What Does It Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The school year ends, but the scholarship never does

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


False lizards? Pseudosaurs!

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


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


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


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

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

From Graduation to Tardigrades

It’s always difficult to be absent.  I spend a lot of time thinking about the right activity to leave for the students.  This week, I thought about the fact that my fifth graders will soon graduate from our elementary school and move on to the middle school.  I thought that it might be interesting to have them look closer at the word <graduation> and the family it is part of.  I decided to have them start by reading over a list of related words that I provided.  At the top of the page were the words ‘Latin gradus‘.  Beneath that I wrote the denotation of the Latin noun gradus – “a step; a step climbed; a step toward something; something rising by stages”Then they read the definitions for each word out loud and talked as a whole class about how each word related back to the denotation given.  Here is the list of words they were given.

graduation  – When you have reached the top step in something, and there is a celebration.

grade – a degree of measurement.

gradually – something happening in stages.

gradual – something happening in stages.

grading – assign a number to.

graded – having assigned a number to something.

grader – person who assigns a number to something.

upgrade – upward slope – something a step better.

graduate – one who holds a degree or reached a step in education.

downgrade – a downward slope – something a step worse.

centigrade – divided into 100 degrees, as a scale.

degrade – a step worse in condition – to break down or deteriorate.

gradient – an inclined part of a road – a slope.

tardigrade – slow stepper – a water-dwelling, eight-legged,  micro-animal.

plantigrade – the way humans walk  on their soles with heels touching the ground.

retrograde – directed or moving (stepping) backward.

After having read and discussed each word, they were to think about what the modern English base might be for this group of words.  After they established that, they were to write a word sum for each word and then to fill in a blank matrix that was provided.

The day I returned, I looked over the matrices they had turned in.  I was surprised to see that a few students thought that <grad> was the base, and that <e> was a suffix.  Considering that, I began to wonder what other misunderstandings were out there.  I decided to repeat the part of the activity in which the matrix was filled in, so I could talk about the choices made and hear the students vocalize the reasons for those choices.  I made a video of what I did with one of my three classes.  It went similarly in all three classes.

As we went through this activity, I was reassured that many of the students have a great understanding of the structure of words.  I wish you could have seen the anxious hand fluttering in the front row when Ana recognized that of <up>, <down>, <de>, and <retro>, only <de> was a prefix!  The other three had in common the fact that they were bases and would be part of a compound word when joined with <grade>!

As usual, this dive into structured word inquiry led us to a few more fascinating orthographical finds!  We talked a bit about the word retrograde, and how retro, which is now used as an adjective, is actually of clip of retrograde.  I asked if they knew the word retrospect.  I used it in a the following sentence:  “In retrospect, I shouldn’t have used so much fertilizer on my radishes!”  Since we had recently experimented with growing radishes, students understood that I meant “looking back”.  We also talked about what kinds of things were considered retro – things like clothing, music, hairstyles, dances, and more.

Next we looked at an extreme close up of a tardigrade.

(This undated image released by Bob Goldstein and Vicki Madden taken with an electron microscope, shows a micro-animal “tardigrade” also known as a water bear, at the UNC in Chapel Hill, N.C. In Jan. 2015. Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3015185/Alien-life-midst-incredible-creatures-Antarctica-revealed.html#ixzz4h0jHmVxv )

What a fascinating creature this “slow stepper” is!  It can withstand extreme temperatures at both ends of the spectrum as well as extreme pressures and radiation!  After we looked at a few Googled images, the students begged to know more.  I found this video:

Watching a tardigrade rehydrate was especially interesting.  It is thought that when they curl up and lose all but a bit of their water, they can exist for quite a while.  The word ‘cryptobiosis’ was used to describe this state.  We had to pause and think about that word.  We knew from previous word studies that <bi> was Greek for “life”,  and we had recently come across <crypt> as we were doing a special pseudosaur project based on what we saw happening in Skot Caldwell’s classroom.  The Greek base <crypt> has to do with hiding, and according to Etymonline, <osis> is “a word forming element expressing state or condition.”  If you put all that together, we can understand the word ‘cryptobiosis’ to be the “state of hiding life”.

After watching this video, we wondered if we would find tardigrades in our own woods behind our school.  My husband, who used to work at a water treatment plant, said they are commonly found in the water.  As a matter of fact, about ten years ago he shot a video through his microscope lens and suspects that there were tardigrades present.  I can’t wait to look again at the video and share it with my students.   We just never know where a word investigation will take us.   This ended up being such a fun discovery kind of day!


Now Presenting … Our Orthographic Caboodle!

Ever have a student finish an assignment before everyone else and ask, “What should I do now?”  Recently I asked everyone to write an editorial.  We all started at the same point, but once the writing started, everyone was in their own lane and working at their own pace.  When the first few were done, they asked that question.  “What should we do now?”   I gave them things to investigate.  Some finished their first investigation and asked for a second.  All the while, other students were still working on their writing.  And it was all good.  No one felt rushed in their task.

We have moved on from editorial writing, but in the meantime, I assigned three more projects.  One involved partner work in which students investigated Latin verbs. They removed Latin suffixes to see whether their particular Latin verb became a modern English unitary base or a set of twin bases.   (They will be featured in a future blog post.)  Then a poem was assigned in which the students were to use the digits of Pi to determine how many words would be on each line.  (They will be featured in a future blog post.)   The third project involved creating a pseudosaur.  Inspired by the work of Skot Caldwell’s Grade 5 students (use this link) in Canada, we wanted to create our own.  Most of the students are still working on those.  But that also means that plenty of students have finished all major projects and continue to ask for things to work on.  I’m loving it.  Students are investigating all sorts of things!

The unplanned investigations have been of benefit to all of us because the investigator presents his or her findings with the class.  This gives us the opportunity to talk about lots and lots of things we might not have talked about otherwise.  I am thrilled.  Here are some examples of the types of investigations going on:

Looking at specific letters and noticing that that letter can represent several pronunciations, depending on the word it’s in.


This type of investigation gave us the opportunity to talk about the investigated letter being initial, medial, or final in the word.  We also had the opportunity to begin learning about IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet).  The IPA is a standardized representation of the sounds of spoken language.  In looking at each of these symbols, we have paused to feel where in our mouths we vocalize these letter representations.  In doing so we have better understood the symbols.  For example, when pronouncing the <t> in <tap>, we felt our tongue tips touch the ridge right behind our teeth just before air pushed it off.  When pronouncing the <t> in <partial>, we noticed that our tongues came close to that ridge, but never actually touched it.  When we pronounced the <t> in <question>, our tongues once again touched the ridge, but in a different way than with <tap>.  It was more the sides of our tongues.  What we heard reminded us of the pronunciation of <ch>.

One other interesting thing that was observed is that when the <t> is represented with a /tʃ/ pronunciation as it is in question, the <t> is usually followed by either an <ion> suffix or an <ure> suffix.  We compared that to the suffixes on the words in which the <t> is represented with a /ʃ/ as it is in imagination.  Most of the words on this list had an <ion> suffix.  That raised the question of why the <t> is pronounced as /tʃ/ in question, but /ʃ/ in imagination?  The thought was that there was an <s> in front of the <t> in question, and that wasn’t the case in any of the words in which the <t> was pronounced as /ʃ/.  So our hypothesis was that the <s> affected the pronunciation of the <t> in the word question.  It was agreed that we needed to gather more evidence.

The look at <c> was interesting too.  After Alexis finished collecting words in which the <c> was pronounced /s/ and in which the <c> was pronounced /k/, I asked her to look at the letters following the <c>.  She came back and reported that when the <c> was pronounced /s/, it was followed by either an <e>, <i>, or <y>.  If the <c> was pronounced /k/, it was followed by either an <a>, <o>, <u> or a consonant.  We practiced reading the words out loud and took turns explaining the phonology of the <c> in each word.  Then we looked at words with two <c>’s, explaining the pronunciation of each one.  In the end, one student suggested we create an activity to take to the second grade classroom so they could learn this too!

Another letter we looked at was <d>.  I asked Oliver to investigate three pronunciations of <d>.  He collected words in which the <d> was pronounced /d/, in which it was pronounced as /ɾ/, and in which it was pronounced /dʒ/.  When sharing this with the class, we all talked about the way we pronounce <d> as /ɾ/.  Even though we see two <d>’s, we hardly pronounce a clear /d/ at all.  With a word like <glad>, we feel our tongue touch the ridge behind our teeth.  With a word like <wedding>, our tongue barely touches the ridge!  We quickly pronounce the two <d>’s as barely one!  When Oliver read off the list of words in which the <d> is pronounced /dʒ/, we talked about why these words might sometimes be misspelled.   Someone pointed out that in every word, the <d> was followed by a <u>.  We wondered if that is always the case ( we realized this was a very short list and wasn’t a big enough collection from which to draw conclusions).

Looking at specific digraphs and noticing that that digraph can represent several pronunciations, depending on the word it’s in.

In looking at the <ch> digraph, we recognized the IPA symbols /tʃ/ and /ʃ/ again.  We were now becoming familiar with the pronunciation represented by those IPA symbols.  We practiced feeling where those pronunciations were made in our mouths again.  We noticed that when the <ch> is represented by /tʃ/, the <ch> can be initial or final in the word.  We recognized that many of the words in which the <ch> is represented by /k/ are from Greek.  We agreed that we couldn’t assume all of them were since we hadn’t looked them up.  (I put “checking out the origin of these <ch> word with a pronunciation of /k/” on the list of possible future investigations for some curious student.)  When we read the list of words in which the <ch> is represented by the pronunciation /ʃ/, I asked if anyone knew if many of these originated in a specific language.  They guessed it was Spanish, so I added this list of words to my “list of possible investigations for some curious student” as well.  It will be interesting to find out the language origin of these words.  When the presenter hesitated to pronounce <chalet>, but did not hesitate with <crochet> and <ricochet>, I asked him what all three had in common.  I pointed out that they were from the same language and would be pronounced the same.  He pronounced it, but was totally unfamiliar with the word, so we talked about what it meant.

Comparing <ge> to <dge>, <ch> to <tch>, and <k> to <ck>.  If they represent the same pronunciation, when is each used?


The investigation comparing <k> to <ck> was completed by Ana and was presented on Google Slides, so I am sharing screen shots. We noticed  interesting things here!   We noticed  that <dge>, <tch>, and <ck> were final in the words looked at by the students and were always preceded by a short vowel.  Ana noticed that when <k> was final in a word, it was preceded by either a vowel digraph or a consonant.  Brayden noticed that when <ge> was final in a word, it was preceded by either a long vowel or a consonant.  When the <ge> was preceded by a short <a>, that <a> was part of the <age> suffix.

Comparing British English spelling to American English spelling

I asked Jada and Natasha to find differences between British English spelling and American English spelling.  Most were familiar with the difference between words like favourite and favorite, but were surprised at organise and organize.  You can’t see in these pictures, but lower on Natasha’s poster she compared words like centre and center.  We have talked about that list of words and how it makes better sense to spell the base with an <re> finally instead of <er>.  Think of this word sum using the British English spelling of the base: <centre> + <al> –> <central>.  Now think of this word sum using the American English spelling of the base:  <center> [<cent(e)r(e)] + <al> –> <central>.  We have to think of the base as having a potential <e> both in front of and behind the <r>.  Wouldn’t you agree that the word sum using the British English spelling of the base is more elegant and straightforward?  Now ask yourself why we have different spellings for British English and for American.  The answer is Noah Webster.

In 1807 Noah Webster, who was a very educated man, set out to write a comprehensive dictionary.  It was completed in 1828 and called The American Dictionary of the English Language.  It was his belief that English spellings were too complex, so he made some changes to certain words and created American English spellings.  He preferred color to colour, meter to metre, license to licence among others.  He also added American words (skunk and squash) which had not been listed in British dictionaries.  He set out to make things easier, but in some ways mucked things up!  This is a great reminder that dictionaries are written by real people!

<f> and <ve> have a very special relationship

This was Saveea’s investigation.  She started by collecting words that had an <f> when singular but the <f> was replaced with a <ve> when the word was written as a plural.  In her search she came across some other words that had one form with an <f> and another form with <ve>.  We couldn’t think of others to add to the list at that moment, but we are keeping it in mind and hope to find more examples!

Words whose meaning has changed drastically over time

Petra enjoyed investigating <terrific> and <nice>.   She decided that a timeline for each would best tell the story of how the meaning changed over time.  If we begin by looking at terrific, we see that in 1660, it meant “frightening”.  In 1809 the meaning was more of “very great or severe” as in a terrific headache.  By 1888 it meant “excellent” as in a terrific idea!   Now when we look at nice, we see that in the 12th century it meant “careless, clumsy, poor and weak”.  By the 13th century it meant “foolish, stupid, senseless”.  How about that?  In the 1300’s it meant “fussy, fastidious”.  In the 1400’s it meant “dainty and delicate”.  In the 1500’s it meant “agreeable or delightful”.  By 1769 it was being used to mean “kind and thoughtful”.  Isn’t that a turn around in meaning?  Since learning this information, when someone uses the word nice in class,  someone else always asks, “Do you mean 12th century nice or present day nice?”  We are definitely having fun with these!

Oliver investigated the word <fabulous>.  He found out that in the early 15th century it meant “mythical and legendary”.  In the 1550’s it meant “pertaining to fable”.  In the 1600’s it took on a meaning of “incredible or enormous, immense, and amazing.”  Ever since the 1950’s it has been trivialized to merely “marvelous or terrific”.  We had a great discussion about the fact that it was trivialized in it’s meaning between the 1600’s and present day.  In the 1600’s, there must have been a feeling of awe surrounding its use that has been lost.

On the left side of Oliver’s poster, he began in the middle with the uniliteral base <f> with the denotation “say, speak, talk” (from Latin fari).  Follow the orange line to <fable> which is built from the base <f> and suffix <able>, and then to <fabulous> “that which is celebrated in fable”.  Fabulous, fabulously, and fabulousness all share the base <fabul>.  At this point, Oliver’s orange lines take you in two directions.  The line to the left takes you to the portmanteau <fantabulous>.  Oliver enjoyed looking at portmanteau words earlier this year and recognized this one right away.  The other orange line takes you to <fab> and let’s you know it is a clip of <fabulous>.  If you follow the line to the top, you’ll see the the word <fab> was popularized by reference to the Beatles!   From the discussions I had with Oliver during his research, I could easily follow his visual on the left.  I hope I’ve helped it be clear to you as well!

We put these investigations on pause when we need to.  Earlier this week I asked the students to write their own graduation speech.  But within two or three days,as students finish that, they eagerly get back to these.  Currently, there are other investigations going on as well.  I have students looking at assimilated prefixes, frequentative suffixes, and diminutive suffixes.  As you can imagine, each investigation broadens the understanding of how amazing, fascinating, and alive the English language is!  These students love investigating because they love learning! 

“Learn to see what you are looking at.” –Christopher Paolini

The first time I heard the term phonestheme mentioned, I was taking an online class.  The presenter was talking about words that have in common a specific set of letters representing a specific pronunciation. The surprising thing is that the words also share a broad meaning.  Let me give you an example:  The letter string <gr> is initial in the following words:  groan, growl, gruff, grump, grunt, grouch, grate and grief.  Pretty obvious, right?  Now when you stop and think about the meaning of each of those words, there is a common theme here.  It is one of low unpleasant sounds.   Cool, huh?

Here’s another:  The letter string <ump> is final in the following words:  bump, dump, stump, lump, slump, hump, and rump.  When you stop and think of the meaning of each word, there is a shared sense of heavy and compactness, isn’t there? Once you begin an investigation of your own, you will be surprised at how many of these phonesthemes there are.  If you are like me, you will ask yourself, “How could something be right there in front of me all my life, yet I didn’t see it?”

With phonesthemes, it takes a bit of slowing down and thinking about each word to really appreciate what has happened here.  These words share a sound and a broad meaning without sharing a heritage.  They do not all originate from the same language, and they do not all share a root.  It makes a phonestheme all the more fascinating.  When I ask my students to investigate phonesthemes,  they willingly agree.  It seems like such a simple assignment.  If the phonestheme is initial, I recommend they grab a dictionary so they can check to make sure there is a shared sense of meaning.  A surprising number of words have phonesthemes, but just because a word has a letter combination (<gr> for instance),  it doesn’t necessarily mean the word shares this phonestheme for sure.  Here are some of the posters my students created.

So now what?  My students have each had the opportunity to collect words that fit as a particular phonestheme.   Last year I asked my students to write poems using a particular phonestheme.  Some of the poems were fantastic.  Some felt forced.  I wanted to have them write, but we needed to talk about poetry in general first and the role sounds of pronounced words play.

I pulled out my new book by Michael Clay Thompson, A World of Poetry.  I read to them, “Poetry is not just expression in words.  It is also expression in sounds.  Poets compose sounds; they choose words that contain the sounds they need, and then they arrange the words into a composition that is an artistic combination of words and sounds.”

I read more from his book.   We talked about the vowels and the consonants, and how some consonants are breathy (like /s/, /f/, or /h/).  We said aloud other consonants like /v/,  /j/, and /z/ and found them to be hummy and buzzy.  We talked about how some pronounced letters remind us of movements or nature sounds.  I read examples of poems with end rhyme, internal rhyme, eye rhyme, and even no rhyme at all.  And then we were ready to play, to experiment, to explore.

The directions were to go out into the hall and look at all the phonestheme posters completed by classmates.  While reading the lists of words, they were to think of something to write a poem about. It was to be a poem that could incorporate words from several lists.  The words needed to fit.  I was not looking for every other word to be a phonestheme, and the poem to be about nothing.

I let them think through this and begin writing for about 15 minutes.  Then we stopped and talked again.  Some really knew what I was looking for, some did not.  I asked for some volunteers to share what they were working on so far.  I have found that this step gives the students who are unsure a better idea of what others are writing, and then they are able to think of what to write for themselves.  The point was to use the feel and meaning of the words with phonesthemes to improve the feel and meaning of the poem!  Here are a few of the finished poems.

The Former World Has Passed Away

The former world
has passed away.

All trees
have turned to stumps.
Lush lands
have turned to dumps
as we attacked each other
with fire and metal.

Now the only
beauty in the world
is the glimmering glaze
of stars above.

                                                   ~ Perry

The Wind

You swish my hair as I walk by
You blow like a trumpet
yet sometimes you’re hard to find

You knock leaves off trees
You push logs to the river
You swoosh and move plants

Blowing, moving,
huffing and puffing
in your courageous way

If only I was as powerful as you,



He fled.
With a whoosh
he was gone –
gone down
that glossy field.

No time to flinch.
No time to whimper.

He was a flash,
a glimmer of speed,
a whisper taken away,
a glowing star.

The flick of his feet,
the glamor of his stride,
and when he finished,
a glint of pride.


My Little Sister and Me

My little sister
flings dust
in the places
I already swept
because I told her
to get out of the room.

I get so mad
I hit her.
She whacks me back.
I flip out,
my anger
flashing in flames.


Roots of the Past

See that stump?
It used to be a tree.
Now it’s just a clump
of what it used to be.

The tree is dead.
The stump is here.
The canopy’s lost its head.
The poor tree’s fate is clear.

Forever eternal



The swoosh of air that I feel
as I enter the water to swim.

The sweat tearing off my skin
into the swaying water.

Swoosh!  I pass everyone else
swimming next to me.

And that sweep of success
when I swoosh into the wall.


The Candle

There was a candle
so bright and new
until somebody lit it.

The flame flickered and flicked
and magically grew.
It glittered and glistened
and gleamed out of sight
and swiftly swooped down
and died in the light.


I saw this poetry writing as an opportunity to play with words as one might play with Play-Doh.  We don’t always know where we are going to end up, but we start by picking something to create.  Then we add and take away  and keep doing that until we are pleased enough to share.



To my Valentine … the valiant valedictorian of my heart!

Just last week we started talking about Latin verbs and their principal parts.  We looked at several Latin verbs and practiced identifying which of the 4 principal parts is helpful to us as orthographers.  We became a bit familiar with the infinitive suffixes that can be removed.  We became familiar with the supine suffix and stem suffixes that can be removed.  We practiced recognizing whether or not the removal of those Latin suffixes resulted in a modern English unitary base or modern English twin bases.  Then the students searched for words that shared those bases (and denotations).  That was just last week.

Today I wrote the following principal parts on the board along with this Latin verb’s denotation:

          valeo    valere    valui    valitus
“be strong, influential, healthy, of worth”

I asked, “Which two parts are we going to work with as orthographers?”  As students gave answers, I had them come to the board and label the second and fourth parts.  Then I asked, “What is the infinitive suffix we can remove?”  Several hands went up and I asked someone to come up and draw a single line through it.  Next I asked, “What is the past participle suffix that can be removed off the supine?”  I chose a volunteer to come and cross it off.  But before I could ask my next question (Is there a stem suffix?), a student waved her hand and said, “There’s a stem suffix too!”  I had her draw a line through it as well.  Lastly I asked someone to come and write what was left of the infinitive next to what was left of the supine, so we could compare the spellings.  Here is what this ended up looking like on the board:

Next I put the students in random groups of 3 or 4.  I told them I wanted to see which group could find the longest list of words that share this base.  They had to be able to prove that their word shared the base <val(e)> and was not just a word that coincidentally had that same string of letters.  I also told them that if they found unfamiliar words there were to jot down a quick definition so that they could explain how the word related to the denotation of the base.

I don’t normally set up orthography work in a timed fashion, but I wanted the students to be focused and to work productively.  Sometimes, with longer term projects, I see them working at a slower pace.  I wanted to see what would happen.  See for yourself.

I was very impressed and knew that after 20 minutes it was time to share our findings.  I shared a matrix for <vale> on the Smartboard and asked each group to look for the words they found on the matrix.  I told them that even though this matrix looks complete, it probably isn’t.  A word they found might not be on the matrix.

As they shared words off their lists, we talked about how we would use the word and what its connection was to the denotation of <vale>.  Then a volunteer wrote its word sum on the board.  They used the matrix to double check their hypothesis of the word sum.  We went from group to group, writing words they found on the board.  It didn’t take long before the board looked like this:

What rich discussions about each word.  Tomorrow we will talk some more about this family of words and which words the students didn’t expect to find!

“Words are how we think. Stories are how we link.” ~Christina Baldwin

You know the practice of teaching someone a new language by immersing them in that language?  Putting them in a situation where no other language is spoken or written?  I imagine it is a bit scary and frustrating at first for the learner, but I also imagine the new language is acquired more quickly and spoken more fluently than with other methods.  Well, a little less dramatically, that is what I do when I ask my students to investigate and report on a word of their choosing.  Yes, we have investigated words together as a large group, and yes, the students have investigated words with a partner, but all-by-yourself is different.

Some feel like they have been plunked into the vast ocean of information at Etymonline with only swimmies (little experience) to help them navigate.  Others have surfaced successfully with a smile and a cool story about their word.  Regardless, all students need my guidance.  For several days, I hear my name so often it is crazy!  But every question needs to be honored and every student needs to be steered in the direction of the information they are seeking.  Some need explanations for concepts and ideas that are so new to them.  Often times these explanations become something I bring to everyone’s attention – whether it be that day or just put on a list for another day in which we can spend time collecting more examples that will make the concept more visible.

Because I teach orthography, writing, grammar and science in a 90 minute block to three groups of fifth graders, the students work on these posters for only a portion of their time with me.  They do not finish these in a day and only a few finish within a week and a half.  For some it even takes a month.  But no worries.  Sometimes the students who finish more quickly ask to investigate a second word.  Sometimes I give them something else to investigate.  By the end of a month and a half, I have students working at different places on different projects.   The students like working at their own pace.  It doesn’t feel like a race.  At some point, I decide which investigations are required and I make a list on the board.  Once everyone has completed the items on the list, we are ready to move on as a class.

Here are some pictures of the hallway outside my room.  My students have named it our “Word Gallery”.

These posters are across the hall from each other, so if you are reading one wall of words, you need only turn around to look at some more.  When I look at them now that they are finished, I remember so many of the conversations that took place during each investigation.  For instance:

When Alex asked to investigate <inimitable>, I said he sure could, but wondered what his connection to this word was.  When he said he heard it used in the Broadway show “Hamilton”, then I knew it was a good choice for him.  (He and I share a love of the soundtrack!)  Following the links in Etymonline, Alex was able to collect a lot of related words right away.  As he followed the first hyperlink to <imitable>, I saw this: [1550s, from French imitable (16c.), from Latin imitabilis “that may be imitated,” from imitari “to copy, portray”].  Having taken Latin 1 and Latin 2 Spellinars at Real Spelling, I recognized the Latin verb imitari.  I told Alex that if he searched imitari at Etymonline, he would get a list of words derived from it.  The words that came up were:


As we looked at this list together, I asked him if he could see which letters they all had in common.  What might the base be?  Because of the word ‘image’, the common factor was <im>.  I asked about words with an <age> suffix.  Between the two of us we thought of package, postage, and footage.  That made it feel obvious that the base would be <im>.  Except that we must always consider the potential of a final <e> on the base.  If we spell the base as <im> and then add a vowel suffix such as <age>, won’t that force the doubling of the <m> as it does in cottage and baggage?  Since there isn’t a doubled <m> in ‘image’, we thought that the bound base should be spelled <ime>.  That made sense in the word sum <ime> + <age>.  Then Alex started looking at the other words on the list and building word sums for each.  I turned his attention to ‘imitate’ and ‘imitation’.  Alex knew that <ion> was a suffix in ‘imitation’.  I asked if the remaining letters were a familiar word.  At the same time he said “imitate”, be said “Ohhh.”  I replace the <e> that was covered up by the <ion>.  In this fashion he worked through the word sums before he made his matrix.  I see that on his poster, he has the word sum for ‘inimitability’ as <in> + <ime> + <it> + <able> + <il> + <ity>.  It’s interesting to me that he didn’t recognize that what he thinks he hears there is already in the suffix <able>.  I have noticed that with several students.  I think it must be the transition between working with syllables and working with morphemes.  They are still looking for syllable type chunks that are about sound in and of themselves rather than recognizing that pronunciation within a morpheme considering stress shifts that might occur.

My favorite part of Alex’s poster? When he asks his viewer to “Think about it.  Inimitable means something can not be imitated and image is a copy of imitation of the original.  Imitation and image share a meaning by copying the original thing.”  Alex now understands the meaning of this word, the structure of this word, and how this word relates to others in its family. Boom!

Here’s another:

Frankie chose the word ‘animals’.  She mentions on her poster that it was attested in the early 14th century, but not used often until the 16th century.  What Frankie didn’t mention is that ‘beast’ was the preferred term prior to the 16th century.  The delightful part of the story with this word was the relationship between the words ‘animal’ and ‘animation’.  As Frankie says, “Animate has something to do with bringing something to life.”  It’s like giving a drawings a life and making drawn characters breathe and move as if alive.

What’s interesting about the word ‘animosity’ is that when attested in the early 15th century, it had a sense of vigor and bravery.  But by the 16th century, it had a sense of “active, hostile feeling”.  Over time, the sense of vigor and bravery disappeared from this word completely.

As Frankie was preparing to make a matrix by writing out the word sums, she noticed the suffix <ate> and how many suffixes could follow it.  We talked about the <or> suffix and recalled an earlier classroom discussion about it often being an agent suffix.  So an animator is a person who does animation.  I also mentioned to Frankie that when a base takes an <ion> suffix, it can also take an <or> suffix.  As an example, ‘animation’ can become ‘animator’ if the <ion> suffix is replaced with an <or > suffix.  Other examples are ‘creation’ and ‘creator’, ‘action’ and ‘actor’, and ‘invention’ and ‘inventor’.  When we compare the agent suffix <or> to the agent suffix <er>, we see that bases that can take an <er> cannot take an <ion> suffix.  Look at ‘baker’, ‘dancer’, ‘banker’, ‘healer’, or ‘jumper’.

Here’s another one:

Saveea’s word gave us the opportunity to talk about frequentative suffixes.  I shared what she and I discovered with all three classes.  The <le> suffix on ‘spark’ lets us know that the action is ongoing.  There wasn’t just a spark and then it stopped.  It kept on catching our eye because it kept going.  It was a sparkle!  The <le> suffix is also a frequentative suffix in ‘crackle’, ‘crinkle’, ‘tremble’, and ‘waddle’.  See?  These are ongoing activities, and the <le> suffix tells us that!

Here’s another:

Alexis thought it would be fun to find out more about the word ‘octopus’.  She wasn’t disappointed!  She remembered being in my Orthography summer school class where we spent time looking at the Greek alphabet.  So she wrote this word that was originally a Greek work in Greek!  She told a great (and true) story about the plural of ‘octopus’ being ‘octopodes’ at one time.  Many people still use that plural form.

Over time, people noticed what happens to ‘stimulus’ and ‘fungus’ and ‘alumnus’ when they change to the plural form.  The <us> switches to an <i> suffix.  They become ‘stimuli’, ‘fungi’, and ‘alumni’.  Since ‘octopus’ has what looks like the same final <us> in its singular form, people assumed it would be made plural in the same way and become ‘octopi’.  But the thing is … stimulus, fungus, and alumnus are of Latin origin and they follow Latin suffixing conventions.  Octopus is of Greek origin and follows Greek suffixing conventions.  If you pluralize ‘octopus’, the proper plural form is either ‘octopodes’ or ‘octopuses’.

Here’s another:

When Zoey picked ‘like’, she didn’t expect to find such an interesting story!  The first thing she found out is that it has been many different parts of speech!  Then she found out the original spelling was gilik.  If you cover up the first two letters, it looks like our present day spelling (minus the final <e>).   Zoey and I enjoyed talking about the Old English pronunciation of this word.   The <ġ> was pronounced [j] as in Modern English yes.  The <i>was pronounced  [i] as in Modern English feet.

The other fun thing with this word is how easy it was to build a rather large matrix!  I appreciated having the opportunity to discuss the base ‘busy’ and that when adding the <ness> suffix, the <y> becomes an <i>.  This happens with bases that have a consonant in front of the final <y>.  Other examples are when happy becomes happiness or lazy becomes laziness.

Here’s another:

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“Please don’t judge me on my looks!”

Have you ever written a word spelled two different ways on the side of your paper, and then tried to decide which one looked right?  Of course you have.  Lots of people do it every day.  When we decide whether or not it looks right, what are we basing that decision on?  Well, we are trying to remember what the word looked like the last time we wrote it down, or what it looked like when we first memorized its spelling.  But you have to wonder this:  if we already memorized its spelling, why are we still unsure?  Should we blame our memory?  Our memorizing strategies?

How about rethinking the way we teach spelling?  Typically, students are given a list of “related words” to study.  I used quotes because the relationship among the words is usually based on similarly pronounced vowels and is unreliable at best.  For years I taught spelling in this way.  Our textbook listed the pattern of the week as (let’s say) long /e/.  The students would help me brainstorm all the letter patterns that might be used in words to achieve the long /e/.  We thought of <ee> as in feet, <ea> as in read, <ei> as in receive, <ie> as in field, <e> as in scene, and <ui> as in suite.  But at the end of the day, how was that helpful?  The task of memorizing the words wasn’t easier.  It was now up to the students to memorize which word contained which letter combination.  I was not able to explain why a specific letter sequence was used in a specific word.  When you really think about it, I wasn’t teaching anything that was helpful because I wasn’t giving them any understanding about how our language works.  Currently, many schools have students sort words into piles so that they see the words over and over which will supposedly help the student remember the spelling when the student uses the word.  See?  Students are still being taught to judge a spelling by its looks.

What if we didn’t pick a false spelling pattern to focus on for the week?  What if we picked a base instead?  What if the list of words our students worked on for the week were words that were really and truly related?  In order for two words to be related, they need to share an ancestor (etymon).  And when they share an ancestor, they will also share meaning (denotation).

For example, last week I decided to focus on the bound base <fer>.  Its ancestor is the Latin verb ferre, “to bring, to bear”.  All of the present day English words that share this bound base will share its meaning as well.  The addition of prefixes and suffixes will affect how we think of the denotation “to bring or to bear”.

I wrote the bound base on the board along with its Latin root and denotation.  Then I wrote the word ‘conference’.  I asked students to tell me what they hypothesized the word sum to be?  The fact that I already had the base of this word on the board, helped them focus on the affixes.  Someone suggested <con> + <fer> + <ence>.   We talked about the prefix <con> and that in this word it brings a sense of ‘together’.  A conference is the bringing of people together to talk to and to listen to each other.  I also pointed out that this same prefix can sometimes be an intensifier.  In the word ‘confidence’ for example, the <con> prefix brings a sense of intensely trusting (the bound base <fide> from Latin fidere “to trust”).  I was also able to discuss the idea of assimilated prefixes, and that depending on the letter following the prefix, the prefix <con> might also be spelled <com> (complete) or <co> (costar).  The suffix <ence> gives us some grammatical information. It indicates that this word is a noun.

So what have my students just learned about this word?

1)   They have learned that this word (like all words) has a structure.  It is the structure that is reliable in helping spell the words we use daily.  It is the structure that reveals the meaning of the word and the language of origin (which helps us understand many things about spelling).

2)  They have learned that a prefix is found before the base.  Sometimes prefixes have assimilated, and if we recognize the variation in spelling among these prefixes, we will recognize that those variations represent one prefix, not many.

3)  They have learned that a prefix doesn’t have a denotation in the same way that a base does.  A prefix can sometimes simply intensify the base’s meaning.

4)  They have learned that a suffix can give grammatical information.

The next word I wrote on the board was ‘different’.  Again I asked for someone to hypothesize a word sum.  Someone suggested <dif> + <fer> + <ent>.  The prefix <dif> is another example of an assimilated prefix.  Depending on the first letter of the morpheme that follows the prefix, it might also be spelled <dis> as in dismiss or <di> as in digest.  In the word ‘different’, the prefix brings a sense of “apart from”.   So when something is different, it is carried apart from the rest.  The suffix <ent> is used with both adjectives and nouns.  With the word ‘different’, the students agreed that <ent> indicated an adjective, but with the word ‘student’ it would indicate a noun.  They made these decisions by thinking of how they would use these words in a sentence.

The next word I wrote on the board was ‘suffer’.  When I asked for a word sum hypothesis, most all students were now confident enough to raise their hands.  Someone suggested <suf> + <fer>.  Once again I had the opportunity to talk about assimilated prefixes.  This suffix can also be spelled <sug> as in suggest, <sub> as in subtract  and <suc> as in succeed.  It can bring a sense of under, beneath, behind, a little, and close to (as well as other things depending on the base it is paired with).  The word ‘suffer’ has to do with bearing either pain, punishment, or some kind of judgement.  The suffix brings a sense of under.  It is thought that when we suffer, we bear the pain under our hearts.  It’s why we say our chest hurts when we have emotional pain.

In order to help the students understand why prefixes have assimilated to these various spellings, I show them what this word would look like if the <sub> spelling were used.  I write ‘subfer’ on the board.  Then I ask them to say the word.  Then I ask them to say it five times.  What always happens is that they end up saying ‘suffer’.  The final <b> in the prefix assimilated to an <f> because the first letter of the next morpheme is an <f>.  Then we looked back at the previous two words to see that the final <s> in <dis> also assimilated to an <f> because the bound base <fer> begins with an <f>.  And this observation led to the important distinction that the word ‘different’ has two <f>’s because one is part of the prefix and one is part of the base.  The students won’t have to try to remember whether there is one <f> or two if they understand the structure.

The next word on the board was ‘offer’.  Someone suggested that the word sum would be <of> + <fer>.  At this point the students are catching on that the base in the words I am using is constant and what changes are the affixes.  Again we have the opportunity to talk about the prefix <of> and how it is an assimilated form of <ob>.  We go back to the word ‘suffer’ and remind ourselves that the prefix <sub> had a final <b> as well that assimilated to an <f> when paired with this base.  It is also a great opportunity to point out the difference between the prefix <of> and the preposition ‘of ‘.  Finally, I pointed out that the prefix <of> brings a sense of to or toward to the base.  When something is offered, it is brought forward.

At this point I asked for questions or reflective comments.  The students felt that this was pretty straight forward.  They understood and thought the idea of assimilated prefixes was interesting, even if they weren’t totally solid on recognizing them yet.

I was ready to point out the reason I picked this base in the first place!  I drew their attention back to the words ‘conference’ and ‘different’.  We all read both words aloud.  Then I shared that these two words get misspelled often by people.  I wondered if they could pinpoint what the misspelling might be.  One person suggested that ‘different’ might only have one <f>.  Again I was able to reiterate how important it is to understand the structure of a word.  If you know the prefix, base and suffix of this word, spelling is less stressful.  It is simply spelling out the morphemes and considering any suffixing conventions that might apply.

The next suggested misspelling is the one I see most often, and the one I was hoping to highlight.  A student pointed out that the <e> in the base <fer> gets left out.  Exactly! We were able to talk about pronunciation differences between the word confer and conference, and how as speakers of the language we tend to say *confrence rather than conference.  The <e> is so unstressed in this word (AND in the word different) that it’s as if it isn’t there!  This is one reason (one big reason) students should be taught to spell words using morphemes rather than pronunciation!  The spelling of the base does not change, even when the pronunciation (as affixes are joined to the base) does!

The following day I asked them to take out a piece of paper.  I read some these words, and also a few others that share the <fer> base.  My expectation is that they would write down the word sum as such:

con + fer + ence –>  conference

I read the following 7 words, along with a definition for each that tied the meaning back to the base <fer>.  I also used the word in a sentence:


After the students had written these on their paper in this fashion, I asked for volunteers to write the word sums on the board.  We had a lovely discussion about ‘conifer’.  Some recognized it would be a compound word with an <i> connecting vowel, but none recognized that the first base would be <cone> and not <con>.  I pointed out that conifer means cone bearing, so the <con> we see has a final <e>. It was replaced by the connecting vowel <i> when the two morphemes joined.  I also pointed out that even though the prefix <con> in ‘conference’ is pronounced the same as the base <con> in ‘conifer’, it doesn’t mean they are the same morpheme with the same function!  As word scientists, it is our responsibility to provide evidence to support our hypotheses.  **Yet another reason to break away from judging a word’s spelling by its looks alone!

With the word ‘circumference’ we were able to talk about writing <circum> and calling it a stem if we were unsure whether or not it could be further analyzed.  Sometimes it is better to do just that rather than going with an unsubstantiated idea.  Then we listed words like circus, circle, and circulation.  We felt that <circ> might be a base here, but we definitely needed further research.  The point I was trying to make with the students here is that they shouldn’t leap to conclusions.  Evidence collecting and reference checking is a must.

The last convention that presented itself was the convention of doubling the final consonant when adding a vowel suffix.  We had the words ‘offered’ and ‘suffering’ on the board already.  So beneath the word ‘prefer’ I wrote ‘preferred’, and asked if anyone had thoughts about why the final <r> would be doubled in this word when it wasn’t when vowel suffixes were added to ‘offer’ and ‘suffer’.  There wasn’t a single student all day who had an idea about this one.  Time to talk about syllable stress!

We read all three words aloud.  A few recognized which carried the stress, but not all.  I decided to switch the focus to ‘begin’ and ‘open’, thinking these are more commonly used by my students.  We pretended we were calling both words to dinner.  “Be -giiinnn!  Oooo-pen!”  It became a bit more obvious which syllable carried the stress in each word.  Knowing where the stress is becomes important when applying the  suffixing convention regarding consonant doubling.  If the stress is on the second syllable (in a two syllable word), then the final consonant is forced to double before a vowel suffix.  If the stress is on the first syllable, then the final consonant is not doubled before a vowel suffix.  So ‘begin’ becomes ‘beginning’ and ‘open’ becomes ‘opening’.

Back to ‘preferred’.  The students could now identifying that the stress was on the second syllable which forced the final <r> on the base to double, whereas in ‘suffering’ and ‘offered’, the stress was on the first syllable in each word.  As a final question to the class I wrote:

garden + ing –>

Will the final spelling reflect one <n> or two?  Confident replies of  “One!” quickly came back at me!

How in the world can we compare the benefits of empty memorization to a true understanding of spelling?  The things my students have learned in these two days will show up as they read aloud and alone.  They will show up in their writing.  They will show up in discussions.  For now the students see a relationship between these words that has to do with their present day base and the shared nugget of meaning in this family of words.  They will begin to spell relying on morphemes rather than letter order memorization.  And they won’t waste a minute writing down two or three versions of a word’s spelling to see which looks right.  Because they are learning that looks don’t matter.  Substance does.  Meaning does.  Structure does.  History does.  Relatives do. Phonology does.


Questions Send Us on Wondrous Quests!

It all started with a routine activity – that of checking my email.  As my eyes scanned the subject lines, the words “Our class has a word question”  stood out.  “Ooooooooo!”  I said out loud as I opened it with delight.

“We have a question which we hope you can help us with.  Why do some words have letters that you can’t hear?  We were reading about a bird in the arctic called a Ptarmigan.  We have also heard of dinosaurs called Pterodactyl or Pteranodon.  We wonder why there is a silent ‘p’ at the beginning.  We also wonder about words like “know”, “why” and “what”.  Can you help us?”

“Yes, yes, yes!”  With a great big smile, I got up from my chair and did a bit of a happy dance!  There is just so much to love about this request!

  1.  The third graders are thinking about words!
  2.   They thought of other words that also have an initial unvoiced <p>.
  3.   They thought of yet other words with unvoiced letters.
  4.   They want to understand!

I immediately started typing up a response.  Not because I had any  intention of replying by email, but because I wanted to collect my thoughts and lay out what I understood on paper.  I wanted to reread the entries at Etymonline for <what>, <why>, <know>, <pterodactyl>, and <helicopter>.  I wanted to reread my notes from Gina Cooke’s LEXinar on Old English.  I wanted to reread the information listed on my <what> LEX InSight Word card.  I wanted to reread the information on the <wh> card in my LEXeme Deck.  I have learned so much in the last few years that I like to check my facts so that I don’t miss sharing any fascinating parts of each word’s story!

Shortly after that, I went to find the third grade teacher to thank her for such a delightful email.  Then I invited her students to my room so we could talk.  Before they came, I shared all of this with my fifth graders.  I wanted to share not only the information, but the curiosity and inquisitiveness of the third graders.  This was indeed something to be celebrated!

We began by looking at <know>, <what> and <why> since they were all from Old English.  I began by showing them the following video.  The man speaks Old English and I wanted them to know what it sounded like.  Since the sound isn’t the best on this video, I sometimes stopped, backed up and let them hear certain words twice.

We talked a bit about the Old English words that they could understand.  One of those was roof.  I wrote the Old English spelling hrof on the board so they could see that the spelling might feel strange and unfamiliar, but the pronunciation of many Old English words is sometimes more familiar than we expect!

I wrote on the board as we continued our talk.


The Old English spelling of <know> was cnawan.  The <c> and the <n> were both voiced in the pronunciation.  The <an> indicated to the people who spoke Old English that this word was a verb.  It’s denotation was to “perceive or understand as a fact or truth”.

The past tense spelling of <know> (knew) was spelled cneowan.  Again, if we cover up the final <an> which indicated to the speakers of Old English that this was a verb, we see cneow.  The students noticed the <e> that is still in the present day spelling of <knew>.

By Middle English, the <c> was replaced with a <k>, but that didn’t change the fact that the <k> and <n> were still voiced.  It wasn’t until 1750 that the <k> was no longer voiced.  What is interesting here is that sister languages to English (German, Dutch and some Scandinavian languages) still voice both of these letters.  Ours is the only language in which voicing the <k> faded into nothing!

I wrote the word <acknowledge> on the board to point out the <c>.  At Etymonline, Doug Harper calls it a parasitic <c>.  He suggests that perhaps the <c> is there to preserve the historical <kn>, with each letter voiced as it was in Old and Middle English!  In my mind I imagine it latching on to the <k> as a parasite would, in order for there to be a <ck> consonant cluster which can only represent /k/, and thus restoring the voicing of the <k>!  Such a noble story this word has!

Next we looked at <what> and <why>.  I wrote the Old English spellings for both: <hwæt> and <hwi>.

After the 14th century, it was common to see the <hw> reversed to <wh>.  If we look at the questioning words: what, why, when, where, which, whether, who, whom, and whose, we can imagine that all of these were once spelled with the <h> before the <w>, because they are all of Old English origin.

As far as the pronunciation of the <wh>, the only three of those questioning words that do not begin with a /w/ are who, whom, and whose.  The fact that these three words have an <o> following the <wh>, indicates that the initial pronunciation will be /h/.

Now it was time to take a look at Ptarmigan, pterodactyl, and pteranodon.  I put an asterisk next to Ptarmigan and told the students we would come back to it.  Then I focused on three words that have an initial <pter>.



According to Etymonline, a pterodactyl is an extinct flying reptile.  The word entered the English language in 1830.  The first base in the word is from the Greek word pteron “wing”.  The second base is from the Greek word dactylos “finger”.



According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the pteranodon is a large tailless pterosaur (flying reptile) with a long toothless beak, a long bony crest, and a wingspan of 7 meters.  The <pter> bound base denotes “wing”, the <an>privative prefix denotes “without”, and the second bound base <odon> denotes “teeth”.  This last base took us to a brief look at words like orthodontist and dentist, tooth and teeth, foot and feet, and <pod> (tripod) and <ped> (pedicure).  Interesting relationship between these words!



According to the Oxford American Dictionary, a pteropod is a small mollusk with wing like extensions.  It uses them for swimming.  The first base is <pter> and denotes “wings”, and the second base is <pod> and denotes “foot”.  It appears to have a body similar to that of a snail or slug.

As we were all looking at the pteropod and wondering where such a thing might live, one student raised her hand.  “How come you didn’t underline the <o> in the word <pteropod>?”

As if my day wasn’t already aglow!  “Now that is a great thing to have noticed! The first base is <pter> and the second base is <pod> and the <o> is not part of either!  It is a connecting vowel.”

Then I went on to ask if anyone knew the word< speedometer>.  They all did.  I asked what a speedometer did.  They knew that it told how fast a car was moving.  I pointed out the <o> in that word.  Was it part of the first base <speed>? No.  Was it part of the second base <meter> denoting “measure”?  No.  In this word it is pretty obvious that the <o> is just connecting these two bases together.  It is a connecting vowel.  Again – what a brilliant observation!

Now I told the students that I found some more words with <pter>, except that the <pter> was not the first base in the word.



The Oxford American Dictionary describes <lepidoptera> as the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths.  These insects have four large scale-covered wings.  The children knew about butterflies and thought the wings were dusty.  As we were discussing the scales, another student raised her hand and asked, “I see that this word has a connecting vowel, but what about the <a>?  Why isn’t that underlined?”

Another fabulous question!  I told her that it is a suffix that is used with some scientific words.   I wrote the word <pupa> and <pupae> on the board and explained that the first is singular and that the second is plural.  I know this by the <a> and <ae> suffixes.   But afterwards I started to wonder about what I had said.  I had a nagging feeling that I was mixing up my Latin and Greek suffixes.

My own question took me to the Oxford American Dictionary.  I found out that <pupa> and <pupae> are clearly of Latin origin.  Lepidoptera was listed as having a Modern Latin (plural) origin, yet the bases and connecting vowel are clearly of Greek origin. Etymonline explains that the <a> suffix is a “nominative neuter plural ending of certain nouns and adjectives in Latin and Greek that have been adopted into English”.  Since I know Lepidoptera is a plural noun, this makes the most sense to me.



The Oxford American Dictionary describes coleoptera as an order of insects which includes the beetles.  It is the largest order of animals on the earth!  The wings on these beetles are close fitting and protective.  The first base is from koleos (<cole>) “sheath” and the second base is from pteron (<pter>) “wing”.



The Oxford American Dictionary describes hymenoptera is a “large order of insects that includes the bees, wasps, ants, and sawflies.  These insects have four transparent wings and the females often have a sting”.  The first base is Greek <hymen> “membrane” and the second base is <pter> “wing”.



The Oxford American Dictionary describes an ornithopter as
“a machine designed to achieve flight by means of flapping wings.”

The first base is from Greek <ornith> “bird” and the second base is also from Greek <pter> “wing”.  Because both bases are of Greek origin, the connecting vowel is an <o>.

Now it was time to list the words we just looked at:


I underlined the Greek base <pter> in each of the words.  Then I added <helicopter> to the list.  I was right in guessing that all of the students knew that word and what it meant.  Then I asked this question, “When the <pter> base is first in the word, you already noticed that the <p> is not voiced.  What happens when the <pter> is final in the word?  Is the <p> voiced or not?

Everyone got busy pronouncing this list of words to find out.  In the end it was decided that when the base <pter> is final in a word, the <p> is voiced.  When the <pter> is initial in the word, the <p> is not voiced.

So the important take-away is that the <pter> bound base (from Greek) has a denotation of “wing”.  When we see this base initially in a word the <p> is not voiced, but when we see this base final in a word the <p> is voiced.

But what about the word <ptarmigan>?  This is, after all, where this particular quest began!  I asked the students to carefully look at our list of words with <pter> and to compare that spelling with what we see in <ptarmigan>.  Right away someone noticed that there was an <a> in <ptarmigan> where there had been an <e> in words sharing the <pter> base.  Excellent noticing!


Willow ptarmigan on snow

The Oxford American Dictionary describes the ptarmigan as “a northern grouse of mountainous and arctic regions with plumage that changes to white in winter.  This word originated in the late 16th century from Scottish Gaelic tàrmachan.  Etymonline adds that the <p> was added in 1680’s as a mistaken Greek construction (perhaps based on pteron “wing).

Ptarmigan shares an idea of having wings and an initial <pt> spelling, but does not share a base or Greek heritage.  And now, because of these wonderful questions that sent us on these wonderful quests, we all (third graders, fifth graders, me and you) share an understanding of the <p> in <ptarmigan> … and so much more!