“Stop Learning and Start Thinking”

I shared this video with my students the other day.  It is about 7 years old, but its message is timeless and crucial if we are to teach our students how to be in charge of understanding their world.  The boy speaking is Jacob Barnett.  At the time this video was made he was 11 years old.  At present he is 19.  If you have not seen this, please watch it now.  It is 18 minutes long, but well worth your time.  If you have seen it before, watch it again.  Having Jacob’s voice in your head as you continue to read this post will give strength to what you read.

When it was over, I said, “Well, What do you think about what he said?”  One student mentioned how smart Jacob is.  Another said it was weird that Jacob wore sandals.  Another commented that he could tell Jacob was “different”.  Yet another noticed that he had the Greek letter phi (φ ) on his shirt.  (We’ve been learning the Greek alphabet). It got kind of quiet after that.  So I said, “What do you think Jacob means when he says you have to stop learning and start thinking?”  Now it was completely silent.  And the silence was paired with facial expressions that said, “I don’t have any idea what that could mean!”

At that point I shared my own thoughts:  When Jacob says to stop learning, I think he is talking about learning as it is typically done in schools.  You know how it goes – the teacher tells the students what he/she wants them to know.  They learn it. (This might include reading about it, writing about it, watching videos, etc.) Then the students take an assessment to see how well they learned it.

THAT is what Jacob wasn’t able to do when he was young – because of his learning differences.  THAT is what Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t able to do when attending the University of Cambridge – because the school was shut down with the outbreak of the plague.  And THAT is what Albert Einstein wasn’t able to do – because he was Jewish and turned away from the local university, so he ended up taking a job working in a patent office instead.

Each was prevented from following this model of learning, and in doing so, had time to think.  Jacob believes it was this time to think and question and seek understanding that lead each person to their discoveries.  Now, does this mean Jacob didn’t learn things by reading books?  Of course not.  When he had posed questions that he wished to explore and knew more information was necessary to move forward in his thinking, he read the books he needed to read!  In other words, he read books and focused on understanding what he was reading.  He was a motivated reader.  The information he learned while reading helped him formulate new questions and better understand whether or not his past questions were on the right track.  In this manner he was always motivated to deeply understand a specific topic in order to weigh whatever questions he was currently posing.

So did he in fact  “stop learning”?  I don’t think so.  I think he stopped being a passive participant in learning, and became an active one.  And he found his inner voice – that unique perspective that he has – that each of us has with which to do our thinking.  Jacob explored the questions he had in a way that came natural to him.  Unfortunately, the way schools are set up, students often lose sight of their own unique perspective as they get older.  They get used to waiting for an adult to tell them what to do next, what information to search for, what answer to find.  They become passive learners.  And as passive learners, they rarely go beyond what has been laid out as the expectations for a particular assignment.  If doing “a, b, and c” is what is required, very few will ask about “d”.  Sometimes teachers will comment that there are students who are capable of doing more, but lack motivation.  Do they really lack motivation, or have they become passive?  Are YOU sometimes a passive learner?

At this point Ella raised her hand.  “When we study words, we’re not passive.  It’s like how Jacob learns.  We do a lot of thinking about what the word means, and then we come up with a hypothesis for our word sum. We read whatever dictionary we need to while collecting our evidence and the word’s story.  But WE do it ourselves.”

I answered, “Yes!  You work independently and are actively involved in your learning!  You look at resource books when you need to.  You search for evidence to support or disprove your word sum hypothesis. You discuss with others what you are thinking about as you are finding information and hypothesizing.  And oftentimes another person’s unique perspective helps you stretch your own thinking.  You research and investigate and gather your evidence until you’re satisfied you understand as much as there is to understand at this time!  The best part is that you recognize that you have not found an answer.  You have found a temporary understanding that may in fact deepen should other evidence come to light!”

Ella continued rather proudly, “When we were taking the Forward Exam a few weeks ago, I was trying to think of what the word sum would be for <conversation>.  I knew about the two possible suffixes <ate> and <ion> on this word which left <convers(e)>.  I also recognized the prefix <con>, although I couldn’t remember what it meant just then.  That left <vers(e)>.  When I thought about that, I thought of how a verse is something I read, write, or talk about.  A conversation is talking between at least two people, so I knew I was on the right track.  I couldn’t look it up during the exam, but later I checked it out to see if what I thought made sense.”

I was not expecting Ella to point out this correlation between what Jacob was describing and what we do in class, but I was delighted she did!  The students can FEEL the difference between passive and active learning.  They recognize their own level of engagement, and how using a scientific lens to look at words has drawn them in and increased their level of interest.  The fact that Ella shared her thinking about the word <conversation> and how being able to do that helped her in a situation outside of class, proves that  Structured Word Inquiry has become the way she thinks about words!  Ella KNOWS that a word’s spelling is not random.  She KNOWS to expect its structure to make sense and to help her understand the meaning of that word.

I remember what a former student said at the end of her fifth grade year, “In fourth grade we had a list of words.  We wrote them on our white board over and over again until we could spell them without looking.  It got very boring very quickly.  In fifth grade it’s different.  We investigate a word to find out where it comes from, and what it’s word sum might look like.  We find out its history and how it’s been used.  Then we write about what we found, and after we’ve collected words with the same base we make a matrix.  It’s a lot more work, but it is also a lot more fun!”

Did you hear that?  It was a lot more work, but it was also a lot more fun!  We have to stop deciding what is too much work or what is too hard for our students.  We have to stop simplifying tasks to the point of rendering them uninteresting and requiring too little thought.

 

Structured Word Inquiry versus the Scientific Method

What my students do with spelling is not much different than what they do in preparation for our Science Fair.  The first step is to choose a topic or a word.  Next they do a bit of research.  For both spelling and science, they need to know enough about their topic to create a thoughtful hypothesis.  Let’s say a student is curious about the effects of music on a person’s heart rate.  Before writing a hypothesis, that student would benefit from finding out what a typical resting heart rate is.  It might even be helpful to find out what is considered to be an elevated heart rate.  The student might also want to know how many beats per minute specific music has. The student’s hypothesis can include those pieces of information, and later on, the data collected can be compared to that hypothesis.   The student investigating a word will want to brainstorm a few other words related to the targeted word.  Which structural pieces are the same?  Which structural pieces are different?  I am speaking of morphemes.  Does the student recognize affixes that could be removed in order to identify the base or bases?  A hypothesis in this situation means a possible word sum.  Oftentimes a student will consider two or three different word sum hypotheses.

The next step in either scenario is to research deeply.  The person preparing a science experiment will want to find out more about music types, heart rates, the effects music has on people, and maybe even music therapy.  The person investigating a word will want to find out when his/her word was first attested and what it meant at that time.  The person may consult several etymological references to find out the word’s language of origin and its spelling in that language.  What was the lexical stem in that language of origin that became today’s base element?  In the process, the word’s story is revealed.  It may have meant different things at different times in history.  It may have had its spelling changed (for a variety of reasons) by the different groups of people who used it over time.

Now it is time for the scientist to set up the experiment, run it, and collect the data.  This will take some time.  The person running the science experiment will select a group of people to participate.  Resting heart rates will be taken, and then music will be played.  Then heart rates will be taken again.  There will be tests for different kinds of music, and the group of participants will be tested several times for each type of music.  The student investigating a word will now focus on collecting words that share the word’s root (ancestor) which was found during research.  Words found that share both the word’s ancestor AND the base’s spelling are listed as morphological relatives.  Words found that share the word’s ancestor but NOT the base’s spelling are listed as etymological relatives.  In both cases it is important to keep a journal detailing this collection process in case the experiment gets repeated at a future time.

The data is collected.  What’s next?  The student who is preparing for the Science Fair will begin making graphs and/or charts of the data so this person can make observations.  After careful consideration of what the data shows, the student draws some conclusions. Does the data support the initial hypothesis or does it falsify it?  At this point, either outcome is valid.  The student learns about the effects of different types of music on a person’s heart rate regardless of whether or not their hypothesis was “right”.  Proving the hypothesis is what drives the experiment, but if the hypothesis isn’t proven, the experiment has not failed.  It has only moved the student in a different direction with their questions and thinking.  In so many respects it is the same for the student investigating a word.  This student looks at the morphological relatives found (the words that share a common ancestor AND the base element’s spelling) and writes those words as word sums.  As the student does this, special attention is paid to the the morpheme boundaries.  This is where the student’s understanding of the single final non-syllabic <e> as well as suffixing conventions come into play.  For example, let’s say the student was writing a word sum for <describing>.  If the student wrote the word sum as <de + scribe + ing –> describing>, I would know that the student understands the importance of the single final non-syllabic <e>.  The <e> is part of the base element in this word.  If it wasn’t, then adding the vowel suffix (<-ing>) would force the (then) final <b> on the base to double.  The student includes the <e> on the base element to prevent doubling!  When the words are all written as word sums, a matrix is created.  (Just as there are several kinds of graphs on which to display science data, there are other ways to present word collections as well.  A matrix is the one to use when looking at all the elements – affixes and other bases – that can be used with a common base.)

Once the graphs/matrices are made and the students have made a list of observations, it is time to share their findings with a larger group.  The student who is presenting at the Science Fair will pull out the journal with the detailed notes and type up a list of procedures, some of the research findings, the hypothesis, the observations and more.  Those will be displayed along with the graphs or charts and any pictures on a display board.  The student doing the word investigation will decide whether to create a poster, a booklet, a skit type presentation, a video, or some type of digital presentation (perhaps similar to Powerpoint).  This person will also go back to their journal with the detailed notes and share the word’s meaning, the attestation date, the language of origin, and other interesting things that were found out about the word’s history.  They will also share the matrix they created, the related words, and any observations they have made as they reflected on their investigation.  For instance, they may have noticed interesting things about the phonology in this word’s family.  Perhaps this word is Hellenic and has a <ph> grapheme that represents a /f/ phoneme.  Perhaps there are pronunciation differences in the base of the word family as there is in the family that includes predict, diction, and indictment.  The students usually include the word in IPA so they can specifically talk about the grapheme/phoneme relationships.

As each student presents, they walk us through their exploration.  They share the most surprising things they found out and ask for questions.  Their explorations, whether the kind shared at a Science Fair or the kind shared with fellow word enthusiasts in a classroom, always get great interaction from the audience.  The work investigated with this scientific lens is so worthy that audience members can’t help but become engaged themselves and think of their own questions.

  

It sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it?  I bet some of you are even thinking, “My students can’t do all that.”  But given the chance, your students will prove to you that they can.  My students begin fifth grade with very little true understanding about our written language.  But amazingly, within two to three months of school they are eager to investigate words on their own and in much this way!  They are so hungry to be actively involved in their learning!  As we continue through the year, they become more and more independent in their pursuit.  THIS is what Ella was pointing at when she said that our word work was a lot like what Jacob Barnett was describing.  When we investigate words (and conduct science experiments), we  “STOP LEARNING AND START THINKING!

 

 

Guess What? They’re ALL Silent Letters!

I found an article the other day that made me kind of sad.  The article was posted online by the Oxford Dictionaries and was called, “Why English is so hard to learn:  silent letters.”  Here is a link to the article.  The first thing that struck me was the term “silent letters”.  I am aware that letters that are unpronounced in a word are commonly referred to as silent letters, but that doesn’t make it accurate.  I also admit that in the not too distant past I called them that as well … because that was what I was told they were.  In a world where children are taught that letters routinely “say” sounds, as in the letter f says /f/, it might indeed seem to make sense to call the <g> in <sign> silent since it isn’t “saying” anything.

But I’ve come to realize how misleading that way of thinking is.  And it is.  Very misleading.

Letters produce sound?

Let’s begin with the underlying assumption here that letters do make sounds.  Obviously they do not.  Can not.  They’re just symbols printed on paper.  Yet we ask children to believe that they do.  In fact we begin a child’s reading instruction by teaching them that the consonants each “make” one sound and the vowels each “make” two.   What we really mean here, and what we should really be saying to children is that letters represent pronunciation.  So for example, we can say that the letter <s> represents /s/.  But don’t stop there.  If you don’t want to get into all of the pronunciations that the letter <s> CAN represent, then just say, “The letter <s> CAN represent /s/.  It can also represent other pronunciations, but right now we’ll focus on /s/.”   Using this wording leaves the door open to other pronunciations of the letter <s> as they will, without any doubt, notice in words.  The students won’t be gobsmacked when it happens.  They will have been waiting for it and looking forward to understanding why and when <s> has other pronunciations.

With this slight change in OUR explanation, we are switching from having children think something is possible (that even THEY can recognize is not) to simply stating the truth to children.  Changing your wording may seem trivial to you as you are reading this, but within a year or two of learning to read and write, children are already beginning to see our language as one that makes no sense.  And the fact that the adults don’t understand our language as well as they could, doesn’t help.  Many just repeat what they were taught or what some teacher manual says to repeat.  They don’t question what they don’t understand because their own education regarding our language has unintentionally taught them to believe that our language makes no sense.  I imagine that you have seen the same kinds of “proof” that I have where someone asks about house and mouse, and that if the plural of mouse is mice, why isn’t the plural of house hice?  There are lots of those kinds of questions offered up as proof that English spelling cannot be understood.  And perhaps, if the only aspect of English spelling that has been presented is that of the “sounds” of letters and words, then of course it might feel impossible to understand.

Learning letter, digraph, and trigraph pronunciations in isolation?

Can you imagine teaching children to read music by holding up a card with a musical note drawn on it and expecting them to sing it?  Of course that wouldn’t work because until they see the note on the proper line of the musical staff, or hear it in comparison to the note in front of it or behind it within a song, they won’t know the right note to sing.  Expecting children to recognize and accurately sing all of the notes before they see any of them on a staff or in a measure of music is ludicrous.  Before children learn to read music, they have sung hundreds of songs.  They have sung the notes in hundreds of combinations. But not in isolation.  Each note makes sense in its setting, in the context of its song.

Is it so different with children who are learning to read?  Why don’t we teach them letters, digraphs, and trigraphs in the context of a word or even a sentence?  Because THAT’S where those pronunciations become clear and predictable.  Perhaps begin with a word that is used in a story you are reading.  The child can get a feel for how the word is used and what it means by pulling it out of context for a closer look.  Maybe you’ll want to think of other words related to this one.  For example, if you are focusing on the word ‘dog’, maybe you want to talk about a dog house or dog food or dogs.  You can both count how many letters are in the word.  Then point out that each letter in this word represents a grapheme, and that each of those graphemes represents a phoneme.  Then pronounce each.  You might point out that in any word that has a final <g>, that <g> will be pronounced /g/.  Then you can brainstorm some other words with a final /g/.  Then again, maybe the student wants to pick out a word to look at.  Maybe it could be routine that every time you read a story together, you each pick out a word to look at and think about.  Review the names of the letters and compare the way letters are pronounced in words.  For example, compare the <s> in small to the <s> in dogs.  Find some other words with a final <s> and practice reading the words together and feeling whether the final <s> in those words is pronounced /z/ or /s/.  This might even be that opportunity to find letters in words that are unpronounced!

It is common practice to teach graphemes and digraphs in isolation.  I remember back a bunch of years.  Our spelling list included words in which the main vowel was called “long e” and pronounced as /i/.  The students would brainstorm different letter strings we could use to represent that pronunciation.  We came up with <ee> as in reel, <ea> as in read, <ei> as in received, <ie> as in chief, <e> as in be, <y> as the final letter in baby, and <e_e> as in these.  Every week we would brainstorm these patterns and then think of words that used those spellings for that pronunciation.  What busy work!  The students would ask, “How do you know which of those spellings is in a particular word?”  I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know.  After a while they stopped asking and they resigned themselves to empty memorization.  What I was doing didn’t make them better spellers unless they were already great at memorizing.  You see, looking at the vowel pronunciation and all the letter strings that might represent it just made matching them up feel very random.  To the students, it was like playing “take a guess.”

It makes much more sense to start with a word that a student has come across and that they are interested in.

So why are some letters in some words unpronounced?

Let’s focus on some of the letters identified as “silent” in the article.  We’ll look through a few at a time so I can explain some possible reasons for that letter not being pronounced in that word.

Let’s begin with read, as in “She read that book yesterday.”  The <a> cannot be considered unpronounced because it is not functioning independently in this word.  It is part of the digraph <ea>.  That means that the two letters are representing one grapheme which is representing one phoneme.  In this word, the digraph <ea> is representing /ɛ/ as it does in bread, feather, and breath.  This digraph can also represent /i/ as it does in team, eat, and bean.  The fact that this one digraph can be representing two different phonemes makes it perfect for this word.  If you look at other words in this family, you’ll see that both of these pronunciations are present: <ea> as /i/ – read, reading, readable, reader, readability, readership, misread, and <ea> as /ɛ/ well-read, read, misread.  The meaning of this base is constant, but the pronunciation of the base is dependent on the context in which we find it, as well as the affixes attached to it.

The next word on the list is crumb.  The <b> in this word is considered a marker letter.  It is marking its connection to other members in its family in which the <b> IS pronounced.  That would include words like crumble, crumbling, and crumbled.  If the <b> were removed from <crumb> just because it is no longer pronounced, we would not recognize this word as belonging to this word family and sharing its meaning.

Since dumb and lamb have a similar placement of <b>, let’s look at them together.  These two have a similar story.  The final <b> in both of these words marks their etymological origins.  The word dumb is from the Old English word dumb.  At that time it meant “silent, unable to speak”.  Even though it has come to mean other things as well, its spelling has not changed.  The word lamb has a story that is not very different.  It is from the Old English word which was spelled either as lamb, lomb, or lemb depending on where one lived.  In both dumb and lamb, the final <b> has been there from the beginning.  And even though we don’t pronounce it, it is part of this word’s identity.  When we see words like lambskin, lambkin, and lambswool, we instantly know these are related to the animal we know as a lamb.

In Modern English spelling, the consonant cluster <mb>, when found final in a word, is considered to be unpronounceable.  In that case, the last letter in the word is unpronounced.  This explains why we don’t pronounce the final <b> in crumb, dumb, lamb, tomb, bomb, and thumb, yet we DO pronounce that <b> in related words like thimble, crumble, bombard, and rhombus.

The word debt has a very interesting story to tell.  It’s etymological journey begins in Latin with debitum “thing owed.”  Its spelling changed for a while because of a French influence (dette, dete).  Sometime after c.1400, the <b> was restored.  So once again, this unpronounced letter marks a connection to this word’s root.  It is interesting to note that the <b> IS pronounced in the related word debit where we see the two letters separated by a vowel.

Next up is ascend.  This word is from Latin ascendere “to climb up, mount.”  The <c> would have been pronounced /k/ in Latin.  When we compare it to descend, we can hypothesize that the base element is <scend>.  The prefix is an assimilated form of <ad-> “to, near, at”.  The Etymonline entry for this prefix states that the <ad-> is simplified to <a-> before an <sc>.  That gives us information about the word’s structure, but not the pronunciation (or lack thereof) of the <c>.

In thinking about the <c> here, I wondered whether or not it IS pronounced in words in which it appears to be paired up with the <s>.  I went to Word Searcher and found a long list of words with an <sc> letter string.  Here are a few of them:  scone, scope, scoot, scrub, screw, scab, scale, scarf, scream, and rescue.  I also noticed other words in which the <c> seemed to be unpronounced.  Here are a few of them:  descent, scion, scenic, scent, obscene, scepter, scissor, and scythe.  In looking at the lists it became obvious to me that this is just a case of knowing the pronunciations that can be represented by the grapheme <c> and what governs that.  When followed by an <e>, <i>, or <y>, it will be /s/.  When followed by anything else, it will be /k/.  When the <s> AND <c> in a word would both be representing /s/, they function instead as a digraph representing a single /s/.

Two other words in this list have the <sc> pronounced as /s/.  The first is scene.  This word originated in Greek as σκηνικός “of the stage, scenic, theatrical.”  It is transcribed as skenikos.  When the Greek suffixal construction <-ikos> was removed and this word was transcribed into Latin, the <k>’s were written as <c> (scene), but the pronunciation of the <c> remained /k/.  As had happened in many many instances, this word was influenced by Middle French speakers (scéne) and the <c> lost its hard pronunciation.  Today we can recognize the <sc> as a digraph representing /s/.

The last word in this group is science.  This word is from Latin scientia “what is known, acquired by study.”  If we further analyze this word, we find the base element of <sci> “know, be able to separate one thing from another.”  It’s the same base we see in conscience, unconscious, and conscientious.  Do you see the meaning connections there?  Isn’t that fascinating?  A tangent, I know, but sometimes I can’t help it!  Back to the phonology of the <c> in science.  In Latin, the <c> would have been pronounced as /k/, but like scene, as this word journeyed through time, it was influenced by French speakers – (Old French science).  The <c> took on a /s/ pronunciation which persists today.

It’s time to look at Wednesday.  This day of the week was originally named for the Roman god that corresponded to the planet Mercury.  That is why the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) spell this day as Mercredi, Mercoledi, and Miércoles respectively.  When the Germanic people adopted this naming of the days, they switched out the Roman gods for their own gods who had similar characteristics.  The day known as Dies Mercurii to the Romans became known as Woden’s Day to the Germanic people.  Can you see now how Woden’s Day became Wednesday?  There is a slight difference with the letters which no doubt prompted the <d> to lose its pronunciation.  Once the <en> in Woden was reversed and the <o> changed to an <e>, the <dn> letter string became less pronounceable.  If you say the word ‘Wednesday’ several times, you can feel the elision happening and the <d> becoming unpronounced.

Next up is reign.  The Etymonline entry shows that the verb form of this word is from Latin regnare “be king, rule.”  Moving forward through time, this word was adopted and adapted in Old French where it was spelled regner.  In its noun form it gained the <i> and was spelled reigne.  Seeing that the <gn> has always been part of this word’s spelling, I looked for relatives of this word to see if is pronounced in any of those.  I found the words regnant “reigning, exercising authority” and regnal “pertaining to a reign.”  So it seems that in Modern English the <g> is pronounced when the base is <regn>, but not pronounced when the base is <reign>.

Next on the list is anchor and what an entertaining story awaits!  The Etymonline entry lists this word as beginning in Latin as ancora “an anchor.”  The information there also points to the Greek ankyra “an anchor, a hook” as being either an earlier ancestor or perhaps a cognate (emerging at the same time).  This information is especially interesting because of the Greek letter kappa being transcribed to the Latin <c>.  A modern English <ch> spelling that is pronounced as /k/ usually originates from the Greek letter χ (chi) which was transcribed into Latin as <ch>.  That did not happen here.  So why is the <ch> representing /k/ in this word?

Reading on at Etymonline, the story is revealed.  The <ch> is NOT etymological and was inserted in the late 16th century, “a pedantic imitation of a corrupt spelling of the Latin word.”  So even though the <ch> in this word is NOT derived from the Greek letter chi, it now looks like and behaves like it was, including being pronounced /k/.  The <h> is part of the <ch> digraph.  It is not operating as an independent grapheme.

So what about architect, character, and chord?  They each have <ch> representing /k/.  Do they share a Hellenic ancestry?  Well, architect is from the Greek αρχι-τέκτων “chief builder.”  That would have been transcribed by the Romans as archi-tecton.  As you will notice, the third Greek letter was χ (chi).  When that letter was transcribed by the Romans, they transcribed it as <ch> and pronounced it /k/.

Digging into the etymology of character we find that it is from the Greek χαρακτήρ “engraved mark”.  As you can see, the initial letter in Greek was again χ (chi).  This word was transcribed by the Romans as character .  The initial <ch> was pronounced /k/.  This word lost that <ch> spelling for a while.  At one point it was adopted and adapted by Old French and its spelling changed to caratere “feature, character”.  It was sometime in the 1500’s that the <ch> spelling was restored.

So what about chord?  Will we see that it too has a <ch> that derived from the Greek letter χ?  Prepare for another interesting word story!  This word has two entries. The first is as a noun meaning “two or more musical notes sounded together”, and is from 1608.  It is an alteration of Middle English cord, a shortened form of accord.  The second is as a noun meaning “a structure of the body, emotions figuratively considered as a string on a musical instrument, straight line connecting two points on a circumference”, and is from 1543.  The note of interest is this statement in the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology:  “English chord(2) and Latin chorda, both meaning a string of a musical instrument have influenced this word by association of form and meaning.”  If the Latin word was chorda, that initial <ch> is like the others we encountered in character and architect.  It was originally a χ (chi) in Greek.  The Greek word was χορδή “a string of gut, the string or chord of a lyre or harp.”

So what about the claim that in the words anchor, architect, character, and chord the <h> is silent (unpronounced)?  It is not.  The <h> is part of the digraph <ch> that represents /k/ in these words.  When you see this particular digraph representing /k/ in a word, it is usually marking a Hellenic heritage.

The words autumn and column have a final <n> that is not pronounced.  Why?  When we look at autumn we see it is from Latin autumnus.  Minus the Latin suffix, the spelling is a direct derivation.  Interesting side note:  This season was called Harvest by the English until Autumn displaced it in the 16th century.

The word column is from Latin columna “pillar.”  Again, the Modern English spelling is a direct derivation.  The final <n>’s in these words may not be pronounced, but they are pronounced in other members of these word families.  Think of autumnal, autumnally, columnist, columnar, columniation.  We can think of the final <n> marking a connection to its relatives!

The word psychology takes us back to Greek.  How do I know?  Check out the <ch> grapheme representing the phoneme /k/!  But with this word we are to focus on the initial <ps> cluster in this word.  This word was coined in the 1650’s from a Latinized form of ψυχικός “breath, spirit, soul.”  You see and recognize the third letter in, right?  It’s χ (chi).  It was transcribed by the Romans as <ch> since they didn’t have a letter that was its equal.  Well, look at the first Greek letter in the same Greek word.  It is the letter ψ (psi).  When it was transcribed into Latin, the Romans had no equivalent letter, and so transcribed it as <ps>.  In Modern English, this cluster is considered unpronounceable when it is initial in a word.  Both the <p> and the <s> are pronounced though, in words like biopsy, autopsy, and epilepsy.

Next on the list is pneumonia, and the focus is on the initial unpronounced <p>.  This word comes from the Greek word πνεύμων transcribed as pneumon “lung.”  The reason we no longer pronounce the inital <p> is because of its placement.  Richard Venezky (The American Way of Spelling) describes this cluster as unpronounceable when it is initial.  When we see this cluster in another position, that is not the case.  Look at apnea and tachypnea.

Now let’s look at receipt.  The focus here is also the unpronounced <p>.  This word is from Old French recete and before that from Latin recepta “received.”  According to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “The English spelling with p (in imitation of the Latin form) is first recorded in the late 1300’s,  but did not  become the established form until the 1700’s.”  So the <p> was in the spelling of the Latin word recepta, but disappeared as this word was adopted and adapted in Old French.  It reappeared sometime in the late 1300’s, and became part of the established form of the word in the 1700’s.  That explains its place in the word, but what about it not being pronounced?  Well, according to Richard Venezky, there are a small group of “borrowings and scribal tamperings” in which the <p> is unpronounced.  Besides receipt, examples include corps and coup.

With mortgage we’ll be looking at the unpronounced <t>.  According to Etymonline, this word was first attested in the late 14th century as Old French morgage “conveyance of property as security for a loan or agreement.” This Old French word is from mort “dead” and gage “pledge”.  This name is fitting because “the deal dies either when the debt is paid or when the payment fails.”  Old French mort is from Latin mortuus.  The <t> was not evident in the Old French word, but was restored in English based on the Latin.  This word is considered a French borrowing with the <t> restored to mark an etymological connection to its Latin root mortuus.  As such, the <t> is not pronounced.

The next three words have unpronounced <u>’s.  The first is build.  It is from Middle English bilden and earlier (probably 1200) it was bulden “dwelling.”  According to Chambers, “It was not until the late 1500’s that our spelling begins to appear with frequency.  Even so, the spelling is not accounted for, unless it is simply a composite of the two earlier spellings bilden and bulden.”  The sense and meaning of putting something together came about in 1667.  Although <u> is found in words like guild, guilt, guitar, and circuit, and therefore might appear to be a <ui> vowel digraph, it is not.  The <u> has a specific function in those words that it is not performing in build.  I will explain further in the next paragraph as we look at the words guess and guide.  In the word build, the <u> is unpronounced.

The word guess is from Old English gessen “infer, perceive, find out.”  According to Etymonline, the <gu> was late 16th century.  This sometimes happened in Middle English to signal a “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.   In this word, the unpronounced <u> is considered a marker letter.  It marks the pronunciation of the <g>.

The last word in this group is guide.  This word is from Old French guider “to lead, conduct.”  The <u> has always been part of the spelling of this word.  Here, the unpronounced <u> is considered a marker letter as it was in guess.  It is marking the “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.

This last group of words are all listed as have a silent w.  Let’s find out what we can about them.

First up is playwright.   According to Wikipedia, “It appears to have been first used in a pejorative sense by Ben Jonson in 1853 to suggest a mere tradesman fashioning works for the theatre.  Jonson described himself as a poet, not a playwright, since plays during that time were written in meter and so were regarded as the province of poets.”  You see, at the time, the word wright was Old English wryhta, wrihta “worker.”  Ben Jonson saw what he did as above the rank of a worker.  He referred to himself as a poet and not a playwright.

As far as the <wr> spelling, Etymonline notes that it was a common Germanic consonantal combination (and that we can see for ourselves when we look at the Old English spelling).  It is especially interesting to note that the <wr> combination often starts words that imply twisting or distortion.  A worker or crafter might indeed need to twist in order to craft something!  Etymonline goes on to note that the <w> ceased to be pronounced sometime c. 1450-1700.

The next word on the list is sword.  This word is from Old English sweord, swyrd, sword “cutting weapon.”  As you can see, the <w> has been part of its spelling since its beginning and was no doubt pronounced at that time.  Even though that <w> is generally unpronounced in this word, we can consider the <w> as marking its language of origin.

Now let’s look at wrap.  This word was first attested in the 14 c. as Old English wrappen “to wind something around something else.”  This is the same common Germanic consonantal combination we saw in wright that starts words that imply twisting or distortion.  To wind something is certainly to twist it!

Wreck was first attested in the early 13th century, “goods cast ashore after a shipwreck.”  Before that it was from Anglo-French wrec and before that from a Scandinavian source.  A note of interest here from Etymonline is that “wrack, wreck, rack, and wretch were utterly tangled in spelling and somewhat in sense in Middle and early modern English.”  And, again we see that same Germanic consonant pair <wr> that can imply twisting or distortion when initial in a word!

I bet you already see the Germanic consonantal combination in wrestle and can see the implication of twisting and distortion in this word’s meaning.  This word has a frequentative suffix <-le>, which means the action happens over and over.  The base wrest is from Old English wræstan “to twist, wrench.”  Once again, the <w> may no longer be pronounced, but it is marking that etymological connection to Old English and the <wr> combination here implies twisting and distortion.

Next up is wrist.  I bet YOU could tell ME about that <w> this time!  Yes, it IS from Old English.  It was spelled wrist and the notion was “the turning joint.”  In other words, the <w> is unpronounced and marks the etymological connection to its Old English roots and the <wr> combination here implies twisting and distortion.

Now let’s look at write.  It is from Old English writan “to score, outline, draw the figure of.”  Once again we have the <w> marking its connection to its language of origin, Old English, and that <wr> implying twisting and distortion.

The very last word on the list is wrong.  Surely this word will have a different story to tell.  Let’s see.  It’s from late Old English “twisted, crooked, wry.”  According to Etymonline, “the sense of not right, bad, immoral, or unjust was developed by c. 1300. Wrong thus is etymologically a negative of right, which is from Latin rectus, literally straight.”  You will recognize the Latinate base <rect> in the word correct!  As for the <w>?  It functions just like the <w> in playwright, wrap, wreck, wrestle, wrist, and write.  It marks the connection to the Old English heritage each word has.  And when paired with <r> in words of Germanic heritage, an initial <wr> often implies a twisting and distortion of some sort.

Here’s a list of the words once more with an explanation for the unpronounced letter in each:

read … the <a> is part of the digraph <ea> and as such is not an independent letter in this word.
crumb … the <b> marks a connection to other members of the word family in which it is pronounced, such as crumble and crumbling.
debt … the <b> marks a connection to the word’s root and related words in which the <b> is pronounced, such as debit.
lamb, dumb … in Modern English, the <mb> is considered an unpronounceable cluster and as such the final letter is unpronounced.
ascend, scene, science … the <sc> represents /s/, so the <c> is part of a digraph.
Wednesday … the <d> followed by an <n> caused the <d> to be elided (unpronounced).
reign … the <g> is unpronounced but marks a meaning connection to a related base <regn>.
anchor, architect, character, chord … the <h> is part of the <ch> digraph representing /k/ which signals a Hellenic heritage.
autumn, column … the <n> marks a connection to other members of the word’s family in which it is pronounced, such as autumnal and columnist.
psychology … the <ps> marks a Hellenic heritage.  When the <ps> is initial, the <p> is unpronounced.
pneumonia … when the <pn> cluster is initial, the <p> is unpronounced.
receipt … the <p> is unpronounced in this word as well as in corps.  It is part of a small group of “borrowings and scribal tamperings” that have unpronounced letters.
mortgage … the <t> marks the historical language of origin (Latin) of <mort>.
build … the <u> is unpronounced and although there are ideas about the historical phonology, I could not find an agreed-upon explanation.
guess, guide … the <u> marks the “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.
sword … the <w> marks the language of origin (Old English) and a time when the <w> was pronounced.
playwright, wrap, wreck, wrestle, wrist, write, wrong … the <w> is part of the Germanic <wr> consonant cluster that implies twisting and distortion.

Labeling letters as silent is a problem.

The problem with calling a letter silent is that feels like an explanation to someone who is learning to read.  “Oh.  Don’t worry about the <g> in sign.  It’s a silent letter.  Just skip over it.”  That learner will probably become as complacent as the adults around him and not even look for an understanding as to WHY it is not pronounced in that word.  And, of course, by just moving on, thinking there is no reason for it to be there, they will miss out on understanding a whole lot about digraphs, markers, etymology, word families, and phonology.

Just imagine what it would be like if letters COULD talk.  What if they could each tell you their history or how pairing them up with other letters matters!  What if they could tell you that their coming together in a spelling is like music and the melody each word creates is in their sense and meaning!

Until then, let’s speak on their behalf.  Let’s not lump all unpronounced letters into one mislabeled group.  Unpronounced does not mean uninteresting or without purpose.  Let’s celebrate the history and individual awesomeness of each!

So what is the truth here?  Are these letters silent?  Sure they are.  But then again, so is every other letter in the alphabet.  A better attitude to instill in our young learners would be, “That letter isn’t pronounced?  Well, it MUST be there for a reason.  I wonder what it is?  Do you want to help me find out?”

 

 

 

The Intertwining of Etymology and Entomology

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A long time ago and in a land just down the road,  my husband asked me to type up his Master’s Thesis.  I was faster at typing than he was, so I agreed.  What an interesting venture THAT was!  So many words that were unfamiliar to me, but that made perfect sense to him.  You see he was getting his Masters in Aquatic Entomology.  Of course I knew that entomology had to do with insects.  Hadn’t we spent numerous weekends at Otter Creek with a white sheet and a flashlight making observations and noting the adult caddisfly species inhabiting the area?  Hadn’t I also gone with him as he collected caddisfly larva from the same creek that he would later identify to species?  Hadn’t I been to his lab at UW-Madison often enough and checked out the artificial creek in which he was raising caddisflies?  Of course I had.  But when I typed up his thesis, I became fascinated with something other than the caddisflies.  I became fascinated with the scientific names of the insects he was writing about.  Each had a name that was either Latinate or Hellenic.  And because the names were from Latin and Greek, they carried meaning which helped me understand something about the insect named.  At that point, I was years away from understanding that ALL words have a spelling that specifically represents their meaning.  Back then it made scientific terms seem magical.

Today my husband forwarded an article about Carl Linnaeus.  He was a naturalist who lived from 1707-1778.  He created a system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms that is still in use today.  Here is a link to the article.  I enjoyed many interesting things about this article, but one of my favorites was his reason for wanting to describe all living organisms with a two word name (binomial nomenclature).  The example given in the article is that of the European honeybee.  Before 1758, it was known as the Apis pubescens, thorace subgriseo, abdomine fusco, pedibus posticis glabris utrinque margine ciliatis.  The article roughly translates that Latin to “furry bee, grayish thorax, brownish abdomen, black legs smooth with hair on both sides.”  While quite detailed and helpful in describing one species from another, it was very cumbersome to remember or write down.  Thanks to Carl Linnaeus, the European honeybee is now known as Apis mellifera  “honey-bearing bee.”

I encourage you to watch this  short video about him and his scientific contributions.

Long before my husband’s thesis was ready to be typed, I was hearing the scientific names of many insects.  As part of his Masters coursework he prepared a prodigious insect collection.  I remember that we carried collection jars wherever we went!  In this post I will focus on the some of the Order names I became familiar with during that time period.  The levels of classification are Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.  What caught my attention with the Order names was the consistent use of the element <ptera>.

I was fascinated that caddisflies were part of the larger Order known as Trichoptera.  At the time I was told it  meant “hairy winged.”  Now I know that <trich>  had a Hellenic ancestor, τριχίνος (transcribed as trichinos) meaning “of hair” and <pter> is from Greek pteron and means “winged.”  The Caddisflies in this Order are often confused with moths in the Lepidoptera Order.  They are confused because they are similar in size and color to many moths, but upon a closer look (and because of what is revealed in the name Lepidoptera), one can see a major difference.  You see, Lepidoptera is also a compound word with one element deriving from Hellenic λεπιδος (transcribed as lepidos) “a scale” and the other from Hellenic πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”

This is an adult caddisfly, Order Trichoptera “hairy winged.”

Image result for trichoptera free clipart

This is a Brown House-moth, Order Lepidoptera “scaley winged.”

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Some of the other Orders of insects I learned about while typing my husband’s thesis were Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, Diptera, Siphonaptera, and Megaloptera.  There were others, of course, but looking at even these few will unlock your understanding of scientific names used in classification.

As I was looking up more information about the Order Hemiptera, which is from ἠμί (transcribed as hemi) “half” and πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged,” I found out that historically, the Order Hemiptera was split into two suborders.    The first was Heteroptera.  Its first element is from ἑτεροειδής (transcribed as heteroeidēs) “of another kind” and its second element is πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”  The second Suborder was Homoptera, whose first element is from ὁμοείδεια (transcribed as homoeideia) “sameness of nature or form” and its second element is πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”

From that we can note that insects in the Order Hemiptera are half winged.  That doesn’t mean that their wings are halved in some way.  It means instead that if they are in the Suborder Heteroptera, one pair of their wings has a tough and leathery upper half with a membranous tip and the other pair of their wings is strictly membranous.  You might say that of their two sets of wings, one set is “of another kind.”  If they are in the Suborder Homoptera, both of their wing pairs share a “sameness of form.”  Their forewings can either be toughened or membranous, but not both.

This is one of the insects classified as a Heteroptera.  You can see both the membranous wing and the leathery wing.

Image result for hemiptera

This is an aphid, one of the insects classified as a Homoptera.  You can see that both pair of wings are the same.  They are membranous.

Euceraphis species Birch Aphid Bugs Homoptera Images

Now let’s find out about the name for the Order of insects known as Hymenoptera.  Are you making guesses as to this word’s meaning at this point?  In looking at the Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott, I actually found the full word ὑμενόπτερος (transcribed as hymenopteros) “membrane winged.”  This group includes wasps, bees, and ants.  One thing to note about their wings is that the front set is bigger than the back set.

Here is a picture of a Tawny Mining Bee.  I chose this picture so you can see the smaller second set of wings.

Andrena fulva Tawny Mining Bee Hymenoptera Images

Let’s move on to the order known as Diptera.  Think about what the word sum will be.  We now know the second element in this word.  What’s left?  It would have to be <di + pter + a –> diptera>.  So far all of the elements in all of the words we have looked at have been Hellenic (Greek in origin).  The English base <di> is derived from the Greek word δοιοί (transcribed as doioi) “two.”  This group of insects includes flies, mosquitoes, gnats and more.  These insects belong in this Order because of the characteristic stated in the denotation of their name.  They have just two wings.

Here is a picture of a Green Bottle Fly.  You can see the two wings.

Lucilia species a Green Bottle Calliphoridae

Next let’s look at the Order Megaloptera.  Do you have any guesses about this word?  The second element is the same in all of the words we’ve looked at, so the first element will no doubt be describing the wings on the insects in this order.  Searching in Liddell and Scott, the first element is derived from μεγάλον (transcribed as megalon) “big, great.”  If you guessed that this order of insects includes those with big or great wings, you can pat yourself on the back!  Some of the insects we find in the Order Megaloptera are alderflies, dobsonflies, and fishflies.

Here is a picture of a dobsonfly.  Its wings are obviously larger than any others we have looked at today.

Image result for megaloptera

The last Order we’ll look at here is Siphonaptera.  There are things about this word that are similar to the ones we’ve already looked at, and yet there’s something new to notice.  First off, we see the now familiar element <pter> “winged.”  What will the rest of this word reveal?  Well, I found σίφων (transcribed as siphon) “tube, pipe.”  That leaves us with that curious letter <a> between the first element and the second.  That is a negativizing <a> that is a modern prefix to <pter>.  In this case, insects in the Order Siphonaptera are without wings!  They have no wings!  But what their name reveals to us is that they have mouthparts that are tube-like for sucking.  You guessed it.  The insects we find in this Order are fleas!  They stay alive by feeding on the blood of their host.

In this picture of a flea, you will notice there are no wings.  The tubes for sucking are hanging down near the mouth on the far left.

File:Ctenocephalides felis ZSM.jpg

 

There are, of course, many other Orders of insects.  We could keep making sense of their names for quite a long time!  What is an especially interesting find in the few we HAVE looked at is that Hellenic element <pter>. I wonder if you recognize it from words outside of this particular context.  The most common word I can think of is helicopter.  The word sum is <helic  + o + pter  –> helicopter>.  The Hellenic base <helic> “spiral” and the Hellenic base <pter> “winged” are joined with the Hellenic connecting vowel <o>.  Can you picture the blades of a helicopter and the way they move?

Another familiar word you may recognize is pterodactyl.  You will notice that when this element is initial in a word, the <p> is unpronounced.  The word sum is <pter + o + dactyl –> pterodactyl>.  The Helenic base <pter> “winged” and the Hellenic base <dactyl> “finger” are joined with the connecting vowl <o>.  Here is a picture of the pterodactyl.  You can see the fingers.


Credit: Joe Tucciarone

Entomology.  The word itself has an interesting story.  Using Etymonline, I found out it is from French entomologie, which was coined in 1764 from -logie “study of” and Greek entonom “insects.”  Entonom is the neuter of entonomos “cut in pieces, cut up.”  In this case, “cut” refers to the way an insect’s body is in segments and each segment is cut in or notched between the segments.  The word sum is <en + tom + o + loge/ + y –> entomology>.  The <en> prefix “in” is joined to the first base <tome/> “cut” which is joined to the second base <loge> “study, discourse” by the Hellenic connecting vowel <o> (which replaces the final non-syllabic <e>on the base).  Finally the suffix <y> replaces the final non-syllabic <e> on the base <loge>.

Here is a drawing that clearly shows the segmenting of an insect’s body.

File:ABDOMEN (PSF).png

People who study science expect the words they use to represent meaning.  It is one of the things I love about teaching science.  The words we use in class as we are learning any science topic are ripe with meaning.  They seem so unpronounceable and weird to the students because they have not been taught to look to parts of a word (morphemes) as parts of a meaningful structure.  Syllable division steers students away from believing that spelling makes any sense at all.  It misguides and makes them think a word’s spelling is not understandable, but it IS pronounceable.  But that is the opposite of what is true.  As you have seen with these seemingly difficult and nonsensical insect Order names,  the spelling of a word – EVERY WORD – reveals to us a structure.  Looking to understand the structure, we find the word’s story and begin to understand how and why the spelling of that word makes perfect sense.  Once we understand the structure and the word’s etymology, we can understand the possibilities for pronunciation.  As we noticed with the base <pter>, the pronunciation of this base is dependent on its placement in the word.  That is just one example of what I meant when I said “possibilities for pronunciation.”

The amazing thing is that it isn’t just science words that are spelled to represent meaning.  It is so hard for many to let go of the idea that spelling represents pronunciation.  When thinking about how to spell a word, the strategy to “Sound it out” is so deeply ingrained.  It is the only strategy many adults and children have been taught.  That makes it feel right.  But it is not.  Your logical and reasoning brain will tell you that.  So will all of these fascinating scientific names.  If it is now obvious to you that the name for the insect Order Megaloptera makes sense, it’s time to look at other words that catch your eye.  Look at math words and history words and guidance words and, well, all words.  There are revelations waiting for you in every word you read!

Renovating the Weekly Spelling Test

Why is it that in a traditional spelling program, students are not taught that a word’s spelling represents its meaning, or that all words have a structure?  In most every program, they are taught only, and might I add falsely, that a word’s spelling correlates to its pronunciation.  And because the reality of that doesn’t pan out, students learn to spell words as a rote activity.  Students spend lots of time looking at words that share similar strings of letters.  Ultimately, the expectation is that the student will have seen the word so many times that they will have memorized its spelling. In this model, the students know strings of letters.  They do not understand whether those letters form an affix, a base, a combination of more than one of those, or have a sense and meaning on their own.  See?  The way we teach spelling is not about understanding.  The expectation by the teacher and by the student (and by the administration for that matter) is that there is nothing to understand.  English spelling is something you just have to memorize.

What a shame.  Math would never be taught like this.  Who in their right mind would have students memorize one 2-digit by 3-digit multiplication problem at a time with a goal of twenty a week?  No one.  Instead, we teach the students how to multiply and then expect them to apply the skill to any numbers and situation out there.  We expect students to understand the operations and ask questions.  We want them to provide step by step explanations for solving problems.  But not so with spelling.

The people teaching it right now, are doing the very best job they can.  I believe that.  They are teaching what they understand to be the truth about English spelling.  Ah.  But there’s the rub.  Their own understanding of our language is lacking.  Hugely and completely lacking.  At some point in our history (several generations back), it was decided that English was much too hard to learn, and so needed to be simplified.  Latin would no longer be taught in schools.  If you are fortunate enough to know someone who learned Latin in their early schooling, my guess is that they will tell you how very valuable it still is for them in deciphering what words mean.  The very fact that at one point Latin was part of a school curriculum tells you that there was once an awareness that spelling represented a word’s meaning.  But when Latin left the curriculum, so did the idea that spelling and meaning were related.  It was decided instead that very young children must learn letters and sounds outside of the context of a word, and then apply that knowledge of, say,”S is for snake – s-s-s-s-” when being told to sound out words.  But <s> isn’t always representing /s/.  Sometimes it represents /z/ as it does in dogs.  Sometimes it represents /ʃ/ as it does in sugar.  Sometimes it represent /ʒ/ as it does in usual.  And <s> isn’t the only consonant like that.  Yet we start by teaching young children that it only represents /s/.

I’m not suggesting that children don’t need to know the alphabet.  They do.  Absolutely, they do.  But what if we taught them to look at letters as we see them in words? What if we taught children about graphemes and phonemes as they live and breathe inside of words?  What if we picked a word the student uses – better yet, what if we let the child pick the word they are interested in, and we looked at it together.  The adult guides by speaking about spelling features, structure, and a word’s story in straight forward terms.  The adult does not talk down to the child or invent silly rules or names for things.  The adult explains and lets the child  ask questions that will help them make sense of English spelling.

One great way to introduce structure to a child is to have them look at a family of words that share a single base.  Believe me, structure won’t be the only thing that gets talked about, but it is the big topic starting point.  Teaching specific base elements will familiarize children with how we can add and remove affixes to build a family of words.  It will also familiarize them with the fact that many of the words in our language are related to one another by their history and their meaning.  It opens them up to exploring that not only are we merely forming additional words that share the base, but that some specific suffixes will build word relatives that are nouns whereas others might form adjectives.  Students will learn the suffixing conventions in a more meaningful way – with a more intrinsic understanding than they do currently.  As is, they come into fifth grade knowing how to spell a bunch of words, but not understanding the structure of any of them.  They know that some have similar spellings toward the end of the word or at the beginning, but they have no understanding of why or if it means anything as far as how we use the words in our writing or reading.

When children are starting out learning about a word’s structure, it’s important to help them recognize the affixes they see often in their reading.  Even if their reading is not fluent yet, they can compare the words on a list and recognize that letters have been added to the base.  They will most certainly recognize these words once read aloud and be able to talk about them.  Let’s look at <water>.  I found it on a first grade sight word list.

The first question should be, “What is water?”  Let the child explain what they understand about water.  Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it.  Here is the IPA for water:  /ˈwɔtər/.  Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the child live.  That might make a difference to the pronunciation. If we make a list of words with <water> as a base, it might look like this:

water
watered
watering
waterfall
bathwater
rainwater
dishwater
watercolors
watermelon
underwater

Perhaps these could be written on cards (separate cards for each base and suffix) that the child can match up and spell out.  As each base is matched with either another base and/or suffix, have a discussion with the child about how that word might be used.  The words might also be written in color as I have done to point out bases and affixes.  You might begin to introduce to the child the idea that when added to this word, some suffixes will indicate the word is an action.  An example of this is ‘watered’.  I watered my flowers today.  See how watered is an action?  But water by itself is a thing.  I might drink a glass of water.  Draw pictures next to the words to represent either a thing (noun) or an action (verb).

There are some truly great descriptions of activities to do with younger learners at Beyond the Word, Lyn Anderson’s blog, and also at Rebecca Loveless’ blog.  I encourage you to check both of them out to read some step by step directives as well as to see how students react.

Another thing to notice about these words in particular is that the parts of the words that are in green are bases.  When two bases are joined, they form a compound word.  How is rainwater different from bathwater or dishwater?  Why are some paints called watercolors?  What do you know about watermelon that makes you think of water?  What is something that lives underwater?

Before my own children knew how to read, they loved making books.  They would tell me a story and I would write it down.  Then we would fold paper and they would sew the pages together with a large dull needle.  I would write a sentence or two of their story on each page, and they would add the pictures.  Every day we would read one of their books together.  Bookmaking could be a fun activity using a particular family of words such as water.

If I could design spelling tests, this is certainly how I would do it.  After a week of discussing the meanings and uses of these related words, asking the students to spell them seems reasonable.  If each week there were words related in this manner, over time students would recognize many prefixes, suffixes, and bases.  They would begin to internalize that often words are related to one another; not because they rhyme, but because they have meaning and spelling in common.

Students are ready to understand the suffixing conventions much earlier than most educators think they are.  When focusing on one of those conventions, the spelling list could include a base that is likely to use one.  Here is a list with <make> as its base.  Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it.  Here is the IPA for <make>:  /meɪk/.  Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the children live.  That might make a difference to the pronunciation. Here is a possible spelling list:

make
maker
making
makeup
shoemaker
noisemaker
peacemaking
toymaker
remake
makeover

Here are some points that come to mind:

~What does it mean when we make something?
~How do we construct ‘maker’?  Is there an <-r> suffix or an <-er> suffix?
~What kind of a sense does the <-er> suffix add to the word <shoemaker>?
~How many of these words are compound words?
~What is a peacemaker?
~Do you notice how the <c> in <peacemaker> has an /s/ pronunciation?  Why is that?
~Why don’t we replace the final non-syllabic <e> when constructing the word <makeup>?
~What is the suffixing convention in which we replace the final non-syllabic <e>?
~Many teachers have learned that the final <e> is dropped.  That is also what they teach their students.  Why is ‘replaced’ a better word to use?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.

Equally as important as discussing these concepts as a class, is the ability for each student to read aloud a word sum, explaining as they go, why they are or aren’t replacing the final non-syllabic <e> on the base!  Until your student can explain this, keep the following flow chart handy:

 

If you want to focus on the suffixing convention in which the final consonant of the base is sometimes doubled, perhaps you could use this list.  Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it.  Here is the IPA for <stop>:  /stɑp/.  Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the children live.  That might make a difference to the pronunciation. If we make a list of words with stop as a base, it might look like this.  As you read it, can you spot some great things to focus on during a week of working with these words?

stop
stops
stopped
stopping
stoplight
stopwatch
stopper
nonstop
stoppable
unstoppable

Here’s what I see when I look at these words:

~What does it mean when something stops?
~Which words on this list are compound words?
~Use ‘stoppable’ and ‘unstoppable’ in sentences.  What is the difference in meaning?  Which morpheme in those words is responsible for that difference in meaning?
~What is a stopwatch?  How does it relate in meaning to stop?
~Look at the <igh> trigraph in <stoplight> that is representing the phoneme /aɪ/.  What other words can we think of that have the same <igh> trigraph?
~Now notice the <tch> trigraph in <stopwatch>.  I wonder about that <tch>.  I can think of beach, pinch, coach, and bench.  The last grapheme in these words is <ch> and it represents the phoneme /tʃ/.  Let’s start collecting two lists of words.  One list will have words with a final <tch>.  One list will have words with a final <ch>.  Then we will see what we can notice about the two lists.  There must be a reason that we use <tch> in the word ‘stopwatch’ and not <ch>.
~What is that spelling convention in which we sometimes double the final consonant of the base or stem?  When do we double it?  When don’t we?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.

Just in the nick of time, here is the Affix Squad, ready to explain the doubling convention!

Equally as important as discussing these concepts as a class, is the ability for each student to read aloud a word sum, explaining as they go why they are or aren’t doubling the final consonant on the base!  Until your student can explain this, keep the following flow chart handy:

The word ‘business’ has always been a sticky word for fifth graders to spell.  But that is because they haven’t been taught to see it as anything but a complete word.  They haven’t been taught to see it as < b-u-s – toggle the y to i – ness>.  From the time our students are little, we teach them that spelling is about memorizing a letter sequence without understanding the order or structure in that sequence.  Or we do them a bigger disservice and tell them to sound out words to help with spelling.  All that does is reinforce to the child the false notion that English spelling is ridiculous and unpredictable.  BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY!

Here is a list with <busy> as its base.  Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it.  Here is the IPA for <busy>:  /ˈbɪzi/.  Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the child live.  That might make a difference to the pronunciation. Here is a possible spelling list:

busy
busier
busiest
business
busying
busybody
busywork
businesses

This list provides the opportunity to discuss and solidify so many great consistencies of spelling!

~What does it mean to be busy?
~To begin with, <y> is sometimes a suffix.  Is it a suffix in the base <busy>?
~Which words on this list are compound words? What is a compound word?
~Why do we use the <-es> suffix rather than the <-s> suffix to make <business> plural?
~If you want your reader to know there is more than one busybody, what spelling changes will you make to the word?
~What is the suffixing convention for bases that sometimes toggle the final <y> to an <i>?  How do you know when to toggle and why?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.

Here’s a video of my students explaining just that!

After talking about when to toggle a base or stem’s final <y> to an <i>,  then there is the extremely important step of having the students read aloud the word sums.  Here is an example of what I have my students do when they read word sums and need to explain their choices regarding this suffixing convention.

Until your students understand what they are doing and why, keep this flow chart handy:

Can you see how several spelling lists of related words in which the base has a final <y> will gradually help the student understand these conventions?  And not just a surface understanding, but a deep understanding with (for many) an automatic application of these conventions?  After focusing on several word families that need specific suffixing conventions, it is time to include a word family like <hap>, that has several family members that use more than one convention.

Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it.  Here is the IPA for <hap>:  /hæp/.  Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the child live.  That might make a difference to the pronunciation. Here is a possible spelling list:

hap
happy
happen
perhaps
happiness
happier
happily
mishap
haphazard

This is an especially interesting family of words to discuss.  Many students are surprised to find out that the word <happy> can be further analyzed.  But that comes from rote memorization without talk of structure.  They are even more surprised to find out its denotation is “chance, a person’s luck”.  I love to look at this list with the students and let them point out the connection between each word and this base’s denotation.

~Which words in this family use more than one suffixing convention?
~When the suffix <-ness> is added to the stem <happy>, an adjective becomes a noun.  What other nouns can we think of that have an <-ness> suffix?  Are these concrete or abstract nouns?
~Which suffix could be used to modify a verb?
~Thinking of mishap, mismatch, miscount, and misinformation, what sense does the prefix <mis-> add to a word’s meaning?  Can we think of other words with a <mis-> prefix that carries that same sense?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.

Structuring spelling tests in this way strengthens what we understand a word to mean.  It helps students see the connectedness between words that share a base that they have not been taught to see before.  This will help when encountering words from a family that perhaps they had not looked at during the focused list, but because of that list and the understanding they acquired, are recognizing it in a new word in their reading.  A student will gain flexibility in their use of words in writing because they will have a deeper sense of a word’s meaning.  Just as we have a deeper sense of who a person is when we’ve met their whole family, we can have a deeper sense of a word too.

Structuring spelling tests in this way will require students to apply the suffixing conventions over and over and to make sense of when to use them.  Currently, students memorize the spelling of many words without knowing which letters even ARE part of the base or affix.  Learning that words have structure is such an eye opener for children.  They begin to look at words differently.  They begin inspecting words and thinking about what their structure might be and what meaning might be revealed in that structure.  They notice the suffixes and recognize which suffixes cue that a word is a noun, adjective, adverb, or other.

And finally, structuring spelling tests in this way will give students the opportunity to expect spelling to make sense.  Imagine that!  Spelling makes sense!  Students will be empowered to ask questions.  They will challenge their teachers with the questions they ask.  How refreshing!  The class will become a learning community instead of a teacher with the answers and students who are afraid of giving wrong ones.  It will become a place where learning is celebrated!

Of course, this is just a jumping off place.  It’s an idea for spelling tests so the teacher can assess individual understanding.  These will not feel like spelling tests to the students because they are writing word sums that they can make sense of.  But I guarantee you that the word inquiries will pop up in every subject and at all hours.  I was once stopped on the bridge downtown in the middle of summer by a former student who wondered about the structure of a word he noticed at his house.  What could be better than that?

Drop the ‘e’? Replace the ‘e’? Understanding a Familiar Suffixing Convention

Some people have been taught to say that the final <e> is dropped when a vowel suffix is added.  I have switched to saying that the final <e> is replaced.  You might be wondering if it really makes such a big difference to use one word over another.  I think it does, especially with the big picture of what is really happening with that <e>, whether we see it in the final spelling of a word or not.  Let’s head to Etymonline to get a better sense of both of these words.

First off, let’s take a look at that word drop.  It is from Old English.  It has always had a sense of falling.  In the mid 19th century, the things being dropped were sometimes considered immaterial (temperatures, prices).  We still use it in that sense.  But is that final non-syllabic <e> one of those immaterial (unimportant) things to be dropped off a word?  If we begin with the base <bike> and then add the suffix <-ing>, we will end up with the word ‘biking’.  We no longer see the <e>.  If we used the phrase “the <e> has been dropped”, there is a sense that the <e> is now gone.

Now let’s consider the word replace.  It was first attested in the 1590’s and meant “to restore to a previous place or position”.  Using ‘replace’ instead of ‘drop’ leaves us with the sense that the final non-syllabic <e> isn’t EVER permanently gone.  It may get replaced with a suffix, but should the suffix be removed, the <e> is replaced once again.

To demonstrate to my students that I want them to picture that final non-syllabic <e> getting replaced and not dropped, I write a base word on one piece of paper and a vowel suffix on another, like I have in the picture below.

I then slide the <-ing> suffix over the top of the final non-syllabic <e> and spell the word like this:  <h – o – p –  replace the e  with  ing>.

Then I show what happens when I remove the <-ing> suffix.  I slide it away and it is replaced with the final non-syllabic <e>.  I want my students to imagine that the <e> is still there – has been there the whole time, patiently waiting to replace the suffix once it is removed.

Here’s a video that explains this suffixing convention.  Watch how the students act out replacing that final <e>.  There’s nothing like a couple of orthographic superheroes to set us straight!

Once the initial explanation has been presented, it’s important to practice applying this convention with a variety of words.  I like to focus on one base at a time and add different suffixes, verbalizing why we sometimes replace that final <e> and sometimes don’t.  For example, I might put the stem ‘create’ on the board and ask the students to write word sums on their paper for creates, creating, created, and creation.  Then students volunteer to write their word sums on the board.  Once they are on the board, we can talk about them.  Finally, students volunteer to come up and read the word sums out loud, justifying their decision to either replace that final non-syllabic <e> or to leave it.  Here is a video of how that looks:

The other day, a student came up and asked me how to spell ‘unuseful’.  Instead of telling her, I asked, “How do you think it is spelled?”  She responded, “Un – use – ful”.   The fact that she used the structure of the word to help herself spell it, thrilled me more than you can imagine!

 

 

Review, revisit; every time seeing something you didn’t see before

When thinking of a timeline between the introduction of words and their structure, and the final assessment of them, I’m in no hurry.  Here’s how a recent review of a list of science words we have been talking about for a while went.  A few months ago students were sent off in pairs to investigate ten words.  After hypothesizing the structure of the word, their task was to figure out what the base was.  As the groups began to dig in at Etymonline, I circulated to help them understand what to look for, and how to know if they found its earliest ancestor from which our modern day base is derived.

Each group of two made a large poster which was shared with the whole class before being posted in the hallway.  We took our time in sharing those posters.  We never presented more than two in one day.  The students would hang their poster on the white board at the front of the room.  All other students were asked to bring their chairs up front.  I wanted them close, and I wanted them to participate in the sharing of each poster.  I tell the “audience” that if we are to have learning that is worth anything, they need to participate.  They need to listen carefully and to ask questions when something doesn’t make sense.  They need to be thinking about other words that are not listed on the poster but just might be related.

In my experience, the research each student does and the information collected does not necessarily lead to long term understanding.  The presenting of the information also does not necessarily lead to long term understanding.  Instead it is the interaction with the rest of the class.  It is the off the cuff discussions.  It is the unplanned questioning.  It is the words suggested as belonging to the base’s family and the reasons given.  This kind of participation happening over and over leads to students who make contributions to the class that really do help all of us understand in a wider way.  It doesn’t take long before the students realize that comments like, “I like how neatly you wrote on your poster” pale in comparison to “How did you know that the <o> was a connecting vowel in the word biosphere?”  Yes.  Their beginning of the year observations and comments are really that shallow and surfacey.   It is quite different by the end of the year.   Something is happening.  They are noticing things that matter, and they are not remaining quiet about it.

Here are a few of the posters I am speaking about.

It has been two months since we last shared a poster.  But we have continued to point out some of these bases to one another as they have popped up in familiar and unfamiliar words.

Last week I decided it was time to assess how well these bases have taken root in their minds.  I had the students take a plain sheet of paper and divide it into ten areas.  I read aloud each word.  I told them that if they wanted to consistently spell sphere correctly  (if they sometimes forgot the ‘p’ or ‘h’ or put them in the wrong order) I had a tip.  I told them to think of the first phoneme of the word, /s/.  They all knew it would be represented by the grapheme <s> and should write it down.  Then I told them to think of the second phoneme of the word, /f/.  They all knew that in this word (Hellenic) the grapheme that represented the /f/ was a <ph>.  That’s as far as we had to go.  They knew the rest.  It is much more reliable to think of the phoneme / graphemes in this word than to try to remember a string of letters without being taught a reason for them to be in any particular order.

The students chose a square on their paper to write the synthetic word sum for the announced word, the denotation of the base, and then to make a quick drawing of something that they thought of when they thought of the first base.  These are called “Quick Draws”.  Here are a few of the sheets:

We stopped once we were half way done and took a moment to brainstorm other words that shared each base.  With each suggested word, we talked about how that word’s meaning related back to the denotation of the base.  So, for example, when speaking of the base <hydr>, students suggested hydrant, as in fire hydrant and explained that water is accessible for firemen at fire hydrants.  Students suggested hydrate and dehydrated and explained that the first was taking in water while the second is describing when someone’s body is low on water and needs more.  You get the idea.

I told the students to be reviewing these bases and that there would be an assessment in 1 1/2 weeks time.

The next day, when they came in, I asked them to get out a piece of lined paper.  I told them to write <therm> on the top line with its denotation of “heat” beneath it.  This is an activity they have come to be comfortable with.  They know that when I read a word, they will write a synthetic word sum.  I read aloud seven words that share the base <therm>.  Before I began, I reminded them that <therm> is the base.  It is not further analyzable, so that means it will show up in a word sum as it is.  Affixes may be added to it, other bases may be joined to it, but this base will always be listed as <therm>.

I did not collect the student papers that day, so I cannot show you their work.  I did, however, take pictures of the board after the students had volunteered to write the word sums there and read aloud the word sums.

Notice in the picture above that I had both thermograph and thermography on my list.  I read thermograph first.  Several words later I read thermography.  I was curious to see whether or not the students would recognize the base <graph> and its spelling in both, even though that base is pronounced differently in each of the words because of the stress shift.  That did not appear to be a problem!  After checking out the word sums, we reviewed what a thermograph is.  In case you aren’t familiar with one, it is a self recording thermometer.  It keeps a continuous recording of what might be a fluctuating temperature.  Now if you know that the second base in the compound word thermograph has a denotation of “write”, then thinking about a thermograph as a machine that writes down (or records) the amount of heat (or temperature) makes perfect sense!

As you can see, the students are starting to rely on meaning to help them with their spelling and less on pronunciation.  This doesn’t meant they aren’t pronouncing the word as they spell.  It means that as they are pronouncing the word to themselves, they are focusing on the morphemes that make up each word rather than on the letter-letter-letter sequence.  When I say thermometer, my hope is that they recognize the first base is <therm> and the second base is <meter> and they are connected with the Greek connecting vowel <o>.

In the above picture, you see the words thermal and geothermal.  Believe it or not, the students smiled when I said geothermal!  They knew both bases from our list and knew how to represent this word in spelling!  Then, of course we talked about thermal underwear (after all, what fifth grader doesn’t love it when someone in the room mentions underwear?) and thermal pane windows.   Geothermal energy is an interesting thing, so we talked about that as well.  Since we’ve just finished our study of the geosphere, we’ve recently been talking about the tectonic plates.  It was interesting to note that many of the geothermal energy plants are found along the tectonic plate boundaries!

First day back from the weekend!  When they walked in, I asked them to get a sheet of paper.  Different base, new list of words, new observations.  Today’s base was <ge> “the earth, the land”.  Today I read the words and the students wrote synthetic word sums like they did the other day.  But today I collected the papers before they wrote those word sums on the board.  I wanted to see how the individual understanding was growing.  I wanted to see which bases /suffixes needed more exposure so they would become recognizable to my students.  I wanted to see how many are starting to make the switch from spelling phonetically to spelling morphemically.  Here’s an example of what I mean by that:

This student is straddling two worlds.  He understands that words have structure, but because he also relies on “sounding out words” in order to spell, this student does not recognize that three of the words have the base <loge>.   In the first word, he spells the <loge> base as *<leg>.  The good news is that he recognized the <ist> suffix!  In the fourth word, he correctly spelled the base <loge>.  In the fifth word, he did not recognize <loge> as a base at all.  The fact that the <loge> base in all three words has a slightly different pronunciation probably accounts for the difference in spelling here.  I think what he did was to guess that there was an <al> suffix and an <*igy> suffix.  We have been talking about the <al> suffix recently and how common it is. With more exercises like these, he will rely more on recognizing consistently spelled bases and affixes!

The rest of this list is pretty great!  Very few knew that the <o> in geode was not a connecting vowel.  I chose that word on purpose.  I don’t want to create a false sense of <ge> always being followed by a connecting vowel.  If you think about it, this student is busy trying to make sense of the orthography we are studying.  He knows that a connecting vowel can connect a base to a suffix.  Even though he incorrectly guessed that the <o> was a connecting vowel, he did write that the final /d/ as <ed>.

Here’s another I’d like to share:

Look at what is understood and what is iffy.  In the first word, this student went back to a deeply embedded strategy – that of breaking a word into syllables to aide in spelling.  Except that it didn’t aide him here (and I suspect doesn’t usually).  What is interesting about word two and four is  that the student knows that when /k/ is final and there is an /ɪ/ preceding the /k/, as in stick, the grapheme representing the phoneme /k/ is <ck>.   What he doesn’t realize, is that it is true for a base but not a suffix.  So now I know I want to weave in words with the <loge> base as well as words with the <ic> suffix on my next few lists.

Many other students are feeling confident about recognizing bases and affixes:

The next step was to ask volunteers to write the word sums on the board.  Somebody writes it on the board, we talk about it and notice things in common between words on the list.  We talk about what each word means, and then another volunteer comes up to read the word sum aloud.  As we were discussing the inital large posters that had these bases, we had also discussed the meanings of these words.  But I always like to find a word we haven’t talked about yet to see if the students can use what they know about the bases, to give clues about the word’s meaning.  The word on this list was hydrogeology.  The base <hydr> was one of the bases on the large posters, so I thought this word might feel easy to spell (if they spelled it morpheme by morpheme).  They did!  And much to my delight, several wondered what it would mean.  It was obvious that it had something to do with both water and the earth, but they weren’t sure what.  When we searched, we found out that it refers to the branch of geology involving groundwater!  Makes so much sense!

Looking at the above picture, do you see what I see?  Just a few days ago, the students were writing the words thermograph and thermography.  Today I asked them to write geographic.  I’m trying to reinforce what is fresh in their minds.

Isn’t it great that a few of the students are starting to incorporate the Script we are practicing?  I love it!  Anyway, I paused with this word geographic and asked if anyone had an idea of what would be needed in order to make geographic become geographically.  I wasn’t sure if anyone would recognize that we would be adding two suffixes: <al> and <ly>.  As it turned out, no one did.  The suggestions were for an <ly> suffix only.  What a great opportunity to talk about how common it is to add the two suffixes to an <ic> suffix.  Offhand I could think of basically, logically, musically, typically, magically, historically, and tragically.  Then when we went to Word Searcher and put ‘ically’ into the search bar, there were 240 more!  I then wrote the only word I knew of that had only an <ly> suffix added to an <ic> suffix.  That word was publicly.  We went back to Word searcher and typed in ‘icly’.  Publicly was the only word that came up!  From Word Searcher, I went to Etymonline.  I found out the same thing:  publicly is the only example of a word having <ic> and <ly>, but not <al> between them.  How interesting!

Geotropism is a word we have talked about before.  The base <trope> “turning” is another one of the bases that was the focus of a big poster.  Geotropism happens with roots.  They always grow downward toward the earth.  If the plant or stem gets turned for some reason, the roots turn to continue growing towards the earth.

So here’s the assessment.  I read each of the ten words.  The students wrote the word sum on their paper.  Beneath each base they wrote the denotation for that base.  If they could think of one or two words that also share the first base, they were to list them.  That’s it.

 

So my classes did very well!  They can spell these ten science words! But really?  That was only part of what I was hoping to see on these papers.  I wanted to see coherent word sums.  I wanted to see denotations in quotation marks to signal to all that they are just that – denotations.  I wanted to see which of my students have been making connections between these bases and other words we’ve looked at.  Are they “getting” that a base with its denotation can be part of a large family of words?  After having seen how these eleven base elements can be found in so many other words, are they beginning to expect that of other bases we encounter as well?   Are they realizing that seemingly big words are made understandable by first understanding their structure?

 

A Simple Base Element That Has a Lot to Say

Today everyone grabbed a piece of paper. I asked them to put their name at the top and then to copy down the four words I had written on the board.  Once that was done, the students were to look carefully at the four words and identify the base that they all had in common.  Some spotted it right away.  That usually happens.  Hands went up right away, but I didn’t call on anyone.  I wanted each student (those who usually offer an answer and those who usually don’t) to think through what the base might be.
 
 
Once they had identified the base, they were asked to write word sums for each of the words.  One of the students said, “We’ve already got the words written down, so it will make sense to write analytic word sums.”  I just smiled and nodded.
 
Now I was ready to ask someone what they thought the base was, and how they came to that decision.  A student told me the base was <dict>.  He figured that out when comparing dictionary and dictator. They both had <dict> in common, but nothing beyond that.
 
I wrote the base <dict> on the board and next to it I wrote its denotation “say, tell”.  Right away the students started thinking about how each word was related to that meaning.  The hands shot up!  I said, “Pick any of the four words and tell me what it has to do with “say, tell”.
Dictionary
Kyla said, “A dictionary tells you what a word means.” I pointed to our rack of dictionaries and agreed that a certain kind of dictionary will do that.  What a great opportunity to talk about different kinds of dictionaries!  We know that the dictionaries we often refer to give us definitions of words.  We have a large collection of dictionaries in case what we are looking for is not listed in the first one we grab.  I even have a dictionary that has only words related to science!
But we also use the Online Etymological Dictionary almost daily, and that has a different purpose.  That dictionary gives us information about a word’s history.  We use it to find a word’s ancestors, and to learn its story.  We read about the ways a word has been used in its life.  We learn about spelling and/or meaning changes that have come about over time.  We also discover related words.  Sometimes it is valuable to cross reference words in our other etymological dictionaries as well.  I have copies of the Chambers Etymological Dictionary,  Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the Dictionary of English Down The Ages, and a Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms.
I showed them my Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short.  It is an old copy and well loved.  It is used when we want to find out more information about a Latin word.   I keep it on the shelf next to my Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott.  In both of these dictionaries, the words are listed in alphabetical order according to their respective alphabets!  These are valuable resources once one knows a bit about Latin and Greek.
Another kind of dictionary is one that one of our students carries – her Italian/English dictionary.  She speaks Italian and is learning English.  Just yesterday she was writing a poem.  Since she has only been in the U.S. since September, it is easier for her to think and write in Italian.  So she asked if she could write the poem in Italian and then translate it into English.  That system works well for her.  When she finishes, we look at it together, and I help with further editing.
I also have a few Rhyming Dictionaries on my shelf.   Students use these when they are writing rhyming poetry. By using this kind of dictionary, a student can often find a word that not only rhymes, but is a perfect fit!
Once we finished talking about dictionaries, we realized that we might want to revise our definition of a dictionary.  Katya said, “A dictionary lists words and gives us more information about them.”  Perfect.  And the type of information it tells us depends on the type of dictionary it is!
Prediction
Megan said, “Isn’t that like saying what will happen, but you don’t really know for sure?”  Then Clayton added, “Like our Science Fair Projects.  We are making predictions, but we haven’t run the experiments yet.”  I extended  the sense of this word by including those times when we predict how a movie will end, when we’ve only just begun to watch it.
I asked if anyone was familiar with the prefix <pre>.  A few hands in each class went up, and the students said it had to do with “before”.  Then I asked, “Isn’t that cool?  The word itself is revealing its own meaning!  The base has a denotation of “say, tell” and the prefix has a sense of “before”.  We use this word when someone is telling about something before the something has happened!
Dictator
There were very few fifth graders who clearly understood what a dictator was.  One or two mentioned that is was a person who told other people what to do.  I stepped in and explained that a dictator was a person who ruled a country and had absolute power over that country.  The most famous dictators in history were often cruel to the people they ruled.  They were more interested in having power.  Amelia asked, “So Hitler was a dictator?”  I told her that he was one of the worst dictators in history.  I told them that in the next few years they would also be hearing about Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Mao Tse-tung and others.
Next we talked about the <or> suffix on this word.  I told them it was signaling that this word is referring to a person.  An <or> suffix can do that in a number of words.  So a dictator is a person who dictates  orders to the people he rules.  An actor is a person who acts.  A governor is a person who governs.  A donor is a person who donates something.
Then I pointed out that the <er> suffix can sometimes behave in the same way.  A teacher is one who teaches.  A baker is one who bakes food.  A joker is one who makes jokes.  I could tell this was an idea they hadn’t thought about before.  They were intrigued.
Contradict
When I asked about this word, only one person offered a guess.  Hyja said, “Doesn’t it have something to do with arguing?”  That was a great place to start!  When someone contradicts something someone else says, it can be thought of as a counter argument.  A contradiction is often saying the opposite or something very different than what has already been said.  For example, if I said that our science journals were due on Tuesday, and Aiden said they were in fact due on Saturday, I could ask him why he was contradicting me.  We both can’t be correct.
Now I pointed out the base <contra> “against”.  I compared the word contradict to contraband.  With the use of contradict, a person is saying something against or with an opposite feel of what has already been said.  With the use of contraband, there is a feeling of smuggling something.  When you bring an object into an area and you know that object has been forbidden to be in that area, you are going against the rule or the command.  That object is contraband.
Word sums
At this point, I asked students to come up to the board, choose one of the four words and write a word sum.
You’ll notice a space in the word sum where a plus sign was.  I erased it and shared that the first base in this compound word was <contra>.  Then I mentioned that given our discussions recently about the prefixes <con> and <com> and their assimilated forms, I could understand how the students might spot the <con> here and think it was a prefix.
The interesting follow up discussion we had here was with the first word sum.  Someone asked, “Is <a> even a connecting vowel?”  What a great question!  We were able to review that the Greek connecting vowel was <o>, and the Latin connecting vowels were <i>, <u>, and <e>.  We were also able to review the suffixing convention of replacing a final non-syllabic <e>.  I asked if we could remove the <or> suffix and still have a recognizable word.  Everyone agreed that we would be left with dictate.  So I asked how we would spell that.  Immediately students recognized the final non-syllabic <e> on the suffix <ate> that would be replaced with the <or> suffix in this word.
It is important to keep pointing out that a final non-syllabic <e> may not always show up in a final word, but that doesn’t mean it is not part of a word’s construction or word sum.
This activity was well received.  Students who have been hanging back, not expecting to understand this are starting to volunteer to write word sums at the board.  Students who are thoroughly enjoying this way of looking at words are asking amazing questions.  As we were discussing how the words were related in meaning to the base <dict>, Kayden raised his hand and asked, “How does the word addiction fit in to all this?”  He recognized that <ad> would be a prefix, <dict> would be a base, and <ion> would be a suffix.  I told him that the prefix <ad> brought a sense of “to” to the word.  And that a person with an addiction is a person who has declared a specific habit to be controlling in their life.
We didn’t delve all the way into this base today.  We didn’t make a matrix full of <dict> possibilities.  But we did practice using a list of words as evidence for proving a base element.  And we did practice taking the time to understand the meaning connections between members of a word family.  And we did review a suffixing convention as well as learn about two agent suffixes.  Today was about building our knowledge base.  It was about learning things to take with us as we move forward in studying other words and their families.

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)

meaning:
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.

morphology:
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!

etymology:
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!

phonology:
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:

<accommodate>
/əˈkɑməˌdt/

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)

meaning:
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?”

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

etymology:
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.

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

<which>
/wɪ/

 

receive  (*recieve)

meaning:
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.

morphology:
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.

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.

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

<receive>
/ɹəˈsɪv/

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)

meaning:
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.

morphology:
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.

etymology:
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.

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

<until>
/ənˈtɪl/

 

occurred  (*occured)

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

morphology:
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.

etymology:
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.

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

<occurred>
/əˈkɜɹd/

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

 

 

separate   (*seperate)

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

morphology:
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>.

etymology:
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.

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

<separate>
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)

meaning:
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.

morphology:
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.

etymology:
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”.

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

<government>
gʌvəɹmənt/

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)

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

morphology:
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.

etymology:
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”.

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

<definitely>
/ˈdɛfənətli/

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)

meaning:
A pharaoh is an ancient Egyptian ruler.

morphology:
This is a free base with no affixes.

etymology:
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!

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

<pharaoh>
fɛɹ/

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

 

publicly   (*publically)

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

morphology:
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!

etymology:
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.

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

<publicly>
/ˈpʌblɪkli/

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

 

 

Reflection

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.