Phonology is something … but it isn’t EVERYTHING!

It is a hard-to-believe concept, but it’s true.  Words do not have the spellings they have so that we know how to pronounce them.  Words like busy, does, piano, action, and pretty prove that.  The truth is that words are spelled the way they are to represent their meaning.  That’s such a foreign idea to so many.  “If that was true, wouldn’t we teach that to children who are just learning to read?”  You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  But the majority of schools don’t.  So why do we resist believing this obvious truth?

When I first began studying orthography and learning Structured Word Inquiry, I was skeptical myself.  I wondered what people in this community meant when they said that spelling represented meaning and not pronunciation.  How can that be?  I learned to spell by “sounding words out” – by pronouncing them.  Sometimes I pronounced them in unnatural ways so that I could remember the spelling (Wed – nes – day  or  ap – pear – ance, both with parts pronounced unlike they are in the whole).  I knew what the words meant, but that didn’t have anything to do with the spelling, did it?  I learned to spell one word at a time, twenty or so words a week.  I was pretty good at rote memorization.  I also studied definitions right out of the dictionary.  They didn’t always make sense to me, but because they didn’t, I didn’t know how to reword them.  I found out when my children went to school that times haven’t changed much in this regard.

I remember when my son was in high school and had to be able to match up a list of words to their definitions.  I offered to help him study.  That was when I realized that he had figured out a system to pass the test without having learned anything useful.  If I read the word, he could give me the first four words of the definition.  If I read the definition, he could tell me the first four letters of the word the definition would match up with on the test.  Blech! He became very annoyed with me when I pointed out how useless this test was.  “Mom!  It doesn’t matter.  I have to pass the test tomorrow.  Go away.  I’ll study by myself.”

One thing is for sure.  He was smart enough to know that passing the test didn’t hinge on him actually understanding anything.  I was sad, but remembered cheating my own learning in the same way as I went through schooling years.  I didn’t cheat my learning to the extent my son did, but cheat it I did.  Neither of us were taught to look to the word for meaning – we had learned that spelling and meaning were two separate activities and rote memorization was the only way to handle them in order to pass the test.

Recently Oxford Dictionaries posted the ten most frequently misspelled words in their Oxford English Corpus (which they describe as “an electronic collection of over 2 billion words of real English that help us see how people are using the language and also shows us the mistakes that are most often made”) .  Seeing as I spend a fair amount of my teaching life looking at misspelled words, I took a look, wondering if I could predict the words that made the list.  As I was clicking, my mind was betting that the people who misspell these words (whichever they were), had an education like mine and have been taught to “sound out words” and not to even consider morphology or etymology as they relate to a word’s spelling.

Here is their list:
*accomodate (accommodate)
*wich (which)
*recieve (receive)
*untill (until)
*occured (occurred)
*seperate (separate)
*goverment (government)
*definately (definitely)
*pharoah (pharaoh)
*publically (publicly)

Once you begin to study orthography and use Structured Word Inquiry, it doesn’t take long to see how easily the above spelling errors could be avoided altogether.  The people misspelling these words do not understand the spelling – have not been taught to understand the spelling.  Let’s look closer at each of these.  Along the way I’ll point out the information that would actually help a person understand and remember these spellings.

accommodate   (*accomodate)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<accommodate>
/əˈkɑməˌdt/

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

  

which   (*wich)

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

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

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

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

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

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

<which>
/wɪ/

 

receive  (*recieve)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<receive>
/ɹəˈsɪv/

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

 

 

until  (*untill)

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

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

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

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

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

<until>
/ənˈtɪl/

 

occurred  (*occured)

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

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

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

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

<occurred>
/əˈkɜɹd/

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

 

 

separate   (*seperate)

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

government  (*goverment)

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

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

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

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

<government>
gʌvəɹmənt/

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

 

 

definitely  (*definately)

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

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

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

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

<definitely>
/ˈdɛfənətli/

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

 

 

pharaoh  (*pharoah)

meaning:
A pharaoh is an ancient Egyptian ruler.

morphology:
This is a free base with no affixes.

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

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

<pharaoh>
fɛɹ/

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

 

publicly   (*publically)

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

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

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

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

<publicly>
/ˈpʌblɪkli/

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

 

 

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

 

Making Sure Our Misspellings Are Not Missed Opportunities!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for xylem

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

Image result for xylem

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

 

 

Related image

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the post:

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

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

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

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

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

oxogen
oxigen
oxegen
ocsygen
oxygen

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

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

Antoine-Laurent deLavoisier

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

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

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

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

Orthography Builds Understanding … Say Good Bye to Memorizing Definitions!

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

First there’s collaborating…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

And now this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result          Image result for perspiration

 

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

Image result for spiracle  Image result for spiracle

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

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

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

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

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Multiple Monomers Merge to Make a Unique Polymer

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

“Perfect!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Here’s a Suffix, There’s a Suffix

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

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

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

The Suffix Challenge

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

<-s>
dolls
pencils
dress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Considerations for the SWI Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Look to masters to get started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The process is important.

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

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

  1. Grades. Don’t. Matter.

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

 

 

Home and Homely – What is the Connection?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other related words that we brainstormed were:

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day Two

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We learn together. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for swimming against the current

 

What Does It Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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