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”.
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!
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!
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.
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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


which   (*wich)

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

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

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

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

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

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



receive  (*recieve)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



until  (*untill)

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

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

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

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

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



occurred  (*occured)

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

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

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

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


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



separate   (*seperate)

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

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

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

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

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

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


government  (*goverment)

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

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

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

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


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



definitely  (*definately)

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

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

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

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


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



pharaoh  (*pharoah)

A pharaoh is an ancient Egyptian ruler.

This is a free base with no affixes.

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

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


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


publicly   (*publically)

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

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

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

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


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




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

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

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

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

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


Making Sure Our Misspellings Are Not Missed Opportunities!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for xylem

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

Image result for xylem

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



Related image


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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the post:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Antoine-Laurent deLavoisier

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

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

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

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

Orthography Builds Understanding … Say Good Bye to Memorizing Definitions!

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

First there’s collaborating…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


And now this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result          Image result for perspiration


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

Image result for spiracle  Image result for spiracle

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

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

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

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

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Multiple Monomers Merge to Make a Unique Polymer

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

“Perfect!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Four-Level Sentence Analysis and Structured Word Inquiry – Both Rooted Solidly in Scholarship …

I love teaching grammar.  No, really!  I love teaching grammar.  Of course, I didn’t always love it.  I began loving it when I met Michael Clay Thompson.  He revolutionized the way I was teaching it.   It’s hard to imagine something other than what I grew up doing – going through each part of speech as laid out in our English textbook with plenty of fill-in-the-blank sentences, in order to prepare for a test on things learned in isolation.  But Michael Clay Thompson thought of a different way to teach it, and his idea is brilliant!

He encourages teachers to review/teach the parts of speech and the parts of a sentence within the first month of the school year.  That sounds crazy, yes?  That does not leave enough time to teach to mastery, but that’s okay.  The mastery happens later on, after the sentence analysis starts.  You see, after that first month of intense review and teaching, I start writing sentences on the board to be analyzed.  And we spend the rest of the school year understanding the interrelationships and functions of the parts of speech, the parts of the sentence, and the phrases because we see them over and over in different sentences as they are being analyzed. In other words, we spend one month of reviewing/learning and 7-8 months of applying what was learned.  See?  Brilliant!

To begin with, the sentences are simple and short.  But the analysis is the same:

Now here’s what that looks like with a real sentence:

The first row below the sentence is parts of speech.  If you are wondering what ‘det.’ stands for, it is an abbreviation for determiner.  Over the course of the last year, I have come to understand and embrace the idea of a ninth part of speech – that of the determiner.  Prior to that, I had, like a lot of people, considered articles to be a type of adjective.  But identifying a determiner as a word that begins a noun phrase has been especially helpful to my students.  When they spot a determiner (and because of their frequent use in sentences, this is one of the first parts of speech students become confident about identifying) they know that a noun (or pronoun) will follow.  It may be the next word, or it may be after one or more adjectives (or adjective with an intensifier), but it will be there!

Articles (definite and indefinite) are not the only types of determiners we see.  Other types include quantifier, possessive, interrogative, and demonstrative.  Identifying determiners in our sentences has given my students a predictable pattern to look for.  The noun phrase usually begins with a determiner and ends with a noun or pronoun.  In between those two we might see adverb-adjective pairs, adjectives, or nothing at all.  There is also the possibility that a determiner won’t be used, as is the case with some noncount nouns.

Other than the abbreviation for determiners, I imagine you can figure out that ‘LV’ stands for linking verb.  In the second row, the important parts of the sentence are identified.  Because this sentence has a linking verb, we look for a subject complement (calm).  If the verb was an action verb, we would look first for a direct object and secondly for an indirect object.

In the third row, we identify any phrases.  This sentence has an appositive phrase.  In the last row we identify the sentence structure.  This sentence is a simple sentence with one independent clause.  The word declarative identifies the type of sentence this is.

In a nutshell, my example above illustrates the four level sentence analysis my students and I engage in for 7-8 months of the school year.  Can you imagine how comfortable some of this feels by the end of the year?  They have the opportunity to keep making sense of the order of words in sentences!  They have the opportunity to keep making sense of the functions and interrelationships of words in these sentences.  They begin to realize that the function of a word within a sentence determines its part-of-speech label.  I particularly love it when a sentence contains a word that is able to function as more than one part of speech and the students need to reason out what its particular function is in the sentence before them!  They become so invested in figuring it out!

But a bigger benefit to all of this is what happens when I conference with the students about their writing.  I can address specific aspects of their writing using specific language that they now understand.  A typical comment from me might be, “You have a dependent clause here, but remember?  A dependent clause is not a sentence on its own.  It needs an independent clause either in front of it or behind it to complete the thought.”  I might also say, “You have written a pretty terrific complex sentence, but it is missing its comma.  Begin reading it aloud and tell me where the comma should be.”  The students understand what I am saying to them and feel good about being able to make fix-ups so easily.

This is what it looks like as students are actively analyzing a sentence:

So this is obviously scholarship, but what does it have to do with Structured Word Inquiry?  Yesterday I came across a recent article by Michael Clay Thompson.  It was posted at Fireworks Press where you can find all of the Language Arts curriculum materials he has written.  Click HERE to check it out.  The title of the article is “Doing four-level grammar analysis is like practicing your piano”.  In the article, he addresses why students need to continue analyzing sentences at every level, even if they’ve already been doing it for several years.

In my situation, students are analyzing sentences for the first time.  The benefits are obvious.  But what about next year and the year after that?  When is enough enough?  I sincerely hope you spend the time reading his response.  To that end I will not post the highlights of it.  If I tried, I’d have to post the whole article anyway!  I will, however, share two of his thoughts because they philosophically parallel how I feel about my other passion, Structured Word Inquiry.

“Four level analysis is different because it is an expansive-almost cosmic-inquiry into language, with four tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously, and it is investigating something that is not concrete or simple but that is essentially bottomless.”

For those familiar with SWI, do you see the parallel?  As I’ve been teaching my online class, Getting a Grip on Grammar, I’ve been realizing more and more how similar the investigations into these two areas can be.  I love thinking of SWI’s four essential questions as well as MCT’s four-level analysis as “tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously”.  And clearly neither is “concrete or simple”, but “essentially bottomless”.  There was a time when I would’ve thought of that as an overwhelming idea – thinking I would be expected to know all of it at some point.  But scholarship isn’t like that.

Scholarship is not what happens when you use a textbook, memorize definitions, and get tested.  Scholarship is done leisurely.  It is a continual pursuit to understand better what one only understands partially.  There is no test.  There are only questions to be posed, investigations to be launched, and evidence to be gathered.  Here I will share another quote from Michael Clay Thompson’s article.  In your mind, replace ‘Four-level analysis’ with ‘scholarship’ because clearly the one is a form of the other.

“Four-level analysis can lead you through the known, beyond the terms, past the things that have already been named, and on out to the edge, where the wild questions are.”

It’s alright if you read it a second time.  Because of my passion for both SWI and grammar, this sentence not only resonates with me, it also makes me smile!  Scholarship is a worthy pursuit, whether it be in regards to words, grammar, or in playing the piano.  Thank you Michael Clay Thompson for the beautifully written, inspirational article!

**If you are interested in learning more about the grammar instruction my 5th graders receive, there is a tab at the top of this page that says “Grammar Class”.  That is where you can find out about current schedules.  If there isn’t one currently scheduled, just let me know your preference for time-of-day and dates.  I will created a new schedule!