Making Sure Our Misspellings Are Not Missed Opportunities!

Following our recent performances of The Photosynthesis Follies, I gave a test.  After all, the students had been living and breathing their photosynthesis script for two and a half weeks.  I was confident that if they participated and thought about what was happening in our play, they would understand this incredibly important process.  They did remarkably well!  But that is not the point of this post.

As I always do, while I was correcting the tests,  I was taking notes about sentence structures that needed attention and common spelling errors that needed to be addressed.  I began to notice how many different spellings were used for the word <xylem>.  But within a short amount of time, the number of different spellings for <xylem> was surpassed by the number of different spellings for <oxygen>.  As I looked over the spellings, it struck me that my students actually know quite a bit about graphemes and the phonemes they can represent.  I thought it might be interesting to specifically look at these two lists.

At the top of each list the word is represented by IPA and the symbols are surrounded by slash marks.  The slash marks indicate that this is a pronunciation and NOT a spelling.  I wanted the students to think about each word’s pronunciation and how each phoneme in the pronunciation is represented by a grapheme in the word’s spelling.  To that end, I underlined each phoneme in the IPA representation of the word <xylem>.

Right away someone asked about the spelling in which there was an <e> in front of the <x>.  I put that question out to the students.  “Can anyone think of why someone might have put that <e> there?”

“Perhaps it’s because of the way we pronounce the letter <x> when it’s by itself.”  That made a lot of sense to me.  After all, during play rehearsals, we had a few students that kept  pronouncing xylem as /ɛgzˈɑɪləm/.  Since the word began with <x>, those students wanted to pronounce it like we do in /ˈɛksɹeɪ/  (x ray).

At this point I pointed to what I had written on the board as pertains to the grapheme <x>:

We looked at the various pronunciations that are represented by the letter <x>.  We pronounced them aloud and felt the difference between the /ks/ of box, the /gz/ of exact, and the /kʃ/ of anxious.  Taking the time to pronounce and feel these pronunciations in our mouths was an eye opener for my students.  When all you remember being told is that “x is for x ray”, you’re at a disadvantage when trying to read and spell words with an <x>!

When we looked at the fourth phoneme that could be represented by the grapheme <x>, /z/, we recognized that not only was that the way we pronounced <x> in xylophone, but also in xylem!  We turned our attention back to the list.

We looked specifically at the unstressed vowel known as the schwa in IPA.  I reminded the students that some of them had this schwa as part of the pronunciation of their name.  They offered that the schwa, /ə/, is sometimes represented by the grapheme <i> as in Jaydin, by the grapheme <a> as in Amelia, by the grapheme <e> as in Kayden, and the <o> as in Jackson.

So with that in mind, we looked at the choices students had made in choosing a vowel to precede the final <m>.  Students chose either an <a>, an <e>, or a <u>.  This was in keeping with what we understand about the schwa.  I also reminded everyone that the schwa represents an unstressed vowel.  That meant that the other vowel in this word, represented by /ɑɪ/, would be carrying the stress.  And sure enough,  when we announced the word over and over, the stress was on the /ɑɪ/.

Looking back at the list, there were only two graphemes chosen to represent the /ɑɪ/.  It was either an <i> or a <y>.  I wondered aloud if it was possible for a <y> to represent /ɑɪ/.  Students named words like sky, xylophone, and cry to provide the evidence that it could.

So when we now looked at our list, we realized that only three of the spellings made sense and were possible — the first (*xilam), the second (*xilem), and the last (xylem).  The third, fourth, and sixth were missing the grapheme that paired up with the phoneme /ɑɪ/.

So now what?  Now it was time to check into this word’s etymology.  Looking at Etymonline, we see that it was first attested in 1875, meaning “woody tissue in higher plants”.  It was from German xylem, coined from Greek ξύλον, transcribed as xylon “wood”.  This was particularly interesting to us because we were focusing on the water that is transported in the xylem.  Now we knew that the xylem itself was made of woody tissue and helped physically support the plant or tree!  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, only the outer xylem (sapwood) is active in transporting water from the roots to the leaves.  The inner part of the tree (heartwood) is made up of dead xylem that no longer carries water, yet is strong and gives the tree that physical support.  The next time you count the rings on a cross cut piece of a tree, know that you are counting rings of xylem!

Image result for xylem

Here’s an easy way to see the xylem tubes in a piece of celery.

Image result for xylem

And just in case you are interested, the word xylophone was also coined from xylon “wood”.  The xylophone consists of wooden bars struck by mallets.



Related image


Getting back to the spelling of xylem, we also noticed that the vowel following the <x> has been a <y> all the way back to Greek!  As a matter of fact, seeing a <y> medially in a word is an indicator that the word is from Greek!

The only grapheme yet to check was whether the unstressed vowel preceding the final <m> was an <e> or an <a>.  At  I found out that xylem was from <xyl> “wood” + <ēma >. The entry also said to “see phloem”.  Interesting!  So the second part of this word is the same as the second part of the word phloem.  Still at, I found out that the second part of the word phloem is <-ēma >, a deverbal noun ending.  A deverbal noun is a noun that was derived from a verb.  Etymonline also listed <-ema> as the suffix in the word phloem.

So we now have evidence to support that <xylem> is the way to spell this word.  We also have an understanding of so much more!

It was time to look at the IPA for <oxygen> and see what we could learn.

I again underlined the phonemes in the IPA that would represent a grapheme in the spelling of the word.  We noticed that everyone chose <o> to represent /ɑ/.  The next phoneme was /ks/.  There were only two spellings that had something other than an <x> to represent this.  I asked if choosing a <c> or a <cs> made sense.  The students recognized that a <c> can sometimes be pronounced /k/, so we could understand someone choosing <cs>.  The <c> by itself, however, could not represent the phoneme /ks/.  We could rule that spelling (*ocegeon) out.  We also noticed that two of the spellings had <xs> as representing /ks/.  This brought us back to our discussion of expire from the other day.  We knew the <ex-> was a prefix with a sense of “out” and the base is from <spire> meaning “breathe”, but that when joined together, the <s> on the base was omitted or elided to make the word easier to pronounce.  Now we could also rule out the spellings *oxsigen and *oxsigin.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  A friend emailed me regarding this post and in particular, the above paragraph.  We are now both curious about instances in which the prefix <ex->is followed by <s>.  There are a few older words (very few) like exsanguine (bloodless) and exscind (cut off or out) where we see this letter combination.  Perhaps it was more common a while back and moving forward in time, the <s> in many of the words was elided.  I’m not sure.  My take away is that I don’t have to have the precise answer right now.  It is something I will keep in mind as I encounter other words.  In the meantime, I am also contemplating words in which the <ex-> prefix is followed by a base with an initial <c> as in <exciting>.  We know that the <c> (when followed by <e>, <i>, or <y>) is pronounced /s/.  So why is it that very few words follow the prefix <ex-> with an element that has an initial <s> for pronunciation’s sake, yet many words follow an <ex-> prefix with an element that has an initial <c> that is pronounced as /s/?  Interesting questions, right?  Well, as a very good friend says quite often, “There are no coincidences!”  That very question was asked in a scholarly group I was part of today!  Just because the <c> (when followed by <e>, <i>, or <y>) is pronounced /s/ in Modern English spellings, doesn’t mean it follows that convention in other languages, or that it did in Latin.  So the <ex-> prefix followed by an element with an initial <c> didn’t (and in many languages still doesn’t) present the same pronunciation situation that <ex-> followed by an element with an initial <s>. What an elegant explanation!

Back to the post:

The next phoneme in the pronunciation was a schwa – an unstressed vowel.  We knew from our look at xylem that several letters could represent /ə/.  There was one spelling that was missing the representation of this vowel.  We could take that spelling off the list of possibilities (*oxgen).  The rest of the letters used to represent /ə/ could be used, so we kept going.

The next phoneme in the pronunciation was /dʒ/.  The students pronounced it and noticed that every spelling left represented /dʒ/ with the grapheme <g>, even though it could also be represented with <j>.

It was time to look at the second /ə/ and again recognize that this pronunciation can be represented with many vowel letters.  It was interesting to note that almost all of the spellings used an <e>.  Only two spellings used an <o>.  I asked if anyone could think of words with a <gon> at the end.  Students thought of polygon, dragon, and wagon.  We wondered if following a <g> with an <o> and a <n> would always result in the <g> being pronounced as /g/ instead of /dʒ/.  If that was the case, the grapheme <o> wouldn’t work in this position in this word.

When looking at the final phoneme /n/, we noticed everyone chose the grapheme <n>to represent it.  That is, all except for the spelling with the final <t>.  Students offered theories about why someone might think there was a /t/ pronounced finally, but in the end we decided that was not the spelling we were after, and we could eliminate it as a reasonable choice.

It all boiled down to the first /ə/.  If we could find out which grapheme represents it and why, we will have found the logical spelling choice for this word.  Here were our final choices:


It was time to search our etymology resources!  There must be information in this word’s history that will lead us to the current spelling.

At Etymonline we found out that this word was attested in 1790, referring to “a gaseous chemical element”.  It was from French oxygène, coined in 1777 by the French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier.  It was from Greek oxys “sharp, acid” and French <-gène> “something that produces”.  The French <-gène> was from Greek <-genes> “formation, creation”.  The denotation of the <oxy> part of this word doesn’t seem to make sense until you know this word’s story.  At the time this word was coined, it was thought that oxygen was essential in the formation of acid (hence it’s name meaning something that produces acid).  We now know that isn’t the case.  Isn’t that interesting?  

Antoine-Laurent deLavoisier

As usual, the etymology added a lot as far as understanding the spelling of this word.  We found out that the <x> is the letter to represent /ks/ and the <y> will represent the /ə/.  That eliminates all spellings except <oxygen>.  Pretty cool, huh?

When all was said and done, we noticed one more thing.  In the word <xylem>, the <y> was stressed and pronounced /ɑɪ/.  In the word <oxygen>, the <y> was unstressed and pronounced /ə/.

There are many reasons I chose to take a closer look at these misspellings.  One of the biggest was that of letting my students know that they know a lot about graphemes and the phonemes that they represent.  So often a student will feel bad when they misspell a word.  Well, today I wanted to celebrate the logical thinking they do when they are thinking of how to spell a word.  But I also wanted to point out that without etymology, we can only go so far.  After that it becomes a guessing game.

I filmed this lesson with my first class.  It is similar to what I have described here, although what I have written here is an overall impression from my experiences talking about this with three classes.

Orthography Builds Understanding … Say Good Bye to Memorizing Definitions!

Oftentimes people ask me how I choose words to investigate with the class.  The answer to that is that sometimes the words choose us.  You see, I am constantly watching to see who is understanding our discussions (no matter the topic) and who seems confused.  If the furrowed-brow look seems attached to any particular word, that’s the word we need to attend to.  In the last two weeks we looked at collaborating and transpiration.

First there’s collaborating…

As part of our science standards, I am incorporating engineering practice.  One of my favorite activities is to have the students work with a partner and build shelving for their lockers.  The challenge is to build the shelving out of recycled materials.  As we started the project, I told the students that collaborating with their partner would be very important.  By the end of the day, several students had asked what the word collaborating meant.

On Thursday I wrote the word ‘collaborating” on the board and asked students to give me a hypothesis of what the word sum might be. I got a variety of hypotheses such as:

collab + orat + ing
collabor + ating
coll + abor + at + ing
co + lab + orat + ing

I pointed out that three of the hypotheses had <ing> as a suffix.  “Can <ing> be a suffix”, I asked?  They named  words like jumping, walking, and talking.

Next I asked how we would spell the word if we removed the <ing> suffix. Many knew it would be ‘collaborate’. Realizing that collaborate is spelled with a final non-syllabic <e>, we knew we had evidence that there would be an <e> in our word sum after the <at>. I confirmed that the <ate> and the <ing> were suffixes. We thought of celebrate /celebrating, educate / educating, elevate / elevating.

Since no one recognized a prefix, I told them that there was one in this word. It is an assimilated form of the <com> prefix having a sense of “with, together”. They spotted <col>. We talked about the assimilation of the <m> to an <l> in this word and how much easier the word was to pronounce this way. (We had previously talked about the <suf> in suffix being an assimilated prefix from <sub>. When you say ‘subfix’ five times, you automatically smooth it out and say ‘suffix’. The <b> assimilates to an <f>. The same is happening with <com> to <col>.)

Then we thought of words with a <col> prefix like collect, collide, and collision. We noticed that the element following the <col> prefix began with an <l> in each word.

Finally, looking at the word sum we now had, <col + labor + ate/ + ing>, the students recognized that the base element of this word is <labor>. They knew that meant work. Now they knew this word meant ‘working together or with someone’. We consulted an etymological dictionary to see whether we could find evidence to further analyze <labor>, but we could not.  This free base was first attested in the 13th century as a noun meaning “a task, a project”.  It is from Latin labor “toil, exertion; hardship, pain, fatigue; a work, a product of labor”.  That is indeed our base element. We marked the points of primary and secondary stress in the word, and pronounced it as /kəˈlæbəˌɹeɪtɪŋ/.

Related words we spotted while reading through the etymological entry of labor are:

labor, laboring, labored, laboratory, laborious, laboriously, laborer, belabor, elaborate, elaboration, elaborately, collaborate, collaborative, collaboratively, collaborator, collaboration

We found out something quite interesting about the related word collaborate.  It was first attested in 1871 and is a back-formation from collaborator.  Calling it a back-formation just means that the word collaborator was around first (1802).  When the agent suffix <-or> was removed, the word collaborate was formed. At Etymonline, it states that the words collaborator and collaboration were given a bad sense in World War II (1940) when they were used to mean “traitorious cooperation with an occupying enemy”.  People who sympathized with the Nazis were considered collaborators.

We also talked about elaborate.  The <e> is a clip of the prifix <ex> and has a sense of “out”.  So if something is elaborate, it has been worked out in great detail.  Cool, huh?

Here are a few pictures of the students collaborating on a design and the construction of their shelves.


And now this…

Last week, as we were rehearsing our Photosynthesis Follies (performed this week for the students in our school), I noticed that the students were saying the word transportation instead of transpiration.  It was at that point in the play in which the chloroplast was explaining to the sunlight how it is that water travels up in a plant.  Sunlight questioned the very idea that water could travel upward.  After all, gravity doesn’t work that way!  The chloroplast explained that in a plant or even in a tree, the water is kind of sucked up, the way soda is sucked up through a straw.  The movement of the water from the roots up through the xylem to the cells and then out through the stomata (openings on the underside of the leaf) is known as transpiration.

So I wrote the word transpiration on the board, and asked for some hypotheses about its word sum.

transpir + ation
trans + pirat + ion
tran + spi +rat + ion

Again, we started with the <ion> because two people pointed out it was a suffix.  In the case of collaboration, we knew that if we removed the <ion> suffix, we would have collaborate.  But here we were not so sure that transpirate was a word.  Someone offered to look in a dictionary.  They reported back that transpirate and transpirated were there, listed with transpire.  They all had a sense of giving off water vapor through the stomata.

Next we looked at the beginning of the word.  Could <tran> or <trans> be a prefix?  Can we think of other words that begin that way?  The students thought of transportation (the word that was getting confused with transpiration), transformer, and transition ( I use this word throughout the day when we switch from one subject to another).  We looked at Etymonline for more information about whether or not the <s> was part of this, and also to determine whether this was a prefix or a base.

We found out that <trans> is the full form of the prefix.  It was once a Latin preposition with a sense of “across, beyond, over”.  Many Latin prepositions became Modern English prefixes.  When looking up the word transpire, we saw that its Modern English base comes from the Latin infinitive spirare meaning “breathe”.  So our word sum started to look like this:

<trans + spire/ + ate + ion –>  transpiration

The next question that arose was about the final <s> of our prefix joining with the initial <s> of our base.  We KNOW there aren’t two <s>’s in this word.  What’s up with that?  We went back to find other words with the <trans> prefix that had a base element with an initial <s>.

We found transcribe (<tran(s) + scribe –> transcribe>) and transect (<tran(s) + sect –> transect>).  We noticed that the final <s> in <trans> didn’t seem to be needed  when the base element began with an <s>.  We also noticed that it was needed in words like transportation (<trans + port + ate/ + ion –> transportation>) and transfer (<trans + fer –> transfer>).

Now that we were feeling good about our word sum for transpiration, we thought of other words with the Latinate base <spire> “breathe”.

I wrote respiration on the board and asked for a word sum.  Someone easily announced it.  We spent the final few moments of class talking about how these words related to each other in meaning.  We already had talked about transpiration and how it was the movement of water through a plant.  I compared it to perspiration.  My students did not know the word, but they knew its synonym, sweat!

Image result          Image result for perspiration


Then we compared respiration in a human or animal to a spiracle in a caterpillar or in some sharks (breathing hole).

Image result for spiracle  Image result for spiracle

Next we talked about the structure of <expire> and its prefix <ex>, which has a sense of “out”.  So when something expires, it breathes out its last breathe.  That led to a discussion of the expiration dates we see on foods.  The foods aren’t breathing the way living things are, but they are definitely done as far as being safely eaten is concerned!  The next question that needed to be asked about this word was, “What happened to the <s> in the base element <spire>?

Right away someone said that when we pronounce the <x>, it kind of ends with a /s/!  Brilliant noticing!  Then we tried to pronounce this word with both an <x> and an <s> side by side.  Because we pronounce the <x> as /ks/, the <s> in <spire>has been deleted to make the word easier to pronounce.  This is called elision.  We pronounce this word as /ɛkˈspaɪɹ/.

We didn’t have much time to talk about inspiration and spirit.  I put them on our Wonder Wall so we wouldn’t forget about them.  I don’t want to rush through that discussion!

Here are a few pictures of the students in The Photosynthesis Follies!  A total of 66 students divided into 9 different casts, each performing twice over the course of two days.  We KNOW Photosynthesis now!

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Multiple Monomers Merge to Make a Unique Polymer

Knowing my students would love a little Halloween fun, I ordered some special vampire slime from Steve Spangler Science supplies.  But before I revealed what we would be doing, I wrote the following words on the board and asked if either looked familiar to anyone.  It got pretty quiet for a  moment until a few hands went up with claims of, “I’ve heard the word ‘polymer’, but I don’t know where I’ve heard it or what it is.”

“Perfect!” I said.

Next I asked the students if they noticed anything similar about these two words.

“They both have <er> at the end, and <er> is a suffix”.
“Great observation!  Oftentimes an <er> is a suffix.  We’ll see if that’s what’s happening here!”

“They both have an <mer> at the end”.
“Very interesting!  That is true.”

“They both have <o> as their second letter”.
“They DO!  How interesting.  I wonder if that’s important or if it’s just a coincidence.”

“Is the <y> in ‘polymer’ a vowel?  Because if it is, every other letter is a vowel in both of these words.”
I thought that last questions was great.  After all, these two words were totally unfamiliar to the students.  After a quick discussion about when <y> is a consonant (yellow, yolk, yard) and when it is a vowel, the students decided it was a vowel in this word.  It didn’t matter whether I pronounced the word as /ˈpɑləmɚ/ or /’pɑlimɚ/.

Back to the list of observations.  After I repeated the observations made by students, I asked if anyone was ready to make a word sum hypothesis for one or both of these words.  The very first student I called on suggested <mon + o + mer –> monomer> and <poly + mer –> polymer>.  I was curious to see what others would think about these.  But the majority agreed and named the <o> as a connecting vowel.  I said, “If the <o> is a connecting vowel, one or both of these morphemes will need to be from Greek, right?”

At this point I asked if anyone knew offhand of some words that might have <mon> or <poly> as part of them.

Great!  This gave us evidence that we might be on the right track.  Now we needed to look at Etymonline.  First I looked at ‘monomer’.

We found out that it was first attested in 1914.  The first part is from Greek monos “one”, and the second part is from Greek meros “part”.  When I looked at ‘polymer’, we found out it was first attested in 1855.  the first part is from Greek polys “many”, and the second part is from Greek meros “part”.  Several of the students remembered that we have seen the Greek suffix <os> on other Greek roots (thermos, lithos, hydros, tropos, cosmos, etc.).  So we removed it to find the base element that has come into Modern English.

We also talked about a potential <e> on the base <mone>.  We saw that it has a single final consonant with a single vowel in front of it.  If we don’t consider placing the potential <e> there, we would expect the <n> to double in the word monomer or monolith.  The final non-syllabic <e> would prevent that doubling.  So we chose to include it.

So from our look at Etymonline we had evidence that each of these two words shared the same base element of <mer> “part”.  From there we could safely say that a monomer had to do with one part and a polymer had to do with many parts.  We briefly talked about our brainstormed words (I knew I would review them a bit more leisurely the next day).

It was time to relate these two words to the science lesson.  I told them to picture themselves as a molecule – a particular combination of atoms.  And everyone in the class was the same kind of molecule.  I could refer to each one as a monomer.

If I asked several students to get up and form a conga line and move around the room, each monomer would join with another of its kind and create a chain.  I could then call the chain of monomers a polymer.  A polymer is many of the same monomers joined together.  And because they are joined together, they behave differently than monomers on their own.

Time for slime
Each student got a cup with special green goo in it.  As soon as I measured in the second ingredient, they mixed until the slime was ready to play with.  This was really cool slime!  When it was held up to the light, it was red.  When it was on your desk or in your hand, it was dark green.  When held up to a black light it was yellowy-green.  If you pulled to quickly, it broke in pieces.  But if you left it sit in your hand, it slowly oozed out and leaked slowly over the edge of your palm.  When stretched thin it was translucent.  When balled up, it bounced and jiggled.  So cool!

When we were done playing and cleaning up, we talked about the slime and the way the polymers behaved.  The slime sometimes felt like a solid, but then at other times it felt like a liquid.  And I reminded them that the slime was really chains of monomers – all the same kind.  I asked them if washing their hands under running water felt the same way as handling the slime.  When they said no, I told them it was because the molecules of water were freely moving – not in chains like the slime.

Day Two:  I wanted to review the words monomer and polymer.  They were still on the board along with their word sums.  I even added a few words I thought of.

From there we talked about each of the suggested words and what the relationship would be with either <mon> “one” or <poly> “many”.

The lists shown above vary because I have three groups of fifth graders each day.  Each group, naturally, thought of different words.  Between making guesses based on what we now knew and using the dictionary, we found the following:

A polygon is a geometric shape with many angles.
Polyester is a fabric made with fibers containing polymers.
A polyhedron is a geometric shape with many faces.
A polyglot is a person who knows many languages.

A monologue is one person delivering a message to an audience.
A monarch is one person who rules a country.
A monocle is a single lens eyeglass.
A monolith is one very large rock or stone.
A monograph is writing on a single subject, usually by a single author.
A monogram is the joining of two or more letters to form one symbol.
A monorail is a train running on a single track or rail.

Lastly we came to monopoly.  It didn’t take long before someone noticed that this word had both <mon(e)> and <poly> in it!  A monopoly is exclusive control over a commodity.  We talked about the monopoly on tea during the American Civil War to have a real life example of what this meant.  We could see that exclusive control would be by one person or one company.  But we were a bit confused by the <poly> “many”.  Did that refer to the people?  We went back to Etymonline to see what we could find about this word.  WOW!

For a minute there, we got caught up in WYSIWIGERY!  That just means “What you see is what you get”.  Just because two things look alike, it doesn’t mean they are!  It turns out that the <poly> in monopoly is from Greek polein “to sell”.  That makes much more sense when we think about what a monopoly is!

But the very best thing happened next.  A boy raised his hand and asked, “We have the word ‘monorail’.  Why isn’t it ‘unirail’?  Doesn’t <uni> also mean one?  What a truly brilliant question!  I asked the class, “Is this true?  Do words with <uni> have something to do with one?”  There were lots of hands raised. The words unicorn, unicycle, unit, universe, united, unison, and unique were suggested as proof.

“Okay.  Then let’s go back to Arshenyo’s question.  Why do both <mon(e)> and <uni> exist if they mean the same thing?  Why do we have two different base elements for the same thing?”

The first thought offered was that we need monorail because unirail sounds so weird.  But then we agreed that perhaps it sounded weird because we’ve never said it before.  Could there be something else?  And then the very next thought expressed by the very next student (and this happened in all three classes) was, “Maybe it’s because one is from Greek and the other is from Latin.”  Calmly and brilliantly, my students are becoming scholars!

Hours later as I write this, I’m still smiling!