Here’s a Suffix, There’s a Suffix

What makes a suffix a suffix?  Seems like an easy question.  As part of my “beginning of the year assessment of their understanding”, I asked my students just that.  This is what they had to say:

“It’s after the actual word.”
“There is a suffix if the word is complete before you add the suffix.”
“If you take off the suffix, it’s still a word.”
“If you take off the suffix, what’s left must be an actual word.”
“A suffix is at the end of a word, and it changes the word’s meaning.”
“A suffix is not permanent.  You can take it off.”
“A suffix is a letter or letters that can be taken off a word and won’t damage the word.”
“You can take off the suffix and look at the base word.”
“You find a word and experiment by adding letters.”

Interesting.  They understand a bit, yet aren’t very sure of what they know.  Seems like the perfect time to offer a challenge.  A suffix challenge.

The Suffix Challenge

The students are placed in small groups of 2-3.  Their task is to list a suffix and think of three words that have that suffix.  The goal is to list as many suffixes as they can in the time given, each with three example words.  As part of introducing this activity, I use the following example on the board.


Now I ask these questions.   “All three of my example words have a final <s>.  Does that automatically mean that the final <s> is a suffix? Have my three example words proven to you that <-s> is a suffix?”

Usually someone notices that in the word ‘dress’, the final <s> is really part of the spelling of the word.  It is not a suffix.  Perfect.  So as they begin this task, they are keeping in mind the difference between the final <s> in dress and the final <s> in pencils.  They recognize that while ‘dolls’ and ‘pencils’ are good examples of an <-s> suffix, ‘dress’ is not.  They are ready to begin.

When they ask where they will find these suffixes, I suggest they pull a book off the shelf.  It doesn’t have to be any specific book, just a book with words.  As they skim the text, looking at the words, they will recognize a word with a suffix.  And that is what happens.  After 20 minutes, we stop for the day.

The next day, they have 30 minutes.  Part of what they are to do this day is to print the information they have gathered on a piece of construction paper so that others may easily read it.   Then I collect the sheets.  Here are some examples of how they looked.

On the third day, I handed these sheets out, making sure that they didn’t go to the group that created them.  I also handed out a recording sheet.  They were to record the suffixes they felt were proven, and those they questioned.  They were also to list words that didn’t seem to have the suffix that was listed.  Here is an example of the recording sheet.

As the groups looked over the lists of suffixes, I circulated with my camera, catching the conversations within the groups.  Here’s a snippet of what I heard.

I really enjoy this activity.  I love hearing the students share their thoughts with their group members.  I become so aware of what they do and don’t understand about suffixes and the suffixing conventions.  I get a sense of which students have no understanding of a suffix.  These are the students who list one or two of the last letters of a word and call it a suffix.  I also get a sense of which students recognize suffixes in their reading and can easily list fifteen or more.  It’s a great beginning of the year assessment piece.  I will do this again mid year and see how understandings are progressing!

As a follow up, I asked students to tell me about suffixes they questioned.  I wrote them on the board.  We talked about the example words given and decided whether or not we felt the suffix had been proven in those words.  These discussions took off in the directions they needed to.  We talked about replacing the final <e> when adding a vowel suffix, but also having that <e> become visible once more should the vowel suffix be removed.  We talked about suffixal constructions – meaning the joining of two or more suffixes.  I could tell that this idea – that words have structure – was beginning to take hold in many of the students’ minds.

We began the next class with some history of the word ‘suffix’.

First attested in 1778, it is from Modern Latin suffixum “fasten, fixed on”, from <-sub> “under, up from under” + <figere> “fasten, fix”.  So a suffix is fastened to something.  Sometimes it is fastened to the base element itself, and sometimes it is fastened to another suffix.

It is also interesting to note that the <suf-> prefix is an assimilated form of <sub->.  They are the same suffix, but with alternate spellings.

“Why was another spelling needed?” I wondered aloud to my class.  “Let’s try this to see if we can understand why another spelling was needed.  Everyone pronounce the word as if the <sub-> prefix was used instead of <suf->.”  When everyone had said the word ‘subfix’ at least twice, I asked everyone to repeat it about five times in a row.  Then I asked if anyone noticed a change taking place.

Several said, all at once, “I started out saying ‘subfix’, but I ended up saying ‘suffix’.”

“Exactly.  As you were pronouncing the word, you automatically sought to make the last letter of the prefix <sub-> more similar to the first letter of the base <fix>.  The result was suffix.  That is called assimilation. ”

Now it was time to watch a video made by my students a few years ago.  It is called Can You Prove It?  It is a game show in which the two contestants are given words.  They have to decide what the suffix is and to provide evidence to support their choice.

Following the video, I wrote the word ‘motion’ on the board along with its word sum.  I know that this idea of a bound base is extremely new, so I wanted to show them how common this one in particular is.  I wrote <motion –> mote + ion>.  Then I asked if anyone knew why I put the <e> after the <t>.  One student thought it was marking the pronunciation of the <o>.

“Great! It is!  But there is another reason, as well!”  No one had any ideas, so I wrote the word sum without the <e>.  Beneath it I wrote the word sum for ‘hop’.  I pointed out the similarity between these two morphemes.  They each had a final consonant which was preceded by a single vowel.  When I asked what the final spelling for <hop + ing> would be, they knew the <p> would be doubled.  I was trying to draw a parallel and to show that adding a vowel suffix to *<mot> would force the same kind of doubling.  And we all knew that the word ‘motion’ had only one <t>.  So, to prevent the <t> from being doubled, there needed to be a final <e> on the bound base <mote>.  I also showed them that when we added a vowel suffix to ‘hope’, the <e> prevented the <p> from doubling.

After that we began to brainstorm a list of words that had this <mote>base.  Our list included:

As I wrote these on the board and we talked about what happened at the joins (the place where the morphemes joined), I could feel the understanding taking root.  All words have a structure.  That structure includes a base element which carries the main meaning in the word.  If the base element can be a word on its own, it’s called a free base.  If it must be fixed to a suffix or a prefix in order to be in a word (like <mote>), it’s called a bound base.  When a vowel suffix is joined to a morpheme (a base or suffix) with a final non-syllabic <e>, that <e> is replaced.  When the suffix is removed again, the <e> surfaces again.

At this point, I asked the students to tell me the word sum for ‘motivation’.  I wanted to see if what we were talking about was making sense to them.  Confidently, they directed me to write the word sum and then, before I wrote the complete word, we went back to check those joins.

As is usual when collecting words related to the base in this way, I asked how each of the words had that sense of “movement” that is inherent in the base <mote>.

Students recognized that when motivated, they were moved to do something. When emotional, their feelings moved from the inside to the outside and showed up in a physical way (tears, smiles, frowns, etc.). With the tv remote, they knew that waves were moving between the remote and the television.

When I asked what it means if you get a promotion in your job, one young man said, “Well, say you are sitting at your desk and typing away at your computer, and you get the news that you are going to be a manager instead. OFFICE PARTY!”  We all laughed. This boy’s delivery was exuberant and funny.

So then I asked if anyone knew what it means if you get demoted in your job. Another young man on the other side of the room raised his hand. “It means you move down in your job. It means you go home and sit on the couch and eat a cheesecake by yourself.” This time I was the only one laughing. The rest of the boys and girls were a bit confused, thinking that the cheesecake would be a reward, but I understood exactly the picture he was painting. I just wondered how HE knew what some people do to deal with bad news!

So we are building understanding.  Having a classroom of 23, I recognize that we’re never all on the same page at the same time.  But we have all stepped away from the starting line.  I love guiding them as I have this week, revealing bit by bit what has always been there, and then watching them make sense of what has never made sense before.

Some think of a suffix as something that comes at the end.  But for us, it has come at the beginning (of our year, of our journey, of our understanding).

Five Considerations for the SWI Classroom

A language arts teacher (Cristi Julsrud) made a promise that she would challenge herself this year.  The challenge she chose was to take an art class.  Cristi enjoyed the experience immensely, but walked away with more than sketches and paintings.  She walked away as a more reflective teacher.  You see, throughout the experience, she couldn’t help but notice what a masterful teacher her art instructor was.  Away from the art room, Cristi Julsrud was able to think about what made this art teacher so wonderful.  She made a list of ten things that she felt made the art classroom a place where an individual’s learning was truly valued.   You can read her full blog post here.

While I agree with all of the points she made,  five of them really struck a chord with what I do in my classroom while incorporating Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) and other orthographic truths.

  1.  It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to be in the same place, at the same time, working on the same thing.

I often have students working at different points in an investigation then their classmates. If a group or an individual finishes before others in the class, there is always another investigation to begin. The very nature of an investigation is such that I can’t predict what will be found. Sometimes an investigation can take several class periods. Other times it takes less. Pair that up with the drive and abilities of the students, and it becomes impossible to have everyone start and finish at the same time.

When looking for a next investigation, I might suggest comparing words that have a final <ck> to those with a final <k> (or final <dge> to <ge>, or final <tch> to final <ch>).  I might suggest looking at a word off the Wonder Wall in our room and seeing what they can find out about it.  I might suggest a particular diminutive suffix (or frequentative suffix) to investigate.  I might ask them to choose a word from our current science topic or from their current reading book.  Quite often they suggest what their next investigation will be!

The really important thing is to make time to present these investigations to the class. The group presents, and the rest of the class asks questions or suggests things that might be added. These reflective discussions of the investigations are where so much of the learning takes place!  It is where we build a community of learners.  Students become comfortable asking questions of one another.  It is not about being right or being wrong.  It is about building an understanding together.

  1. We don’t have to “fix” every problem.

For me, this point addresses the fact that when we as teachers know a deeper analysis of a word, sometimes it is better to hold back on our own contribution to the investigation.  Instead, we should guide the students to recognize the connections and logic of what they see on their own. Too often students get handed all the pieces and are expected to simply arrange the information or memorize it. The engaging factor with SWI is that the students learn how to dig for the information they need in order to prove their hypotheses about words. They learn to gauge whether or not what they found does that, and in doing so learn to see the sense and logic in our language for themselves.

Here is one example of how I have guided a student who was trying to prove whether or not <tion> was a suffix.


  1. Look to masters to get started.

In her post, Cristi is referring to the mentors, the experts, and the craftsmen who create art. In the SWI community, there are many teachers to look to who are already integrating SWI in their classrooms. Many of them have blogs and can be viewed as mentors.  I encourage teachers wondering where to start, to read the blogs and watch the videos of students engaging in SWI.

Here are the ones I am aware of.  Please let me know if there is one out there I haven’t seen:

Beyond the Word  This is Lyn Anderson’s blog.  She works with very young children. She has posts dating back to 2012.

Small Humans Think Big  This is Skot Caldwell’s blog.  At the time this blog was active, Skot was teaching Grade 1 and thinking through the idea of word walls and the understandings even children this young are ready for.

Rebecca Loveless  Rebecca is a Structured Word Inquiry Coach who works with children, teachers and tutors.

Mrs. Barnett’s Buzzing Blog  Lisa Barnett is a special education teacher working with K-5 children in a resource room.

Mrs. Steven’s Classroom Blog  That’s me, and you’re already there.  Posts back to 2012.

Grade 5 Mr. Allen  Dan Allen has posts pertaining to SWI from August 2011 through October 2015.  His posts were my original inspiration for learning more about SWI!

Who in the World  Skot Caldwell is now teaching Grade 5/6 and shares activities as well as how he teaches a scientific attitude.  We often trade ideas!

Word Nerds  Ann Whiting taught 7th grade Humanities class.  This has posts from 2012-2013.

Word Nerdery is Ann’s second blog with 7th grader students.  This has posts from 2013-2017.  I have adapted many of Ann’s activities and learned much by reading Ann’s blog!

WordWorks Literacy Centre  Although this is not a teacher blog, there are many videos here of students working with SWI that I highly recommend watching!  Pete Bowers began as a classroom teacher, and as he began his graduate work, focused on the scientific framework and 4 questions that are now known as Structured Word Inquiry.

Take your time and look at many of these.  Do not limit yourself to the age of the students you work with.  You may find a great idea that just needs to be adapted in order to work for your students.  Looking at many of these will also demonstrate the value of using SWI in your classroom.  The videos contained in these blogs cannot be unseen.  After watching them it will be hard to believe that teaching endless sorting or rote memorization is better. 

Choose an activity or investigation that fits your situation and try it. How did it go? What do your students need to understand next? Go back and read some more. Email the teachers you are following to ask your questions. Post your questions or share your experiences on the recently formed Facebook Group called Structured Word Inquiry in the Classroom.  There are many in that group who have experience using SWI with children.  This is a community of learners and we all benefit from questions asked.

  1. The process is important.

By building investigations around the Four Questions of SWI, you are bringing a consistency to those investigations.  The student will consider the meaning, morphology, etymology and phonology of a word, and because of their findings, see the relationships within a family of words.  After a while the first thing wondered by a student about a word will be “What does it mean?” instead of “How do I pronounce it?”.  Students will wonder about words in and out of school. They will have discussions with their families on the way to the soccer field or around the dinner table.  And when one student comes to your desk first thing in the morning to ask you if the <ped> in pedestrian is related to the <ped> in pediatrician, you can smile and say, “Great question!  Let me know what you find out!”

The scientific framework of SWI empowers the students.  They have a routine to follow that will lead to the evidence they are seeking.  They will know what to do when the evidence they find proves their hypothesis, but also what to do when it doesn’t.  Because of it, they can become independent learners.    They will, through practice, be able to provide evidence to support their thinking no matter what subject they are studying. This is a model for scholarship, and you will find your students are hungry for it!

  1. Grades. Don’t. Matter.

By the end of the year, my students have stopped asking, “What did I get on that?” They don’t need a grade to tell them they learned something. It is so obvious to them. The grade is not the final step for them. It is not the finish line or the reward. The middle of an investigation, that is what they enjoy. The finding out what no one else in the room knows and being able to help everyone understand what they have found out – THAT is the reward and the joy and the goal. 



Home and Homely – What is the Connection?

We had a lovely first dip into Etymonline today.  It wasn’t planned, but if you encourage question-asking, it’s just the sort of thing that is bound to happen.

We were talking about suffixes.  One group of students had identified <-ly> as a suffix and had given the words lovely, bravely, and homely as evidence that it was indeed a suffix.  A second group who was asked to carefully consider the evidence offered by the first group was wondering about the word <homely>.  They had never heard of it, and they couldn’t determine whether or not it had a suffix until they knew the word.  Bravo, right?

After thanking the second group for their brilliant question, I brought the word <homely> to the attention of the entire class.

“Does anyone know this word?”
“I think it means something to do with your home.”
“Are you thinking of homey?”
“Oh, yeah.  That’s the word.”
“Does anyone else have any ideas?”
“Is it a person who likes to be at home a lot?”
“Great thought! But you are describing a homebody.”
“Anyone else know what this word might mean?”

I waited a bit and gauged by their faces that they were out of ideas.  I must say that I was surprised that no one had heard of this word.  Our next course of action was to go to Etymonline and find out the story of homely.  Was it related to home, homebody, and homey?  None of us knew the answer to that one.

Here’s what we found.  The word <homely> was first attested in the late 14th century.  That means that there is written evidence of the word existing then.  There is no written evidence from dates earlier than that.  At that time, the word was used to mean, “of or belonging to home or household, domestic”.  In Middle English it was spelled hom and had the same sense of “home”.  Since, at that time, most homes were not fancy, it also took on the sense of “plain, unadorned, simple”, which extended into “having a plain appearance, without particular beauty of features, crude”.  That last sense has survived in the United States where it was the usual term for “physically unattractive” and referred to things other than homes, including people.

At this point the students let out a surprised, kind-of-unbelieving laugh.  How unexpected!  So a person is called homely with the idea of a plain unadorned home in mind.  Huh!  We kept reading.  Such a person was also said to be ill-tempered.  We decided that we would not want to be referred to as homely.  It was not a very positive view of another person.  It was particularly interesting to note that while this word continues to have this sense of physically unattractive in American English, it never did in British English.  In British English it has always referred to the home, with a sense of a simple, yet comfortable and cozy place.

We also read that the words homelike (1789) and homish (1560’s) referred back to the domestic sense of the word.  Another word in this family that sounded rather odd to our ears was homelily.  It’s an adverb, first used in the late 15 c., and its structure is <home+ly+ly –> homelily>.  Did you see what happened there?  The <y> of the <-ly> suffix of <homely>, toggled to an <i> before the final <-ly> suffix was added.  We had to think through this carefully before pronouncing it.  We thought of happily, sleepily, lazily and imitated the stress patterns in those words.  We checked to see if it could be found in current dictionaries, and sure enough, it was there.

This word presents such an intriguing idea!  Embedded in the word homely is the thought that we are a reflection of our homes!  (After school I googled information about people as a reflection of their homes.  I found quite a few articles about how the colors we paint our walls, furniture and front door, and the patterns we choose for our furniture, drapes and bedding all reflect parts of our personalities.  Even the art we choose for the walls reflects who we are!  I will ask the students tomorrow what they think of that idea!)

Other related words that we brainstormed were:

homey (adjective, meaning pleasantly comfortable and cozy)  *** We checked with our Oxford American Dictionary to understand why the <-y> suffix wasn’t replacing the final non-syllabic <e> in this word.  We found out that homey and homy are both accepted spellings.
homebody (a person who prefers to spend a lot of time at home)
homie (noun, meaning a person from your hometown or friend group, 1920’s – compare to homeboy, chiefly U.S. use)

As usual, the longer we thought about it, the more words we could think of.  We drew a matrix on the board and added words as they were suggested.  It got a bit congested and messy.  Here is a version I created at Mini Matrix Maker.

Tomorrow I intend to share this entire inquiry with my other two groups of 5th graders! Homey or homely?



Spelling Does Not Represent Pronunciation, But We Know What Does!

I’ve started this school year a bit differently than those in the past.  From the very first day I wanted to drive home the point that a word’s spelling represents meaning.  In other words a word is spelled the way it is to reveal the meaning of the word.  And just saying that, or writing that on a piece of paper and hanging it in the front of the room just isn’t enough.

It is a foreign idea to the children I teach.  All of their lives they’ve been told that letters represent sounds and when trying to spell a word, one should sound it out.  And when the word beauty comes up, the adults say, “Oh, that one?  You’ll just have to memorize it.”  So even though students know what a lot of words mean and can use them in sentences, they do not typically expect to find clues to the word’s meaning in the word itself.

But how to get them to stop thinking of letters as representing pronunciation?  This year I decided to teach them IPA!  Before they even walked in the door I wrote their name in both spelling and IPA on the front of their desks.

And all the labels for their notebooks were written in IPA.  And there was this subtle sign on the door to my classroom.

The next step was to make a list of everyone’s name and put it on the board.  Since I see three groups of fifth graders throughout the day, I decided to make the list on a sheet of paper that I could remove and reuse when needed.   Once the students were all seated, I asked them to look at the list of names and tell me what they noticed about the symbols used to represent the pronunciation of student names.  Here is a video from that very first day.

As you can see, and as we will refer to in the days to come, this first day was a day to collect evidence.  In each class the students noticed different things.  But the one thing they all noticed was that spelling and pronunciation rarely line up with a one-to-one correspondence.  We had a particularly interesting discussion about the <y> in both Rylee and Katya.  The <y> in Rylee is represented by the IPA symbols [ai].  Why two symbols to represent one letter?  Then we pronounced those symbols and realized that in vocalizing that letter, our mouth begins in one position, but ends in another.  It’s not a huge difference, but we all noticed that our mouths closed a bit towards the end of the pronunciation.  I told them they had just experienced a vowel glide.  We were gliding from one IPA symbol to another as we pronounced the <y> in Rylee’s name.  We compared that to the <y> in Katya which was represented by the IPA symbol [j].  One letter, yet two very different pronunciations!

In the video, Jackson noticed the symbols [ən] which were consistently found as the last two symbols in the IPA pronunciations of [dʒæksən], [eidən], and [kiːən].  We compared that pronunciation to the spelling of the names Jackson, Aiden, and Kian.  We realized that the pronunciation was consistent even though the spelling was not.  More evidence that spelling does not represent pronunciation.

Towards the end of the video, we looked at the pronunciation of the name Charlotte.  Students noticed that the IPA symbol that represented the <ch> spelling looked kind of like a stretched out <s>.  It is the IPA symbol [ʃ].  We were able to identify three spellings that could be represented by that symbol:  <ch> as in Charlotte, <sh> as in shoe, and <t> as in action.  Hmmm.  More evidence that sounding out a word won’t help much with figuring out how to spell that word.

This was not in the video, but in another class a student noticed the symbol [θ] in the name Matthew.  The IPA was [mæθjuː].  Many of the other symbols looked somewhat familiar (even though I  reminded them that a symbol and an alphabet letter are not the same thing), but this one looked strange and completely unfamiliar.  Having already noticed the symbol [æ], and understanding that it represents the same pronunciation as the <a> in Mallorri and Katherine, we could figure out that the symbol [θ] must be the pronunciation of <th>!  But what was equally interesting was the fact that although Thomas had a <th> spelling initial in his name, it was represented by the pronunciation /t/ and not [θ].  This was more evidence that spelling doesn’t represent pronunciation!  If it did, every time we found a <th> spelling, it would have a [θ] pronunciation!

Day Two

On this day I purposely left the wrong list of student names hanging on the board.  And you know what?  As a group, they enjoyed figuring out the pronunciation of every name on the list.  It helped that they knew most of their peers’ names, but still, they were pronouncing IPA!  They were already familiar enough with it to recognize many of the symbols and the pronunciation represented by them!

Next I had them open their notebooks and write their name.  Then below their name I asked them to put the IPA pronunciation of their name.  I modeled this by using my own name on the board.  Next I drew a line from a letter or letters in the spelling of my name to the IPA symbol or symbols that represented it.  After that  I rewrote both and color coded them to point out the IPA symbol/symbols to alphabet letter/letters correspondence.  As they were doing this in their notebook, some noticed that they had unpronounced letters in their name.  One example of this was Kyle.  The final <e> is unpronounced.  There was no IPA symbol to represent it because IPA symbols represent pronunciation, and that final <e> doesn’t have one!

Finally I asked them to fill in the sheets below using the same color coding they did in their notebooks.  How cool is this?


We will no doubt be reminding ourselves about the importance using of the proper brackets, as well as keeping the IPA symbols a consistent size.  But we are off to a great start!  The students have had a good sized glimpse of one of the biggest truths I want them to know.  We have something to build on here!

I have this poster on the wall in my room.  It will be fun waiting for the first students to pronounce the line of IPA.  Can you do it?

***** A note to acknowledge a mistake!  This morning, a friend was reading this post and watching the video and something didn’t jive.  In the video you can see the list of student names in IPA.  She noticed that one name was represented as [ˈjæksən], yet as I was writing the boy’s name, I was spelling it as Jackson.  She wondered if the <j> in Jackson should be represented with [dʒ] since the <j> in Benjamin was ([ˈbɛndʒəmɪn]).  And she is so right!  (You can see our exact conversation in the comments section below).

Before I was studying with the scientific framework I now use, I would have been embarrassed and ashamed at having published work with a mistake in it.  But no more.  I am learning along with my students and was able to model for them how to see mistakes as opportunities to learn something.  I shared my error with all three of my classes today so we could discuss this [dʒ] symbol and how it was different from [ʒ] all by itself.  We heard the difference in the names Jackson, Benjamin, Hyja, and Elijah.  One alphabet letter with two separate pronunciations.  Love this stuff!



Doing the Right Thing Because it is the Right Thing to Do

When you begin to learn what is real about English spelling, you begin also to swim upstream in an educational world that has been led to believe that reading begins with phonics. Those in the front lines (tutors and teachers of kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade) who have received intense training in this phonics-first model, seem to struggle the most in imagining a world that begins with meaning and then considers morphology, etymology, and phonology as interrelated in explaining a word’s spelling.

When first hearing about Structured Word Inquiry, educators who have seen the gamut of “spelling programs extraordinaire” wonder if SWI is just the latest thing that doesn’t fulfill what it promises.  And often when they realize it is NOT a program and doesn’t have a teacher manual with all the answers in it, many feel like they don’t have the time to be interested.  Such a shame. The fact that it is NOT a program is its strength.  The fact that there is no teacher manual with answers, drives home the point that with Structured Word Inquiry, answers are not what is being sought.  Ponder that a moment.

With Structured Word Inquiry, answers are not what is being sought.

“So if my students and I investigate the <o> in <people>, and find out that it is an etymological marker indicating a relationship to <population>, isn’t that the same as finding an answer?”  Fair question.  In the last bunch of years, I have been trying to clear my classroom of the word answer and substitute it instead with the word understanding.  You see, there are distinct implications with the use of these two.  When a question is asked and an answer is stated, the discussion is often done.  Everyone moves on to something else.  When a question is asked and an understanding is reached, there is that same moment of satisfaction, but there is something more.  There is also the mindset that if, at some point, we uncover further evidence, we will reach a deeper understanding.  We are open to it.  We are not done.  We are seeking to understand our language in much the same way a scientist seeks to understand our world.

Image result for jacques cousteau what is a scientist after all?

Until I began investigating words with students, I didn’t even realize the “must-have-all-the-answers” burden I was carrying.  Once I set that burden down outside the door of my classroom, I was able to move forward as wide-eyed and curious as my students.  We learned together.  More words to ponder.

We learn together. 

Think of what it is like for students to move from classroom to classroom in which there is one expert and the students are all thought of as buckets to fill.  With Structured Word Inquiry, the students are taught to find out for themselves the truths about our language.  When they are given the structure and resources to figure things out for themselves, it can be exhilarating!  They are tasting scholarship for the first time.  So empowering!

So what happens when I talk to my students about scientifically investigating words?  Or when I tell them we will be studying spelling like a scientist would?

~~We propose a hypothesis about the word’s structure, trying to figure out the word’s base element.
~~We research the word, finding more about it’s history and the implications its story might have on its spelling.
~~We collect data (words related either morphologically or etymologically).
~~We pay attention to the phonological aspects of this word and what that means for its pronunciation.

And when we have come to an understanding, when we have collected enough evidence to either prove or disprove our initial hypothesis, we share our findings with each other.  We talk about what we found and engage one another in dialogue about the research or the related words.

“Could such-and-such a word be added to this matrix?  Do you think they share the same base?”
“Where did you find this information?”
“That’s an interesting related word.  What does it mean?”
“What does that word have to do with the denotation of the base?”
“Why are those two words with that same base pronounced so differently?”

Amazing discussions happen all the time in my room.  Since giving my students this scientific framework, they have become truly curious and persistent in their research.  They no longer worry about being right or wrong.  It has become all about the evidence.  “Do I have enough? Do I need to dig for more?”

Swimming upstream in today’s educational current is challenging.  But when you see the faces of your students as a spelling all of a sudden makes sense, when they come to your room before school starts to ask if pediatrician and pedestrian share the same base element, when they can’t wait to get started on an independent investigation, or when they begin to see morphemes in words where before they only saw letters, THAT is when you know the challenging swim is the right thing to do.  And you do what you do and you share what you do, and you hope that one day the tide will change.  Pun intended.

Image result for swimming against the current


What Does It Matter?

I was having a discussion with a secondary level English teacher about teaching words with Latin and Greek roots.  This teacher was feeling lukewarm about the current program/workbook being used in his district to teach them.  I was gushing about what my students have been doing, and how they’ve been learning about words from Old English.  Then I went on to tell him about having my students recognize clues in a word’s spelling that hint at the word’s origin.  And that was when he asked it.  The question that revealed just how little he knew about our language and the reasons the words in it have particular spellings.

“What does it matter if a word comes from Latin, Greek, or Old English?”

Now, let me just say, I completely understand where this question is coming from.  If all you are doing with regards to spelling is rote memorization, then there would seem to be no need to know more about the word.  BUT as a person who has crossed that line so to speak, I can explain it like this.  Remember watching The Wizard of Oz and noticing that the movie starts off as black and white, predictable and drab, but the minute Dorothy lands in Oz everything is in color? Everything becomes instantly interesting and memorable?  It’s like that.  It’s the difference between skimming the surface for information and seeking a deeper level of knowledge.

As classroom teachers there is often that desire to provide students with the opportunity to dig deep, yet there is this thing called a schedule.  There are places to be and other things needed to be taught.  The result is that we skim topics more often than we should.  We have moments of depth, but those moments are saved for “big” topics that come up in reading, science, social studies or math.  Who ever thinks of creating deep meaningful investigations in spelling?  Or grammar?  Or vocabulary?  But don’t you see? That is where it makes the most sense to do so.  These are the basic places in which our ability to communicate is born.  This is where we begin to put words together – to think, to speak, to read, to write.  But investigating words has never been modeled for today’s teachers by their teachers.  For the most part, teachers use their own childhood classroom experiences as a guide for themselves.  Sure, methods and strategies have changed, but not much has changed as far as teaching reading or spelling.  Aren’t we still teaching phonics and rote memorization of spelling words?  Knowing whether a word came from Latin, Greek, or Old English didn’t matter to my teachers back in the day, and for many who are still following the way it’s always been done, it doesn’t matter now.

If you are a passionate vegetable gardener, you know there is a difference between different varieties of tomatoes.  You can talk about those differences with enthusiasm in your voice.  You know which variety will make the best spaghetti sauce, which the best ketchup and which will be best for fresh eating.  It’s the same for someone who can talk about cars and the different models built over time.  That person knows great stories about certain failed models and which designs have stood the test of time.  What about someone who constructs buildings and knows about the strengths of the possible materials to use?  That person is prepared to use specific materials for specific reasons whether those reasons be for strength or aesthetics.  You see?  Once you dig past the surface and begin to understand your subject matter, that subject matter reveals its importance to you.

It definitely matters.   When a word was born.  Where a word originated.  Which languages a word passed through.  These are the bits of etymological information that tell a word’s story.  And that story is what explains a modern word’s spelling.

One of the biggest reasons so many people don’t understand English spelling is because they don’t know much about where our words come from or the clues present in PDE (Present Day English) words that tip us off to a word’s birthplace.  Let me explain with examples:

Words with <ch> pronounced as /k/ such as choir, echo, orchid, dichotomy, and chronicle are from Greek.   I know because I routinely investigate words and pay attention to what I see.  So do my students.  In our journey to learn more about our language, we’ve learned a bit about the Greek alphabet.  Here’s a video of  my students reciting it.

We know that one of the letters was χ (chi) .  When the words with χ  were transcribed into Latin, the scribes wrote <ch> since Latin did not have that same letter.  Another letter was φ (phi), and a similar thing happened with Greek words that had φ in them.  That letter was transcribed as <ph> since that same letter didn’t exist in Latin.  So words with <ph> pronounced as /f/ such as photograph, sophomore, philosopher, telephone, and hydrophobia are also from Greek.

You might recognize Greek letters as representing college fraternities and sororities.  Isn’t it interesting that the words fraternity and sorority are from Latin frater “brother” and Latin soror “sister”, yet those organizations have historically chosen Greek letters to identify themselves?  The first was the fraternity Phi Betta Kappa.  It was established in 1776 and the name comes from phi (φ) + beta (β) + kappa (κ), initials of the society’s Greek motto, “φιλοσοφια βιου κυβερνητης”, meaning “philosophy is the guide of life”. There is a thorough history of the first fraternity at this Colonial Williamsburg site.  The first sorority was Alpha Delta Pi and was established in 1851.  I could not find the significance of the three Greek letters used as I could with the first fraternity.  Ah, but I digress.  Such is the life of a scholar!  Can you imagine what it feels like when your students become scholars and rush into your classroom to tell you about a word they investigated the previous evening?  It’s positively delicious!

Recognizing and understanding these things helps with spelling, reading and pronunciation.  Those are obvious once you begin this journey with your students.  But knowing the etymology of a word also brings a beauty to the words we speak every day.  It’s like getting to know a student throughout the year.  By the end of the year, that student is special to you because you understand who he/she is as a person.  You see the beauty that radiates and the potential that lies within.  Words are not so very different.

Here’s one more:  words with a medial <y> such as hymn, hydrosphere, lyric, myth, type, cycle, and syllable are typically from Greek.  This is something your student might discover if they investigate the phonology of the single letter grapheme <y>.

As you can see in the picture, two different students looked closely at the grapheme <y> and the phonemes it represented in a number of words.  As the heading of each list I had my students use IPA symbols because they represent pronunciation no matter the word’s spelling.  The IPA symbol that represents the grapheme <y> in words like hymn, myth and syllable  is /ɪ/.  The IPA symbol that represents the grapheme <y> in words like hydrosphere, cycle, and type is /ai/.  Knowing the possible phonemes when a <y> is medial is helpful when considering a word’s pronunciation.

Another discovery as my students were investigating specific graphemes happened with the consonant digraph <ch>.

If you notice the middle column, you may be able to guess that these words are either from French or spent enough time in that language to have their spelling affected by it.  What a cool explanation for words in which the grapheme <ch> is represented by the phoneme /ʃ/ as it is in crochet, chef, parachute and others!

There are other clues that will signal that a word is from Greek.  For instance, look at connecting vowels.  They are found in words of both Greek and Latin ancestry.  Words whose base elements are from Greek might use an <o> connecting vowel.  Words whose base elements come from Latin might use an <i>, <u> or <e>.   Connecting vowels follow a base element and need to be followed by another element.  They can be used to connect two base elements to create a compound word (as in tachometer and  conifer).  They might also connect a base element to a suffix (as in igneous and partial).  Knowing about connecting vowels helps when determining a word’s structure or morphology.

Just think of all the great things one can be aware of when having knowledge of a word’s origin!  What I have shared in this post is a very short list.  There are many more delightful things to recognize regarding words from Latin, Old English, French and other languages as well.  Experts don’t all agree, but many will say that over 60% of our modern words come from Latin, Greek and French.  That’s enough to convince me that my students and I need to know more about the language we use!

So why does it matter?  Why is it helpful to know which language a word was born in or influenced by?  Because that is where the word’s story is.  Because that is what explains the word’s structure and spelling.  Because that is where we build an understanding that spreads across many of the words in our language.  Because that’s where we find clues to a word’s pronunciation.  Because that’s where we begin to appreciate what a beautiful language we have.

Poetry Pi

In honor of Pi Day (March 14th) I like to do a number of things.  I know that Pi is associated with math, but that sequence of numbers can be used to create some cool art, music and even poetry!  I know, I know.  It is no longer March.  But now is when I have the time to post about some great things we did this year.  Perhaps writing Pi poems will be something you’d like to try!

In case you are curious, a Pi Poem can be written on any topic.  What makes it a Pi Poem is the number of words in each line.  Because the sequence of Pi is 3.141592653589 … , The poem must have 3 words in the first line, 1 in the second, 4 in the third, 1 in the fourth, 5 in the fifth … get it?   I tell the students to stop when your poem feels done.  When what you wanted to say is said.

So many of the poems written this year were  just plain lovely!  Here are a few of them:

Flying Pi was written by Kaila and Fish Pi was written by Petra.

I don’t often post my own writing, but thought it was important for you to know that when my students write, I write.


The school year ends, but the scholarship never does

During the last week of our school year, I asked my students to tell me about orthography.  After all, back in August it was a new word.  They had never studied orthography or Structured Word Inquiry before this year.  I had them choose a partner, look through the orthography notebooks they wrote in all year, and think about all they had done and all they had learned.  Then they were to write down some specific things they enjoyed about learning orthography.  I then filmed students telling me the types of things they wrote down.

Hearing what they have to say is always interesting.  And real.  They brought up the things that stood out to them.  The things that made them stop and think.  The word stories that they will remember always.  Didn’t you love the moment in the video when one student mentions the word ‘gymnasium’ and the rest of the students react by laughing?  That is the power of knowing something that lots of other people don’t know.  Look it up sometime at Etymonline.   It is from the Greek gymnos.  We could not find many words with this base (besides gymnast, gymnastic,etc.), but just yesterday a student found the word ‘gymnophobia’.  And it is NOT a fear of exercise!  We laughed!  It was like having a shared joke among friends.

And then, of course, there was the boy who laughed gleefully at the prospect of a word having a two letter base!  One of the words I show my students early in the year is ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’.  The boy is right.  It is quite delightful to know that this great big word has such a tiny base.  I like to point to this word as proof that a word can have more than one prefix and more than one suffix.  How many prefixes can you spot?  How many suffixes?  Which two letters do you suppose make up the bound base that is central to this word’s meaning?

Another student comment pointed to one of my favorite things about Structured Word Inquiry.  We learn a list of words that share a base instead of a list of unrelated words.  For example,  we looked at the free base <pend> from Latin pendere “to hang”.  We collected a list of words and checked resources to make sure they were descendants of pendere.  Here are words we had on our list:


We talked about what each of these words meant and what they had to do with the denotation of the base.  Our understanding of what each of these words meant and how they can be used deepened.  Then weeks later, after we had moved on and were studying something else, someone came bopping into the room wondering about the word ‘pendant’, and  if the <pend> in ‘pendant’ is the same base as in ‘suspend’.  Wonderful!  Isn’t that wonderful?  Long after we have investigated a single base and several of its relatives, students continue to make connections!  They became more observant with words.  They began to analyze words without even realizing they were doing it.

The boy in the video who compared past methods of learning words to what we did this year, said it well.  “With a lot of spelling tests, you usually, like, remember it super hard.  You take the test, and then you forget all of it to make room for the next test.  With what we’re doing, it’s different because you, like, remember it in a way that you actually remember it, like, in a different way that you can remember it for life.”  So true!  With rote memorization, there is no hook.  There’s nothing to connect the word too.  Students, teachers, and parents end up making up stories or songs just to make the letter order memorable.  But by looking at a word’s meaning, it’s structure, and it’s history, a student makes all kinds of connections.  A word’s birth can be connected to an event in time.  A word might have changed it’s spelling over time and there’s an interesting story about that.  Students start appreciating words!

And speaking about the history of a word, several of the students mentioned how interesting it was to dig for just that.  The further along in the school year, the better the students got at understanding the wealth of knowledge presented at Etymonline.  One student talked about how the meaning of ‘awesome’ has changed.  About a month ago a student investigated the words ‘terrific’ and ‘nice’.  She was blown away to discover that at different times in history, those words meant very different things than they do now.  She ended up making a timeline for each to show how the word’s meaning slowly evolved to be what it is today.  Another example of this very thing is what happened today in class.  A girl came in complaining that a boy in her grade was calling her 6 year old brother gay because he was playing around with a friend.  I said, “We’ll have to talk to this boy.”  But then I mentioned that this was another word that meant something else before it had to do with homosexuality.  So we looked it up.  I thought I would find that it once meant light-hearted and joyful.  Well, I did.  But that’s not all.  I was surprised to find out that in Middle English it meant “excellent person, gallant knight, noble lady”.  What a great opportunity to talk about the difference between a word’s denotation and its connotations.

What a year of meaningful learning.  Every year of this is exciting and surprising.  This kind of scholarship just can’t be boxed and repeated exactly the same way each year.  And this kind of scholarship doesn’t just disappear because the students go back to less scientific ways to study words as they move in to 6th grade.   Students come back.  They sign up for orthography as a summer school class.  They stop me in the street to tell me about words they have come across.  They talk to me about words or Greek letters when I see them at local theater productions or even in the local grocery store.

One of my all time favorite insights on the study of orthography came two years ago.  A student said, “Last year in 4th grade we’d get a list of about 15-20 words, and you just memorized them.  During word work or whatever you’d write down the words, erase them off your white board, rewrite them, and do that about 20 times.  And it got really boring really quickly.  But with this, you kind of, like, look up on the computer what the base is and what the prefixes are, what it means, all the words that are related to it, and there’s just multiple steps.  Making it more exciting.”  Did you catch that?  Structured Word Inquiry has multiple steps.  It takes longer.  It is ultimately more work.  But that is what makes it more exciting!  There is an element of discovery and surprise.  It is not repetitious.  It is not mindless.  It is engaging.  It is meaningful.  And the students prefer to be mentally engaged – to be active learners!


False lizards? Pseudosaurs!

There is nothing fifth graders love as much as making stuff up!  When I saw Skot Caldwell’s post back in February called “Dinosaur Discoveries“, I knew it was an activity my students would love!  Imagine creating your own dinosaur and giving it a name that had clues to its characteristics — much like the actual dinosaurs! When we look at some familiar dinosaur names, we see:


The stegosaurus lived about 150 million years ago.  It was a herbivore with small teeth, which no doubt made it necessary to eat constantly.  As you can see in the picture, the stegosaurus had bony plates along its spine.  If we look at its name, we see that it has two bases:  <stege> from Greek stegos “a roof” and <saur> from Greek sauros “lizard”.  When the first stegosaurus fossils were found in Colorado, they were named by Othniel C. Marsh (1877).  It was thought at first that the bony plates functioned as a type of covering or roof for the dinosaur.  Many scientists since have wondered about the function of those plates.  Have you noticed that there is a connecting vowel <o> in this name?  It is the vowel that is typically used to connect bases that are Greek in origin.  Have you also noticed that the suffix on the Greek word for “roof” is <os> and there is a <us> suffix on this word instead?  Saurus is the Latinized form of the Greek sauros.


The velociraptor lived about 75 million years ago.  It was a carnivore with sharp teeth, especially towards the back.  This dinosaur was unique because it was a biped.  It could move much faster than larger quadruped dinosaurs.  If we look at its name, we see that it has two bases:  <veloc> from Latin velocis “speedy, swift” and Latin raptor “robber”.  Have you noticed that there is a connecting vowel <i> in this name?  It is one of the vowels (<e>, <i>, <u>) that is typically used to connect bases that are Latin in origin.  The velociraptor was named in 1924 by Henry Fairfield Osborn.  He felt that the name reflected such a swiftly moving carnivore.


The brachiosaurus lived about 100 to 150 million years ago.  It was an herbivore that fed on foliage that was higher up than what other dinosaurs could reach.  This dinosaur was huge!  It was about 85 feet long and weighed between 30 and 45 metric tons!  If we look at its name, we see that it is also a compound word with two bases:  <brachi> from Greek brakhion “an arm” and <saur> from Greek sauros “lizard”.  Since both bases are of Greek origin, we are not surprised to see them connected with an <o> connecting vowel.  As in stegosaurus, we see the Latinized <us> suffix.  The brachiosaurus was named by Elmer Riggs in 1903 when he found fossils in western Colorado.  He named it to point out that the front legs are considerably longer than the back legs.

As we can see, dinosaurs were named to reflect their characteristics.  I shared Skot Caldwell’s post with my students.  They loved the drawings and information each “paleontologist” in Skot’s class included on their posters.  They were hungry to create their own.  Once they had named their pseudosaur (false lizards), I asked them to write about them.  I wanted to know their size and weight.  I wanted to know how they moved and ate. I wanted to know if they lived with others of their kind or if they were loners.  I wanted to know how their characteristics (indicated in their names) were used in their daily lives.  This was a writing that took little nudging.  This was fun writing!

Building Cars Powered by Hot Air

Sir Isaac Newton.  That’s where this project began. Sir Isaac Newton and his three Laws of Motion.

Law Number One:  An object at rest tends to stay at rest.  An object in motion tends to stay in motion.  These conditions cannot change without being acted on by a force.

Law Number Two:  Force equals mass times acceleration.  The more force, the more acceleration.

Law Number Three:  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

We talked about these laws and were helped with our understanding of them by watching this Youtube video:

The students, in groups of two, were about to build cars.  The body and wheels were cut from a styrofoam meat tray.  The axle, to which the wheels were held steady with clay, was a wooden stir stick.  The axle was positioned in a straw which was taped to the bottom of the car body.  The car was powered by a balloon.  All of the materials came as part of a kit that I purchased from Carolina Biological .  What I liked about having this as a kit is that everyone had the exact same materials and the exact same set of directions.  Each pair of students had to read and follow around 30 directions in order to complete their car.

The engagement and cooperation within the groups was impressive.  I had them read through the directions with their partner before coming to get the materials.  I wanted them to have an idea of where this was going, and what the materials were for.  Once they had the materials, they read aloud the directions carefully and began assembling their car.

On the second day of class, students were fine tuning.  Once the car was ready for testing, the students went into the hall outside our room to make sure the wheels were steady and the car moved straight.  There were quite a few cars that veered to one side or another.  In that case the students took the car back in to make adjustments to the wheels.  When the cars were “competition ready”, we went down to the cafeteria to race them.  Here is video of that for each of my three classes.

Two of the cars from the third class went extraordinary distances.  The winner went 331 inches (27 1/2 feet)!  The second highest distance was 318 inches (26 1/2 feet).  No other car all day went even half that distance!  At this point there was so much to talk about!

Why did some of the cars not move at all?
Why did the wheels keep falling off?
How were the winning cars different from the others?

The first thing we did back in the classroom was interview the builders of the two winning cars.  The four students involved gave a lot of credit to the wheels of their cars.  They spent time making sure they were uniformly round.  They sanded them to help the car roll smoothly.  And they measured to make sure the axle was as close to the center of the wheel as possible.  Then they used the clay to make them snug on the axle.  No wobbling!

Next we were ready to review Newton’s Laws of Motion.

We considered the second law: Force equals Mass times Acceleration.  The balloon was the force that powered the car.  Could we alter that? Would it help?  Would more balloons result in more force?  Will several balloons of different sizes lose all their air at the same rate?   What would happen if the mass was increased?  How would that impact the speed or distance?  What if it was decreased?  What could we make the body and wheels from besides styrofoam?

We considered the first law:  An object in motion tends to stay in motion and an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by a force.  What force caused the cars to slow down and stop?  Was it just the lack of air in the balloon?  What about friction?  What would happen if we altered the wheels?  What else could we make them out of?  What if we varied their width?  How important is it to cut them so they are perfectly round?  How important is it to measure to find the exact center of the wheel when attaching it to the axle?

We considered the third law:  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The air from the balloon is being released in one direction, but the car is moving in the opposite direction.  Does the position of the balloon matter?  Does the angle of the balloon and straw matter?  Does the order of the different sized balloons matter?

Equipped with the experience of having already built one car along with the understanding gained from discussing the Laws of Motion, the same groups were asked to build another car.  This time they could use whatever they wanted.  The only thing I discouraged was bringing manufactured wheels off of a toy car.  I put out cardboard, more balloons of different sizes, cardboard tubes and the remaining supplies that came with the initial kit.  The students got started, knowing that they would have the opportunity to bring additional supplies from home.

On day four of this activity, the students had some time to get their cars “competition ready”.  We had a car show (it seemed necessary now that no two cars looked alike).  It was so interesting to see the variations.  During work time, those who sought to use five balloons realized that it was difficult to keep the air in three while trying to blow up the others.  In the end, three balloons was the most that anyone used.  Here are the cars and then races from the three classes:

Even when the cars didn’t leave the starting line, the students laughed and enjoyed this challenge!  In the end, the group whose first car went the furthest, built a second car that also went the furthest!  Their second car was quite different from their first car in that the wheels in the second car were Kerr jar lids!  They struggled during work time in keeping them from wobbling, but by the time the race was run, they had figured that out!

Another group used plastic bottle caps with holes drilled for the axle.  The wheels worked beautifully, but this group struggled with attaching their balloon.  Two other interesting sets of wheels were made out of cardboard tubes.  One group used rubber bands around the tubes to grip the floor!  These two groups struggled with attaching the wheels securely to an axle.

At the beginning of class the next day, I asked the students to share what they had learned while doing this project:

  1.  The cardboard wheels went faster than the styrofoam wheels.
  2.  The wheels on each axle needed to be the same size.
  3.  The wheels needed to be sanded smooth.
  4.  It really helped having a partner to talk with and to help hold parts while taping.
  5.  Having more balloons didn’t always work.  It was difficult to inflate and release several balloons all at once.  Sometimes the first balloon was leaking air as the second was being filled.
  6.  It gets too crowded to have too many balloons.
  7.  The car body needs to be big enough to keep the balloons off the floor.
  8.  Large balloons worked better than small ones.
  9.  Masking tape worked well to tape the wheels to the axle.

When you watch the races of both car 1 and car 2, it is pretty obvious that overall there was more success with car 1.  But in the end that didn’t matter.  It wasn’t the end product that was the most important thing here.  It was the mission and the process.  It was the student input, the focus and the cooperation.  Everyone had moments of frustration, but they worked through those moments.  Students cheered each other on and made this a memorable fun activity.  When asked if I should repeat this activity next year, ALL students said, “YES!”