“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:


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

  1. Hello Fifth Graders!

    These are wonderful projects! I am writing on behalf of my Grade Fives here in Kingston, Ontario! (We’re the dinosaur people, you may recall). You have inspired us in turn, and we will be embarking upon our own word projects like the ones above. We hope to sprinkle them about our school to stimulate discussion and to inspire other teachers and students to dig into words!

    Thanks for sharing!

    P.S. I notice that in the United States you say “Fifth Grade”, here in Canada the convention is to say “Grade Five”, while in England where I taught a couple of years ago, they say “Year Five.” Don’t you find it interesting that these subtle differences exist? I always wonder how they happen.

    • Hello Grade Fives!

      We had a lovely discussion yesterday regarding the differences between being labeled as Grade Fives, Fifth Graders, and Year Fives. From there it went on to other words that are used differently. I once heard a British singer use ‘think’ as a noun. She sang, “Sit down and have a think.” Right away someone asked what the past tense of that would be…. have a thinking? have a thought?

      Then I shared a spelling Old Grouch used in a recent Spellinar – ‘connexion’. In the U.S. we are used to that word being spelled ‘connection’. I went to Latdict and typed in ‘necto’ and sure enough, the Principal Parts of that verb were listed as ‘necto’, ‘nectere’, ‘nexui’, ‘nexus’. Even though we’ve only begun to investigate Latin verbs and their principal parts, the students knew to remove the infinitive suffix ‘ere’ and the supine suffix ‘us’ to reveal the twin bases ‘nect’ and ‘nex’. At Etymonline we found the word ‘annex’ which we’ve learned about in our read aloud, Mr. Terupt Falls Again (the sequel to Because of Mr. Terupt). We also found that the spelling changed from ‘connexion’ to ‘connection’ (especially in the U.S.) mid 18th c. under the influence of connect, direction and affection. I then wondered aloud if Daniel Webster had something to do with that!

      Whew! See what a lovely discussion it was? Anyway, thank you for looking at our work. We look forward to seeing your word posters!

  2. I love every single one of these!

    I don’t feel I understand the -le suffix very well. I need to learn more about this. Do you have a good resource for me?

    Thank you for all you do–for sharing your expertise and honoring of children with us.

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