“Learn to see what you are looking at.” –Christopher Paolini

The first time I heard the term phonestheme mentioned, I was taking an online class.  The presenter was talking about words that have in common a specific set of letters representing a specific pronunciation. The surprising thing is that the words also share a broad meaning.  Let me give you an example:  The letter string <gr> is initial in the following words:  groan, growl, gruff, grump, grunt, grouch, grate and grief.  Pretty obvious, right?  Now when you stop and think about the meaning of each of those words, there is a common theme here.  It is one of low unpleasant sounds.   Cool, huh?

Here’s another:  The letter string <ump> is final in the following words:  bump, dump, stump, lump, slump, hump, and rump.  When you stop and think of the meaning of each word, there is a shared sense of heavy and compactness, isn’t there? Once you begin an investigation of your own, you will be surprised at how many of these phonesthemes there are.  If you are like me, you will ask yourself, “How could something be right there in front of me all my life, yet I didn’t see it?”

With phonesthemes, it takes a bit of slowing down and thinking about each word to really appreciate what has happened here.  These words share a sound and a broad meaning without sharing a heritage.  They do not all originate from the same language, and they do not all share a root.  It makes a phonestheme all the more fascinating.  When I ask my students to investigate phonesthemes,  they willingly agree.  It seems like such a simple assignment.  If the phonestheme is initial, I recommend they grab a dictionary so they can check to make sure there is a shared sense of meaning.  A surprising number of words have phonesthemes, but just because a word has a letter combination (<gr> for instance),  it doesn’t necessarily mean the word shares this phonestheme for sure.  Here are some of the posters my students created.

So now what?  My students have each had the opportunity to collect words that fit as a particular phonestheme.   Last year I asked my students to write poems using a particular phonestheme.  Some of the poems were fantastic.  Some felt forced.  I wanted to have them write, but we needed to talk about poetry in general first and the role sounds of pronounced words play.

I pulled out my new book by Michael Clay Thompson, A World of Poetry.  I read to them, “Poetry is not just expression in words.  It is also expression in sounds.  Poets compose sounds; they choose words that contain the sounds they need, and then they arrange the words into a composition that is an artistic combination of words and sounds.”

I read more from his book.   We talked about the vowels and the consonants, and how some consonants are breathy (like /s/, /f/, or /h/).  We said aloud other consonants like /v/,  /j/, and /z/ and found them to be hummy and buzzy.  We talked about how some pronounced letters remind us of movements or nature sounds.  I read examples of poems with end rhyme, internal rhyme, eye rhyme, and even no rhyme at all.  And then we were ready to play, to experiment, to explore.

The directions were to go out into the hall and look at all the phonestheme posters completed by classmates.  While reading the lists of words, they were to think of something to write a poem about. It was to be a poem that could incorporate words from several lists.  The words needed to fit.  I was not looking for every other word to be a phonestheme, and the poem to be about nothing.

I let them think through this and begin writing for about 15 minutes.  Then we stopped and talked again.  Some really knew what I was looking for, some did not.  I asked for some volunteers to share what they were working on so far.  I have found that this step gives the students who are unsure a better idea of what others are writing, and then they are able to think of what to write for themselves.  The point was to use the feel and meaning of the words with phonesthemes to improve the feel and meaning of the poem!  Here are a few of the finished poems.

The Former World Has Passed Away

The former world
has passed away.

All trees
have turned to stumps.
Lush lands
have turned to dumps
as we attacked each other
with fire and metal.

Now the only
beauty in the world
is the glimmering glaze
of stars above.

                                                   ~ Perry

The Wind

You swish my hair as I walk by
You blow like a trumpet
yet sometimes you’re hard to find

You knock leaves off trees
You push logs to the river
You swoosh and move plants

Blowing, moving,
huffing and puffing
in your courageous way

If only I was as powerful as you,



He fled.
With a whoosh
he was gone –
gone down
that glossy field.

No time to flinch.
No time to whimper.

He was a flash,
a glimmer of speed,
a whisper taken away,
a glowing star.

The flick of his feet,
the glamor of his stride,
and when he finished,
a glint of pride.


My Little Sister and Me

My little sister
flings dust
in the places
I already swept
because I told her
to get out of the room.

I get so mad
I hit her.
She whacks me back.
I flip out,
my anger
flashing in flames.


Roots of the Past

See that stump?
It used to be a tree.
Now it’s just a clump
of what it used to be.

The tree is dead.
The stump is here.
The canopy’s lost its head.
The poor tree’s fate is clear.

Forever eternal



The swoosh of air that I feel
as I enter the water to swim.

The sweat tearing off my skin
into the swaying water.

Swoosh!  I pass everyone else
swimming next to me.

And that sweep of success
when I swoosh into the wall.


The Candle

There was a candle
so bright and new
until somebody lit it.

The flame flickered and flicked
and magically grew.
It glittered and glistened
and gleamed out of sight
and swiftly swooped down
and died in the light.


I saw this poetry writing as an opportunity to play with words as one might play with Play-Doh.  We don’t always know where we are going to end up, but we start by picking something to create.  Then we add and take away  and keep doing that until we are pleased enough to share.



To my Valentine … the valiant valedictorian of my heart!

Just last week we started talking about Latin verbs and their principal parts.  We looked at several Latin verbs and practiced identifying which of the 4 principal parts is helpful to us as orthographers.  We became a bit familiar with the infinitive suffixes that can be removed.  We became familiar with the supine suffix and stem suffixes that can be removed.  We practiced recognizing whether or not the removal of those Latin suffixes resulted in a modern English unitary base or modern English twin bases.  Then the students searched for words that shared those bases (and denotations).  That was just last week.

Today I wrote the following principal parts on the board along with this Latin verb’s denotation:

          valeo    valere    valui    valitus
“be strong, influential, healthy, of worth”

I asked, “Which two parts are we going to work with as orthographers?”  As students gave answers, I had them come to the board and label the second and fourth parts.  Then I asked, “What is the infinitive suffix we can remove?”  Several hands went up and I asked someone to come up and draw a single line through it.  Next I asked, “What is the past participle suffix that can be removed off the supine?”  I chose a volunteer to come and cross it off.  But before I could ask my next question (Is there a stem suffix?), a student waved her hand and said, “There’s a stem suffix too!”  I had her draw a line through it as well.  Lastly I asked someone to come and write what was left of the infinitive next to what was left of the supine, so we could compare the spellings.  Here is what this ended up looking like on the board:

Next I put the students in random groups of 3 or 4.  I told them I wanted to see which group could find the longest list of words that share this base.  They had to be able to prove that their word shared the base <val(e)> and was not just a word that coincidentally had that same string of letters.  I also told them that if they found unfamiliar words there were to jot down a quick definition so that they could explain how the word related to the denotation of the base.

I don’t normally set up orthography work in a timed fashion, but I wanted the students to be focused and to work productively.  Sometimes, with longer term projects, I see them working at a slower pace.  I wanted to see what would happen.  See for yourself.

I was very impressed and knew that after 20 minutes it was time to share our findings.  I shared a matrix for <vale> on the Smartboard and asked each group to look for the words they found on the matrix.  I told them that even though this matrix looks complete, it probably isn’t.  A word they found might not be on the matrix.

As they shared words off their lists, we talked about how we would use the word and what its connection was to the denotation of <vale>.  Then a volunteer wrote its word sum on the board.  They used the matrix to double check their hypothesis of the word sum.  We went from group to group, writing words they found on the board.  It didn’t take long before the board looked like this:

What rich discussions about each word.  Tomorrow we will talk some more about this family of words and which words the students didn’t expect to find!

“Words are how we think. Stories are how we link.” ~Christina Baldwin

You know the practice of teaching someone a new language by immersing them in that language?  Putting them in a situation where no other language is spoken or written?  I imagine it is a bit scary and frustrating at first for the learner, but I also imagine the new language is acquired more quickly and spoken more fluently than with other methods.  Well, a little less dramatically, that is what I do when I ask my students to investigate and report on a word of their choosing.  Yes, we have investigated words together as a large group, and yes, the students have investigated words with a partner, but all-by-yourself is different.

Some feel like they have been plunked into the vast ocean of information at Etymonline with only swimmies (little experience) to help them navigate.  Others have surfaced successfully with a smile and a cool story about their word.  Regardless, all students need my guidance.  For several days, I hear my name so often it is crazy!  But every question needs to be honored and every student needs to be steered in the direction of the information they are seeking.  Some need explanations for concepts and ideas that are so new to them.  Often times these explanations become something I bring to everyone’s attention – whether it be that day or just put on a list for another day in which we can spend time collecting more examples that will make the concept more visible.

Because I teach orthography, writing, grammar and science in a 90 minute block to three groups of fifth graders, the students work on these posters for only a portion of their time with me.  They do not finish these in a day and only a few finish within a week and a half.  For some it even takes a month.  But no worries.  Sometimes the students who finish more quickly ask to investigate a second word.  Sometimes I give them something else to investigate.  By the end of a month and a half, I have students working at different places on different projects.   The students like working at their own pace.  It doesn’t feel like a race.  At some point, I decide which investigations are required and I make a list on the board.  Once everyone has completed the items on the list, we are ready to move on as a class.

Here are some pictures of the hallway outside my room.  My students have named it our “Word Gallery”.

These posters are across the hall from each other, so if you are reading one wall of words, you need only turn around to look at some more.  When I look at them now that they are finished, I remember so many of the conversations that took place during each investigation.  For instance:

When Alex asked to investigate <inimitable>, I said he sure could, but wondered what his connection to this word was.  When he said he heard it used in the Broadway show “Hamilton”, then I knew it was a good choice for him.  (He and I share a love of the soundtrack!)  Following the links in Etymonline, Alex was able to collect a lot of related words right away.  As he followed the first hyperlink to <imitable>, I saw this: [1550s, from French imitable (16c.), from Latin imitabilis “that may be imitated,” from imitari “to copy, portray”].  Having taken Latin 1 and Latin 2 Spellinars at Real Spelling, I recognized the Latin verb imitari.  I told Alex that if he searched imitari at Etymonline, he would get a list of words derived from it.  The words that came up were:


As we looked at this list together, I asked him if he could see which letters they all had in common.  What might the base be?  Because of the word ‘image’, the common factor was <im>.  I asked about words with an <age> suffix.  Between the two of us we thought of package, postage, and footage.  That made it feel obvious that the base would be <im>.  Except that we must always consider the potential of a final <e> on the base.  If we spell the base as <im> and then add a vowel suffix such as <age>, won’t that force the doubling of the <m> as it does in cottage and baggage?  Since there isn’t a doubled <m> in ‘image’, we thought that the bound base should be spelled <ime>.  That made sense in the word sum <ime> + <age>.  Then Alex started looking at the other words on the list and building word sums for each.  I turned his attention to ‘imitate’ and ‘imitation’.  Alex knew that <ion> was a suffix in ‘imitation’.  I asked if the remaining letters were a familiar word.  At the same time he said “imitate”, be said “Ohhh.”  I replace the <e> that was covered up by the <ion>.  In this fashion he worked through the word sums before he made his matrix.  I see that on his poster, he has the word sum for ‘inimitability’ as <in> + <ime> + <it> + <able> + <il> + <ity>.  It’s interesting to me that he didn’t recognize that what he thinks he hears there is already in the suffix <able>.  I have noticed that with several students.  I think it must be the transition between working with syllables and working with morphemes.  They are still looking for syllable type chunks that are about sound in and of themselves rather than recognizing that pronunciation within a morpheme considering stress shifts that might occur.

My favorite part of Alex’s poster? When he asks his viewer to “Think about it.  Inimitable means something can not be imitated and image is a copy of imitation of the original.  Imitation and image share a meaning by copying the original thing.”  Alex now understands the meaning of this word, the structure of this word, and how this word relates to others in its family. Boom!

Here’s another:

Frankie chose the word ‘animals’.  She mentions on her poster that it was attested in the early 14th century, but not used often until the 16th century.  What Frankie didn’t mention is that ‘beast’ was the preferred term prior to the 16th century.  The delightful part of the story with this word was the relationship between the words ‘animal’ and ‘animation’.  As Frankie says, “Animate has something to do with bringing something to life.”  It’s like giving a drawings a life and making drawn characters breathe and move as if alive.

What’s interesting about the word ‘animosity’ is that when attested in the early 15th century, it had a sense of vigor and bravery.  But by the 16th century, it had a sense of “active, hostile feeling”.  Over time, the sense of vigor and bravery disappeared from this word completely.

As Frankie was preparing to make a matrix by writing out the word sums, she noticed the suffix <ate> and how many suffixes could follow it.  We talked about the <or> suffix and recalled an earlier classroom discussion about it often being an agent suffix.  So an animator is a person who does animation.  I also mentioned to Frankie that when a base takes an <ion> suffix, it can also take an <or> suffix.  As an example, ‘animation’ can become ‘animator’ if the <ion> suffix is replaced with an <or > suffix.  Other examples are ‘creation’ and ‘creator’, ‘action’ and ‘actor’, and ‘invention’ and ‘inventor’.  When we compare the agent suffix <or> to the agent suffix <er>, we see that bases that can take an <er> cannot take an <ion> suffix.  Look at ‘baker’, ‘dancer’, ‘banker’, ‘healer’, or ‘jumper’.

Here’s another one:

Saveea’s word gave us the opportunity to talk about frequentative suffixes.  I shared what she and I discovered with all three classes.  The <le> suffix on ‘spark’ lets us know that the action is ongoing.  There wasn’t just a spark and then it stopped.  It kept on catching our eye because it kept going.  It was a sparkle!  The <le> suffix is also a frequentative suffix in ‘crackle’, ‘crinkle’, ‘tremble’, and ‘waddle’.  See?  These are ongoing activities, and the <le> suffix tells us that!

Here’s another:

Alexis thought it would be fun to find out more about the word ‘octopus’.  She wasn’t disappointed!  She remembered being in my Orthography summer school class where we spent time looking at the Greek alphabet.  So she wrote this word that was originally a Greek work in Greek!  She told a great (and true) story about the plural of ‘octopus’ being ‘octopodes’ at one time.  Many people still use that plural form.

Over time, people noticed what happens to ‘stimulus’ and ‘fungus’ and ‘alumnus’ when they change to the plural form.  The <us> switches to an <i> suffix.  They become ‘stimuli’, ‘fungi’, and ‘alumni’.  Since ‘octopus’ has what looks like the same final <us> in its singular form, people assumed it would be made plural in the same way and become ‘octopi’.  But the thing is … stimulus, fungus, and alumnus are of Latin origin and they follow Latin suffixing conventions.  Octopus is of Greek origin and follows Greek suffixing conventions.  If you pluralize ‘octopus’, the proper plural form is either ‘octopodes’ or ‘octopuses’.

Here’s another:

When Zoey picked ‘like’, she didn’t expect to find such an interesting story!  The first thing she found out is that it has been many different parts of speech!  Then she found out the original spelling was gilik.  If you cover up the first two letters, it looks like our present day spelling (minus the final <e>).   Zoey and I enjoyed talking about the Old English pronunciation of this word.   The <ġ> was pronounced [j] as in Modern English yes.  The <i>was pronounced  [i] as in Modern English feet.

The other fun thing with this word is how easy it was to build a rather large matrix!  I appreciated having the opportunity to discuss the base ‘busy’ and that when adding the <ness> suffix, the <y> becomes an <i>.  This happens with bases that have a consonant in front of the final <y>.  Other examples are when happy becomes happiness or lazy becomes laziness.

Here’s another:

Continue reading