We’ve enlarged our understanding this day – that’s for sure!

On Friday I chose the word ‘large’.  I wrote it on the board with a denotation of “big” underneath.  I read seven words, using each in a sentence so the student wouldn’t have to rely on my isolated  pronunciation alone.  They heard it in context and that helped with understanding its meaning and grammatical use.

I asked the students to write either a synthetic word sum or an analytic word sum on their paper for each word.

After I collected the papers, the students volunteered to write their word sum on the board.  If there was a question about any of them, it was asked and explained by fellow students before we went on to announce the word sums.

The following video is an example of the way students announce and explain word sums.  It was taken on a different day with a different base, but gives you the idea of what I mean by “announcing the word sum.”

When I looked at the collected papers over the weekend, I noticed that very few recognized an <en-> prefix.  Most assumed it was an <in-> prefix.  But why wasn’t it an <in-> prefix?  That is something I never thought about before!

So today I started class with the word ‘enlarged’ on the board.  My first question to the students was, “Why is there a final non-syllabic <e> here?  What is its job in this word?”  My second question was, “Why is the prefix an <en-> and not an <in->?  What followed was so delightful that I just had to share by writing this post!

Why is there a final non-syllabic <e> in <enlarge>?

I called on Tyler, and he said, “Well, I have two ideas.  It might be there so we know how to say the <a>, or else it might be there so we say /dʒ/ at the end.”
“Interesting.”  I spoke to the rest of the class.  “What do you think about what Tyler just said?”
“I agree that the <g> is pronounced /dʒ/ if the <e> is there.”

So I asked for some words that have a final <g>.  I wanted them to compare the pronunciation of a final <g> in a word to a final <ge>.  Some of the suggested words were flag, frog, dog, and drag.  The difference in pronunciation (/g/ in flag and /dʒ/ in large) was quite noticeable.

Next I had them pull out their orthography notebooks and turn to the page where we are keeping track of the different jobs a final non-syllabic <e> might have.  We added that a final non-syllabic <e> can affect the pronunciation of the preceding letter <g>.

Then we went back to address Tyler’s other idea.  “Is it possible that this <e> is also affecting the pronunciation of the <a> in this word?”
A student responded with, “I don’t think so.”
I asked, “Can you name a word where the final non-syllabic <e>is clearly affecting the pronunciation of the previous vowel?”
The student replied with “Cake.  The <a> in enlarge is not being pronounced like the <a> in cake.”

Excellent.  Time to move on to my second question to the class.


Why is the prefix an <en-> and not an <in->?

First off I stopped and thanked everyone.  “If so many of you hadn’t used <in-> instead of <en->, I wouldn’t have questioned it.  I knew this prefix was <en-> because I knew the word and its spelling.  Until this weekend, I never thought to stop and wonder why it isn’t <in->.  Don’t ever forget.  You aren’t the only ones learning about words in this classroom.  I am learning with you.  I constantly learn interesting stories that I wouldn’t have found without the questions being asked, the analysis being wondered about, or without the mistakes being made!  We are in this together!”

Then we went to Etymonline and looked at ‘enlarge’.  Fascinating.  This word was first attested in the mid-14th century.  At that time it meant “grow fat, increase”.  We stopped and noted that we still use it to mean that.  Then we kept reading.  It was borrowed from Old French enlargier, enlargir “make large”  (en- make + large large).  How interesting that the word itself meant (and still does) “make large”!  I noticed that in the entry, the <en-> was bolded, so I clicked on it to learn more about the <en-> prefix.

It means “in; into” and is from French and Old French <en->.  (We recognized that ‘enlarge’ had been from Old French.  We knew we were looking at the same <en->.)  Before that it was borrowed from Latin <in-> “in, into”!  What do you know?  Reading further we found out that Latin <in-> became <en-> in French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  It remained <in-> in Italian.

“I wonder if Sarah knows the Italian word for ‘enlarge’ and if it begins with an <in-> prefix,”  a few asked all at once.  (We are fortunate to have a student who moved from Italy to the United States just before school started.  She knew a little English, but not very much).  Sarah has been loving our word studies and when I saw her in the next class, I asked her about the Italian word similar to the English word ‘enlarge’.  She wrote on the board:

I asked, “Who understands how this word is similar to enlarge?”

Right away a bunch of hands went up.  “I see ‘grand’ in there.  Something that is grand (like a grand prize) is big!”  How cool!  Three months ago, they would not have seen that.  They are looking at words in a new way.  They are looking, expecting to see something that will make sense!  I love it!

At the bottom of the page there was a tab that said, “See all related words (126)”.  How common is the <en-> prefix we wondered?

What a treasure trove!  Students read out the words that were familiar — words like enact, embrace, and empower.  The fact that in some words the <en-> has assimilated to <em-> was not earthshaking.  We continually run into assimilated prefixes and talk about them.  We moved on to page two.  On this page they spotted encourage, enjoy, endanger, engage, and yes, enlarge!  A few had questions about what some of the words meant.

Then Ella asked about energy.  “What would the word sum for energy be?”  she wondered.
“Thank you for that brilliant question,” I responded.  “You are thinking like an orthographer!”

Because the word was on this list, we wrote the following word sum hypothesis with <en-> as a prefix:
<en + erg + y>

Then I had a student look it up in my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.  We found that it was borrowed from Middle French énergie.  Before that it was borrowed directly from Late Latin energia, and before that it was from Greek enérgeia “activity, orperation”  (en-  “in”  +  érgon “work”).

Rylee asked what other words have this <erg> base.  At Etymonline I found ergonomics – “the study of the efficiency of people in the work place” as well as ergophobia – “the fear of work”!

Ella’s hand went up again.  “What would the word sum for environment be?”  I smiled big.
“Great question!  What do you think it would be?  Do you see a prefix you recognize?  Do you see a suffix you recognize?”
Ella offered this:  <en- + viron + ment>.  We looked it up.  We found out that the noun ‘environment’ is not as old as the verb ‘environ’, which was first attested in the late 14th century.   The base is <viron> and has a denotation of “circle”.  So an environment is a surrounding area, an area that is encircled.

I threw in that I had learned over the weekend (Scholarship Sunday) that many words with an <-ment> suffix are abstract nouns.  The word ‘environment’ certainly fit that.  There was an interesting discussion about this word.  Couldn’t you go out into the environment and touch it?  Wouldn’t that make it a concrete noun?  Hmmm.  Could you really touch the environment, or could you touch only a component of the environment?  In the end it was decided that environment was indeed an abstract noun.  Other words with an <-ment> suffix were suggested such as argument, comment, and government.  These were certainly abstract nouns.  What an interesting thing to keep in mind as we continue investigating and thinking about words!

We continued looking through the list of words related to <en-> at Etymonline.  The best was the last word listed – ‘ink’.  The immediate question was, “Would the word sum be <in- + k>?”
“Let’s revisit your question after we read a bit.”

I was able to introduce Samuel Johnson as the entry began with his definition of ink as, “The black liquor with which men write.”  I wondered if liquor had a different sense then, so I looked in his dictionary and found that he defined liquor as “anything liquid”. He was quite an interesting dictionary writer!  In case you are unfamiliar with Samuel Johnson, he published his dictionary in 1755.  It took him 7 years to complete.  Other dictionaries that existed at the time tended to include words considered to be hard and/or hardly used.  His dictionary focused on the words in use at the time and on the way they were used.  It was considered THE dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary was published.

Besides that, we noticed that where the rest of these related words began with an <in> that later became <en>, this word began with the <en> spelling and in PDE has an <in>!  It began as  Old French enche, encre.  Prior to that it was from Late Latin encaustum, and prior to that it was borrowed from Greek enkauston.  What was so interesting was the denotation of the Hellenic etymon kaiein “burn”.  We’re talking about ink, right?  What does an etymon meaning “burn” have to do with it?

Well, it seems that this is referring to a purple-red ink used by the Greek and Roman emperors for their signatures that was prepared with heat.  Etymonline states, “It was the name of the purple-red ink, the sacrum encaustum, used by the Roman emperors to sign their documents; this was said to have been obtained from the ground remains of certain shellfish, formed into writing fluid by the application of fire or heat, which explained the name. In the Code of Justinian, the making of it for common uses, or by common persons, was prohibited under penalty of death and confiscation of goods.”

Wow.  We tried to imagine how a liquid could be obtained in this manner!  Or why people would even try to make it if the punishment was so severe!

It was time to revisit the question, “Would the word sum for ink be <in- + k>?”  After having read and discussed the entry, the student didn’t think so.  There wasn’t any evidence of a <k> base.  But boy, oh, boy! What an interesting story!


This is how learning about our language can go.  One day you plan something to do, and because of what gets noticed during the course of your plan, several other learning opportunities appear.  It is all good, of course, but the unplanned discoveries are the best!  We all (teacher included) leave the room smiling.



Something I don’t want for Christmas?

I have several students in each class who begin any writing assignment with a long pause.  For some that pause can be 10 minutes or more.  While I respect that “think time” is important, these same students will say (after their “think time”) that they don’t know what to write.  I know that their “think time” is not very productive.  So I’m very choosy about the writing topics I pick.  Free choice doesn’t usually work.  For the students who hesitate, it’s like looking into a snow globe and trying to decide which snowflake to describe.


Something that worked!

Recently we studied photosynthesis.  AFTER the students had memorized lines for a play, and AFTER we had taken a test (so I could be sure the vast majority of students understood the process), I asked the students to write an informative paper about photosynthesis.  We brainstormed that the introductory paragraph might reveal what photosynthesis was, along with where it happens.  We brainstormed that the concluding paragraph might wrap things up with why photosynthesis is so important.  The middle paragraphs were to explain the process – naming the ingredients and how they arrived at the chloroplast  – naming the result (sugar and oxygen) and where they went when they left the chloroplast.

The best part of this was that the students didn’t have to think about what to include.  They knew the information.  They could focus on organization and making sure details explained what a reader might not understand.  A rough draft was finished within three days for most.  I conferenced with students as they were writing and we talked about making the introduction inviting.  Then they typed it, and I made editing suggestions.  Final copies are now in my hands.  If there was confusion about the photosynthesis process that the test did not catch, this writing certainly helped the students make sense of it.

What a beautiful pairing of science and writing.  And because they had such a grasp of the information already, we could really focus on the writing.  Those who normally begin by pausing so long, began relatively quickly!  For a change, they didn’t see writing as such a daunting task.

So what writing practice to do next?

Yesterday I asked the students to write a paragraph.  Just one paragraph – three to five sentences long.  The nervous looks shot around the room like in a pinball game.  Then I revealed the topic:  Tell me the one thing you would absolutely without-a-doubt NOT want for Christmas (or as a gift in general for those who don’t celebrate Christmas).  I thought this might be fun, seeing as it was unexpected, but I could not have predicted how their responses made ALL of us laugh!  Bravo!  And everyone wrote a paragraph!

I don’t think you’ll mind if I share a few …

“Something I do not want for Christmas?  An avocado.  I really really dislike avocados.  I’ve actually seen kids get avocados, so I know it can happen.  I tried one once and started gagging.  Please, just know that if you’re getting me anything for Christmas … make it anything but avocados.”      S.B.

“What I don’t want for Christmas is my sister!  She is always so annoying and rude.  She is much older than me, so I can’t fight her.  I still do, but then I get punched, so I back off.”  T.R.

“One thing I do not want for Christmas is a math test.  They are too hard and they get me frustrated.  I do not like math tests!”  J.K.

“I absolutely do not want Expo Markers!  My math teacher told us that if we needed them we could ask for them for Christmas.  I thought he was crazy when he said we could sacrifice one present for Expo Markers.  No way!”  M.B.

“The one thing I don’t want for Christmas is underwear.  It is so weird.  Why can’t you buy your own if you want some?  Just imagine getting excited for your presents and then you get underwear.  Then when someone asks what you got for Christmas you have to say, “undies”.  What the heck?  Please don’t give someone undies!”  M.B.

“There is one thing I really DO NOT want for Christmas, and that is to be sick!  If I were sick on Christmas, that would really stink.  I would miss everything because I would probably have to stay in bed ALL day.”  G.L.

“The one thing I don’t want for Christmas is a snake.  One reason I don’t want a snake is because of their skin.  Ick!  I also hate the tails of snakes and the fact that they can kill you if they bite you!  I hate mice too, and I would have to feed it mice.  Otherwise it might eat my dog!”  R.G.

“The one thing I really don’t want for Christmas is socks.  I have lots of socks already.  Whenever I get socks, they never fit.  Please don’t get me socks!”  K.B.

“The thing I do not want for Christmas is chores.  Chores are not a gift.  Since chores are work instead of spending time with family, I would rather not have chores for Christmas.”  N.A.

“Please!  Don’t get me this for Christmas.  I do not want a dead fish.  First off, you can’t play with it!  Secondly and thirdly, it smells and does not move.”  J.S.

“Something I don’t want is crayons.  I have too many.  I have about 500, so if you are thinking about gifts for me, do not get me crayons.  It’s not that I don’t like them.  It’s that I have too many.  I have so many colors.  We had to sort them.”  E.G.

“I would absolutely not want to spend Christmas without my family.  My family is my life.  Without them it would not be fun or enthusiastic.”  R.B.

“I would not, not, not want a life supply of pizza.  I wouldn’t even like ONE piece of pizza.  And a life supply?  Uggghhhh!  Pizza is my second to last least favorite food.”  A.S.

“One thing I would not want for Christmas is another sister.  That just means more makeup.  I might even have to share a room with her.  She would probably be very annoying, too.”  G.S.

“I do not want a toad.  They’re boring.  They do nothing but eat, sit, and sleep.  That is why I do not want a toad.”  M.W.

Aren’t those great?  I need to make a list of other writing prompts that are unexpected in this same way.  With this prompt they were able to practice thinking on paper with less hesitation time.  I want the ideas to flow and the writing experience to be enjoyable.  I want their ‘critic’ to remain silently tucked away while their ‘creator’ is free-styling!   For some reason, these students try to to the writing and editing all in one step (and generally they skip revising altogether).  That’s like seeing all three of the stoplight colors at the same time while you are driving!  Yikes!

First they need to have something to say.  If I can choose something for them to write about that is fun or that they already know about, the writing is less labored.  The next steps of revising and editing are there to improve the writing.  They provide an opportunity to reflect on the initial message to the reader.  Maybe rephrasing a sentence will make the idea in it stronger.  Maybe certain words used don’t capture the feeling the writer intended.  Is there another word that would work better?  Is there information that is missing?  Do the ideas in the sentences keep the reader focused on the intended message?

But like I said, first they need to have something to say.  My goal is just that – to give them prompts that interest them and make it fun to respond.


Phonology is something … but it isn’t EVERYTHING!

It is a hard-to-believe concept, but it’s true.  Words do not have the spellings they have so that we know how to pronounce them.  Words like busy, does, piano, action, and pretty prove that.  The truth is that words are spelled the way they are to represent their meaning.  That’s such a foreign idea to so many.  “If that was true, wouldn’t we teach that to children who are just learning to read?”  You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  But the majority of schools don’t.  So why do we resist believing this obvious truth?

When I first began studying orthography and learning Structured Word Inquiry, I was skeptical myself.  I wondered what people in this community meant when they said that spelling represented meaning and not pronunciation.  How can that be?  I learned to spell by “sounding words out” – by pronouncing them.  Sometimes I pronounced them in unnatural ways so that I could remember the spelling (Wed – nes – day  or  ap – pear – ance, both with parts pronounced unlike they are in the whole).  I knew what the words meant, but that didn’t have anything to do with the spelling, did it?  I learned to spell one word at a time, twenty or so words a week.  I was pretty good at rote memorization.  I also studied definitions right out of the dictionary.  They didn’t always make sense to me, but because they didn’t, I didn’t know how to reword them.  I found out when my children went to school that times haven’t changed much in this regard.

I remember when my son was in high school and had to be able to match up a list of words to their definitions.  I offered to help him study.  That was when I realized that he had figured out a system to pass the test without having learned anything useful.  If I read the word, he could give me the first four words of the definition.  If I read the definition, he could tell me the first four letters of the word the definition would match up with on the test.  Blech! He became very annoyed with me when I pointed out how useless this test was.  “Mom!  It doesn’t matter.  I have to pass the test tomorrow.  Go away.  I’ll study by myself.”

One thing is for sure.  He was smart enough to know that passing the test didn’t hinge on him actually understanding anything.  I was sad, but remembered cheating my own learning in the same way as I went through schooling years.  I didn’t cheat my learning to the extent my son did, but cheat it I did.  Neither of us were taught to look to the word for meaning – we had learned that spelling and meaning were two separate activities and rote memorization was the only way to handle them in order to pass the test.

Recently Oxford Dictionaries posted the ten most frequently misspelled words in their Oxford English Corpus (which they describe as “an electronic collection of over 2 billion words of real English that help us see how people are using the language and also shows us the mistakes that are most often made”) .  Seeing as I spend a fair amount of my teaching life looking at misspelled words, I took a look, wondering if I could predict the words that made the list.  As I was clicking, my mind was betting that the people who misspell these words (whichever they were), had an education like mine and have been taught to “sound out words” and not to even consider morphology or etymology as they relate to a word’s spelling.

Here is their list:
*accomodate (accommodate)
*wich (which)
*recieve (receive)
*untill (until)
*occured (occurred)
*seperate (separate)
*goverment (government)
*definately (definitely)
*pharoah (pharaoh)
*publically (publicly)

Once you begin to study orthography and use Structured Word Inquiry, it doesn’t take long to see how easily the above spelling errors could be avoided altogether.  The people misspelling these words do not understand the spelling – have not been taught to understand the spelling.  Let’s look closer at each of these.  Along the way I’ll point out the information that would actually help a person understand and remember these spellings.

accommodate   (*accomodate)

Before we talk about spelling, it’s always important to talk about how the word is used.  What does it mean?  I could talk about the fact that my classroom can accommodate 30 students, meaning that the space is adequate to fit that many students.  I could also use it if I was talking about accommodating the needs of a student who has a broken leg.  In that sense, I am fitting the needs of the student by perhaps getting a different type of desk.

A person without any understanding of morphology might be wondering, “Is it two <c>’s and one <m>, or is it one <c> and two <m>’s?”  That person might even write the word down on a piece of paper with several different spellings to see which one looks right.

Here’s what you understand when you understand morphology.  All words have structure.  That structure will include a base element and perhaps affixes.  A base element will either be free (doesn’t HAVE to have an affix) or bound (MUST have an affix).

Let’s look at the structure of <accommodate>.  This word consists of four morphemes:  two are prefixes, one is a base, and one is a suffix.  Its structure is <ac + com + mode/ + ate>.

The first prefix is <ac->, and it is an assimilated form of the prefix <ad-> “to”.  When a prefix is assimilated, it means that the final letter in the prefix might change to better fit phonologically with the first grapheme of the next morpheme in the word.  In this case, the original form of the prefix is <ad-> “to”.  Seeing as the next morpheme begins with a <c>,  the <ad-> assimilated to <ac-> to better match the phonology of that <c>.

The second prefix is <com->, and it is an intensifying prefix.  That means that it brings a sense of force or emphasis to this word.  There are people who have learned this prefix and will tell you that it means “together”.  Well, it does bring that sense to some words we find it in.  But there are prefixes that can also be intensifiers, such as this one!

The base element of this word is <mode>.  It is a free base element from Latin modus “measure, manner”.  This base can also be found in words like:

modify, modular, accommodation, model, modest, and yes, even commode!

The suffix is <-ate>.  It is a verbal suffix.

Let’s put the morphemes together and understand this spelling:  <ac + com + mode/ +ate –> accommodate>.  If you stop yourself from thinking of there being a double <c> and instead think of the prefix <ac> plus the prefix <com> plus the base <mode (replace the <e>)> plus <ate>, you will have spelled this word with very little problem.  At the same time, you will understand that the denotation of this word is “to fit with emphasis”.  Compare that denotation with a connotation (how the word is used now), and you will have the spelling AND the meaning, and understand both!

It is important to recognize that pronunciations are affected by many things.  I will include a generally accepted pronunciation for each of these words.  But please know that there may be pronunciation variations in different parts of the country / world.  The pronunciation is /əˈkɑməˌdeɪt/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:


It is interesting to note that the first <o>, which is stressed, has a different pronunciation than the second <o>, which is unstressed.


which   (*wich)

We often use the word ‘which’ when we are searching for more information about one or more things or people in a specific group.   One might ask, “Which book is yours?”

This word is a free base.  It has no affixes.

To understand the spelling of this word, we need to look at its etymology.  I have several sources I use when researching words.  One of my favorites is Etymonline, but I also have copies of Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

This word is Old English in origin. According to Etymonline, it was spelled both hwilc (West Saxon, Anglian)and hwælc (Northumbrian).  (Notice that the <hw> is now <wh>).  It is short for hwi-lic “of what form”.  It is interesting to note that in early Middle English there were two other forms (hwelch and hwülch).  They later lost their <l> and became hwech and hwüch.  Both of those spellings disappeared in late Middle English.

When you understand that the <h> has always been part of this word, and that in fact, it used to be the first letter, it is easier to remember that it is STILL part of this word.  It is pretty obvious that those who misspelled this word used phonology alone.  But its spelling takes us back to Old English and the important evidence that the <h> has always been part of this word.

The pronunciation is /wɪtʃ/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:



receive  (*recieve)

This word generally means to be given, presented with or be paid for something.  I receive a pay check.  I have received several awards.  I received help from my neighbor.

Now I’m willing to bet you are already thinking, “i before e except after c … blah, blah, blah”.   I came across an article by The Washington Post recently.  To read it, CLICK HERE.  It seems a statistician named Nathan Cunningham plugged a list of 350,000 English words into a statistical program to check out this age old rule.  He found that in words with a ‘ie’ or ‘ei’ sequence, <i> came before the <e> almost 75% of the time.  So then he checked for the “except after ‘c’ part”.  He found that in words with a ‘cie’ or ‘cei’ sequence, ‘cei’ occurred only 25% of the time.  That leaves 75% of that group of words to be exceptions!  So much for that rule! Yup!  The rule with lots and lots of exceptions.  And as any good researcher will tell you, if your rule has a lot of exceptions, you need a new rule!

Besides wasting time memorizing a rule that you can’t count on statistically, there is another reason to abandon the “i before e” rule.  It simply doesn’t take into consideration what else is important about a word – like its morphology and its etymology!  Let’s get out of the land of ‘hit and miss’ and look at this word seriously.

Based on other words I have investigated, I might make a hypothesis about this word’s structure like this:  <re + ceive –> receive>.  I know that in words such as recall, reclaim, and refill, <re> is a prefix.  It could be a prefix in this word too, although I need specific evidence pertaining to this word to be sure.  I need to look at where this word comes from – its etymology.

This word has come into English by way of Old North French receivre.  Further back, it is from Latin recipere  (re– “back” + cipere, combining form of capere “to take”).  Looking back in time, this word has had a meaning and sense of “regain, recover, take in, admit”. When I look closer at the Latin verbs capere and its combining form cipere, I find other words that share this base <ceive>:

~perceive (<per-> has a sense of “thoroughly”, thus when you perceive something, you are thoroughly taking it in in order to comprehend it),
~deceive (<de-> has a sense of “from”, thus when someone deceives you, they take from you – they cheat you),
~conceive (<con-> is an intensifying prefix, meaning it gives emphasis to the base, thus when someone conceives either an idea or a baby, they are taking something in and holding it)
~transceiver (which is a relatively new word – 1938, created by combining transmitter and receiver).

So what we learn from this word’s history is that its spelling has been fairly consistent since the 1300’s.  No gimmicky rhymes needed.

The pronunciation is /ɹəˈsɪv/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:


It is interesting to note that the final <e> is non-syllabic and is preventing this word from ending in a <v>  (no complete English word ends in a <v>).



until  (*untill)

This word means “up to (either an event or a point in time)”.  If you say, “I will wait until you call,”  it is functioning as a subordinating conjunction. If you say, “We swam until 5:00,” it is functioning as a preposition.

This word is a free base in Modern English.  It has no affixes.  It might be tempting to identify the <un> as a prefix, but all you have to do is compare the etymology of the <un> in this word to that of the <un-> in words like unhappy and unzip.  They do not share ancestors, nor do they share denotations.

This word, as most, has an interesting story.  The verb ’till’  meaning “to cultivate the soil” was first attested in the 13th century.  It is from Old English tilian “cultivate, tend, work at”.  There is a thought that the idea of cultivating and having a purpose and goal may have passed into Old English with the word ’till’ meaning “fixed point”.  It was then converted into a preposition meaning “up to a particular point”.  ‘Until’ was first attested in the 13th century.  The first element <un> is from Old Norse *und “as far as, up to”.  (The asterisk next to the Old Norse spelling means it is reconstructed.)  So when we put the two parts of this word together, we get <un + til –>  until>  “up to a particular point”.  The use of ’til’ is short for ‘until’.

It isn’t about “one ‘l’ or two”.  It’s about the word’s story.

The pronunciation is /ənˈtɪl/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:



occurred  (*occured)

If something has occurred, it has happened.  It could be an event or even a thought.

Someone who is misspelling this word, doesn’t understand its morphology.  That would include how suffixing conventions are applied.  The structure of this word is <oc + cur + ed –> occurred>.  Notice that the final <r> on the base was forced to double when the vowel suffix <-ed> was added.  This happened because of the position of the stress in this word.  The stress is on the second syllable – the one closest to the suffix.

This word was borrowed from Latin occurrere “run towards, run to meet”.  The prefix <oc-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <ob-> bringing a sense of  “towards”.  The base is <cur> “run “.   This base is seen in present day words including curriculum, current, recur and concur.

This word is pronounced /əˈkɜɹd/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:


It is interesting to note that the initial <o> is unstressed and that affects its pronunciation.



separate   (*seperate)

This word generally means to divide or cause to be apart.  I might separate old coins from new coins.

Growing up I remember this word being one that I could never get right.  The reason I misspelled it time after time is because all I had was its pronunciation to work with.  Had I known its morphology and etymology, I would have had a better chance of remembering its spelling.  First, let’s look at its morphology.  The structure of this word is <se + pare/ + ate –> separate>.

The prefix <se-> has a sense of “apart”.  The base element <pare> is from Latin parare with a denotation of “make ready, prepare”.  The suffix <-ate> is a verbal suffix in this word.  The base element in this word, <pare>, is also seen in words like:

~apparatus (The prefix <ap-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <ad-> and brings a sense of “to”.  Apparatus helps to make things ready or be prepared.)
~preparation (The prefix <pre-> brings a sense of “before”.  When you prepare, you make things read before you need them.)
~pare (This is a free base that means to “trim or cut close”.  Again we see the denotation of “make ready” in the image of this word’s action.

The pronunciation is /ˈsɛpɹət/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

sɛpɹət /
It is interesting to note that the <a> is not typically pronounced in this word.  The final <e>, which is the final letter in the <ate> suffix, is non-syllabic.  That means it is not pronounced either.


government  (*goverment)

A government is a way to regulate or control members or citizens  of a particular region (state or country) or of an organization.  In the United States, we have a federal government with different branches that creates laws for the entire country, and we also have state governments making decisions for each of the fifty states.

Why does this word get misspelled?  Again, it is because of the way it is pronounced.  So let’s look at this word’s morphology and phonology as we have with every other word so far.  The structure of this word is <govern + ment –> government>.  People who leave out the <n> in this word, don’t think about the word’s structure.  The base shares its spelling with all words in its word family.  See the matrix below.

The base element <govern> was first attested in the late 13th century, and at that time it meant “rule with authority”.  It is from Old French governer which meant “steer, be at the helm of, rule, command”.

The pronunciation is /ˈgʌvəɹmənt/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:


It is interesting to note that the <n> is not typically pronounced.  This is evidence that it is important to have knowledge of a word’s morphology and etymology when trying to understand its spelling!



definitely  (*definately)

When used, this word is intended to remove all doubt.  I will definitely watch your dog this weekend.

The structure of this word is <de + fine/ + ite + ly –> definitely>.  The single final non-syllabic <e> is replaced by the <-ite> suffix in the final spelling.  The suffix <ite> is adjectival, but the addition of the suffix <ly> makes this word adverbial.

This word is from Old French definir, defenir  “to finish, conclude, come to an end, determine with precision”.  Before that it came directly from Latin definire “to limit, determine, explain”.  The prefix <de-> brings a sense of “completely” and the base <fine> has a denotation of “to bound, limit”.

This word is pronounced /ˈdɛfənətli/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:


It is interesting to note that both <i>’s are unstressed which affects their pronunciation.  The final <e> on the suffix <-ite> is predictably unpronounced.  The final <y> on the <ly> suffix also has a predictable pronunciation.



pharaoh  (*pharoah)

A pharaoh is an ancient Egyptian ruler.

This is a free base with no affixes.

This word has an interesting trail to follow.  It was first attested in Old English as Pharon.  Earlier it was from Latin  Pharaonem.  Earlier yet it was from Greek Pharao. Even earlier it was from Hebrew Par’oh.  But its origins are in understandably Egyptian Pero’ where it meant “great house”.  Note that the spelling sequence of ‘pharao’ was present in Greek and in Latin.  That is the spelling sequence we currently see.  Once again the spelling represents where the word came from and what it means, not how it is pronounced!

This word is pronounced
/ˈfɛɹoʊ/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:


It is interesting to note that the <ph> represents /f/.  This is a signal that this word has a Greek heritage.


publicly   (*publically)

When something is done publicly, it is done for all to see.

The structure of this word is simply <public + ly>.  The <ly> suffix can be an adverbial one.  The misspelling listed shows a misidentification of structure.  There are many words that actually HAVE that structure, including basically, magically, comically, and tropically.  This brings us to an important point!  Just because two things are pronounced the same, it doesn’t mean they are spelled the same.  It doesn’t take much time or effort to check with a reference book!

The word ‘public’ was first attested in the last 14th century.  Earlier it was used in Old French public.  It comes directly from Latin publicus “of the people, of the state, common, general”.  The meaning of “open to all in the community” is from 1540’s English.

This word is pronounced /ˈpʌblɪkli/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:


It is interesting to note the predictable pronunciation of the final <y> of the <-ly> suffix.




Think about the words on this misspelled list.  Everyone of them has a spelling that can be explained by looking at the word’s morphology, etymology , and its phonology.  I’ll say it again … by looking at the word’s morphology, etymology, and its phonology.  Teaching all three is so powerful.

It’s time for schools to change the way they teach children about words and spelling!  Phonology is just ONE ASPECT of a word.  When it is seen as THE ONLY THING (as it is in most every classroom), students are cheated out of the opportunity to understand a word’s story.  And understanding a word’s story is often the thing that connects a word’s meaning to its spelling.  Understanding a word’s meaning leads to understanding the word in context, which in turn increases reading comprehension.  How could it not?

Teaching spelling and reading via phonology alone makes spelling a giant guessing game.  For example, there are a number of graphemes that can represent the phoneme /iː/.  I can think of <ea>, <ee>, <y>, and <ei> off hand.  There are no doubt more.  A student faced with memorizing which grapheme to use in which word based on pronunciation alone is clueless – literally!  That student NEEDS the clues that morphology and etymology provide.  Why not teach a student where to find the information needed in order to make informed decisions about a word’s spelling?

Another huge disadvantage of teaching as if spelling represented only pronunciation is that our students never see for themselves how words are connected to one another.  They miss realizing that each word is a member of a larger family.  The family is full of words that all share a common base with a common ancestry and a common denotation.  Why are words like busy, business, and businesses found on different spelling lists?  Why not present them together so a student can see they are part of the same word family?   Or present them together so the students can internalize an understanding of the suffixing conventions that can happen within a family of words.  The matrices I have created above do just that.  They help us see connections among words that we have not been taught to see before now.

Let’s go back to the list of commonly misspelled words.  Oxford Dictionaries only gave us their top ten, but I’m willing to bet there are hundreds and hundreds of such words in their Oxford English Corpus.  I say, let’s raise the bar for our students.  Let’s give them engaging word work that supplies them with resources for all the clues they need in order to understand a word’s spelling.  What schools have been teaching students during reading and spelling instruction  — phonology alone  —  has not worked for the vast majority of students.  If it had, we would not see the spelling errors we do.  We would not hear adults blaming the English language when they misspell a word or misunderstand a paragraph.  We would not hear parents claim, “I was a terrible speller too” at parent-teacher conferences, as if not having been taught to understand our language is a trait one inherits much like height or hair color.