For the last three weeks, we’ve gotten busy with two different writing projects that are taking longer than I anticipated. (Isn’t that always the way?) We’ve also been working on word investigations. My students are enjoying these projects. The word investigation-type projects are ongoing. Whenever someone finishes a required project (such as one of the two current writings or their current word investigation) they bring their orthography notebook to my desk and I get them started on a new project. It’s been my way of making good use of every spare moment we have together. What I didn’t realize was that the students actually love knowing there is always a next project, and that they don’t have to wait for everyone in the room to complete a project before they can start a new one.
I love it too. Everyone isn’t looking at the same thing at the same time, so when the students share their findings with the class, we have discussions about conventions and concepts that we circle back to when a group working on a similar investigation is sharing what they found. There has been just enough time between the presentations to let things sink in and in that way, prepare the students to hear similar information and ask great questions.
So we’ve been splitting our time between writing (and all that it encompasses), investigating (looking at words, graphemes and the modern bases that derived from Latin verbs), and moving ahead in our understanding of the hydrosphere (watching and discussing videos). I really thought I was checking off all the boxes for the curriculum I teach. And then several students asked this question:
“Mrs. Steven, do you think we can analyze a sentence today?”
It had been almost two weeks since we last analyzed a sentence. I was really surprised (and quite happy) to hear that it was something the students were missing! So I said, “Sure!” We must keep our students happy, right?
The basic plan I follow for teaching grammar comes from the mind of Michael Clay Thompson. I have been fortunate enough to attend several workshops with him and just about a year ago I took his online Grammar for Adults course. I use his book Grammar Voyage as a reference and have created my own interactive book to use with my students. Using ideas and materials by Michael Clay Thompson has changed the classroom attitude regarding grammar! When the students walk into my room and see a sentence on the board, they immediately start thinking about the overall sentence, the words in it, and the relationships between those words and phrases. Seem hard to believe? Here’s what happened on Thursday.
Some notes before you watch …
I split the video into two parts. Part one focuses on the parts of speech for each word in the sentence. It also focuses on the important parts of the sentence (subject/predicate/direct object, indirect object/subject complement). As you watch, you’ll notice that it’s impossible to identify parts of speech without considering how those words relate to the other words in the sentence. None of the steps in this four level analysis can be done in complete isolation. That wouldn’t make sense. As an example, one of the students points out early in the video that the word “her” can be both a possessive determiner (adjective) and an object pronoun. Brilliant. Then it becomes our job to figure out what its function is in this sentence before we can be satisfied that we have labeled it correctly.
You will notice that I begin by counting the words in the sentence and asking for that many volunteers to come to the board and identify the part of speech for each word. You will also notice that I have an abundance of volunteers! With everyone going to the board at once, no one is singled out as having put any particular identification underneath any particular word. And when they walk away, we have a place to start our discussion. The students can consider the labels placed beneath each word and either support them with evidence or question them. As a class we can figure out not only why we don’t think the current label is correct, but also what we think the correct label is and why. My plan is to turn the thinking and evidence finding back on the students as much as I can. When they are stuck, that is when I step in. You can tell by the types of questions they ask and the number of students participating that they are engaged in this type of analysis.
Here is Part 2. In this video the students identified the prepositional phrases and the sentence structure. You may have noticed that in Part 1 the students identified the sentence structure as complex when they labeled “because” as a conjunction. Now it was time to repeat what was said then and to talk about the difference between clauses and phrases. Then we reviewed the difference between independent and dependent. I love talking about the word sums for those two words and what the base’s denotation reveals to us about what the words mean. According to Etymonline, the base <pend> is from Latin pendere “to hang, cause to hang; weigh.” A few weeks ago when we first talked about dependent and independent clauses, I threw out the words “suspenders”, “suspend”, “pendant”, “perpendicular” and “pendulum.” We talked about how they each share a sense and meaning of “hang.”
Then I drew the T Model (one of Michael Clay Thompson’s brilliant ideas to visually represent a sentence) on the board, and the students told me how to fill it in. Normally the students create their own, but this was the first time we were using the T Model to represent a sentence with two clauses. I wanted to show them how we might show the connection between the two.
I know that there are those out there who insist that grammar is black and white, right or wrong and can only be diagrammed with trees. But in the same way that I am teaching my students to be open in their thinking about words, I am teaching them to be open in their thinking about grammar. As you can see, the students seek to understand the logic of the sentence and how the order of the words can affect that. You could probably hear them flipping through their grammar book (the interactive one I made for them) to find the evidence to back up their hypotheses about a particular word or phrase identification. They are engaged, they are thinking, and they are making connections. The next step will be to have them write their own complex sentences for us to analyze. I anticipate that they will relish doing so!
I get a lot of great comments about my blog, and about how lucky my students must be to be learning so much about English spelling. I appreciate each and every comment. It’s great that other teachers, parents, tutors, etc. recognize that the understanding I offer is very different to what they themselves learned when they were in fifth grade. Instead of seeing spelling as a mindless exercise in rote memorization, my students see it as fascinating because of all the investigating and discovering they now know how to do. There are stories and explanations embedded in every word, and every word is part of a family, complete with its own family tree!
What isn’t as obvious to my students, but is very obvious to me is how understanding the historical sense and meaning of a word can affect how a person uses that word when writing or understands that word when reading. Since spell check came out, many people are thinking that teaching spelling is not as necessary as it used to be. But then again, they are equating learning spelling with mindless memorization of strings of letters. They have not visited my classroom.
The people who read what I am doing and just know deep inside that this is what should be taught in all classrooms, often accompany their enthusiastic comments with questions.
“I want to begin, but do I know enough?”
“Should I wait until after I take more classes?”
“What other classes do you teach?”
“When did you start?”
“What if the students ask a question, and I don’t know the answer?”
“I’d love to investigate words with my students, but where do I start?”
I get it. When it comes to trying new things in the classroom, it can be a bit overwhelming. Especially when there is no scope and sequence to follow. As teachers, we are used to having step by step teaching guides that set a pace that we can follow. I have always been one to understand that, and yet, I must admit, the professional in me has always felt a bit claustrophobic when using one.
Back when I began teaching 5th grade, I felt confident that I could effectively teach all subjects except two – grammar and spelling. The materials left behind by the previous teacher just felt ineffective. The words, “Get out your English book” could quickly drain the color from the faces in front of me. The students weren’t involved enough in thinking about grammar and thinking about spelling. Everything was “fill in the blank” and “write definitions using the dictionary”. As a student, I used to find that kind of classwork super boring and usually finished the assignment without thinking about what I was doing or why. As a teacher, I couldn’t honestly see any long lasting benefit to the work. I knew I wasn’t really teaching children how the parts of speech they were learning about came together to represent a complete thought. I knew I wasn’t really teaching children to understand English spelling. But how could I teach what I, myself, didn’t understand?
That’s why I was thrilled back in 2004 to have had the opportunity to hear Michael Clay Thompson speak.
He changed my grammar teaching life! His 4Level Sentence Analysis was intriguing to my students and they learned more about grammar than ever before. MCT made grammar thought provoking, yet understandable. Over the years, my students and I have done a lot of analysis at the board and had rich discussions about the role words can play depending on their placement and function within a sentence. Students don’t just fill in a blank with a good guess. They are able to state how they know that in a specific sentence, a word is a specific part of speech. What follows is that they understand how the meaning of the sentence is constructed. Since 2004, MCT has expanded his selection of age level grammar and writing books. Find a full description and listing of his language arts materials HERE. The following video was taken in February of 2013. I had already been using MCT’s grammar materials for 8 years, but this gives you an example of the kind of thinking required to analyze the structure of a sentence in this way. [You might notice that the word ‘our’ as in ‘our wagon’ was incorrectly identified in this video as a pronoun, and that I did not spot the error. It is the kind of adjective that is a possessive determiner. It is pointing to the noun ‘wagon’.]
Because I was so impressed with the results I was seeing in my classroom, I also began using some of MCT’s other curriculum materials to enhance what I was required to use for spelling. I started with his Building Language books and loved that my students began learning Greek and Latin word stems. I also incorporated vocabulary words from his Caesar’s English 1 book. Teaching some Latin and Greek stems gave my classroom learning experience a big boost! I was satisfied with what I was doing … until I came across Dan Allen’s blog in late 2012.
In 2012 I decided to start a classroom blog, and went in search of other upper elementary classrooms to connect with. When I happened upon Dan’s blog, I was fascinated. He took what I was teaching my students using MCT’s Greek and Latin stems materials to a whole new level. After a weekend spent reading every post on Dan Allen’s blog, I was raring to do what he was doing. I just knew THIS was what I needed to do. THIS was what would make a difference in the lives of my students. Dan was digging into words and letting his students ask really deep, rich questions about spelling. He was teaching his students that spelling is NOT just a random collection of letters, and that it is NOT meant to represent the pronunciation of a word. By Sunday afternoon I had contacted Dan, and he put me in touch with Real Spelling. Seventeen years into my teaching career, I finally began learning and teaching how English spelling works!
I’ve never been shy about trying something new in my classroom. I have always kept my eyes open for ways to make the learning memorable and at the same time for my students to enjoy having learned. Studying English spelling by treating it as a science would be no different. But in such a big way it was. This wasn’t just a new and clever presentation of the same old thing. It wasn’t a program, and it didn’t come in a shiny box with 1001 accessory books/assessments/teacher guides. It didn’t even have a hefty price tag! This was inquiry. This was looking at spelling with a scientific methodology. My students and I could start working the minute we assembled the needed materials: our questions, pen and paper to record our thinking, and dictionaries (regular and etymological). Whoa! I couldn’t think of any good reason not to jump right in!
So here I was, halfway through the school year, knocking on my principal’s door. “Would it be okay if I abandoned our spelling books and tried something different for the second half of this year?” I went on to explain what I understood at that time about Structured Word Inquiry, or as we were also calling it, Scientific Word Investigation. Thankfully, my principal was open to the idea, and I was given permission to see if this way of learning about words could be as powerful in my classroom as it appeared to be in Dan Allen’s.
My next step was to write a letter to the parents of my students to explain what I was doing and why there would no longer be a spelling list or a spelling test. Then, of course, I needed to pitch this idea to my students. Quite surprisingly, not all were in favor of doing away with a spelling test. But as you might guess, those who hated memorizing spelling lists were delighted. And so we jumped in. I reread Dan’s posts and also read Ann Whiting’s blog posts. She was teaching a 7th grade Humanities class in Kuala Lampur and wrote inspiring blog posts. (Ann is no longer teaching, but you can read her wonderful wonderful posts HERE and HERE). I became part of an email group in which questions were shared and discussions ensued. At that point, I mostly listened and learned. I adapted activities from both blogs to use in my classroom. And everyday we spent time investigating and understanding words like we never had before! It was wonderful.
But was I prepared? Was I knowledgeable enough? No. I really wasn’t. But I didn’t pretend I was either. My students knew I didn’t have answers to their questions. I was very clear about that. I told them that I would be learning WITH them. And that was the truth. We asked questions of Real Spelling a lot in those first months. I was also in contact with Ann Whiting and Dan Allen, who were both helpful and made me feel comfortable about asking so many questions. To this day, that group of students holds a very special place in my heart because of the extraordinary shared learning we experienced. Their enthusiasm and level of questioning played off of my own and our classroom became a place where thoughtful questions came to roost. Here are two short videos of those students in the midst of investigations.
By May, my students and I sat down to reflect on the learning. It was unanimously stated that I should continue to study orthography with my next fifth grade group in the fall. I felt the same way. The students felt as if they had learned to spell without really consciously thinking about it. In focusing on the elements in their word sums, and then how to apply suffixing conventions, they had indeed become more accurate in their spelling! Besides spelling, they also felt more of a connection to words. After having investigated and discovered the stories of so many words, the students understood those words in a way that a dictionary definition just couldn’t match . They had zeroed in on the denotations of base elements and the senses that affixes contribute to words. They could compare what they knew a word to be revealing about its meaning to what a dictionary said about the word’s current usage. So many rich discussions!
To reinforce the learning that we were doing, the students brainstormed words that might fit on a matrix for <star>. I printed the matrix out, and scheduled time in each of the three second grade classrooms in our building to teach those students about word sums. In this way, each of my students was paired with a second grade student and then taught them about writing word sums (and also the suffixing convention that deals with doubling). At the time, I had a self-contained classroom (one group of students all day), so each of my students had three opportunities to teach word sums to second grade students. My students found out that, “The best way to know if you know something is to teach it to someone else,” is a true statement!
When school was out for the summer, I needed to seriously consider what training/classes I would seek. The first on my list was a 3 day training on Wolfe Island with Dr. Peter Bowers. Having spent most of my life thinking there wasn’t anything to understand about English spelling, I found this training exhilarating! Pete had spent ten years as a classroom teacher, so I knew he understood a teacher’s perspective. His goal was to open our eyes to what was true about our language and contrast that with what we have been taught that could easily be falsified. He gave us lots of opportunities to dig in and learn in the same way our students would. I met some great people who, like me, were excited to be finally understanding things about English spelling. Many of those friendships have flourished since then, since we email or see each other in classes (through Zoom) once in a while. These days Pete Bowers travels a lot and presents to teachers around the world. If you are wondering whether he’s presenting near you, read more HERE.
In the years since, I have taken classes when I could, started a collection of reference books so I could research on my own, and continued to write blog posts like this one to share some of what happens with my students and some of what I notice on my own. When posting here and when teaching orthography to my students each year, I am always cognizant and appreciative of how my story with Structured Word Inquiry began. It was one teacher sharing and then connecting with another. My regular posts on this blog have been my attempt to pay it forward. I realize that not all who read my blog are classroom teachers, but if you are in any way giving a child truth about English spelling in place of gimmicky tricks that are designed to help a person remember what does not make sense, you are a teacher.
So if you know in your heart that Structured Word Inquiry will help a child in your life, think carefully about how long you intend to withhold that information – that adventure of inquiry. Are you one who is most comfortable waiting for the understanding to gel in your own head before sitting down with a child? Are you one who is most comfortable jumping in and asking questions as you go? You have to determine when you are ready. The child you are thinking of is ready already. Don’t keep them waiting longer than necessary. Luckily there are some introductory classes that will help you learn the terminology to use and some of the basic understanding needed as you begin. Here is a list of introductory course offerings available in the SWI community:
Bringing Structured Word Inquiry into the Classroom – I teach a four episode (90 minutes each) online class. Check this out HERE.
Introductory SWI Class – Lisa Barnett at See the Beauty in Dyslexia offers a three episode (90 minutes each) online class. Check this out HERE.
Intro to SWI – Rebecca Loveless offers an online class. She also offers an ongoing study group opportunity. Check these out HERE.
An Introduction to Structured Word Inquiry – Dyslexia Training Institute offers a six week (30-40 hours) class. Check this out HERE.
I am also adding a link to the joint blog/workshop opportunities (Australia based) of Ann Whiting and Lyn Anderson: Caught in the Spell of Words. Check it out HERE.
The important thing to remember here is that you don’t have to have all the answers as you begin. That being said, you do need to identify what it is you don’t know as you move forward so you can seek the understanding you need. Do not be afraid of making errors. Expect to make errors. Celebrate the day you spot them and replace them with a deeper understanding and new questions. Investigate and present your findings to others. Then have a dialogue about what you found. The most wonderful learning happens when my students present their findings. We all move our chairs so that we are close to the board and the presenters. Then when the presentation is over, the questions, comments, dialogue and learning begins.
I am leaving you with this great quote that has inspired me through moments of self doubt:
The beginning of the school year is an exciting time. I always have big plans of what to make sure I get started on right away. And it’s important to make those first week activities and explorations interesting. I want my students to leave my classroom wondering what we will be doing the next day. I want them to anticipate that whatever it is, it will be interesting and thought provoking which often makes it fun!
For me, one of the things I start in the first week is grammar. There is so much to review and so much to introduce. The sooner I get started, the sooner we can get to putting the pieces together and making sense of how it works in a sentence!
When I ask my students what they understand about nouns, they tell me that a noun is a person, place, thing or idea. They know that a noun can be singular or plural, and common or proper. Although by the looks on all the faces, not everyone is clear about those categories. I tell them that a noun can be categorized in many ways. So on a blank page in their interactive grammar books we identify eight of them. I ask them to leave room for a title and then to divide the page into eight equal (roughly) sized areas. The heading of the page will be NOUNS. I draw something similar on the board and then begin labeling each section. Once each section is labeled, we brainstorm examples to write in each space. Here are a few pictures of student pages as we have finished:
These are the categories we focus on, but I mention that there are other ways to categorize nouns as well. Now that everyone has these eight categories in their book, I take a few minutes to review what each category is with an activity. I ask the students to find a partner. Then they are to decide who will be “A” and who will be “B”. The deal is that person A has 30 seconds to point out, let’s say, singular nouns found in the room to person B. After 30 seconds, Person B has the responsibility of pointing out, let’s say, plural nouns found in the room to person A. At this point I pause the activity to see if anyone named a noun that their partner questioned. If there is, we discuss it. We keep on in this way, until all eight categories have been addressed. When we are finished, and the students are back in their chairs, we talk about which categories were difficult to find examples of in our classroom, and which ones were easy. Everyone agrees that the abstract and non-count nouns were not as easy to spot as the rest of the categories. So we discuss and try to think of a few more examples of each that we might find in our room (such as happiness, responsibility, fairness, water, and sand).
On the next day we review the eight categories of nouns and then prepare to make a mind map. Mind maps are a great way to think about what you know about a particular topic and then to put that information onto a single sheet of paper. Before we begin writing anything down, I ask the students to close their book and help brainstorm what we know to be a fact about nouns. As each person raises their hand and offers their fact, I ask them to write it on the board. When I think that the important things have been named, I will then check what has been written on the board and quietly fix any spelling errors. Now the students are to copy down these facts onto their paper. I encourage them to leave white space around each fact instead of clumping all of their writing into one spot on the page. I encourage them to use a bit of color, but I warn them not to color over words or to create patterns that draw the eye away from the information. Here are a few examples of noun mind maps.
Now it is time to review familiar aspects of pronouns and to introduce new aspects of them. First we talk about the fact that pronouns often take the place of nouns. We look at lists of the subject and object pronouns. We talk about which ones are first person, second person and third person. We note the difference between the singular and plural forms of these pronouns. Then we are ready for the next activity. It focuses on memorizing the subject and object pronouns. I tell them that I want these pronouns to be familiar to them later on when we focus on the parts of the sentence. For now, we’ll have some fun as we memorize them.
For this activity I randomly split the class into groups of 4-5. Then I assign each group either the subject pronouns or the object pronouns to memorize. The fun part is that they can add movements and rhythm if they like. They have 7 minutes to put something together and to then present to the class.
It is a quick way to get these two important groups of pronouns memorized. It is also an opportunity to get my students up out of their seats and to laugh together.
Next it is time to think about other types of pronouns. I have them turn to the blank page in their interactive grammar notebook. I have them write “6 types of Pronouns” in the center and then split the remaining surrounding area into six roughly equal areas. I do the same on the board so the students can see what I mean. I label two of the sections as Subject and Object, and the students fill in those two sections with the appropriate list of pronouns that they just memorized. I label the rest of the sections as Possessive, Demonstrative, Interrogative, and Reflexive. As we go, we fill in each section with examples of each.
It isn’t necessary that the students memorize any of the other lists in this group since they now have this great page to refer to when we begin analyzing sentences. I consider the subject and object pronouns important enough to memorize since they can play such important parts in a sentence. As the students learn more about the parts of the sentence (subject, predicate, direct object, indirect object and subject complement) they will recognize that subjectpronouns can be used as subjects or subjectcomplements and that object pronouns can be used as direct and indirect objects!
The next day it is time for a pronoun mind map. Once again, I write the word pronoun on the board and ask students to tell me one fact about pronouns. When we have collected an accurate snapshot of pronouns, I invite the students to put the information on the next blank page in their grammar notebooks as part of our review.
As you can see, the students are bringing out their sense of creativity as they think of ways to arrange the information on the page. In doing so, they are also nurturing a sense of pride for this notebook.
The next part of speech that I review/introduce is adjectives. This year I am teaching my students that there are two special kinds of words that fall under the heading of adjectives. I am speaking of words that modify/describe nouns and words that announce/determine nouns. I know that there are people who would categorize determiners as a separate part of speech, but I also know that many grammarians think of them as adjectives. I have found it worthwhile and helpful for my students to understand what a determiner is and where to find it, but I know that the teachers my students will work with as they make their way through middle school and high school do not identify determiners at all. They lump them in with adjectives in general. So in response to that, I am having my students identify determiners as adjectives, but I am explaining that their function is different than that of an adjective that describes/modifies a noun.
Once we have talked about these types of adjectives and practiced a bit by brainstorming short noun phrases that have a determiner, a modifying adjective and a noun, then it is time to look at these parts of speech in a sentence. In that way we can begin considering the context in which we are using these words. Some words, such as articles, are always articles no matter which sentence we find them in. But that is not the case with the majority of words we use. Once we have talked about the characteristics of each part of speech, it is important to look at specific sentences so we can talk about specific words and their functions within those sentences.
As you will see in the following video, my students rely on their grammar notebooks to be their personal resource book. They are learning where to find the information that will help them make some decisions about parts of speech and later on, parts of the sentence. They make choices when they identify parts of speech, but then must also be able to explain their reasoning for those choices.
At this point, I have collected their books just once so I could see where they are at with independently identifying these three parts of speech in a set of four sentences. I recorded either a 3 (they get it), a 2 (they have some understanding, but need more practice), or a 1 (start over) for the page. It is not a grade, but rather a point of reference so that when we get to the next set of practice sentences, I can compare and look for improvement. All scores were either a 2 or a 3. It’s time to move on to verbs!
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.
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.
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!
Recently, at a teacher website I frequent, a question was thrown out about encouraging curiosity in students. The teacher asking the question recognized that the time constraints we are given and the way we are asked to teach can sometimes squash the students’ tendencies to be inquisitive or curious.
The statement that immediately came to my mind is one I have heard many times, but only recently come to fully appreciate.
The question is eternal; the answer is only temporary.
When these statements become integral to the daily structure of my day, I am then encouraging curiosity in my students.
The way I see it, putting more importance on asking questions than on giving answers benefits the students (all of us, really) in two respects. First, the answer is no longer the end-all be-all. It becomes okay to have partial understanding of something. Secondly, all minds become focused on making sense and understanding of whatever is being talked about. The questions come quite naturally, and everyone in the room knows these questions will not be discouraged or rated on some kind of disheartening scale.
Stating that the answer is less important than the question does not imply that the answer is not important. Usually it is our way of checking what we understand about something. But thinking of our answers as temporary helps us think of our understanding as part of the bigger picture in time. If I begin my answers, “As I understand it at this point in time, ….”, I am admitting that the answer is temporary. I am open to having an even deeper understanding of the question at some later point in time. I am open to the idea that there is, no doubt, more to learn about the specific topic, and that as I learn more, my answer to that question will alter also. It also helps us think of an answer, not as an end point, but as a checkpoint. With an answer that is thought of as temporary, the question remains open, whereas answers that are thought of as final, end our further contemplation of the question.
The best kinds of questions asked in a classroom are those asked by students. A teacher can learn a lot about where a student’s understanding is by the question the student is asking. A question can also reveal how engaged the student is in the learning. I especially love when students ask big questions that can’t necessarily be answered just then. It tells me they are extending what they understand and trying to apply that understanding to the so-much-out-there that they don’t understand! Sometimes we just sit for a second and appreciate the largeness of the question and the fact that none of us can even attempt to answer it, yet we can all appreciate it! Recently a student was presenting a slide show about sink holes. The students in the audience had a lot of questions, at least six of which neither the presenter nor I could answer. What a wonderful end to a presentation. Those questions were all curiosity driven, and I couldn’t have been happier!
I’ve never been one of those teachers who is uncomfortable leaving a question unanswered. I have known some who are. Those teachers drive themselves crazy trying to prepare for any question about an activity or topic that might arise. But the sad part is that they also box themselves in a bit. They end up needing to keep the activity or discussion within the boundaries of what they know and can answer. To my way of thinking, that puts boundaries on the students’ curiosities as well.
I definitely want my students to know I have a level of education and am qualified to teach them the subjects that I am assigned, but I also want them to know that I don’t know it all. I continually take academic classes and read topic specific books, sharing my passion and excitement for learning with my students. I want them to know that when I send them off on an investigation of prefixes for instance, that I have not personally conducted such an investigation and am looking forward to seeing what they find! I use the knowledge I have gathered to guide and steer their inquiry, but I don’t allow preconceived ideas to close me off to what we might all notice that we have not noticed before. The very first year I began teaching orthography, I jumped in without having a complete understanding of many facets of our language. The students were thrilled! They loved that I didn’t have all the answers. We were truly all learning something valuable from each other.
So are students the only ones who get to ask questions? Of course not. Here are my favorite questions to ask: “What are you wondering now? What questions does that stir in you? What does this new information cause you to think about? What evidence do you have to support that? Can you prove that?”
Questions happen when our curiosity bubbles up and erupts into words. It is at that point when we begin our quest for information and ideas with which we will construct an understanding. Temporary answers allow us to check that understanding, while keeping the question alive. In the meantime our minds are open, and our curiosity aroused. We don’t know when evidence will come along, or how long our minds will juggle with an idea before we reach that deeper understanding that develops in response to a question once asked.
I didn’t always love teaching grammar. That’s not to say I hated it. Personally, I remember being one of the few who could make sense of sentence diagramming back in my own middle school years. But having a sense of something does not necessarily equate to being able to pass that on to others – especially those whose eyelids and shoulders drop at the mention of the word “grammar”. These days I love teaching it … using the 4 Level Sentence Analysis that I learned about from Michael Clay Thompson.
Using a 4 Level Analysis of a sentence allows for my students to think through their decisions, to defend their choices and to create their own sense of understanding. There is definitely some groundwork that needs to be laid before the analysis can begin. The first thing we do at the beginning of the year is to review the eight parts of speech and the five parts of a sentence. Then as we begin analyzing sentences, we add discussion about phrases, sentence structure, and sentence types.
We begin by having a group of volunteers label the part of speech for each word in the sentence on the board. The students in the class are then expected to look at the labels and to question them when they don’t seem to fit with what he or she understands. These questions often lead to rich discussions on the role of each part of speech, the relationships of the parts of speech to one another and the idea represented in the sentence as a whole.
In the sentence we analyzed on Friday, the students had two opportunities to contemplate the idea that often words can be more than one part of speech, depending on how they are used in the sentence. So while we may appear to be looking at the sentence one word at a time, we are always keeping the idea represented by the sentence in mind.
The first word questioned was ‘so’. Many of the students recognize it as a coordinating conjunction. That great question allowed us to revisit the role of a coordinating conjunction. It also allowed us to think about how the word was being used in the sentence. When the students thought about it in relation to the other words around it, it became obvious that in this particular sentence the word was an adverb. The second word questioned was ‘student’. Most of the time it is thought of as a noun. I especially loved the way Elizabeth recognized that it can be a noun … sometimes. Again, we need to look at it in the context of the sentence!
Looking back at the video, I realize that you can only see part of the two magnet charts I refer to at the top of my white board. The first one lays out the parts of the sentence in a visual way. Here is a better picture of it:
The students decide if the clause has an action verb or a linking verb. Then they know what to look for next. If they have an action verb, they look for a direct object. If there is one, then they look for an indirect object which will be found (if there is one) in front of the direct object.
I like this visual of the main sentence structures because I can incorporate the correct punctuation for each sentence structure as we find examples of each. Teaching grammar in this way is more intriguing to the students. With each sentence their confidence grows because they are asked to explain their thinking which helps them build their own sense of how grammar works.
In mid-December I read a blog post at Word Nerdery called “My Portmanteau is Packed; I’m Ready to Go“. I always enjoy reading Ann Whiting’s posts. To me it is like finding out your favorite author has written another chapter! I get comfortable and ready to savor what I’m about to read because I know it will sometimes tickle me, sometimes stump me, but always fascinate me!
Portmanteau words are something I’ve been intending to have my students explore, so I was especially interested in this post. My heart was saddened however, when I read what the inspiration was for this look into portmanteau words. Simply put, the word was smog. And it seems there was a lot of it in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Land being cleared for farming and palm oil plantations was leaving the air filled with noxious pollution. Without minimizing the seriousness of the situation she was surrounded by, Ann invited her readers to take a closer look at the word <smog>.
After finishing the post (and I encourage you to visit her blog and do the same), I was excited to see what my students would do with this topic. Over the next few days, as students came to me ready for a new orthographic investigation, I asked them to find out what they could about portmanteau words. First they were to find out what they were. Second they were to make a list of some of their favorites. It didn’t take long before they were huddled around computers, sharing their discoveries and often laughing at the strange images being brought to mind. Most were especially delighted by the imaginative blends that involved animals.
What fun! We went to the Gallery at Real Spelling and viewed the film on Blend Words (Portmanteau). We found out that there were three different ways to create a portmanteau. They can be juxtapositional, overlapping, or nested. We started to recognize some of those types in the examples we found.
Since we knew that Lewis Carroll was the one who started calling blend words “portmanteau words”, we decided to look at his famous poem to see which portmanteau words we could spot. What a treat! “Callooh! Callay!” Everyone looked a copy of the poem over on their own. Then I shared a youtube video I had found in which a very talented 10 year old recites this famous poem.
We talked a bit about how his recitation brought the poem (which seemed to be full of strange words that nobody knew) to life! Suddenly there was a story here! It still wasn’t perfectly clear, but the gist of it was! Then we compared that to Johnny Depp’s partial sharing of the poem.
The consensus was that this version was a bit creepier, yet we felt the pull of wanting to hear more.
We found the following portmanteau words:
slithy, which is a combination of slimy and lithe mimsy, which is a combination of miserable and flimsy
galumphing, which is a combination of gallop and triumphing
chortle, which is a combination of chuckle and snort
We played with the words of “The Jabberwocky” for days. We analyzed the grammar in some of the sentences. Here is a sample of that. I realized as I watched it back that the apostrophe in (‘Twas) was put in the wrong place. If it represents the missing letter, it needs to be before the letter <T>. The other thing I found out was Lewis Carroll may have intended the word ‘brillig’ to mean a certain time of day. If that is true, then it would be a noun and not an adjective. But it would still be a subject complement.
The students surprised themselves by being able to identify some grammatical structure to this sentence, which at first had only felt full of strange foreign words. Of course, we could make grammatical sense of this sentence because in English, it is the order of the words that helps signal relationships between the words in the sentence. We know that we expect to find adjectives before nouns. We know that we expect to find articles before nouns. We know the predictable parts of speech to look for following a preposition. And here is where I neatly planted a seed. Latin wasn’t like that. Word order was not that important. The Romans knew whether a word was a subject or an object by its suffix, and not by whether it was in front of or behind the predicate.
We finish with this recitation of The Jabberwocky. We thank Lewis Carroll, Word Nerdery and Real Spelling because these days we quote the Jabberwocky when it suits us, and we blurt out portmanteaus that we are inventing on the spot! We are changed!
I am always surprised when students new to fifth grade misspell words like makeing, comeing, and lazey. I’m surprised because they’ve been writing these words for many years. Obviously, they never understood whether to keep the <e> or to replace it when adding the suffix! I may be surprised, but I’m not particularly concerned. These are spelling errors I can help eliminate!
The following Suffix Flow Chart is borrowed with permission from Pete Bower’s book “Teaching How the Written Word Works”.
I made copies and had each student glue it in their Orthography notebook for future reference. To begin with, we read through the flow chart together. Someone read the first diamond. We imagined the answer was NO, and decided where we should go next. Then we went back and imagined the answer was YES, and followed the arrow to the next diamond. We kept reading and following arrows until we had read all the boxes in the flow chart. Now we were ready to practice using it.
I wrote the following word sum on the board:
smile + ing –>
Then I asked someone to read aloud the first question we must consider. Before that question was answered, we reviewed which morpheme was the base or stem and which was the suffix. They also wrote the vowel letters above the flow chart in their notebooks.
Now the question was read again and answered. “The suffix <-ing> begins with the vowel letter <i>, so the answer to the first question is YES.” We followed the arrow to the next diamond shape and read the question: Does the base or stem have a final, non-syllabic <e>? We looked at <smile> and agreed that the final <e> was indeed non-syllabic.
Then we followed the YES arrow to the final box where it said to remove the single, non-syllabic <e> before adding the suffix. At this point we crossed out the <e> at the end of <smile> and were ready to write the final spelling of the word.
Here is how the final word sum looked:
smile/ + ing –> smiling
Here is how the students practiced reading it:
“s-m-i-l-e plus i-n-g is rewritten as s-m-i-l NO e i-n-g”
When reading it aloud, the morphemes are spelled out. Always. The students recognize the absence of the letter <e> in the final spelling of the word by saying “NO e”, so that they are always cognizant of its place on the base or stem.
We went through a few more examples including the word sums “grate + ful” and “create + or”. Then I gave them each a list of word sums, had them glue it in their notebooks and let them practice using the Suffix Flow Chart independently.
Everyone got right to it. I would say that it took maybe three minutes before the questions began.
“I’m not sure about this one.”
“What is the first question to ask yourself on the flow chart?”
“Does the suffix begin with a vowel?”
“Well, does it?”
“So where does the flow chart direct you to next?”
“Does the base or stem have a final non-syllabic <e>?”
“Yes. But if I remove the <e>, the word doesn’t look right!”
Student after student said the same thing. And while I directed each one to a dictionary to check the spelling, I couldn’t help but notice a big problem. These students had been taught to judge whether a word was spelled correctly or not by whether or not it looked correct.
So I stopped the class and asked if my observation was accurate. In each of my three classes, 98% of the students said that they often wrote a word two or three different ways and then chose the spelling that looked correct.
So today I feel great. I gave them a more reliable option. Why not just rely on the simple rule beautifully laid out in the Suffix Flow Chart? No more guessing games. No more taking chances. A few less words to edit when getting ready to publish one’s writing. Who wouldn’t love it?
One last scripted video to end a rather remarkable school year! This one is “The Casting Call”. Enter a humble yet ambitious director who is longing to unveil a spectacular sentence at the upcoming “Seriously Sensational Sentence Festival”! The sentence that is identified as the most stupendous will win the Golden Grammar Goblet at the Golden Grammar Gala on the final night of the Festival.
In order to deserve such a prestigious honor, the director is calling for auditions. If he wants a truly amazing sentence, he needs to find out what each part of speech is and how a combination of those parts could indeed build a sentence beyond imagination! What he finds out is that each part of speech totally rocks, and that he has some interesting and difficult choices to make in the days ahead.