.  Here is the matrix we made:


I patiently listened as the students pronounced the suffixes as if they were words, knowing that on day three I needed to show them why morphemes need to be spelled out and not pronounced.

On day three I wrote the word <sign> on the board and asked if it was free or bound.  It was identified as free because it could be used without adding any affixes.  Then I went to my desk and pulled Etymonline up on the SmartBoard.  We looked together at the entry for <sign>.  I talked a bit about the “early 13c.” that began the entry.  I explained that that is when the word was first attested.  Doug Harper, the author of Etymonline, looks at written documents to find the earliest date he can in which the word in question was in use.  If he finds a written document with the word, he notes the date and looks at written documents from before that date.  He stops when he cannot find the word in any earlier written documents that he has access to.  Does that mean the word couldn’t have existed before that?  No.  It means we do not have evidence of it existing before that.  I wanted to make sure that my students know that scholars rely on evidence, and if we are going to be scholars, we will need to rely on it too.  We went on to read the rest of the entry and found out how recent the term sign language really is (1847).

Next I walked over to the white board again and began a matrix for the free base <sign>.  After having read the full entry for <sign> at Etymonline, it was decided that “to mark” would be a denotation we could use.  The students brainstormed words that belonged to this family, and I filled in the matrix.  It didn’t take long before someone suggested the word <design>.  “Say that again,” I asked.  “Are you pronouncing the base in <design> the same way you would if the <de> prefix were not there?”  The students noticed that the <s> was pronounced as /z/ in <design> and /s/ in <sign>.  This is a reason to spell out our morphemes instead of pronouncing them as if they are words.  Until a word is complete, we don’t know how to pronounce it.

After students suggested <signer>, <designs>, and <signing> there was a pause.  “Can you think of any others?” I asked.  A hand went up and a boy quietly and uncertainly asked if <signature> might be one.  “Well, does a signature have anything to do with making a mark?”, I asked.  While the students were agreeing that it did, someone else blurted out excitedly, “And this word is evidence for having the <g> in the base!”  That was like music to my ears!  More quickly than I expected, they are connecting dots!  The final word added to our matrix was <signal>, to which someone blurted, “…more evidence for why there’s a <g>!”  But it was also evidence to support the practice of spelling out morphemes until a word is complete and ready to be pronounced.

On day four I shared with the students my understanding of how the days of the week were named.  None of the students really knew anything about this, although they had some pretty imaginative guesses.  I began by sharing the names given by the Romans:

dies solis
dies lunae
dies Martis
dies Mercurii
dies lovi
dies Veneris
dies Saturni

One boy quickly raised his hand and said that they looked like planet names.  I smiled, commented “Nicely done,” and pointed up to the new poster on our wall:


I told them that the Latin word dies (day) has the bound base <di> that we see in our modern word <diary>.  That made sense since a diary is where we do daily writing.  They knew that solis had to do with the sun because they thought of  <solar>.  They knew that lunae had to do with the moon because they thought of <lunar>.    As for the rest of the days, they named every planet except Jupiter (lovi).

The Romans, like the Greeks, paired up the planets with their Gods and the characteristics attributed to their Gods.  When the Germanic tribes decided to use this idea of naming the days of the week after the planets and their associated Gods, they used their own Gods that matched in characteristics to the Roman Gods.  Here is how the Germanic people who spoke Old English named the days:

sunnandæg                         Sun’s day
monandæg                          Moon’s day
tiwesdæg                             Tiw’s day
wodnesdæg                         Woden’s day
thurresdæg                          Thunor’s day
frigedæg                               Freya’s day
sæternesdæg                       Saturn’s day

At this point, we could definitely see that the names were becoming familiar!  We especially enjoyed learning that <Friday> and <friend> share a base, and therefore a denotation! Friday was named for Venus which was associated with the characteristics of love and affection.  Isn’t a friend someone for whom you have a level of love and affection?

Telling the story of the days of the week gave us an opportunity to understand how people can shape the spelling of words.  The Germanic people liked the idea of naming the days after the sun, the moon and the planets.  They even liked the idea of associating those planets with Gods.  But they had their own Gods, and they adopted and adapted the weekday names to reflect their own Gods.  Perhaps this has happened with other words in other places as well.  Telling the story of the days of the week also gave us an opportunity to talk about letters that don’t exist anymore, as with the letter ash <æ> that has since become a single <a>.  Perhaps there are other letters that were once common, but no longer exist as part of our alphabet

As we were finishing up our discussion of how the days of the week were named, one boy turned to the student next to him, put his hands to his head, and made a gesture as if his mind had just been blown!  It was just the reaction I had hoped for!  The eagerness is settling in.  I can feel it.

On day five, I shared a video of two 6 year old boys who were investigating <carnivore> in Jim and Lyn Anderson’s classroom.

When it was finished, I asked if anyone thought that <carnivore> was a pretty big word for first graders.  Lots of students raised their hands.  Then I asked if anyone in the class had ever been fascinated with dinosaurs at the same age.  Only a few hands went up, but the children those hands belonged to were ready to relive that enthusiasm and tell about their favorites!  I was making the point that 6 year old children are not intimidated by large words.  It is the adults and the writing programs they use who decide what length of word is appropriate at what age.  How confining and insulting!

Secondly, look at the comfort these boys have in using the online resource Etymonline.  They do not stop and embarrassingly try to pronounce a word in Late Latin.  Instead they spell it and learn from it what they need to know – how its spelling compares to the word they are investigating.  And they aren’t just blindly copying things down in their notebook.  They are talking about what they are discovering and can easily explain their understanding without having to read it out of their notebook.

I wrote <carnivore> and <herbivore> on the board.  We reviewed that the boys had said the base of <carnivore> was <carn> and meant “meat”.  I reminded them that the teacher had mentioned a second base which was <vore> and that the boys had defined it as “eat or only eat”.  I wrote a word sum:  <carn> + <i> + <vore>.   I didn’t say anything about the <i> just yet.  Then we looked at <herbivore>.  I began a word sum, bracketing the known base <vore>.  Someone spotted the familiar base <herb> and could even tell me it was a free base.  I finished the word sum:  <herb> + <i> + <vore>.  I wondered if anyone recognized what these two word sums had in common.  That is when we turned our attention to the <i> in both words.  I explained that it is a connecting vowel, and that because it is an <i>, we know that it is from Latin.  Someone asked if it is like a conjunction.  In a way it is.  It is an affix that connects two morphemes in a word. Then I shared the word that first convinced me that a connecting vowel was a real thing:  <speedometer>.  This is a compound word with two free bases.  It is obvious that the <o> is not part of either base, but is there to connect the two.  And because the connecting vowel is an <o>, I know this word is from Greek.

We talked about the fact that these are both compound words because there are two bases in each.  I pointed out that they have the same structure:   a base + a connecting vowel + a base.  All words have a structure.  I demonstrated this by bringing back the examples we saw in our <hope> matrix and our <sign> matrix.

So that is how the first week went.  I feel good about the choices I made in regards to what I shared and what was introduced.  I’ve seen the eyebrows go up and the smiles cross their lips.  At the end of day five, a girl told the class that every night her mom asks her what she learned that day.  She hasn’t always had something to tell her mom.  But this year it’s different.  Every day this week she taught her mom some orthography!