“Would you like an adventure now, or would you like to have your tea first? ” -James M. Barrie

The first time I met Peter Pan, I was sitting in my living room with my brothers and sisters.  He didn’t come flying through the picture window or anything else as exciting and dramatic as that.  Instead, he flew into my imagination via our television set.  Even though the version we were watching was old, the scenery was the furthest thing from life-like, and Peter Pan was himself played by a woman (Mary Martin), I was captivated.   The idea of defying the inevitable enticed me.  For me the idea of living as a child forever was the heart and soul of this story.  Everything that happened happened because Peter Pan wasn’t going to grow up and he was trying fiercely to get others not to grow up either.  But, of course, none of the viewers were fooled.  Growing up can only be prevented by one thing.  And it wasn’t until recently that I read about James M. Barrie’s personal connection with that.  Because it was only recently that I actually read his book.  Thanks to Michael Clay Thompson.

Here’s the song that I sang for weeks after watching Peter Pan for the first time:

Michael Clay Thompson is someone I have mentioned before when speaking of grammar instruction.  But his curriculum materials regarding grammar are only one facet of his vision of a “literacy ecosystem” that involves grammar, vocabulary, writing, poetry, and reading.  I am particularly favorable to picturing literacy in its whole as an ecosystem.  Like an ecosystem, each component is vulnerable, not meant to stand alone, and if instruction of it dwindles or disappears, the ecosystem as a whole weakens.  If, for example, students are not taught about the poetic features or the grammatic stability found in literary sentences, their reading experience will be significantly less than it could be.  If grammar instruction is minimal and found only in work packets, the rest of the literacy instruction becomes narrower in its reach.  It is the same with studying vocabulary.  (MCT’s Caesar’s English books are great for looking at words frequently found in English literature.  They pair well with investigating intriguing word families using Structure Word Inquiry!)  For it isn’t just difficult words that stop students when they are reading.  It is also rich complicated sentence structures that are often missing from the leveled readers handed to students. Therefore, I will continue this discussion with that idea of a “literacy ecosystem” in mind. It is necessary, of course, to look closely at each system on its own, but too often students spend entire school years focused on isolated skills within each of these “habitat” areas.  How regularly do they get to practice the skills as they interact within the entire literacy ecosystem?   As MCT says, “All of it pertains to all of it.”

When looking for teaching materials, it is pretty easy to find books and ideas for each of the areas I have described above.  But where are the materials or ideas explaining how to weave all of the areas together as you teach?  MCT has such a thing!  He has put together trilogies of books that have a common theme.  Last year I purchased the trilogy that includes Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wind in the Willows.  As you may have guessed from the title of this post, we are currently reading Peter Pan.  Below is the first paragraph from the teacher manual that accompanies the trilogy:

“The purpose of this literature program is to immerse children in great books so that they experience literature as literature and not as a drudgery of tedious school activities.  I want children’s minds on the books themselves and not on attendant assignments.  It is by loving to read that children become literate.”

MCT lays out a plan for Four-Level Literature that includes:

Preparing
Reading
Creative Thinking
Writing

He suggests a few activities for Preparing, but most of the emphasis is on the actual reading of the story.  That is the main event, as it should be.  The last two levels MCT lists are important in that they help a student think about the story and its characters once the reading is finished. The prompts for Creative Thinking are creative in and of themselves.  They stir discussion and are intriguing to think about.  The last level, the Writing, is especially important for developing a student’s application of grammar and essay writing skills.

While reading, there should be pauses to reflect on the characters and to clarify the meanings of unfamiliar words.  When I pause to talk about the unfamiliar words, I like to point out how the words J.M. Barrie used are something he chose.  He passed over other words that might have kind of fit in favor of the one he used.  At the end of the story or after we have read several chapters, I might choose a quote or a paragraph from the story and ask my students to again tell me about the word choice.  What does the word J.M. Barrie used bring to the sentence or paragraph that a synonym of that word might not?

I especially love the following quote from the teacher manual:

“I do not like the practice of traditional written quizzes every so many chapters; that is too intrusive.  It breaks the continuum of the reading.  We should leave the story alone as much as possible.  Our pedagogy should tiptoe and whisper.”

I love the reminder that we as teachers need to limit our interruptions to the reading.  With that being said, in each of the books MCT includes in his trilogies, he does indeed interrupt the reading to point out some things.  Sometimes it is the grammar of a particular sentence that he points out.  Sometimes it is the rhythm of a particular sentence that is reinforcing the message of the sentence.  Sometimes it is the poetic quality of a particular line, purposely creating a subtle feel in the reader’s mind.  For example, here is one of the “language illustrations” he has included in this story.

As you can see, MCT not only points out the grammar using his 4 Level Grammar Analysis, he also connects the grammar use to the writing.  He points out the meter and the word choice and how all those things enhance the moment in the story for the reader.  His interruptions are not a list of questions for the students to answer.  They actually enhance the reading experience by pointing out something that the readers (and sometimes the teacher) might not have noticed on their own.  This is one way in which MCT is pulling together all facets of the literacy ecosystem that I’ve described above.  If you’d like a look at his materials, here is a link:  Royal Fireworks Press.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/Peter_pan_1911_pipes.jpg

James M. Barrie was born in 1860.  He was the ninth of ten children.  When James was 6 and his next older brother was almost 14, his brother died in an ice skating accident.  His brother David had been their mother’s favorite and she was inconsolable.  James tried everything he could think of to make her feel better.  He even dressed in his brother’s clothes.  He spent a lot of time with her and listened as she spoke of her childhood.  Her own mother died when she was just 8, and she assumed the household duties at that time.  She also told him that she found some solace in knowing that David would be a boy forever.  That idea of being a boy forever ….

J.M. Barrie knew he wanted to be a writer early on.  He began by writing some of the stories his mother told him.  As his career began, he met a family with five boys, one of whom was named Peter.  He became close to the family, often telling the boys stories.  One of those stories included Peter’s ability to fly.  When the parents died (1907 and 1910), J.M. Barrie adopted the boys.

Here is a link to a brief biography: The Family That Inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9c/James_Matthew_Barrie00.jpg

J.M. Barrie by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1892

I’m going to spend the rest of this post sharing some of the words and phrases my students and I found which have strengthened our connections to the action and to the characters.  First off let me say just how refreshing it is to read a book with such beautiful language!  My students and I are reading it aloud and thoroughly enjoy discussing the action, the characters, the author’s message, but most of all, we enjoy the words that Barrie uses. I’m not sure whether or not readers in his day would have been as intrigued by the vocabulary, but we sure are.

As I list each word, keep in mind that I did not stop the reading to investigate any of these words.  We only stopped long enough to clarify the word’s meaning and its use in the context of the story.  It is my plan to share the following list with my students at another time in our day and give them the opportunity to choose one to investigate.  I’m sharing things with you that I find interesting about these words and giving suggestions for possible activities.

 

Perambulator

One of the first words to catch our attention was perambulator.  It was in the middle of a paragraph describing the nurse dog, Nana.

“… the Darlings had become acquainted with her in Kensington Gardens, where she spent most of her spare time peeping into perambulators, …”

At the bottom of the page, MCT had included a definition of this word so that we didn’t have to look elsewhere at the moment and could get back to the reading.  But a look later at Etymonline told me that this word was first used to mean a baby carriage in 1856 (that is what it is referring to in the story).  Prior to that, the <-or> suffix indicated an agent noun.  So a perambulator was someone who perambulated.  The word <perambulate> is from Latin ambulare from <per-> “through” and <ambul> “walk, go about”.  Here is an example of a matrix that could be created using the base element <ambul>.

What I absolutely love about this family of words are the compound words that can be made.  Looking at <circumambulate>, we see the first base element <circum>, which is from Latin circum “all around, round about” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”.  So someone who is circumambulating is walking all around an area.  The next compound word on this matrix is <funambulist>.  This word is from Latin funis “a rope, line, cord” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”.  The suffix <-ist> is an agent suffix here and is indicating that a funambulist is a person who walks on rope – a tightrope walker!  The last compound word is <somnambulate>.  This word is from Latin somnus “sleep” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”.  If you are guessing that to somnambulate would be to sleepwalk, you would be correct!

Of course, familiar words like <ambulance> would need to be noticed as well.  But what does an ambulance have to do with walking?  According to Etymonline, around the 17th century, the French used the phrase, a hôpital ambulant, which literally meant a walking hospital.  The hospital was built in such a way that it could be torn down and moved to a new location.  We might think of them as field hospitals.  By 1798 it was known as simply ambulance.  I know that any of my students would enjoy this rich treasure hunt!

 

Exquisitely

According to Etymonline, <exquisite> was first attested in the 15th century.  At that time it meant “carefully selected”.  It is from Latin exquisitus “carefully sought out”.  As it is used in the passage below, it has more of a sense of “with perfection of detail, elaborately, beautifully” (as listed in definition 2 in the Oxford English Dictionary).  Both sources identify this word as from <ex-> “out” and quaerere “to search, seek”.  So something that is exquisite is carefully sought after for its perfection of detail!  That would make sense in the context of describing Tinker Bell’s skeleton leaf gown.

“It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”

The word <exquisite> is just one of many descendants of Latin quaerere “to search, seek”.  Others include question, quest, query, inquire, inquisitive, acquisition, conquer, and require.  If you think about it, can you see how the denotation of their common ancestor quaerere “to search, seek” binds them in meaning? Perhaps this would be a great opportunity for your students.  Have small groups or individuals investigate the present meaning of one of the words I’ve listed and then come back together as a group to share.  See if the students can notice the common sense and meaning at the core of each word.

 

Embonpoint

Another interesting word in the same quote from the book as <exquisite> is <embonpoint>.  According to Etymonline it means “plumpness”.  It was first attested in 1751.  Earlier (16 c.) it is from French embonpoint “plumpness, fullness.”  Before that it was a phrase in Old French en bon point “in good condition.”

“It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”

If the word <embonpoint> is skipped over in this quote, the reader will get a different impression of Tinker Bell than the author intended!  I quite like the idea that Tinker Bell had a realistic body shape.  That is not the way she has been portrayed in any movie version I’ve ever seen!

According to the OED, it has been used as both a noun and an adjective.  They offered no recent examples of its use, which is probably why it feels so unfamiliar.  The most recent use they list is from 1876:

1876   R. Bartholow Pract. Treat. Materia Med. ii. 308   An increase in the body-weight and the embonpoint of those who take stimulants.
James M. Barrie, however, wrote this story in 1906.  I wonder if this word is currently used in France?
Housewife
Peter Pan tries several times but is unsuccessful in putting his shadow back on.  That’s when Wendy offers to do it for him.
“I shall sew it on for you my little man,” she said, though he was tall as herself, and she got out her housewife, and sewed the shadow on to Peter’s foot.”
MCT defines a housewife as a sewing kit.  I’d heard this term before, but was sure my students hadn’t.  I was right.  Later on that same day, I found a picture of a housewife that was used by a soldier in World War I through Wikipedia Commons.  I’m glad I did because it won’t be the last time Wendy uses her housewife.  The Lost Boys will wear holes in the knees of their pants and in the heels of their socks quite often!
It will also give us the opportunity to talk about why a soldier might need a housewife, and why this sewing kit would be called a housewife.  In the 18th and 19th century, it was common for a mother, wife, sister, or girlfriend to make a housewife for someone who was going off to fight in a war.  At that time, it was pronounced as “hussif” or “huzzif”.  Read more about them HERE.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/Kit%2C_sewing_%28AM_613064-1%29.jpg
Stodge

We came across this word just before leaving for a two day holiday.  It was a timely find as this holiday is typically a day focused around a big meal. Before they left I wished them a great time with their families and warned them about stodging. We even joked around and wished each other a “Happy Stodgegiving!”

“You never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal or just a make-believe, it all depended upon Peter’s whim: he could eat, really eat, if it was part of a game, but he could not stodge just to feel stodgy, which is what most children like better than anything else; the next best thing being to talk about it.”

When I see these students again, they will no doubt want to talk about how stodged they felt (as Barrie says, “…the next best thing being to talk about it.”)

Both Etymonline and the OED agree that this word is of unknown origin. The OED suggests that it is “perhaps phonetically symbolic after words like stuff, podge. I particularly loved the imagery in this OED citation:

“1790 W. Marshall Agric. Provincialisms in Rural Econ. Midland Counties II. 443 Stodged, filled to the stretch; as a cow’s udder with milk.”

I think “filled to the stretch” says it all!

 

Solemn

Peter Pan uses this word to describe what he would be required to learn in school.  I can’t help but think that his biggest hurdle in attending school would be the confinement to a schedule!

“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things.”

This word was first attested in the mid 14c. according to Etymonline.  At that time it had a sense of “performed with due religious ceremony or reverence.”   Prior to that it was from Old French solempne  and directly from Latin sollemnis  “established, formal, traditional.” It has this sense of seriousness, and that is no doubt the aspect of schooling that troubles Peter Pan the most!

What is interesting about the spelling of <solemn> is the <mn>.  We see this same final spelling in autumn, column, and hymn.  Some may wonder why the <n> is needed since it isn’t pronounced.  But if we remind ourselves that spelling doesn’t represent pronunciation, that instead it represents meaning, we are apt to look for another reason that the <n> is final in these words.  If I take a look at relatives of each word, it doesn’t take long to see that the final <n> IS pronounced in some of the members of each word family.  It isn’t pronounced in solemn, but it is pronounced in solemnity.  It isn’t pronounced in autumn, but it is pronounced in autumnal.  It isn’t pronounced in column, but it is pronounced in columnist.  It isn’t pronounced in hymn, but it is pronounced in hymnal.

If we look back at the etymology of <solemn>, we see that the <mn> has always been part of this word’s spelling.  It is the same with <column> from Latin columna, <autumn> from Latin autumnus, and <hymn> from Greek hymnos.  Interesting, right?

 

Blood

This word was not unfamiliar to my students.  What was unfamiliar was its use as a verb.

“I am just Tootles,”  he said, “and nobody minds me.  But the first who does not behave to Wendy like an English gentleman I will blood him severely.”

At Etymonline, I find that this word was first attested as a verb in 1590 with a sense of “to smear or stain with blood.”  By the 1620’s it was “to cause to bleed,” which I think is the sense being used by Tootles in this story.   At the Oxford English Dictionary, I found several ways <blood> was used as a verb, but when it referred to “to cause blood to flow from … (a person or an animal)” it was for therapeutic reasons, not specifically to cause harm.

1597   P. Lowe Whole Course Chirurg. viii. i. sig. Dd   Bee circumspect in blooding the foote.
1780   Johnson Let. 14 June (1992) III. 275   Yesterday I fasted and was blooded, and to day took physick and dined.
1908   Brit. Med. Jnl. 13 June 1463/1   He was very fond of telling tales of..how the country labourers would come in crowds..to be ‘blooded’.
2007   M. Noble Case of Dirty Verger viii.107   She burst the girl’s eyebrow, blooding it immediately and sending the victim backwards, dazed and distraught.

Here is what Tootles did next:

“He drew back his hanger; and for that instant his sun was at noon.”

A hanger is a short sword that hangs from a belt.  It was a common weapon used by hunters.  What I really love about this sentence though, is the image created with “for that instant his sun was at noon.”  Can’t you just picture this scene?  Tootles is defending Wendy’s honor and all the rest of the Lost Boys are looking on. Tootles is having his moment.  Just as with the sun at noon, there are no shadows cast on Tootles.  His character is illuminated.

 

Guttered

I know this word as a noun.  We have a rain gutter on our house, and there is a gutter at the side of our street that directs water to the storm drain.  But I am not as familiar with it as a verb, especially when it is not pertaining to a channel for water.  James M. Barrie creates another wonderful image with an intriguing use of this word.

“Peter slept on.  The light guttered and went out, leaving the tenement in darkness; but still he slept.”

As a verb, this word is first attested in the late 14th c. and was used to mean “to make or run in channels.”  We see the same information in the OED where gutter most often refers to water being channeled and moved.  But according to both Etymonline and the OED, it can also refer to a candle when the hot wax flows down its side by way of a gutter that has opened up.  That use began in 1706.  I’ve certainly lit my share of candles and have seen that happen many times, but never thought to describe it as guttering.  Cool.

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/6d/f5/8e/6df58ed0dad8baf71d51d7e692118524.jpg

 

Precipitate

This word has been investigated by my fifth grade students in the past as part of understanding the water cycle, along with condensation, evaporation, transpiration, respiration, and infiltration.  I remember enjoying what we found out.  Prior to that, I was aware of words like precipice, precipitate, and precipitation, but never had a solid sense of how or if they were connected in meaning.  I may have wondered, but if my tabletop dictionary didn’t make the connection obvious with its entry, I didn’t know how to pursue an investigation of this on my own.  (I am grateful every day that I happened upon a fellow teacher’s blog, and that it magnified my enjoyment of language!)  These are my own understandings of the words I mentioned:

Precipice – When you are at the precipice of a place or situation, you are at a steep edge with the possibility of falling.

Precipitate –  This word can be used in many ways.  It can be used as a verb meaning that water vapor is condensing and falling from the sky.  Another meaning it has as a verb is to cause something to happen quite abruptly.  It can also be used as a noun to describe a substance separated from a solution or a suspension (in science).  There are other (less frequent) ways to use this word as well!

Precipitation – This form of the word is a noun, but you probably saw the <-ion> suffix and knew that.  It refers to the various forms water vapor can take as it falls to the earth.  It can also refer to the process of forming a precipitate (as described above).

Here is how James M. Barrie used <precipiate> in Peter Pan:

“Starkey looked round for help, but all deserted him.  As he backed up Hook advanced, and now the red spark was in his eye. With a despairing scream the pirate leapt upon Long Tom and precipitated himself into the sea.”

Long Tom is a cannon on the deck of the pirate ship.  At this point in the story, Starkey is told by Captain Hook that he must go into the cabin.  Starkey doesn’t want to go because three others have gone into the cabin already and they have all been killed.  Nobody knows what is in the cabin that is killing the men, and Starkey decides to die by precipitating himself into the sea rather than face whatever is in that cabin.  Using context and combining that with the sense of falling that this word can have, it makes sense that by “he precipitated himself into the sea,” it means that he threw himself overboard.

At Etymonline we learn that this word was first attested in the 1520’s and meant “to hurl or fling downwards.”  It is from Latin praecipitatus “throw or dive headlong,” from prae- “before, forth” and caput “head.”  The chemical sense of this word is from the 1620’s, and it isn’t until 1863 that we see it used in the meteorological sense.  Interesting, right?  So in every use of this word or one of its related words, there is a sense of falling head first or the possibility of falling head first.

 

Final Thoughts

If you have not read this book with a child, I encourage you to do it.  The character of Peter Pan is rather complicated.  By that I mean that he isn’t consistently one way or another.  Sure he delights the other characters and he saves them from harm, but he also disappoints them and sometimes he even lets them down.  His personality is not as simple to understand as it is in movie versions.  He seems a bit more human as described in the book, and that makes a big difference.  It has led to wonderful discussions about what to expect from him next.  The Lost Boys and the Darling children were at the mercy of his whims often.  For instance, there were times that everyone ate food and other times in which everyone pretended to eat food.  Peter decided which it would be based on his own preference.  He wasn’t trying to be mean, he just didn’t consider anyone’s needs for that sort of thing besides his own.

Another character that we found amusing was Mr. Darling.  He was so worried about appearances that some of his behaviors bordered on ridiculous.  Okay, they were ridiculous!  The scene near the beginning in which he is bragging about how he takes his medicine like a champ is particularly funny.  As readers, we saw through his false bragging.  We also saw the events of that night get out of hand because of it.  Near the end of the book, we are informed that Mr. Darling feels guilty for his part in the children leaving and has imposed a punishment of confining himself to the dog kennel!  The students had so much to say about that!  “Did he go to work like that?  Why?  Did he sleep in there too?  Why is he doing that when he doesn’t have to?  Where did the dog sleep?”

Even if you have not read this book, I bet you’ve heard the following line in a movie or play version:

“Boy, why are you crying?”

This is said by Wendy when she is awakened by the sound of crying.  Peter is sitting on the nursery floor and can’t seem to get his shadow to stick on.  Of course, Peter quickly insists that he wasn’t crying.  That’s the kind of vulnerability that he doesn’t like to show.  Well, only pages from the end of the book, we find Peter once again in the nursery.  He has come back for Wendy only to find that she has grown up and has a child of her own named Jane.  Peter is so distraught that Wendy will not ever come to Neverland again, that he cries.  It is at this point that her little girl is awakened and says:

“Boy, why are you crying?”

I will never forget what it felt like to share this story with those students as I read that line!  They immediately recognized the words that had once been said by Wendy, but were now being said by her daughter.  Their eyes jumped from the page to the other faces in the room.  There were gasps and nervous laughter as they realized that what those words meant this time was so much bigger than what those few words meant the first time they were uttered.  It meant there was a never ending ending to this story.  And we all smiled big to know it.

My students would have given up on this book if it had just been handed to them or if they had been told to read chapters by themselves.  Instead we read it aloud together.  Sometimes I read, sometimes students volunteered to read, and when we could see a lot of conversation happening, we assigned parts and read it that way.  We paused at the language illustrations that Michael Clay Thompson provided, and we sometimes stopped to talk about our reactions to the action or the characters.  I helped when a sentence was particularly long or when I could tell that what was being read was not being understood.  I shared my delight at a wording I wasn’t familiar with or a word that evoked a perfect image.  The experience wouldn’t have been as rich with an abridged version.  It just wouldn’t have.  When asked why MCT doesn’t seek out modernized versions, he said this:

“It is precisely these articulate, complex sentences and powerful words that we seek; it is the very thing that we want not to miss.”

I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

 

“History Is Who We Are And Why We Are The Way We Are.” — David McCullough

A few weeks ago I tried something that has really sparked some interest!  I was inspired by a video I watched.  The video is embedded below.  I encourage you to take the time to watch it in its entirety, but the part of it that inspired the study my students and I embarked on was at 6:43.  The speaker had looked at a newspaper headline and identified which language each word in the headline came from.  The headline was, “Trump, pushing immigration plan, meets with family of woman killed in 2007.”  Out of the ten words (excluding Trump and 2007), he finds that 5 are Germanic and 5 are Romance words (from a romance language like French, Italian, or Spanish).  Following that interesting find, he chooses a more casual sentence:  “I had lunch with my friend, and we read some books.”  This sentence leans more toward what we might think of as the casual writing of everyday activities.  This time he found that almost all of the words were Germanic.

This look at our everyday writing got me thinking.  What would my students find if we did this same kind of activity?  In what ways would it help them understand their language better?

To begin with, I thought of and wrote the following sentence on the board:

“The three trees stood proud and tall like kings.”

I was curious to see their reaction to this activity.  I did not look at the origins of each word ahead of time because I truly love being delighted or stumped along with my students.  We often investigate and discover together in this way.

In order to keep things moving, I stayed at the computer at my desk and searched each word at our favorite etymological site, Etymonline.  The students could see each entry on the Smartboard as I called it up.  By doing it this way, I could model how to read the entry and find out the language of origin for each word.  First I asked the students if they had any idea where the first word, <the>, came from.  There were several guesses before I called up the entry for it and we found out together that it is from Old English.  I asked one of the students to come to the board and write an O.E. beneath <the>.  I also asked the volunteer to write the Old English spelling of the word (þe) beneath the O.E.  With each new word, I asked someone new to come to the board to do the writing.  Then I asked students where the word came from.  After three guesses, I called up the entry for that word so we could all find out at once.

As we moved along through the sentence, the students seemed surprised that they weren’t finding words of Latin or Greek origin.   There were even sighs of disappointment when once again we found a word from Old or Middle English.  I, on the other hand, was quite fascinated.  We had the opportunity to talk about the Old English letter thorn (þ) and then noticed it in þreo, the Old English spelling of <three>.  There was a level of surprise that the Middle English spelling of <tall>  and the Old English spelling of <and> were so similar to that of Modern English.  We had some fun imagining the Old English spelling of <king> being contracted from cyning to <king> as was mentioned in the entry at Etymonline.

The fact that the students were expecting most of the words to be from Latin or Greek, got me thinking.  I begin the year by investigating science words.  It works well as a way to introduce the idea that words have structure, a history, and both morphological and etymological relatives.  But by spending all that time looking at words that share Greek and Latin bases, my students formed a false impression of the language we use every day!  It was time to collect some data and get a more accurate picture.

So I asked them.  What do you suppose we’d find out if we each made up a sentence (like I did) and then went through and identified each word as to its language of origin?  Most thought that things would even out and we’d have sentences that were mostly Latin or Greek.  There was only one way to find out for sure, and these fifth grade students were willing to do their part!  At the time, we were finishing up writing essays on the photosynthesis process and its importance in our world.  So as students reached that final stage in which their final edits were approved, they moved on to this project.

They began by thinking of a sentence.  They wrote it in their orthography notebook, and then reached for a Chromebook so they could access Etymonline.  Once they were finished with that step, I had them print the sentence on white paper so I could put them on a lengthy bulletin board I have outside my room.  As they were doing this, we decided to color code the languages of origins so that people pausing to look at our bulletin board might recognize quickly how many words are from each language.

This is not a complete listing of the languages we found, but it includes many of the languages we found.  Here are a few examples of the student work.

The student who wrote the sentence presented the findings to the class.  In order to save time, I would write the sentence on the board along with the language and original spelling below each word.  Then I taped a piece of paper over the language of each word to conceal it.  When the students entered the room, it was ready.  The student presenting asked the class, “What language do you think  ____ came from?”  Then they removed the piece of paper that had been concealing the answer.  It was fun this way and all the students were engaged.

As the first dozen were completed, we began to notice some things.  We noticed how often we use the articles “a”, “an”, and “the” in sentences, and how similarly we spell those words now.  We noticed other smaller size words such as prepositions, possessive determiners, linking verbs, and pronouns whose spelling was remarkably similar to our present day spelling.  We recognized them as function words.  We began finding a few more words from Old French and Latin, but the majority of the words we used were still from Old English.  We saw the Old English letters ash (æ) and thorn (þ) pretty regularly.  It was time to learn more about Old English letters that we sometimes see in IPA, but not in Modern English spelling.  The narrator in the following video speaks pretty fast, but has a sense of humor that the students enjoyed.

We stopped every once in a while to reflect on the information we were hearing.  In Old English, thorn (þ) and eth (ð) were used interchangeably to represent the voiced dental fricative /θ/.  We wanted to know the difference between a voiced dental fricative and an unvoiced dental fricative.  Stopping to feel the difference in our mouths helped us understand the difference between voiced and unvoiced, and it also caused us to pay attention to the position of the teeth and the tongue.  That helped us better understand the use of the words dental and fricative!  After watching that video, I made a list that we could refer to while we were sharing sentences at the board.

The more sentences we looked at together, and the more sentences that were completed individually, the more the students became familiar with the Old English words we were seeing over and over.  They were feeling comfortable with Old English and even flipped that initial feeling of regret at finding many words of Old English origin to a feeling of pride at finding so many words of Old English origin.  The students began asking questions about English.  Was Old English older than Latin?  Even though we had been over at the map and talked about the invasions that happened quite often in the history of England, it was clear that we were in need of a timeline that would help the students visualize the important reasons that English changed as the years rolled by.

Finding one I liked was not as easy as I thought it would be.  Many that are available online are visually busy.  I needed one that was straightforward and that my students would understand.  My plan was to give additional information regarding certain events as we read through the timeline together.  So with the help of the following 4 webpages, I put together my own idea of important events in the History of the English Language.  In doing so I am keeping my audience in mind (my 10 year old students).  This is not meant to be complete and likely would not suit everyone’s purpose.  But it suits mine.

Professor S. Kemmer, Rice University
Richard Nordquist, ThoughtCo.
David Wilton, Wordorigins.org
Luke Mastin, The History of English

Before the students glued the two pages of the timeline together and labeled it, we read it together and paused in places to better understand certain events.  I also had the students mark off the periods in which Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and Late Modern English were (are) spoken.  The students were surprised to see that Modern English began in 1500.  We wondered what the next period would be called.  What would follow “Modern English”?

To mark the beginning of “Old English”, I shared a map showing where the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons came from and another one showing where they settled.  The Angles and the Saxons became known as the Anglo-Saxons.  Here is what Etymonline says in its entry for English:

English … “of or pertaining to the Angles,” from Engle (plural) “the Angles,” the name of one of the Germanic groups that overran the island 5c., supposedly so-called because Angul, the land they inhabited on the Jutland coast, was shaped like a fish hook.

So the land of the Angles became “Angle-land”.  According to Etymonline, the Old English word for it was Englisc, and was used in reference to the whole Germanic people of Britain.  We still have words related to the Angles such as Anglians and anglicize.

undefined
By User:Hel-hama – Vectorization of File:Britain peoples circa 600.png drawn by User:IMeowbotborder data from CIA, people locations from The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1926 edition, with clarifications supplied by en:User:Everyking per references used in en:Penda of Mercia. Anglo-Saxon coastline from Hill, ‘An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England’ (1981) (the grey areas marked ‘sea, swamp or alluvium’ show where little Anglo-Saxon settlement occurred, because (according to Hill) there was at different periods either large areas of mud, marshland or open sea)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4684278

Another event that I felt needed a map to illustrate what was happening in Britain was that of the Danelaw being established.  As you can see, Britain was divided into Anglo-Saxon ruled areas and Danish or Norse ruled areas.  A treaty between the King of Wessex, Alfred the Great, and the Danish ruler, Guthrum, promised a peaceful existence between the English and the Vikings.

By Hel-hama – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19885072

Because 1066 is such an important date in the history of our language, I specifically looked for a video that would spotlight the significance of its events.  As we were coming across words from French, we had talked a bit about the Battle of Hastings, but I could tell something was missing.  The students weren’t understanding how French and English were existing side by side.  This video does a nice job of explaining just how that worked.  With this background, the students will be able to picture the two languages blending into one as the Norman nobility changed its perspective c.1300.

Curious about an idea that the Old English people had a word that named the animal and the Normans had a word that named the meat, two boys asked if they could investigate animal and meat words.  They wondered if this “Old English/Norman French” connection was the case with all the animals/meats they could think of.  One of the boys lives on a farm and had a particular interest in this collection.  Here is what they found.

There were a few interesting discoveries as you might imagine.  They were surprised that <steak> was from Old Norse, and that <rabbit> was from Middle Dutch.  I wish you could have heard the bubbling-over fascination with which they shared these lists!

The timeline was not created to be part of an in-depth study, but rather to suggest some things to consider when we think about how our language developed and became what it is.  In the coming months, I plan to ask which event my students would like to know more about so that we can revisit this timeline and better understand the people who brought about changes to the English language.  Just as we try to help students develop a “math sense”,  this kind of exploration has helped the students develop a “language sense.”

Moving on in our familiarity with Old English, I showed the students a book I purchased last year.

The first lesson can be found on Youtube.  I like listening to the pronunciation of the Old English in the video version.  My students did too.  They could figure out what was being said because of the pronunciation and being able to see the words.  The book has further lessons, and there is a site you can access to listen to those as well, but there is no video portion.

Again we had the chance to point out that in Old English the <h> was first and the <w> was second in the word hwā (who).  To hear both letters pronounced will help students remember why they are both present in so many of our modern words, even though the <h> is now second and no longer pronounced.  Another thing the students found interesting was the way a person’s age was phrased.

“ic eom golde!  ic eom nigon and twentig gēar eald.”
I am Golde.  I am nine and twenty years old.

The students also recognized:

wīf for wife,
mōdor or mother,
fæder for father,
sunu for son,
dohtor for daughter,
sweostor for sister,
brōðor for brother,
hund for dog

The first time we watched it, we paused to practice saying the Old English and sharing any reactions.  The second time we watched it, we kept silent and individually followed along with the narration being presented.  The next day when the students came into the room, I had written this on the board:

According to the book, the translation is, “Hello!  Be you well!”  or simply, “Hello!  Be well!”  As you can see, we are having fun embracing our Old English roots!

Seeing as we have Beowulf listed on our timeline, I found a video of a bit of it being read in Old English:

Then I found a short video of The Canterbury Tales being read in Middle English:

Then I found some Shakespeare being read in Early Modern English:

There is a beauty in each of these recitations.  My intention here was to have the students listen to each reading without struggling to understand what was being said.  I wanted them to appreciate the differences between poetry written in Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English and yet enjoy and recognize the beauty in each.

Our Data

Two of my students volunteered to keep track of how many words were from each of the different languages.  Each day they looked at newly submitted sentences and added to their count.  They also tallied how often a single word (from Old English) was used.  Here are the stats for our results:

Sentences submitted:    49
Total words:                  354

At this point, we were expecting Old English to be the biggest category in a pie chart or bar graph, but this visual representation of our data made several students say, “Oh, wow!”

The “miscellaneous” category included words for which we couldn’t find a definitive origin, words from Greek, and words the student researcher wasn’t sure of.  The category called “Romance Languages” includes words from Latin.  Latin is not a Romance language itself.  Romance languages were derived from Latin.  Here is the same information in a bar graph:

Next we made a bar graph that shows the breakdown of the Germanic languages:

And here is a breakdown of the words from Latin and from the Romance languages derived from Latin:

One other thing that we collected data on was how frequently certain words were used.

Next we sorted these frequently used words by their part of speech.

Because we have been studying grammar, we were really not surprised that the articles “the” and “a” would be the most frequently found determiners.  Determiners are found in most sentences.  Prior to this study, we never really stopped to wonder what language they were from.

The subject pronoun “I” was the most frequently used pronoun.

I recognize that some words listed here can function as other parts of speech, but in the sentences used in our study, they were functioning as verbs.  The students were not surprised that “like” and “is” are so commonly used.

Although we have talked about function and lexical or content words before, this was a perfect time to review them.  So many of the words we used frequently  in this study were function words!  That in itself points to the difference between the two categories.  Function words are those that point to a grammatical relationship between words in a sentence.  They are more difficult to define when isolated because that is not how we use them.  Function words are generally determiners, conjunctions, auxiliary and linking verbs, and prepositions.  Lexical or content words are generally nouns, action verbs, adjectives, and some adverbs.

Wrapping it Up

So what have we learned?  For one, we’ve proven to ourselves that Old English is indeed the bedrock of our language.  In the sentences we thought of, 80% of the words we used were of Old English origin!  After looking at six or so sentences, we began to realize that most of the words we use would be of Old English origin, but 80% is a bigger percentage than any of us were expecting.

We’ve also learned that even though many words in our language are Latinate, fifth grade students don’t use that many of them on a daily basis.  Many will be found as the students begin to increase the amount of academic writing they do at the next levels of their education.  When writing reports and essays, we tend to use a tone that is of higher register.  When we do, words of Latin and Greek heritage naturally become part of our writing.  This point goes back to the video at the beginning of this post in which the narrator noticed that a newspaper headline was composed of words of which 50% were Germanic and 50% were Romance.  Writing for a newspaper calls for use of a higher register than writing a note to a friend would.

Along the way, the students had exposure to some of the events that shaped our language.  Since so many of the words we found were from French, I felt it was especially important to give the students information about the Norman Invasion of 1066.  The student’s interest has been piqued and they are looking forward to learning more!  Learning about this particular event inspired the separate investigation by the boys who looked into words for animal names and words for the meat of those same animals.  As these same students begin studying the American Revolution in their Social Studies class, I hope to point out other words (like parliament) that began to be used as part of our language at about this same time.

Students were able to listen to examples of poetic writing in Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English.  There is a beauty in listening to a language you don’t quite understand yet can appreciate for its rhythm and meter.  They were also able to listen to and understand some conversational Old English.  That in particular helped because many of the same frequently used words in Old English are still frequently used words in Modern English!

This entire exploration came from an observation and a heavy dose of curiosity.  The data collection was a logical next step in order to prove or disprove our initial hypothesis.  During our look at the ancestry of words in the sentences we each wrote, observations we were making inspired us to take a look at other aspects of our language and its history.  All in all, we have begun to develop a sense of our language.  Isn’t that cool?  Beyond learning the specific stories each word, letter, phrase has to offer, beyond learning the suffixing conventions, beyond learning the various functions of a single final non-syllabic <e>, beyond all of the specific things it is important to learn, we have begun to develop of sense of our language.  The students are internalizing the idea that our language has evolved.  That the spelling of our words has also evolved.  That the spelling of our words began with that word’s sense and meaning and not with pronunciation.  That just as our language began with the Anglo-Saxons and changed slowly over time, it continues to change today and will probably look and sound different a couple hundred years from now.

Here, in the words of the students, is a video of this project.

 

 

Suffixes – Building Familiarity

My students enter fifth grade with limited knowledge of words.  They know a fair amount of words, but they don’t really know much about them.  They think that learning to spell a word is unrelated to learning what that word means.  According to the students, those are two skills done at two different times.  They have no idea that words actually carry meaning in their elements … because they don’t know that a word is composed of elements.  In other words, they don’t know that words have structure.  They don’t know that every word has at least one base element that supplies the main sense and meaning of the word.  They’ve heard of prefixes and suffixes, but not of connecting vowels.  And even though they’ve heard of prefixes and suffixes, they don’t know that a word can have more than one of either of those.

So how do I help?

I keep thinking of activities that will help my students become more familiar with the elements in a word.  I have shared many of those activities in other blog posts, but here is one that is new. This one focuses on suffixes and being able to prove whether or not letters at the end of a word are a suffix.  I had the students work in pairs and use one Chromebook per pair.  Before I gave them paper to write on, I had them open tabs at Etymonline and at Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher.  Then, as a class, we practiced using these two resources to find words with specific suffixes.

I had sheets of paper, each with a suffix at the top.  The students were to find words that had that suffix.  They were to write a synthetic word sum for each word they found.  I felt that if they wrote a synthetic word sum, then they might quickly recognize whether or not the letters at the end of the word were truly a suffix or just part of the word. As an example of that, I wrote the word <jumping> on the board and asked if the <ing> in this word was a suffix.  There was a resounding “Yes.”  I asked for a word sum.  A student replied, “<jump + ing –> jumping>.  Great.  Next I wrote <bring> on the board and asked if the <ing> in this word was a suffix.  This time I had a mixed response.  Some were definite in their voiced, “No.”  Others quickly said, “Yes.”

As we’ve been learning since the beginning of the school year, not all bases are easily recognized by people new to studying morphology.  We recognize what we are familiar with.  We are familiar with bases that are free, meaning we recognize that the <-ing> in <jumping> is a suffix because we recognize <jump> as a word we have been using for a long time.  But earlier this year, as my students encountered words like <hydrant> and learned that the base was <hydr>, they began to wonder about these bound bases we come across in our investigations.  When we looked at <biosphere>, they identified the two bases as <bi> and <sphere>.  The first is a bound base from Greek bios “life, living” and the second is a free base from Greek sphaira “globe”.  So in their limited experience, I have shown them that a bound base can be biliteral (consisting of two letters).  So back to the word <bring>.  Why wouldn’t some of the students be open to the fact that <br> might be a bound base?  So instead of me telling them whether it is a bound base or not, I directed all the students to the entry for <bring> at Etymonline.  Here is the part of that entry that we focused on for this activity:

We read it together looking for evidence that this word was from a root that became the Modern English two letter base element <br>, but we could not find any.  The <ing> was always part of the spelling of this word.  Therefore, we can conclude that the <ing> in <bring> is not a suffix.

Next I directed them to Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher and showed them how to search for words that end in <ing>.  Using the legend below the search bar, I had them use the $ sign after the suffix so that only words with <ing> at the end of the word would show up.  Then we looked at the list.  Wow.  There were 6085 words listed.  “Does this mean that all of these words have an <-ing> suffix?” I asked.

“No!” replied one of the students.  The word <bring> is on this list and we know that the <ing> in that word is NOT a suffix!”

“Right.” What I want you to do is read through this list and find words that you suspect have an <-ing> suffix.  Then I want you to flip to Etymonline to check for evidence to help you in your decision making.  Once you are confident that you have found a word with a clear <-ing> suffix, write the word as a synthetic word sum.”

I let them work with their partner for seven or so minutes before I interrupted them to begin the activity.  “Now that you know what I expect you to do, let’s get started with today’s activity.  I will give each group a piece of yellow paper.  At the top of each sheet is a specific suffix.  In this way, each group will be looking for words with a suffix that is different from every other group.  After ten minutes of work time, I will come around and switch which suffix your group is looking for.  In this way, I am hoping you become familiar with several suffixes.”

Here is a list of the suffixes I believe they already encounter on a daily basis:

<-s>
<-es>
<-ed>
<-er>
<-en>
<-ate>
<-ion>
<-est>
<-ist>
<-ous>
<-ing>

Do you see the kinds of wonderful discussions that could come of the lists they are creating?  As the students got started, I walked around and listened in to make sure they were using the resources as intended rather than just guessing at words that might work.  This activity went well.  The students were engaged and enjoyed having a partner to think out loud with.

When it came time to switch the sheets to a different group, I asked that the first task be that the group read through the previously listed words.  If the new group had questions about any of the words and its word sum, they were to put an asterisk to the left of the word.  After that they could add to the list.  On this particular day, we only switched twice.

<-s>, <-es>

So let’s take a look at the sheets and see what there is to notice.  One thing I was interested in finding out is whether or not my students understood when an <-s> suffix was used and when an <-es> suffix was used.  So I compared the two sheets.

As you might expect, when the base had a final <e>, there was confusion.  Is an <-es> the suffix to be added or an <-s>?

Looking at this sheet, it appears that many students are used to adding this suffix and understand that in most cases it represents marking a word as plural.  The two words on this sheet that I would highlight to talk about would be <ages> and <lines>.  Even though <lines> is a word with an <-s> suffix, because I also see <ages> on this list, I want to make sure my students can explain why <lines> has an <-s> suffix and<ages> has an <-es> suffix.

This sheet reveals a broad lack of understanding about the <-es> suffix.  The students recognize that when an <-es> suffix is joined to a base that has a single final non-syllabic <e>, that final <e> is replaced by the suffix.  That is a good thing.  But it appears that they are using a single final non-syllabic <e> as a signal that the <-es> suffix is the one to use.  Here’s where we need some clarification!

If I make two lists on the board like the two below, and ask my students to read them aloud, they no doubt would notice that the first list has one syllabic beat and second list has two.

fox                    foxes
dish                 dishes
ace                   aces
use                   uses
ash                   ashes

If they catch on to that, I would also present the following lists:

absence            absences
excuse              excuses
college              colleges
memorize        memorizes
surprise           surprises

I would ask, “Is the same thing happening here?  How many syllabic beats in <absence>?  How many in <absences>?”  I want them to notice that we use an <-es> suffix when making the word plural adds on a syllabic beat.   I don’t want them to think this only applies to a base that has one syllabic beat to begin with.

Now I will present this next set of lists:

chicken          chickens
toe                   toes
pencil             pencils
desk                desks
shoe                shoes

Again we will count the syllabic beats and see if the plural form is one syllabic beat longer.  They will notice that making the word a plural did not change the number of syllabic beats.

Here’s the next set of words to compare:

horse                  horses
promise             promises
adjective           adjectives
tadpole              tadpoles
squeeze             squeezes

The first thing I want the students to notice with this list is that all of the singular bases have a single final non-syllabic <e>.  That will not help determine whether we use an <-s> suffix or an <-es> suffix.  I will ask, “How do we know whether we have used an <-s> or an <-es> to make these bases plural?”  Hopefully, at this point they can explain back to me that when a syllabic beat is added to the word when the word is in its plural form, the <-es> suffix is used.

(The above flow chart is being used with permission from the works of Real Spelling.  In the flow chart, an “extra segment” is what I have referred to as a “syllabic beat.” )

This discussion of <-s> versus <-es> is the place I will start with the students when I see them next.  Then, once the students can state when to use an <-s> suffix and when to use an <-es> suffix, I’ll create an exit slip, asking the students to write down a synthetic word sum for both <ages> and <lines>.  In that way I’ll be able to assess individual understanding between these two suffixes.

There are other instances of using an <-es> versus an <-s> suffix, but I will begin with the misunderstandings I have noticed in this activity.  The other instances will come up in our work at another time.  They always do!

<-ed>

As I looked over the sheets for <-ed>, I noticed that a few need to review the suffixing convention that requires the final consonant of the base to be doubled when a vowel suffix is added.  One group called me over and asked how to represent that happening in a word sum.  They were writing a word sum for <twinned>.  As you can see in the picture below, I showed them that on the left side of the word sum we do our thinking and analyzing.  I said that other people might have another way to represent it, but I like to put the doubled <n> in parentheses close to where it will be in the final spelling.

Other than that, I was pleased to see that over and over students were showing that the single final non-syllabic <e> would be replaced with the <-ed> suffix.  Our practice with that suffixing convention has paid off!

The expected use of a word with an <-ed> suffix is as a past tense verb.

Jane wanted a puppy.
Saveea walked to the store.
Landing awkwardly, he damaged his ankle.

But what if we use a word with an <-ed> suffix to modify a noun?

Her grandfather was a wanted man.
I took the well-walked path.
I returned the damaged package to the post office.

When looking at words on a list (as we are with this activity), it is important to be thinking of sentences in which we might use the words.  The context is what defines a word’s function within any given sentence.  Please keep that in mind.  Have your students suggest the sentences so they become comfortable with changing the way a word functions within a sentence.

<-er>

One of the drawbacks from an activity like this is that some children will do this on automatic pilot, meaning they will not think too deeply about what they are doing.  One of the directions I had at the beginning was that the students couldn’t use a word that they didn’t know.  In other words, I didn’t want them to just copy from the list at Word Searcher without knowing for sure whether or not the <er> was removable (a suffix).  A word that I saw on the list with this suffix was <power>.  It was on the list as *<pow + er –> power>.  That just didn’t seem right to me, so I looked at Etymonline.  I couldn’t find anything in the entry that pointed to this being a case of a base plus an <-er> suffix.  Then I looked below at the listed related words and couldn’t find any words that had the <pow> spelling without the <er>.  As far as this resource is concerned, <power> doesn’t have an <-er> suffix and should not be on this list.

I must say I was pretty impressed with one group’s word sum for <cinema + ate + o + graph + er –> cinematographer>  What impressed me is the fact that this group recognized the base <graph> that we have looked at a few times.  They also recognized the possibility of an <o> connecting vowel!

One of the other things I’d like to do with these lists is to see if we can categorize some of them as to their grammatical function.  We’ll have to be careful though.  In order to determine a word’s part of speech, we’ll have to use the word in a sentence first.  I was thinking of something like this:

     1                                2                                        3
Person                Comparison                    Thing

baker                           fewer                        mower (depends)
diver                            ruder                        dryer (depends)
farmer                         slower                      sewer  (depends)
wrestler                      older                         mixer (depends)
biker                           riper                          charger (depends)

If I wrote (depends) next to the word, that means the word could be a thing, but it might also be a person.  The context (the sentence we find it in) will be what determines its meaning.  I’m hoping the students challenge the lists and offer sentences to support their thinking!

Do you see how this might bring awareness of how this particular suffix is used?  I can imagine some great sentences being offered and some questions being raised.

<-en>

This suffix didn’t seem to present problems with spelling.  Word sums were clearly written, and if there was a suffixing convention to be applied it was replacing the single final non-syllabic <e>.

I’m thinking of looking closer at these lists as well to examine how we use words with an <-en> suffix.  Two categories that seem obvious are adjectives and verbs.  At first glance I see words that can sometimes function as adjectives such as ashen, broken, frozen, widen, and wooden.  Then I see words like ripen, sharpen, deepen, and flatten.  These are verbs.  As usual, context will be the thing that determines how a word is functioning.

adjective                      verb

ashen                               ripen
oaken                              sharpen
golden                             deepen
wooden                           flatten

I wonder how accurate my students would be at categorizing the words in this way.  Perhaps I could give them a framework that would help.  For the adjectives, I could tell them that if they say the word and can think of a noun it could modify, they can classify it as an adjective.  As an example, let’s say, “frozen ….. pond” or “frozen food”.  In this way the students know it can be an adjective because they have it modifying a noun.

One way to check to see if it could be used as a verb, would be to use the modal verb “will” in front of the word and see if that makes sense.  For example, I could say, “will ripen”, as in “The banana will ripen.”  We could also use the auxiliary verb “has” in front of the word.  For example, I could say, “has broken”, as in “The boy has broken his ankle.”

<-ate>

This sheet revealed different levels of understanding.  The students are making hypotheses about the structure, and it is obvious that the hypotheses they are making are based on an understanding that is deepening with each classroom investigation.  It is also obvious that not everyone is in the same place with their understanding.  That is what makes classroom teaching so challenging and often rewarding!

I know that the use of the plus signs can be visually confusing at times.  Some of the students do a nice job of leaving enough space between elements in the word sum.  Others circle the plus signs so they don’t look like <t>’s.

In the word sum for <situate>, the students hypothesized that the <u> is a connecting vowel.  Since the base is Latinate, that hypothesis is quite possible!  The word sum for <hydrate> is one we know.  When the students investigated <hydrosphere> earlier this year, they came across this relative and we talked about both <hydrate> and <dehydrate>.  It’s nice to see the students connect what they already learned to what they are currently focusing on.

When I first saw the word sum for <pirate>, I had suspicions that this might not have an <-ate> suffix.  But when I looked at the entry for it at Etymonline, I saw (as the students did) the related word <piracy>.  So again, their hypothesis is based on thought and evidence.  In looking at the word sum for <radiate>, I see a hypothesis in which the <i> is considered a connecting vowel.  The entry at Etymonline does not support that.  This word sum is one I will use to deepen their understanding of the information offered at this great site.  Perhaps they are not familiar enough with Latin suffixes.  Some will remember our investigation of <stratosphere> that led us to Latin stratus which became our Modern English base <strat> “layering, spreading out”, but many will benefit from having it pointed out again.

One last thing to point out on this list is the absence of the single final non-syllabic <e> on the suffix <-ive> in the word sum for <activate>.  If I asked someone to spell <active> they would no doubt include it, but when they are looking at a word sum that includes more than one suffix, they often miss it.  They are understanding the final <e> that is found on the end of many bases, but not that it is often found at the end of suffixes as well!

<-ion>

I can tell by looking at these sheets that the students are familiar with this suffix and recognize it as part of a word sum.  Since they were so focused on proving the <-ion> suffix, some missed a second suffix in the word.  One of these days I’ll write <operation> and <cooperation> on the board and ask for word sum hypotheses.  I wonder how long it will take to spot the same base element in each.  Hmmmm.  I will also see if students see the two suffixes as <-ate> and <-ion>.  Those two are often seen in combination.  (See that last word?  Ha! I proved my point!)  I might even ask for the students to help me brainstorm a list of words that include both.

Next, I could do the same with <motion> and <motivation>.  The first word has one suffix, but the second word has three.  Perhaps I could have the students brainstorm a list of words with <mote> “move” as a base.  Then I could ask questions such as, “Who can spot a word in this family that has three suffixes?  Who can spot a word in this family that has a prefix?  Who can spot a word in this family that has only one suffix?  Will we ever see this base without a suffix or prefix?”  You get the idea.  Depending on the related words we thought of, I could keep going with questions to make sure everyone is engaged and thinking about what we are seeing.  Of course we would follow up any answers given with: “Prove it by writing a word sum on the board next to the word.”

<-est>

I wonder how long it would take the students to identify which part of speech these words could be classified as.  “Were they adjectives before we added this <-est> suffix?”  This could turn into a great discussion of comparative and superlative adjectives!  If I felt some of the students didn’t understand this idea, we could use the superlative adjectives on this list and write them in their comparative and adjective forms:

superlative               comparative                    adjective

unfriendliest                 unfriendlier                          unfriendly
sprightliest                    sprightlier                              sprightly
yellowest                        yellower                                 yellow

I bet you noticed the word sum for <rainforest>.  Setting up the columns for comparative and superlative adjectives might help students recognize that this word is not like the others.  And then a glance at Etymonline will provide evidence that the <est> is not a suffix in this word.  It is just part of the spelling.

<-ist>

When I ask my students to write a word sum and the final graphemes represent /ɪst/, they often spell it as <ist>.  Comparing the <-est> list to the <-ist> list might help them understand the difference between these two suffixes.  Let’s take a look at the sheet of words with <-ist>.

I hope you are starting to catch on that each one of these lists is full of opportunities for discussion and deepening understandings.  Look at the second word on this list <ageist>.  Why aren’t we replacing that single final non-syllabic <e> on the base?  Show them what it looks like when you do replace that <e>  and see how the students pronounce it.

I’m not sure why there is an <o> in the word sum for <chemist>, but it might be interesting to put this word on the board and ask for related words.  Then we could find the base and see how many different suffixes (besides <-ist>) are used with it.

As we read through this list, I might ask if these are adjectives like the list that had <-est> suffixes.  Hopefully we’ll get to the realization that words with an <-ist> suffix often refer to a person.  When they do, they are called agent suffixes.  For example, the dentist is the person who takes care of problems with your teeth.  A harpist is a person who plays the harp.  We could do down the list, reading the word sums and  identifying whether or not the word is referring to a person.

The word <copyist> is a great one to use when talking about an instance in which we do NOT switch the final <y> to an <i> before adding the suffix.  The more I can have my students vocalizing the reasons they do and do not use suffixing conventions, the better.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the word sum for <hypnotherapist>.  That looks like a great one for the board.  “What is your hypothesis?  Does anyone else have a hypothesis?  If we removed the <-ist> suffix, what other suffix could we replace it with and still have a familiar word?  Have you ever seen the beginning of this word in another word?  How about the part right in front of the <-ist> suffix?”

On the other hand, the word sum for <climatologist> is pretty impressive.  Our work with the base <log> is paying off.  They are recognizing it in new words!  The fact that this group left the <e> from the <-ate> suffix in the final spelling is something to note, but in the scheme of things I think that kind of error will correct itself with more application of the suffixing conventions and more reading aloud of word sums.

<-ous>

There are some really great things to notice about this first sheet.  In the word sum for <gaseous>, there was the recognition that the <e> would have to be a connecting vowel!  It clearly is not part of the suffix nor the recognizable free base element.  There was also the recognition that if we remove the <-ous> suffix from <famous>, the single final non-syllabic <e> replaces the suffix.  The free base would be <fame>.

The inclusion of <synonymous> is interesting.  The changes in stress, and therefore pronunciation, brought on by adding or removing the suffix might make the recognition that <synonym> and <synonymous> are related words a tad difficult.  It wouldn’t be the case for all students, but it would be the case for many.  I will definitely want to bring this word to everyone’s attention.  With some hypotheses offered, we could then investigate it further and find its relationship to antonym, homonym, anonymous, and pseudonym.  I’m sure they will get a kick out of  their respective senses:  “opposite name”, “same name”, “not named”, and “false name.”

This sheet also gives us the opportunity to see what others think of the asterisk that was placed in front of the word sum for <ridiculous>.  “If you agree that as written this word sum is questionable, what do you think the word sum is?  What makes you say that?”  Then we could go to Etymonline to find the evidence together.

One group working with this  <-ous> suffix called me over to talk about the base having a final <y> that becomes an <i> in the final spelling.  I showed them how to represent that change in the word sum.  This is definitely something we will spend some time on in the next few weeks.  Understanding the suffixing conventions takes care of so many misspellings.  The students start feeling better about themselves as spellers without feeling like they worked hard at it.  (Comparing the time they used to spend with rote memorization.  For too many that felt like hard work with few results.)

 

Summing it up

These sheets provide all the example words I need!  The activity was fun for the students, gave them valuable practice at using two trusted online resources, and revealed much to me about what kinds of practice they need next.  I was able to see patterns that could be used to help the students understand a word’s use a bit better based on its suffix!  These sheets can be used to inspire many many activities.  I could simply post any of these on the board and ask for reactions. It would be a great way to stimulate question asking and reviewing important word structure features.  I could ask any of the following:

Are there words you don’t know?
Do you see a word that could be further analyzed?
Do you see a word that you think doesn’t belong on the list?
Do you see a base identified here that you aren’t so sure of?
Is there a suffixing convention happening in any of the words on this list?

I know there are those who wish that SWI came with a scope and sequence, but really?  Why set up a generic plan for generic children when we have real children right in front of us with specific needs!  Their own work reveals what they need, and when the specific work is repeated at a later date, can reveal growth.

My first reaction to these sheets is one of optimism.  They understand so much already.  I always keep in mind that on day one of 5th grade, they believed that English spelling couldn’t be understood.   They had no expectations that I would teach them anything different from that.  But at this time of the year, they are starting to believe differently.  They have experienced for themselves the evidence and reasoning.  The rest of the year will be so much fun!  They will become better at spelling, but they won’t remember having studied or memorized letter sequences in order to do it.

 

 

 

Conferences: An Opportunity to Get the Word Out

This is what I shared with the parents of my students at our recent set of conferences.  Since those conferences were scheduled three weeks before the end of the trimester (which meant that my grades were not yet finalized) I used the opportunity to explain what I teach under the heading of orthography.

I began by explaining that one of my goals is to teach students why words are spelled the way they are.  A word’s spelling is primarily representing meaning, and not pronunciation.  An example of what I mean by that is the word <goes>.

On the day after our final performances of The Photosynthesis Follies, I gave a photosynthesis test.  As I was correcting the tests, I couldn’t help but notice that more students than I would’ve thought, misspelled <goes>.  Five students spelled it as *<go’s>, two students spelled it as *<gos>, three students spelled it as *<gows>, three students spelled it as *<gose>, and one student spelled it as *<gous>.  Sometimes when I mention to colleagues that students struggle with spelling, their first reaction is to say, “They need more phonics!  Those lower grades must have stopped teaching phonics!”  But I say no.  It is pretty obvious that the students have learned to spell phonetically.  Anyone reading their work can guess what word they intended to spell.  They are spelling using the only strategy they’ve been taught:  Sound it out.  And if we started naming words that are similarly difficult to spell accurately using only “sound it out”, we could name quite a few.  Don’t you agree?  So what now?  If the problem isn’t phonics, what is it?

Well, what if,  when we were teaching our students that graphemes represent pronunciation, we also taught them that words have structure?  What if the students were taught to look at this word and recognize that <go> is at the heart of its meaning?  We could teach them that this word starts with its base element, <go>, and if we want to form other words using this same base element, we could add suffixes.  If the child is learning the spelling of <goes>, he/she is probably familiar with the words <going> and <gone> as well.  We could teach the student that <go + es  is rewritten as goes>, that <go + ing is rewritten as going> , and that <go + ne is rewritten as gone>.

If we look at other word families in this same way, it won’t take long before the student has learned some of the more commonly used suffixes and prefixes.  So even with early readers, recognizing some part of a word will help when encountering unfamiliar words.  When decoding, the student can focus on the base element in the word because they recognize a suffix they can remove.

So now let me show you what I am doing with fifth grade words.  We begin our science curriculum by studying the interactions of the biosphere, geosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere.  As an orthographer, I immediately noticed that this group of words shares a structure.  Focusing on that structure, I added lithosphere, troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and cosmosphere to the list.  I had the students investigate these words in small groups.

They are all compound words.  You can see the familiar base <sphere>.  Just in front of that base you’ll notice that each word has the connecting vowel <o>.  That leaves a rather unfamiliar looking base at the beginning of each word.  It looks unfamiliar because we have not been taught to recognize bound bases.  A bound base is not found as a word on its own.  It is always bound to another element in the word.  When we think of compound words, we think of words like chalkboard or hallway.  In those words we see two free bases joined together.  In biosphere, we have a bound base <bi> joined to a free base <sphere> by the connecting vowel <o>.  This <bi> is from Greek and has a denotation of “life”.  The second base <sphere> is from Greek too.  It has a denotation of “globe”.  So the biosphere is everything that is alive on our globe or planet.

It is great to  better understand a word by looking at its structure, history and the overall meaning we glean from paying attention to its elements. But if we stop there, we are only giving a student one more word to remember.  Instead, looking at a word’s relatives is how a student makes connections to other words and how a word’s meaning becomes memorable.  If we continue to look at <biosphere>, and focus on the first base <bi>, we can find words like <biographer> “someone who writes about other people’s lives”, <biohazard> “something that is dangerous to living things”, <biology> “the study of living things”, and <bioluminescent> “living organisms that emit light”.  Do you see how all of these words are connected in meaning?  If the students begin to recognize a base like <bi>, they will have a hint at what an unfamiliar word like <biometry> might mean.  At the very least they will know it has something to do with “life, living”.  If they also know the second base in this word (<meter>) has to do with measuring (geometry, diameter, speedometer, kilometer), they will put the two meanings together. They might still need clarification as to what it means to measure life, but a quick look at Etymonline will tell them that biometry is the calculation of a life expectancy.  A biometrist tries to calculate how long something (under certain conditions) might live!  Cool!

**At this point I encourage the parents to take a look at the posters in the hallway (once we have finished with the conference).  The posters show the various investigations by the students.  I feel it is important to also point out to the parents that when they look at the posters they should keep something in mind.  It is not my intention for the students to remember all of the words they find.  Rather, it is my intention for the students to realize how many words can be related to one base element and its shared denotation!  Then, of course, the students also begin to realize that all words have structure (morphology), and a history (etymology).

      

Next I showed parents the list of these words that was still on the whiteboard in the classroom.  The students had written the year each word was first attested next to its corresponding word.  It is my intention to have the students make a timeline to better organize the words and their attestation dates.  Then we’ll be able to talk about which word was around first and which was created most recently.  As it turns out, the word <atmosphere> was first attested in 1630.  It is interesting that the oldest of these is <atmosphere> “gaseous envelop surrounding the earth.”  It just goes to show how long scientists have been looking up and wondering about our atmosphere.

As the years passed and the technology became more advanced,  scientists were able to detect differences in different areas of the atmosphere.  It became important to be more precise in what they called things.  I find it interesting that the specific layers of the atmosphere were named so recently.  It began with the stratosphere in 1908, the troposphere in 1914, the thermosphere in 1924, and the mesosphere in 1950. You can almost imagine the scientists making their observations and then realizing that the atmosphere was actually made up of layers, each with unique properties.  And as there was a need to fittingly name each layer, they looked to the classical languages (Greek and Latin) for appropriate elements!

The next topic we discussed was the teaching of Chancery Script.  My goal is for the students to have consistent and legible writing that also reflects their personal style.  I have fountain pens that we use when practicing.  We focus on writing posture and a comfortable pen hold (as opposed to a tense grip).  Again, I direct the parents to stop on their way out and see the examples I have posted in the hall.

When I moved on to what the students were learning in science, we ended up weaving in orthography once more!  As we’ve taken a closer look at the biosphere, we’ve learned about food chains and food webs.  The Photosynthesis Play we recently performed for the school, gave us a good start in understanding that the sun provides the energy for photosynthesis.  In fact, the word <photosynthesis> means “put together with light”.  It is the Greek base <phote> that means light.  We see this base in photography, photojournalism, photocopy, and phototropism (since we’ve studied the word <troposphere>, we know that phototropism has to do with a plant turning towards the light).  We have also studied the word <synthetic> and we use it often when we write synthetic word sums.  We know that a synthetic word sum is one in which we put the elements together to form a completed word.

Because of our previous understanding of the words <synthetic> and <phototropism>, we could more easily understand that <photosynthesis> would be a combination of those meanings “put together with light”.  Quite by coincidence, a few days later we were watching a video that further explained food webs and trophic levels.  The narrator in the video spoke about photosynthesis (the process in which a plant produces its own food), but then added that some bacteria are too far from the sunlight’s energy, and so produce their own food using chemosynthesis.  Without skipping a beat, several students raised their hands and excitedly explained that chemosynthesis would mean “put together with chemicals!”

I love presenting words to the students that I know they will be unfamiliar with, but that share a base we have talked about.  In this way, I am teaching the students to look for familiar elements in a word.  Of course, I also teach them that while creating a hypothesis about a word’s structure is a great thing to do, checking a reliable source to confirm or falsify that hypothesis is a responsible habit to form!  To this end, we use many etymological and regular dictionaries on a daily basis.

The study of food chains, food webs, and trophic levels exposes the students to many great words and word families.  If the organism makes its own food, it is a producer.  If it eats the producers, it is an herbivore.  If it eats an herbivore, it is a carnivore.  If it eats both producers and carnivores, it is an omnivore.  If the organism has no natural predators, it is a top predator.  If it is not a producer, it is a consumer.  If it eats an organism’s waste, it is a detritivore.  If it helps break down a dead organism it is a decomposer.

So how do I help my students understand those words when there are so many?  We look for related words.  We look at their structure.  We look at their histories.

This first matrix shows how carnivore, detritivore, herbivore, and omnivore are compound words and share a structure.  They also share the base <vore> “devour”.  As you can see, the words voracious and voracity are also represented on this matrix.  The students may not know these words, but it makes sense to introduce them as other members of this family.  It deepens the connections being made.  I might even ask them to name a time they had a voracious appetite!

In this matrix I’ve chosen to include three related words (with options for suffixing).  I am illustrating this base in other words besides the one we are focusing on in our study (producer), but I choose not to overwhelm the students with too many unfamiliar words this time.

In this matrix, I am sticking to one word and its suffixing options.  I use a matrix like this to practice the suffixing convention of replacing the single final non-syllabic <e>.  I also use it to point out that suffixes can have grammatical functions.

As we are finishing up our time together, I once again point the parents to the display that is up in the hallway.  It shows our work with food chains and the terminology being learned.

***The parents were very interested to know what their child was learning.  Several expressed their own frustrations with spelling, and wished they had been taught these things.  A few with younger children were hoping that other classrooms were teaching orthography as well.

Just before getting up to leave, one mom turned to me and said, I have something I just have to share with you.  I think that because of what you’ve been explaining  about orthography tonight, I finally understand a conversation I had with my older daughter (the one that was in my class three years ago).

My daughter and I went round and round a while ago.  I was asking her how to spell a word.  She said, “What does it mean?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
She said, “I can’t tell you how to spell the word if I don’t know what it means.”
I gave her a surprised look.  “What?” I said, “I never knew what words meant. I just memorized how to spell them.”
She looked back at me even more surprised.  “That makes no sense!  You need to know what it means before you can understand how to spell it!”

That just made my day!  Spelling represents meaning.  My former student knew that, but her mom didn’t get it until this conference night.  I’d say it was a night well spent!

Here’s a final touch.  I had this on the whiteboard at the front of my room just in case anyone stopped to take a look.

Leaving Plans for the Sub

I remember when I first started incorporating orthography into my lessons.  I was kind of panicky about having to be absent and needing to leave plans.  How could I create a worthy activity, and then give the substitute teacher enough background information to lead it?  Would opportunities for rich discussion go unnoticed by a teacher without real understanding of English spelling?  The nagging answer to that question was, “Of course they would.”  And because I couldn’t stand the thought of those teachable moments dissipating without notice, I left plans for other subjects, but not for orthography.

It didn’t take long before I felt guilty about that.  I mean, studying orthography has become the most important subject I teach!  Surely there were some activities I could put together that would keep my students thinking about words with or without me.  Over the years I have repeated several of the activities that I found worked well.   Just as importantly, I have learned how to set my lessons up for the substitute.  I include notes on what to say as the activity is introduced and also on what to expect from the students.  Recently I was absent for three days in a row.  I thought I’d share the activities I planned for those absences along with my reflections of the student work (which always results in ideas of what to do next).

Being gone for three days is unusual for me.  So what to leave for the students to do?  I wanted to vary the activities so that they weren’t doing the exact same things each day, yet I wanted to reinforce the idea of a word’s morphemic structure.

DAY ONE

10:05-10:35  Orthography

Write the word <make> on the board.  Have students get a piece of lined paper from the shelf near the door.  They are to put their name in the upper right corner of the paper. They are to write the word <make> on the top line of their paper.  Then they are to write the words you read aloud as word sums. We have done this several times, so they know what to do. Remind them they are to write synthetic word sums for each word you read.  Ask someone to explain to you what a synthetic word sum is. Ask them to skip a line on their paper between each word sum. Here are the words to read. Use them in a sentence if you can think of one.

maker
making
remake
makeup
filmmaker
troublemaker
makeover

Next, ask someone to collect the papers.  As they are being collected, ask for volunteers to write the word sums for each word on the board. Here is what the word sums should look like (although please don’t  correct anyone as they are writing them up):

make/ + er → maker

make/ + ing → making

re + make → remake

make + up → makeup

film + maker → filmmaker

trouble + maker → troublemaker

make + over → makeover

Once all the word sums are on the board, ask the class if they question anything that’s on the board.  If there are questions, hear them out and ask what others think of the point being raised. Once everyone is in agreement over the word sums,  ask for  volunteers to read each word sum.  They should be read as follows:

“M-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as m-a-k (replace the e)  e-r.” Ask the student reading the word sum why the final non-syllabic <e> is replaced.  I am hoping they say something like, “it is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“M-a-k-e plus i-n-g is rewritten as m-a-k (replace the e) i-n-g.” Ask the student why the final non-syllabic <e> is replaced.  I am hoping they say something like, “it is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“R-e plus m-a-k-e is rewritten as remake”.   Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e>.  I am hoping they say, “we are not adding a suffix”.

“M-a-k-e plus u-p is rewritten as m-a-k-e-u-p”.  Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e>.  I am hoping they say, “we are not adding a suffix. We are adding another base and making a compound word.  We only apply suffixing conventions when we are adding suffixes”.

“F-i-l-m plus m-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as f-i-l-m-m-a-k-e-r”.  Ask why we replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>. I am hoping they say, “because the e is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“T-r-o-u-b-l-e plus m-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as t-r-o-u-b-l-e-m-a-k-e-r”.  Ask why we replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>. I am hoping they say, “because the e is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“M-a-k-e plus o-v-e-r is rewritten as m-a-k-e-o-v-e-r”.  Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>.  I am hoping they say, “because we are not adding a suffix. We are adding another base and making a compound word, so the suffixing conventions can’t be applied”.

Save the stack of papers that was collected so I can look them over.

This is an activity I do fairly often with my classes.  I get some valuable information from the student work, such as whether or not students recognize certain suffixes and/or suffixing conventions.  Here are a few examples of what the student papers looked like.

Looking at this first sheet, I realized we would need to address  the random capitalization of <maker> and <making>.  I notice each year that students come in capitalizing certain letters whether or not it is warranted.  The next thing I notice is that although this student understands that the single final non-syllabic <e> in the word <make> can be replaced when followed by a vowel suffix, they are not recognizing that <up> is not a suffix here.  It is another base element and this word is a compound word.  This student did the same thing with the word sum <make + over>.  The suffixing conventions apply when a suffix is joined to a base, when a suffix is joined to another suffix, and sometimes when a connecting vowel is joined to a base.

Looking at this sheet, I see that this student is not writing out a full word sum for each word.  I will need to explain again how writing word sums will help them as spellers.  It will get them in the habit of thinking of words as elements that join to form a word, and that the word’s specific meaning is represented by the sense and meaning of the specific combination of elements.

Another thing to note is the unfamiliarity of the word <filmmaker>.  We will need to talk about what a filmmaker is (in case the substitute did not catch this or address it).  One last thing I see here is the word sum for <troublemaker>.  I’m pleased that this student recognizes that in some words, <-le> is a suffix.  Some examples are <sparkle>, <single> (from Latin singulus “one, individual” – not related to Old English singan “to chant, tell in song”), and <nestle>.  We’ll have to look at <trouble> together to find out if this is one of those.  Better yet, perhaps I can send each student (or each two students) on an investigation of a word with a final <le> spelling.  Then we could compile our findings and see what we notice.  Is it always a suffix?  Is it sometimes a suffix?  Is it rarely a suffix?

Looking at this paper I’m curious about the shifting spelling of the base element we are focusing on here – <make>.  This student is not consistently recognizing the spelling of the base as <make>.  This seems to happen when a student has learned the spelling of a word like <making>, but never really understood its structure.

 

DAY TWO

10:05-10:35  Orthography

Arrange the students in groups of two.  Make sure you have one copy of the matrix sheet for each pair of students.  They are to work together to list word sums for words that could be made using the matrix.  I’ve included (for you) the list I used when I created the matrix. Put the example word on the board and ask a student to explain it.  (I am unable to put the slash through the final <e> in the word sum when typing, so it appears behind it. It should go through the <e> to show I am replacing that <e> with a vowel suffix.  Most students can explain this to you.)

Have someone read aloud the directions, and then please ask if there are any questions about those directions.  After that, they may begin. I’d like these turned in before they go to the next class.  Save the stack of papers that was collected so I can look them over.

Here is the matrix sheet the students used:

Here is a matrix for the bound base <mote>.  Remember that we call this kind of a base a bound base because it isn’t a word by itself.  It is ALWAYS bound to another element (a suffix or a prefix or another base). I’d like to see how many words you and your partner can recognize and write word sums for.  Make sure your word sum looks like the example below:

mote/ + ive/ + ate →  motivate

  1. Make your list on lined paper.  
  2. Put both your name and your partner’s name on the top.
  3. Skip every other line. Take turns writing the word sums.
  4. Write neatly so I can read it easily.
  5. Once you are finished, read through your list together.  Make sure you could use each word in a sentence.  If you aren’t sure what the word has to do with “move”, look the word up in a dictionary.
  6. Turn your sheet in to the teacher.

I wanted the students to work in partners because we had not done this particular activity before and I thought that two sets of eyes would keep the activity going.  The substitute teacher said that she let the students in the second group (I teach three groups of 5th graders each day) know the largest number of words found by the first group.  Then she did the same for the third group.  The slight bit of competition kept students focused.  Here are a few of the student papers:

What I learned from this paper is that the students understand the suffixing convention of replacing the single, final non-syllabic <e> when the suffix is being added to a base element, but don’t realize that the same convention is applied between two suffixes as well.  I notice this in the word sum for <motivating>.

Something else that is interesting to note is the word <demotive>.  When the students create a word like this, I love to point out its structure.  We can make sense of this word’s structure, but can we make sense of its meaning?  So next I ask them to use it in a sentence.  If they can use it in such a way that we all understand what it means, then we call it a word.  We do this whether or not the word is listed in a dictionary.  These become our two criteria for whether or not we can call something a word.  Does it have a structure that we can identify through looking at its morphological relatives?  Can we use it in a way that other people understand what it means?

With the word <motorcyclist>, I need to reinforce the idea that <-ist> is an agent suffix.  I’ve mentioned it before, but there is so much new information that I’ve presented since the beginning of the year that much of it needs to be repeated!  It indicates that this noun refers to a person who is driving a motorcycle.  We might then brainstorm some other words with this same agent suffix (chemist, scientist, artist, cellist, pianist, etc.).

On a day that I am directing their attention to <-ist>, I might also direct their attention to <-er> which can also be an agent suffix.  After we have brainstormed a list of words with an <-ist> suffix, we will brainstorm a list of words with an <-er> suffix.  Then we might sort those into lists of words that refer to a person and words that do not.  Examples of words with the agent suffix <-er> are teacher, baker, driver, potter, gardener, and painter.  Examples of words with an <-er> suffix that are not referring to a person are bigger, wiser, tower, paper, water, and outer.  We might take the second list and divide the words up further by thinking about which of those words are used when comparing one thing to another and which just name things.

Look at what this group did!  They knew there was a meaning connection between automotive and automobile, so they tried to make automobile fit this matrix!  Interesting!  This tells me that some of my students are still unclear about letters that we replace.  We only replace single, final non-syllabic <e>’s.  We don’t replace consonants!  They are starting to see that our language is orderly and can make sense, but there are still lots of moments when they fall back into crossing off and adding letters willy-nilly because spelling has always felt that way to them.

The word right below automobile is also interesting.  The students saw the single final non-syllabic <e> on the base and thought that just adding an <r> would work.  They didn’t recognize that this word actually took an <-or> suffix.  They also did not recognize that there is an <-er> suffix, but not an <r> suffix.  This distinction could be made clearer if we spent some time brainstorming words with an <-or> suffix versus words with an <-er> suffix.  In the past when I’ve looked at these suffixes with my students, we’ve noticed that many bases that can take an <-or> suffix also can take an <-ion> suffix.  Examples are motor/motion, equator/equation, tractor/ traction, reactor/reaction, and director/direction.  An activity like that can be done as a whole class if everyone is looking at Word Searcher and thinking about the words listed that have an <-or> suffix.  How many of them might take an <-ion> suffix, and how many can’t?

The substitute teacher on this day was not the same one as the day before.  This one wasn’t any more familiar with orthography than the first one.  Even so, she personally enjoyed the activity.  I later found a list of words she made by using the elements on the matrix.  She had 39 words on her list!  I especially loved the note she left me:

Looks like my lesson made an impression on her as well as my students!

DAY THREE

Have the students get out their orthography notebooks.  They have the same list you see below in their notebooks.  We have been exploring the list below for a while now.  We began reviewing these bound bases last week.  Pair the students up and tell them they have 5 minutes to quiz each other about what the bound bases mean.  The list is below:
<bi> –  life
<ge> –  earth
<therm> – heat
<trope> – turn
<hydr> – water
<atm> – vapor steam
<strat> – layering, spreading
<mes> –  middle
<cosm> – universe, order
<lith> –  stone, rock
After they have practiced, lead a review game.  You say either a base or it’s definition and each group writes down the base AND it’s definition.  Tell them to do this quietly so you can see which group has the most correct answers at the end.  When checking to see who had the most correct answers, announce that the base MUST be spelled right, but no point will be lost if the definitions are misspelled.
Next have each person grab a sheet of lined paper, and tell them to write their name in the upper right corner.  Then read the following words and tell them to write a word sum for each.   Remind them that every word has an <o> connecting vowel and the base <sphere>.   I’ve put the word sum in parentheses below:
1.  cosmosphere   (cosm + o + sphere)
2.  lithosphere   (lith + o + sphere)
3.  geosphere   (ge + o + sphere)
4.  atmosphere  (atm + o + sphere)
5.  biosphere  (bi + o + sphere)
6.  thermosphere  (therm + o + sphere)
7.  stratosphere  (strat + o + sphere)
8.  hydrosphere  (hydr+ o + sphere)
9.  troposphere  (trope + o + sphere)
10.  mesosphere  (mes + o + sphere)
Collect so I can see where everyone is at with this.
Here are some of the student sheets that were turned in:
In the above list you can see another instance of random capitalization with geosphere.  I addressed that the first day I was back.  Another thing I addressed was the single, final non-syllabic <e> on <trope + o + sphere –> troposphere>.  I explained that the crossing out of the <e> happens when we are considering whether or not there are suffixing conventions that apply to this particular joining of elements.  So in a finished word sum, the single, final non-syllabic <e> would have a slash through it to show that it will be replaced by the <o> connecting vowel that follows it and will not appear in the finished spelling of the word.  When the finished word is being written, the student is thinking, “t-r-o-p-replace the <e>-o-s-p-h-e-r-e.
Another aspect of the <trope> base to discuss was the reason for the single, final non-syllabic <e> in the first place.  I began by reminding the students that:
– the bound base <cosm> was from Greek cosmos
– the bound base <atm> was from Greek atmos
– the free base <trope> was from Greek tropos
“When we were identifying the stem that has become a modern English base element, we removed the Greek suffix <-os>.  Why did I put an <e> on <trope>, but not on <atm> or <cosm>?”  There was a flurry of hands waving in the air and some hypotheses about pronunciation, but no one understood the reason.  So I said, “Let’s try to understand why that <e> is there by looking at two words that are more familiar to you.  I wrote <hope> and <hop> on the board.  “One of these has a single, final non-syllabic <e> and one does not.  What happens when we add a vowel suffix to each of these?
<hope/ + ed –> hoped>
<hop + ed –> hopped>
“Do you notice that the one with the single, final non-syllabic <e> did not have a double <p> in its final spelling, but the one without the <e> did?  You might say that that final <e> prevented the consonant <p> from being doubled.”  When we looked at the spelling of the related words <tropic> and <tropism>, we noticed that the <p> was not doubled.  If we didn’t place the final <e> on the base element after we removed the Greek suffix <os>, that <p> would double when we added the vowel suffixes <-ic> and <-ism>.
The bottom line is that we added the <e> to the base because the base was monosyllabic and had a final consonant with just one vowel before that consonant.  If we hadn’t, the doubling suffixing convention would have been applied.  The final <e> prevented that from happening.
The third day was part of an ongoing review of this particular list of words.  It began with investigations and continued with presentations of those investigations.  At this point I want to show them that knowing a word’s structure helps them think of the word as a joining of elements (often familiar).  Instead of memorizing this list by reciting the letter order of each over and over, they connect the base to other words that share that base.  Those connections are what make the base and its denotation easier to remember.  Then, of course, the reciting of word sums helps the students remember the spelling of each element in the word.  I discourage my students from pronouncing the elements as if they are completed words.  I ask them to spell out all parts of a word sum.
The following are pictures of another kind of review.  This is called the “Sixty Second Draw”.  I announce one of the words, and the student has sixty seconds to write its word sum, the denotation of the bases, and to draw something that they think of when they think of what that base means.  We did this today to reinforce their understandings of these bases and the shared structure of these words.
As part of our deeper look at the biosphere, we have been learning about food chains, food webs and, of course, photosynthesis.  Today, as we were watching a video called “Energy Transfers in Trophic Levels”, the word <hydrothermal> came up.  It was brilliant to see the recognition of these two bases among the students!  This word was used to describe the vents deep in the ocean that release heat from inside the earth.  Certain bacteria live in and near these vents.  Since there is no light reaching that depth in the ocean, these bacteria make their own food using chemicals.  Instead of doing photosynthesis, they do chemosynthesis!  Faces just lit up when the students saw the connection between these two words.  My face lit up just watching the students.
All three days my students practiced recognizing a word’s structure.  By reviewing their work, I was able to assess which skills and understandings still needed to be reinforced.  I even came up with lesson ideas for the coming weeks!   I had three different substitute teachers stepping in for me, and yet I feel like my students moved forward in their understanding.   Their learning deepened, my awareness of what they know and need to know deepened, and I aroused the curiosity of those teachers who visited my classroom!  What a great welcome back for me!

When Are You Ready Enough?

I get a lot of great comments about my blog, and about how lucky my students must be to be learning so much about English spelling.  I appreciate each and every comment.  It’s great that other teachers, parents, tutors, etc. recognize that the understanding I offer is very different to what they themselves learned when they were in fifth grade.  Instead of seeing spelling as a mindless exercise in rote memorization, my students see it as fascinating because of all the investigating and discovering they now know how to do.  There are stories and explanations embedded in every word, and every word is part of a family, complete with its own family tree!

What isn’t as obvious to my students, but is very obvious to me is how understanding the historical sense and meaning of a word can affect how a person uses that word when writing or understands that word when reading.  Since spell check came out, many people are thinking that teaching spelling is not as necessary as it used to be.  But then again, they are equating learning spelling with mindless memorization of strings of letters.  They have not visited my classroom.

The people who read what I am doing and just know deep inside that this is what should be taught in all classrooms, often accompany their enthusiastic comments with questions.

“I want to begin, but do I know enough?”
“Should I wait until after I take more classes?”
“What other classes do you teach?”
“When did you start?”
“What if the students ask a question, and I don’t know the answer?”
“I’d love to investigate words with my students, but where do I start?”

I get it.  When it comes to trying new things in the classroom, it can be a bit overwhelming.  Especially when there is no scope and sequence to follow.  As teachers, we are used to having step by step teaching guides that set a pace that we can follow.  I have always been one to understand that, and yet, I must admit, the professional in me has always felt a bit claustrophobic when using one.

Back when I began teaching 5th grade, I felt confident that I could effectively teach all subjects except two – grammar and spelling. The materials left behind by the previous teacher just felt ineffective.  The words, “Get out your English book” could quickly drain the color from the faces in front of me. The students weren’t involved enough in thinking about grammar and thinking about spelling.  Everything was “fill in the blank” and “write definitions using the dictionary”.  As a student, I used to find that kind of classwork super boring and usually finished the assignment without thinking about what I was doing or why.  As a teacher, I couldn’t honestly see any long lasting benefit to the work.  I knew I wasn’t really teaching children how the parts of speech they were learning about came together to represent a complete thought.  I knew I wasn’t really teaching children to understand English spelling.  But how could I teach what I, myself, didn’t understand?

That’s why I was thrilled back in 2004 to have had the opportunity to hear Michael Clay Thompson speak.

He changed my grammar teaching life!  His 4Level Sentence Analysis was intriguing to my students and they learned more about grammar than ever before.  MCT made grammar thought provoking, yet understandable.   Over the years, my students and I have done a lot of analysis at the board and had rich discussions about the role words can play depending on their placement and function within a sentence.  Students don’t just fill in a blank with a good guess.  They are able to state how they know that in a specific sentence, a word is a specific part of speech.  What follows is that they understand how the meaning of the sentence is constructed.  Since 2004, MCT has expanded his selection of age level grammar and writing books.  Find a full description and listing of his language arts materials HERE. The following video was taken in February of 2013.  I had already been using MCT’s grammar materials for 8 years, but this gives you an example of the kind of thinking required to analyze the structure of a sentence in this way.  [You might notice that the word ‘our’ as in ‘our wagon’ was incorrectly identified in this video as a pronoun, and that I did not spot the error.  It is the kind of adjective that is a possessive determiner.  It is pointing to the noun ‘wagon’.]

Because I was so impressed with the results I was seeing in my classroom, I also began using some of MCT’s other curriculum materials to enhance what I was required to use for spelling.  I started with his Building Language books and loved that my students began learning Greek and Latin word stems.  I also incorporated vocabulary words from his Caesar’s English 1 book.  Teaching some Latin and Greek stems gave my classroom learning experience a big boost!   I was satisfied with what I was doing … until I came across Dan Allen’s blog in late 2012.

In 2012 I decided to start a classroom blog, and went in search of other upper elementary classrooms to connect with.  When I happened upon Dan’s blog, I was fascinated.  He took what I was teaching my students using MCT’s Greek and Latin stems materials to a whole new level.   After a weekend spent reading every post on Dan Allen’s blog, I was raring to do what he was doing.  I just knew THIS was what I needed to do.  THIS was what would make a difference in the lives of my students.  Dan was digging into words and letting his students ask really deep, rich questions about spelling.  He was teaching his students that spelling is NOT just a random collection of letters, and that it is NOT meant to represent the pronunciation of a word.  By Sunday afternoon I had contacted Dan, and he put me in touch with Real Spelling.   Seventeen years into my teaching career, I finally began learning and teaching how English spelling works!

I’ve never been shy about trying something new in my classroom. I have always kept my eyes open for ways to make the learning memorable and at the same time for my students to enjoy having learned.  Studying English spelling by treating it as a science would be no different.  But in such a big way it was.  This wasn’t just a new and clever presentation of the same old thing.  It wasn’t a program, and it didn’t come in a shiny box with 1001 accessory books/assessments/teacher guides.  It didn’t even have a hefty price tag!  This was inquiry. This was looking at spelling with a scientific methodology.  My students and I could start working the minute we assembled the needed materials:  our questions, pen and paper to record our thinking, and dictionaries (regular and etymological).  Whoa!  I couldn’t think of any good reason not to jump right in!

So here I was, halfway through the school year, knocking on my principal’s door.  “Would it be okay if I abandoned our spelling books and tried something different for the second half of this year?”  I went on to explain what I understood at that time about Structured Word Inquiry, or as we were also calling it, Scientific Word Investigation.  Thankfully, my principal was open to the idea, and I was given permission to see if this way of learning about words could be as powerful in my classroom as it appeared to be in Dan Allen’s.

My next step was to write a letter to the parents of my students to explain what I was doing and why there would no longer be a spelling list or a spelling test.  Then, of course, I needed to pitch this idea to my students.  Quite surprisingly, not all were in favor of doing away with a spelling test.  But as you might guess, those who hated memorizing spelling lists were delighted.  And so we jumped in.  I reread Dan’s posts and also read Ann Whiting’s blog posts.  She was teaching a 7th grade Humanities class in Kuala Lampur and wrote inspiring blog posts.  (Ann is no longer teaching, but you can read her wonderful wonderful posts HERE and HERE).  I became part of an email group in which questions were shared and discussions ensued.  At that point, I mostly listened and learned.  I adapted activities from both blogs to use in my classroom.  And everyday we spent time investigating and understanding words like we never had before!  It was wonderful.

But was I prepared?  Was I knowledgeable enough?  No.  I really wasn’t.  But I didn’t pretend I was either.  My students knew I didn’t have answers to their questions.  I was very clear about that. I told them that I would be learning WITH them.  And that was the truth.  We asked questions of Real Spelling a lot in those first months.  I was also in contact with Ann Whiting and Dan Allen, who were both helpful and made me feel comfortable about asking so many questions.  To this day, that group of students holds a very special place in my heart because of the extraordinary shared learning we experienced.  Their enthusiasm and level of questioning played off of my own and our classroom became a place where thoughtful questions came to roost.  Here are two short  videos of those students in the midst of investigations.

By May, my students and I sat down to reflect on the learning.  It was unanimously stated that I should continue to study orthography with my next fifth grade group in the fall.  I felt the same way.  The students felt as if they had learned to spell without really consciously thinking about it.  In focusing on the elements in their word sums, and then how to apply suffixing conventions, they had indeed become more accurate in their spelling!  Besides spelling, they also felt more of a connection to words. After having investigated and discovered the stories of so many words, the students understood those words in a way that a dictionary definition just couldn’t match .  They had zeroed in on the denotations of base elements and the senses that affixes contribute to words.  They could compare what they knew a word to be revealing about its meaning to what a dictionary said about the word’s current usage.  So many rich discussions!

To reinforce the learning that we were doing, the students brainstormed words that might fit on a matrix for <star>.  I printed the matrix out, and scheduled time in each of the three second grade classrooms in our building to teach those students about word sums.  In this way, each of my students was paired with a second grade student and then taught them about writing word sums (and also the suffixing convention that deals with doubling).  At the time, I had a self-contained classroom (one group of students all day), so each of my students had three opportunities to teach word sums to second grade students.  My students found out that, “The best way to know if you know something is to teach it to someone else,” is a true statement!

When school was out for the summer, I needed to seriously consider what training/classes I would seek.  The first on my list was a 3 day training on Wolfe Island with Dr. Peter Bowers.  Having spent most of my life thinking there wasn’t anything to understand about English spelling, I found this training exhilarating!  Pete had spent ten years as a classroom teacher, so I knew he understood a teacher’s perspective.  His goal was to open our eyes to what was true about our language and contrast that with what we have been taught that could easily be falsified.  He gave us lots of opportunities to dig in and learn in the same way our students would. I met some great people who, like me, were excited to be finally understanding things about English spelling.  Many of those friendships have flourished since then, since we email or see each other in classes (through Zoom) once in a while.  These days Pete Bowers travels a lot and presents to teachers around the world.  If you are wondering whether he’s presenting near you, read more HERE.

In the years since, I have taken classes when I could, started a collection of reference books so I could research on my own, and continued to write blog posts like this one to share some of what happens with my students and some of what I notice on my own.  When posting here and when teaching orthography to my students each year, I am always cognizant and appreciative of how my story with Structured Word Inquiry began.  It was one teacher sharing and then connecting with another.  My regular posts on this blog have been my attempt to pay it forward.  I realize that not all who read my blog are classroom teachers, but if you are in any way giving a child truth about English spelling in place of gimmicky tricks that are designed to help a person remember what does not make sense, you are a teacher.

So if you know in your heart that Structured Word Inquiry will help a child in your life, think carefully about how long you intend to withhold that information – that adventure of inquiry.  Are you one who is most comfortable waiting for the understanding to gel in your own head before sitting down with a child?  Are you one who is most comfortable jumping in and asking questions as you go?  You have to determine when you are ready.  The child you are thinking of is ready already.  Don’t keep them waiting longer than necessary.  Luckily there are some introductory classes that will help you learn the terminology to use and some of the basic understanding needed as you begin.  Here is a list of introductory course offerings available in the SWI community:

Bringing Structured Word Inquiry into the Classroom  –  I teach a four episode (90 minutes each) online class.  Check this out HERE.

Introductory SWI Class  – Lisa Barnett at See the Beauty in Dyslexia offers a three episode (90 minutes each) online class.  Check this out HERE.

Intro to SWI  – Rebecca Loveless offers an online class.  She also offers an ongoing study group opportunity.  Check these out HERE.

An Introduction to Structured Word Inquiry  – Dyslexia Training Institute offers a six week (30-40 hours) class.  Check this out HERE.

I am also adding a link to the joint blog/workshop opportunities (Australia based) of Ann Whiting and Lyn Anderson:  Caught in the Spell of Words.  Check it out HERE.

The important thing to remember here is that you don’t have to have all the answers as you begin.  That being said, you do need to identify what it is you don’t know as you move forward so you can seek the understanding you need.  Do not be afraid of making errors.  Expect to make errors.  Celebrate the day you spot them and  replace them with a deeper understanding and new questions.  Investigate and present your findings to others.  Then have a dialogue about what you found.  The most wonderful learning happens when my students present their findings.  We all move our chairs so that we are close to the board and the presenters.  Then when the presentation is over, the questions, comments, dialogue and learning begins.

I am leaving you with this great quote that has inspired me through moments of self doubt:

 

Some Sums Are Worth Practicing!

Today we focused on the importance of a word sum, and how a word sum is to be read. I picked the base element <joy> to work with because I was confident that  the students would be able to brainstorm a list of words that are morphological relatives of <joy>.  A morphological relative shares the spelling of the base and the denotation (is from the same etymological root).

As the students thought of words, I wrote them in a column to the right. When we had a good sized list, I asked if anyone could give me a word sum for one of the words. At this point, I emphasized that the base element was <joy> and could not be made smaller without losing its sense and meaning. I compared writing a word as a word sum to splitting a spelling into syllables. Syllables carry no meaning, but morphemes do. Syllables may or may not help you with pronunciation, but a word sum will always help you understand a word’s meaning. You will find words written as syllables in most dictionaries. There is no internet site or dictionary that lists word sums.  Word sums have to be reasoned out by you!

This last bit is extremely important.  Students are used to finding answers in books or on the internet.  They are used to answer keys with which to check their work.  At first they feel confused by word sum hypotheses.  That happens because they have not been exposed to enough word sums.  With time, they begin to notice patterns and recognizable clues which in turn help them write a more likely initial word sum hypothesis.  Through experience working with word sums, they better understand that all words have structure. They become less nervous in proposing a word sum hypothesis and instead are actually excited at the prospect.  Some of my past 5th grade students have said that proposing word sum hypotheses was one of their favorite parts of orthography!

As the students hypothesized each word as a word sum, I wrote the word sum along with the ‘is rewritten’ arrow to the left of each word. That way I had the full word sum represented for each word.

Next I modeled how I wanted each word sum read. I’ll use the first word as an example: <j..o..y  plus  ful  is rewritten as  j..o..y  (pause)  ful> … joyful.  The natural tendency was to pronounce the elements as if they were words. Changing that tendency was part of what today’s practice was all about.  We don’t pronounce elements until until the word is complete.  Since a word sum is a visual representation of the composing of a word, nothing is ready to be pronounced because the word is not completed.  Everything is spelled out.  I also encourage the students to announce the spelling of the suffixes a bit quicker than they do the spelling of the base elements.  I want them to think of the suffixes that they will be seeing often as recognizable units.  I want them to rattle off, for instance, suffixes such as <-ing>, <-ed>, <-ous>, <-ly>, and <-ic>.  Then when they are in the midst of spelling a word on paper, the spelling of that suffix is in their head and there is less chance of leaving a letter off.

A few other things came up as we looked over this list.  We talked about the difference in spelling between <-ful> the suffix and <full> the free base word.  I introduced the idea of announcing the suffix <-ness> as <n..e..double s>.  It was also an introduction to looking at what each element in a word sum contributed to the overall sense and meaning of the completed word.

I showed them a chart that would be at the board to remind them of the types of elements we might see in a word sum.  I pointed out that bases and affixes are written morphemes.  In the first few weeks of school, we have been talking about the difference between a base that is free and a base that is bound.  The students will be investigating twin bases later in the year.  Since the students (in groups of 2-3) have already begun investigating science words, we have also talked a bit about everything else on this poster.  Each small group is investigating a word similar in structure to <biosphere>.  Each word is compound with <sphere> as its second base.  Each word also has a connecting vowel – in this case an <o> because one or both bases in their compound word are Hellenic (from Greek).

I started at one end of the room, and asked each student to read a word sum and finish by pronouncing the completed word. When we came to the bottom of the list, we started over.  In that way, every child was able to individually read a word sum. In listening to the readings, the process became familiar to all.  This is a practice I will continue doing throughout the year when we collect any list of morphological relatives.  Hearing themselves announce the word sum will help this idea of a word sum become part of what they understand about all words.   When they are writing and asking themselves how to spell <really>, I want them to remember that the base is <real> and they are adding the suffix <ly> to it to form the word <really>.

A few students inadvertently said “equals” instead of “is rewritten as” when they saw the arrow. That was a great opportunity to compare a word sum to a math equation and to point out the use of “sum” in our use of “word sum”.

I also used this opportunity to talk about the difference between a synthetic word sum and an analytic word sum. I pointed to the poster card I now have on my board to remind them of these new terms and what they mean. (Check out the store tab on my blog if you are interested in a set of my cards. 🙂) I explained that the word <synthetic> means to put together and the word <analytic> means to loosen. So a synthetic word sum is the kind of word sum that begins with elements and combines them (puts them together) to form a complete word. An analytic word sum is the kind of word sum that begins with a completed word and loosens it into its elements.

I told my students that my goal is for them to spell a word by its morphemes.  I want to replace the often torturous memorization of “letter letter letter” type sequences with knowing that a word has, for instance, a base <joy>, a suffix <ful>, and another suffix <ly>.  This will not be accomplished by sounding out words, but rather by learning about structure and repeatedly seeing and using some common affixes and bases.

The students enjoyed this activity and asked if we could do it again sometime.  Yes.  We can and will do it many many times!  I promise!

Another wall of confusion comes crashing down!

For the second year in a row, I began the school year by showing my students how their names would be represented in IPA symbols.  The name tags on their desks were IPA representations of their names as well as the name tags on their notebooks.  When they came into my room at Open House (five days before the start of the school year), they were a bit bewildered.  They didn’t know how to find their desk.  I just greeted them with a smile and said that what they were looking at was not a spelling, but rather how pronunciation is represented.  “That is the pronunciation of your name,” I said.

Then I showed them which desk was theirs.  Most smiled and nodded.  A few said nothing, but held perplexed looks on their faces.  The parents who asked about it were very intrigued and jokingly asked if they could come and learn too.

Then in preparation for the first day, I made a large poster that included IPA representations of all 64 fifth grade names.  I hung it on my Smartboard so that my white board (adjacent) was available to write on.  I thought that having that many names in IPA might give the students more opportunity to see certain IPA symbols in many familiar names.  Then we could talk about the graphemes we use to represent those pronunciations.  Here is the large poster:

Even though it was the first day and I usually begin by introducing myself and the subjects I teach, the students were fired up to start with this.  As they came in they looked this poster over and began asking questions.

“Mrs. Steven, I see my name, but that isn’t how I spell it.”
“What language is this?”
“Why do we have to learn this?  It looks hard.”

I explained that these are not alphabet letters, even though some of them look exactly like the letters they are used to.  These are symbols used to represent pronunciations.  They are part of the International Phonetic Association’s system of symbols.  The word ‘International’ is there because these symbols are not just used to represent the pronunciation of English words.  Many languages can use this system.  Some of the symbols might look familiar, but some of them probably don’t.

Then I asked someone to point out a symbol and to say the pronunciation they think it might be representing.  Sam was the first to raise his hand and ask about the symbol that looked like an ‘a’ and an ‘e’ all smooshed together.  I explained that the symbol æ was once a letter in Old English.  It was called ash.  It is pronounced like the <a> in <ash>.  We recognized that pronunciation in Sam, Maddie, Maggie, Samantha, Addison, Travis, Hannah, Calli, Natalie, Danny, and Addy.  Having so many names in IPA was truly helpful.

Next it was Tommy who was curious about the <i> at the end of his name.  I told him that it wasn’t the letter <i> that we use in spelling.  This symbol represents /i/ and that in his name that pronunciation is spelled with the grapheme <y>.  I asked the students to see if that symbol was part of anyone else’s IPA representation.  They named Cally, Maggie, Casey, Cassy, Remi, Misty, Addy, and Danny.  Then we noticed that /i/ wasn’t always represented with the grapheme <y>.  In Remi’s name it was represented with a single <i>, in Casey’s name it was represented by the digraph <ey>, and in Maggie’s name it was the digraph <ie>.

The next to speak up was Scarlet.  She said, “You put a <k> in my name, but it is spelled with a <c>.”  So I explained that while that IPA symbol looks like a <k>, it isn’t.  These symbols are not the alphabet letters we spell with.

“The symbol represents /k/.  Is that how you pronounce the <c> in your name?”
“Yes.”

I wrote the letter <c> on the board.  I asked if anyone could tell me how to pronounce it.  Scarlet immediately said /k/.

“Have you ever seen this letter in a word in which it was not pronounced /k/ but something different?”
Finley raised his hand and said, “What about in city?  There it is /s/.”
“Exactly.  Using a symbol that we recognize as <c> wouldn’t work in IPA, because we wouldn’t know which pronunciation to use.”

Then we spotted the names Cora, Cally, Carter, Frankie, Christian, Cal, Kai, and Casey that all had /k/ in their pronunciation.  I asked about Christian.  “Is it just the <c> or is it the <ch> that is represented by the /k/?”  Someone recognized that <ch> is pronounced /k/ in chemistry too.

Finley pointed out the symbol that looked like a capital ‘i’.  We only found that pronunciation is two other names – Misty and Marissa.

Then someone asked about the weird symbol that was in Christian’s name.  In anticipation, I wrote /tʃ/ on the board and pronounced it.  I wrote the spelling of his name on the board and asked, “Now which letter in the spelling of his name represents that pronunciation?”  Students answered with several guesses, but no one guessed <t> by itself.  So I covered up the <ian> part of the spelling and asked how the letter <t> would be pronounced.  Everyone said /t/.  I asked them to notice how the pronunciation of that <t> changed when it was followed by the <ian>.  We then brainstormed the words creature and mention where the letter <t> is also pronounced /tʃ/.  “I bet you never thought a <t> could represent anything but /t/.  But here is evidence that it can.  As we learn more about spelling and pronunciation, you will learn that the letter <t> represents at least one other pronunciation as well!

When the next group of fifth graders came in (we rotate three groups and spend 90 minutes with each group), I erased the board and started an examination of IPA  with them.   Jacob wondered about the symbol at the beginning of his name.  I wrote and then pronounced /dʒ/ on the board.  Then I spelled his name next to it.  “In your name, what letter represents /dʒ/?”  He answered that it was the <j>.  “Is that the only spelling that can be pronounced that way?”  He quickly answered yes.  “Can anyone think of a word with that pronunciation in it?”  That’s when the name of our village came up – Cambridge.  “In this word, what letter or letters represent /dʒ/?”  Lauren recognized it was the <dge> combination.   (I’m jumping ahead to what happened with the third group of students when someone recognized that their last name had that pronunciation and it was represented by the grapheme <g>!  Look for it in the next picture!)

Next it was time to look at the two symbols (functioning as one) with a pronunciation of /oʊ/ and represented as the letter <o> in the name Dakota.  The students wondered why there were two symbols for this one pronunciation, so I asked everyone to pronounce it.  Then I said, “Get ready to pronounce the letter <o>.  Freeze.  Notice the position of your mouth.  Now pronounce it.  As I heard them finishing, I asked them to freeze again and notice that their mouth was not in exactly the same position.   We did this a few more times so that everyone could feel that our mouth glides to a new position as we pronounce the letter <o>.  This is called a vowel glide.  Now you can see why the two IPA symbols are used as one to represent the pronunciation of this letter.  We looked around to see if other names had this pronunciation.  We found Oden, Noah, and Owain.

Ava was the next one to raise her hand.  “My name begins with an <a> and ends with an <a>, yet each <a> has a different IPA symbol.  Why is that?”
“Well, do we pronounce them the same way?”
“No, we don’t,” she replied.

We focused first on the the first pronunciation in her name.  I asked everyone to say the letter <a>.  Just as we did with <o>, I asked them to notice the way our mouths begin in one position and finish in another.  “This is another vowel glide.  We see this one pronunciation represented by an IPA symbol that looks like two symbols.  Who else has this pronunciation in their name?”

The students found Adrianna, Casey, Taylor, Grayson, Aiden, Xaiver, Mason, and Jacob.  It was interesting to note the graphemes and digraphs that represented this pronunciation in the students’ names.

I pointed out the stress marks in each name and we noted that not everyone had a stress mark at the beginning of their name.  We practiced saying the names and feeling the stress.  We noted the difference in pronunciation between /məˈkɛnə/ and /ˈmɑkɛnə/.  Even though noticing stress is completely new to these students, this was a first step, and they recognized how it made a difference in Makenna’s name.

As we continued, the students kept using their own names and the names of their classmates to decipher the IPA symbols and the pronunciations they represented.  Along the way we talked about the symbol known as schwa.  We found this pronunciation symbol in many names including Norah, Addison, Sylvia, Alyssa, Natalie, Ian, Scarlet, Hannah, Shiras, Darien, and Shanna.  Again, we noticed that this pronunciation could be represented by several graphemes and digraphs.  I shared with them that the schwa is unstressed in a pronunciation.  It does not get the punch that a stressed vowel would get.  We compared the /ʌ/ in Hunter to the  /ə/ in Cora, and tried to feel the difference between that pronunciation being stressed in Hunter and unstressed in Cora.

By the end of the day, there were very few symbols that had not been discussed.  The students left the room abuzz with their new understanding.  I told them I would combine the observations from each class and make a key that we could all use to understand these IPA symbols as we move forward in our learning.  My!  It was a good day!

The next day I wanted to revisit what we had talked about and then take it a step further.  I modeled writing a spelling of someone’s name on the board and then putting the IPA symbols underneath.  But as I did so, I used one color to represent the grapheme and the corresponding IPA symbol that represented that grapheme.  I used another color to pair up the next grapheme (or digraph) with the IPA symbol that represented it.  I kept going, switching colors, until the name was spelled and the pronunciation was represented.  Then I asked the students to do the same thing with their own name in their notebooks.   When I had checked it, they wrote it out on larger paper so we could hang these in the hallway and share what we are learning!

As the first students finished, they asked me what they should do next.  I sent them to the large poster and had them practice pronouncing everyone’s name.  They were so proud that they could do it now!  We finished up with a discussion about the fact that spelling doesn’t usually help us know how to pronounce a word.  We used several names including Aaron’s as an example of that.  But now we understand IPA!  We have a reliable system that will represent pronunciation!  That means that we can look to spelling to represent a word’s meaning!

*****Right now those are words crafted into a statement that doesn’t mean much to my students.  I know that.  But in these two days we put some solid bricks in the foundation of our understanding of the English spelling system.  The rest will come.  It takes presenting evidence over and over for them to finally get that each word has a story and that it reveals that story and its meaning through its spelling.  One day at a time.  Our understanding has begun!

Below are the pictures of our hallway display.  We have seen many people stop to take a look.  That makes us happy!

 

 

Summer Time … and the learning feels easy

During the recent session of summer school, I had a small group of five students who signed up for my orthography class.  Two had just spent a school year studying orthography with me and three were new to it, but would be studying it in the fall.  I thought you might like to see the kind of explorations we did considering the experience levels of the students.

For the first few days, they helped me finish a video I had begun working on before the school year ended.  I shared a power point I had created explaining how the days of the week were named.  Next we read the script I had written and talked about a time when Latin was spoken.  It was when the Germanic people traveled and traded that they became aware of how the Romans named the days of the week.  The Germanic people were intrigued.  They decided to adopt what the Romans were doing, but made some changes to reflect their own culture. Here is the video we created:

This was a great introduction to orthography because I could acquaint my new students with some basic truths about English spelling.

~  We began with common words that are familiar to my students, and yet whose spelling they never questioned before.  It was the opportunity to present the truth that words are spelled the way they are for a reason.  Spelling is not random and nonsensical.  A spelling represents the word’s meaning.  This is such a basic truth regarding spelling, and yet it is one that is incredibly hard for people to believe.  From early on we are told that every letter represents a sound and that when we blend those sounds, we are reading a word.  While that might have a surface appearance of what we are doing, it just doesn’t work to explain spelling and reading beyond words like pat and dad.

There is a quote that I have always loved.  “If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.”  (I’ve seen it attributed to several people, but most often to Ian Stewart.)  I think I love it because when I ponder it, I feel encouraged to look at a human brain as this amazing organ that man may not ever completely understand.  We seek to understand the brain, of course, because seeking understanding is part of our human nature, but all the while we stand in awe of it too.  In a similar way, I see language as substantial, as beautiful and as amazing as, say, a brain.  It is something we seek to understand, but may not ever completely understand because it was created by a vast collection of human brains across time!  It is the legacy of the human race!

This is not to say that it can’t be understood. It can.  But that doesn’t happen — hasn’t happened — by people who have tried to simplify the instruction of reading.  That simplification (every word has a letter/sound correspondence, and if we just blend those sounds together, we will be able to read the word) does not hold true for the majority of words in our language.  And teaching beginning readers that spelling and words are all about pronunciation is the biggest problem of all.  There is just so much more to it.  There is meaning.  MEANING!  Instruction in reading should start with a word’s meaning.  From there a child should seek to understand the word’s structure and the morphological and etymological families it belongs to.  Then it is time to notice the grapheme/phoneme correspondences.  At that point, those correspondences that are affected by the word’s etymology will make sense.  At that point, those correspondences that are affected by the word’s morphology will make sense.  Once a student knows a word’s meaning and can relate its meaning to its spelling and ancestors, then that student is ready to pronounce the word and read it in context.  And because the word’s spelling is now understood, it will be more memorable.  It will have staying power. (No guarantees, but at the very least, a student will be able to quickly look up the information on his/her own and refresh that understanding.)

Of course I did not belabor this point with my students, but I did introduce this idea and show them that the days of the week were named as such to represent meaning.  It is no longer frustrating to try to remember the spelling of Wednesday if instead you can imagine the Germanic Chief God Woden and think of it as being called “Woden’s Day”.  Change the <o> to an <e> and flip the <en> and you have “Wednesday”.  It was difficult to pronounce both the <d> and <n> once the <en> was reversed, and in time the <d> was no longer pronounced.  It was left there, though, to remind us that this day was Woden’s Day.

~  Another great reason to start with learning about the days of the week  is that it gave the students the opportunity to understand that Modern English is directly descended from Old English.  When the students compared the days of the week as written in Old English, Modern English, Swedish, and German, they could see similarities in spelling and meaning.  Seeing the same days written in Latin and then in some of the Modern Romance languages like Italian, French, and Spanish, they could see the similarities in spelling and meaning among these languages as well.  At this point, the students are presented with the idea that many of the languages we are familiar with derived from Proto-Indo-European.  You see, in the late eighteenth century, Sir William Jones noted similarities between Sanskrit (an ancient language of India), Ancient Greek, and Ancient Latin.  He proposed that the similarities were because of a shared ancestral language.  He called that ancestral language Proto-Indo-European (often abbreviated as PIE).  Although there is no direct evidence (writing samples) of this language, experts in this field have been able to use linguistic reconstruction to suggest likely pronunciations of PIE roots and their meanings.  It is important to keep in mind that these PIE roots are suggested reconstructions.  That is why you see an asterisk next to the PIE root in an Etymonline entry.

If we think of the languages using the analogy of a tree, it might look similar to my drawing below.  My goal in drawing this was to point out that the Germanic languages would have been on a different branch than the Romance languages, but that they would both have had Proto-Indo-European at their roots.  Other than that, this drawing is NOT complete.  It is meant to suggest the idea of a language tree, and to point out the idea of different branches in the bigger idea of a language family tree.  During the school year, I will find a reliable and more accurate language tree to share with my students.

New Day – New Activity

I began by reading an article that I think is interesting.  HERE is a link to it.  It is called “Why is the ‘mor’ in ‘Voldemort’ so evil-sounding?” It began by naming some well known fictional villains. There’s Voldemort, Professor Moriarty, Morbius, Mordred, and Dr. Moreau. But what is it about that <mor> found in these names that links them together?  Before I went further, we stopped to check out a few things at the Online Etymology Dictionary.

I had my students look up some familiar words with this <mor> spelling. Notice that I’m not calling this a base element. I don’t really know what the connection is yet. I only know that this letter string appears in names given to some villains.

As the students searched and then read the entries at Etymonline, I recorded their information on the board.  In that way we could all see the basic information and make observations as they came into our thoughts.

Morbid

<Morbid> was first attested in the 1650’s. It is from Latin morbidus and morbus “disease, sickness, illness, ailment”. Perhaps it is connected to the root of mori “to die, looking like death.”  It is from the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) reconstructed *mer “to rub away, to harm, to die”.

Wow. That really got the attention of the students! One of the mentioned villains is Morbius.  That spelling reminded us all of the spelling in morbid.  The article mentions three villains named Morbius.  The first is Dr. Michael Morbius whose alter ego is something like a living vampire. He is featured in Marvel comics as an enemy of Spider-Man.

https://scontent.cdninstagram.com/vp/2208591b52c0d88a4475a5ef4d4cd0e8/5BD81007/t51.2885-15/e35/36745510_174672190069773_4707986606907195392_n.jpg

Another is the Time Lord war criminal known as Morbius from the British science fiction television series, “Doctor Who.”  For his crimes, he was captured and executed, yet he survived.

File:Morbius.jpg

The third is the Morbius who is an antagonist in The Forbidden Planet, a 1956 movie.  Morbius is a scientist who has been stranded on a planet for twenty years.

DR MORBIUS~ FORBIDDEN PLANET Comic Art

Mortal

Next they looked up <mortal>. It was attested 14c. and is from Old French mortel “deadly, doomed to die, destined to die, deserving of death,”and before that from Latin mortalis “subject to death.” This word too is from the same PIE reconstructed root *mer! That was interesting! The idea of “deserving of death” brought about a fascinating discussion. As a way of further understanding this word, I shared a quote from my favorite Dicken’s story, The Christmas Carol. It is spoken by Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Past is about to take him out the bedroom window. Scrooge says, “But I’m a mortal and liable to fall!” He is explaining that as a mortal he is subject to death should he fall from this height!

Murder

Next we looked up <murder>. It was attested 13c. and was Old English morðor (plural morþras) “secret killing of a person, unlawful killing, mortal sin, crime, punishment, misery”. Even though the modern spelling is <mur> and not <mor>, we found that in Old English it was an <mor> spelling.  AND again, we found it was from the same PIE reconstructed root *mer!  This entry brought about a discussion about a killing being in secret.  It was decided that since the murderer doesn’t usually want to get caught, they kill in secret.

The other thing the entry for <murder> brought about was a discussion about the Old English letters eth and thorn.

These are two of at least twelve letters that were once but are no longer part of our alphabet.  Since eth appears in the spelling of the Old English word for murder morðor, and thorn appears in the plural spelling of the same word for murder morþras, it makes sense to talk about them and share how they were probably pronounced.

The students were enjoying these connections, and they loved spotting that the connection between all three words was the PIE root *mer “to rub away, to harm, to die”.  But it was also pointed out by my two experienced students that we didn’t find a root that became a modern English base element.  We found no evidence that <morb> in Morbius was a separate base.  We found no evidence that <mor> in Moreau or Moriarty or Mordred was a separate base.  But what about <mort>?

As a way to connect our findings to something local, I asked if any of the students had ever been to Lake Butte des Morts which is in our state, but northeast of us. They had, but none of us knew what its name really meant. I looked it up and we found out that the lake was named by French settlers to honor the Native American Burial Mounds that were nearby. The name of the lake means “Mound of the Dead”.  Read THIS if you are interested in a brief history of how this name came about.  It is very interesting!

Image result for story of lake butte des morts

Next we looked up words with <mort> and found mortician, mortal, immortal, mortgage, and mortuary.  All of them are from the same PIE root *mer “to rub away, to harm, to die!”  They are all from Latin and have to do with “dead”.  This might explain villain names with the <mort> base, but it doesn’t explain the others.  Something else is going on here as well.

At this point we went back and read the rest of the article. We talked a bit about phonesthemes, and talked about how the <mor> might have something to do with that since we didn’t really have evidence of a base shared in all of the names.

Phonesthemes are fascinating to learn about.  They are not specifically a spelling.  Instead they are a specific pronunciation that carries with it a sense.  If we believe that the spelling <mor> might be a phonestheme, it is more accurate to represent it with IPA [mɔr] since IPA (International Phonetic Association) represents pronunciation, not spelling.  Another example of a phonestheme is [sn] having something to do with the nose.  We hear it in snooze, snore, snot, snout, sneeze, sniff, and more. 

This activity was interesting to the students and introduced/reinforced some orthographic truths:

~  Noticing things about words and their spelling is what scholars do.  Asking questions is much more important than securing answers.  What is important is that we notice things, contemplate them, think about what it is we don’t know, and then to ask questions.  In following this order, we identify for ourselves a specific focus for our research and reading.

~  Words have an attestation date.  That date gives us an idea of how long a specific word has been in use.  The date reflects the earliest date for which etymologists have written evidence of the word being used.  The word may have been spoken before that date, but we don’t have anything written prior to that date that includes it.

~  It takes some guidance to become familiar with reading the entries in any etymological dictionary.  By having the students read the entries and by me writing the important facts on the board, the newer students had a taste for the kind of information that is there.  First we noticed the earliest it had been found in writing.  Then we took steps backward in time from there to see the language of origin for the base of the word.  Many of the entries include information as far back as the PIE root.  We talked about what PIE means, and who the people were who spoke Proto-Indo-European.

~  I was able to introduce the concept of phonesthemes.  I didn’t spend a lot of time on it, but it will be slightly familiar when they hear me speak of it later in the year.  To me, a phonestheme is an unexpected yet delightful aspect of our language!

New Day – New Activity

I started by showing a short video in which students speak off the cuff about orthography.  Here it is:

As I had hoped, a discussion followed.  The two students who had just finished a year of studying orthography were in this summer school class because they had enjoyed it THAT much!  They shared some of the words they had investigated during the year.  Their favorites were the words they could choose on their own.  No surprise there!

At one point I told about a girl in a previous class who had found out that the word <nice> had drastically changed over time.  It wasn’t the spelling that had changed in the time since the 13th century, it was the meaning.  You see, if someone called you nice back then, they were calling you stupid or foolish.  Slowly that sense and meaning changed.  It wasn’t until 1830 that it was being used to mean kind and thoughtful.  Isn’t that a surprise?  The students thought that was very interesting, so I asked them to think about <terrific>.

I wrote it on the board and instead of asking the students to hypothesize a word sum (something I usually do),  I asked them to think of other words that look like they might be related in spelling.  The newer students chose to get out Chromebooks and look online at Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher.  The older students grabbed dictionaries that I had nearby.  They wrote the words on the board as they found them.  Here is the list of words they accumulated:

terrine                                  terrific
territorially                         terrorist
terrestrial                            Terraria
terrazzo                                terror
terrapin                                terrarium
territorial                             terracotta
terrible                                 terrorize
terrain                                  terrace
terrorism                             terra
terraform                            terracing

At this point I asked the students to take a step back and look at this group of words.  I said, “They all look like they could be related.  We see the same <terr> spelling in every word.  How about a shared sense and meaning?  Are they similar in their meaning?”

One boy began by pointing out that terrorist and terrain did not mean the same thing.  He knew that the terrain had to do with land and a terrorist was a person who committed violence.  Someone else added that a territory also had to do with land, but terrible was something that was bad.  Hmmm.  It was time to look up <terrorist> and <terrain>.  We needed some historical information to sort this out.  The Etymonline entry for <terrorist> led us to <terror>:

The experienced students recognized that terrere was the infinitive form of a Latin verb.  As such, they knew they could remove the Latin infinitive suffix <ere> and identify the root that eventually became the modern base element <terr> that we see in terror, terrorist, terrorism, and terrible.

From Etymonline:

This word comes from French terrain “piece of earth, ground, land”.  If we continue following its trail, the furthest back we can go before its PIE root is Latin terra “earth, land”.  This is where the modern base we see in terrain, territory, territorial, and territorially came from.  It is pretty clear that we have two very different base elements here!

The next task was to find out which word was related to which base!  The students went back to poring over their resources.  Everyone was busy in that room.  Each was looking up a different word and speaking up to let me know whether to underline a word in black (<terr> “earth, land”) or green (<terr> “fill with fear”).  It was kind of funny that one of the last words to be looked at was the one we began with — <terrific>!

What an interesting story this word has!

From Etymonline:

It is only since 1888 that <terrific> has had the sense of “excellent” associated with it.  In the two hundred years of its existence before that it meant to cause terror or to make something frightening.  How terrific is that?

Below you can see which words ended up underlined in green and which were underlined in black.  I told the students at this point that perhaps it would have been easier to organize our lists if we had written them on post-it notes.

This activity was engaging and interesting to the students and reinforced some of the things previous fifth graders liked about studying orthography (as mentioned in the video):

~  When you investigate one word, you find a whole bunch more that are related.  You aren’t just learning about a single word.  You are learning about a base element that in some cases is found in many words.  The fun in finding these families is to recognize how they are all related in meaning and then to identify their spelling differences by working out the word sums.  For example, compare these word sums:

terr + or –> terror
terr + or + ist –> terrorist
terr + or + ism –> terrorism
terr + or + ize –> terrorize

Can you see how spelling becomes less stress-inducing when a student sees the commonalities in a word family’s structures?

~  This activity illustrates how involved and engaged each student will be.  They get caught up in the search for understanding!  Being able to make sense of a word’s spelling is something they didn’t know they could do, and it brings about an excitement! Even as an adult, I admit that I get giddy sometimes when I make sense of a spelling or word’s meaning that I had never previously stopped to wonder about.

~ This activity also brings out a very important point.  Just because two things look alike, it doesn’t mean they are!  The chances are that when these students come across a word that has a <terr> base, they will stop to think about how its being used and which base it really is.  They will question and think about the word and its meaning when they probably wouldn’t have before.  Isn’t that exactly what we want our students to do?

New Day – New Activity

A tragic explosion had occurred in a nearby town on the previous day.  It was certainly something that was being talked about by the students and adults in our community, on the news, and on social media.  I decided it might benefit the students to investigate the word <explosion> and understand it better.  I wrote it on the board and asked students to hypothesize its structure. (The boys who had experience with writing out word sums put a circle around their plus signs.)

The first thing we noticed about the three hypotheses was that there was a consensus that <ex> was an element.  The boys knew it was a prefix.  I then asked for proof.  By that I meant that I wanted three words that had an <ex-> prefix.  They thought of:

It was also agreed that <ex-> had a sense of “outwards”.  The experienced students remembered studying exosphere last fall and that it was the outermost layer of the atmosphere.

Next we went back to the hypotheses and noticed that two of the three listed <ion> as an element.  It wasn’t a surprise to me that my experienced students knew the <-ion> suffix.  The newer student was no doubt pronouncing the word syllabically and figured the suffix to be <sion>.  To help the new students see for themselves that <-ion> rather than <sion> would be the suffix, I again asked for proof.  I wanted three words with an <-ion> suffix.

We read each of these with and without the <-ion>.  I specifically wanted to know if the students felt that <adopt> and <adoption> shared a sense and meaning.  As they read them, they could see that the <t> could not be part of the suffix because it was part of the base.  We looked at <act> and <action> in the same way and noticed the same thing.  The words <interact> and <interaction> were like <act> except for the sense of “between” added by the prefix <inter->.  But as far as the suffix, it had to be <-ion> and not <-tion>.  The last set was <emote> and <emotion>.  I let the experienced students explain that the base here is <mote> “move”.  The use of <emote> as a word is not real common, so the newer students hadn’t heard of it before.  The verb <emote> means to show emotions.

Now the question came up, “Do we ever see <explose> by itself?  Great question!  I asked everyone to keep that question in mind as we continued our investigation.  Now that we had identified the prefix and suffix in the word sum for <explosion>, we were ready to look at the base element.  The students were all convinced that the hypothesis that was most likely was:

One of the experienced students pointed out the need for the final potential <e> on the base.  I didn’t really address it much at that moment because I know how often we will see it and talk about it in the new school year.  There were plenty of unfamiliar things being presented to the new students and I saw no need to fully discuss every single one.  It was time to go to Etymonline to read the entry for <explosion>:

This entry had so much to offer towards our inquiry!  Notice that in the 1620’s it was used to mean “action of driving out with violence and noise.”  No surprise there, but as we go back further in time, we see that as Latin explosionem it meant”a driving off by clapping.”  By clapping?  What kind of clapping?  It’s time to follow the recommended link to <explode> to find out more.

Originally this word had a theatrical use.  Actors could be driven off the stage by clapping to show approval or hissing to show disapproval.  Notice that the Latin word that explode derived from was plaudere “to clap the hands, applaud.”  How about that?  The next time you are at a theatrical performance that has just finished, think of how the applause is like an explosion!

The next thing I did in guiding along this investigation was to write <explosion> on the board and <explode> next to it.  I asked, ” If we believe the base of <explosion> to be <plose>, what do you think the base of <explode> is?  Right away three voices called out <plode>.  I wrote those two bases side by side.  As soon as I did that, one of the experienced students called out, “twin bases!”

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“They have different spelling, but they share meaning and come from the same root.”

“Bingo!”

I asked each student to choose either <explosion> or <explode> and find other words in the word’s family.  Here is what was found:

   

We read through each list discussing the words to make sure everyone understood how each word could be used in a sentence.  As we were doing that, we also paid attention to the suffixes used.  It was noticed that words that had <plose> as a base were followed by either an <-ive> suffix or an <-ion> suffix.  In some cases there were other suffixes added onto those, but those were the only two that immediately followed the base.  No one found a word in which the <plose> base was NOT followed by some kind of suffix.  This answered our earlier question about whether or not <explose> was a word on its own.  We don’t think so.  We left it phrased like that because I want my students to have an attitude of being open to other evidence should we find it at some later time.

When looking at the suffixes used with <explode>, we noticed that they were the familiar <-s>, <-ed>, and <-ing> suffixes that we see with so many words.  It was also noticed that the suffixes used with one of these bases, would not be used with the other.  We tried to exchange them and just ended up laughing.

The one affix that was used with both bases was the prefix <im-> “into, in, upon”.  I wanted to make sure my students understood the difference between an implosion and an explosion, so I found a short video on Youtube of an implosion.

The video shows clearly how the structure falls in on itself.  This is a controlled way of demolishing a building.  We compared it to this video of an explosion.

This video is interesting because you get to see the explosion in slow motion at around the 2:08 mark.  A fair warning if you are showing this to children:  one of the men uses a questionable word at 3:18 or so.  You may want to preview before you share this.  Other than that, this is fascinating to watch.

This activity was a great choice because it centered around a word that was relevant in the lives of the students.  Along the way there were several orthographic truths to learn:

~  The students had another opportunity to hypothesize word sums.  One of the boys smiled and said, “Looking at a word and deciding what the word sum might be is one of my favorite things!”  And as they think about what the word sum might be, they are thinking back to what they’ve seen in other words.  They are thinking back to suffixes, prefixes, and bases they know.  They are not making wild guesses.  They are mentally engaged as they make these decisions about the structure of the word.

~  Having to prove the prefix and the suffix is a great activity as well.  It discourages a student from calling the last two or three letters of a word a suffix.  If they can’t find any other word with that as a suffix, they have just proven to themselves that it probably isn’t a suffix.  It is also an opportunity to think about the sense that an affix brings to the word.  What is the meaning sense that <ex-> brings to <expert>, <example>, and <exosphere>?  If they have to look at a dictionary to find out, that’s okay.  Again, this is part of knowing for themselves what is what with words and their meanings.  You should see how dog-eared my classroom dictionaries are.  Isn’t that marvelous?  I just smile when a colleague complains that his/her students don’t use dictionaries.  I really believe that my students have a need and a desire to know, and therefore, use the dictionaries on their own, asking dictionary navigation questions when they need to.

~  With this investigation, some students were introduced to the notion of twin bases and some had that notion reinforced.  What makes <plose> and <plode> twin bases is the fact that they do not share exact spelling, yet come from the same Latin verb, carrying the same denotation “a driving out by clapping”.  Remember that it was after the 1660’s that it also had a sense of driving out with violence and noise.  During the school year, we will more specifically address twin bases, and the students will investigate a Latin verb in small groups.

~  The base element in a word carries the main sense and meaning.  The affixes may alter that sense as they did in this situation.  An explosion is different than an implosion in important ways.  The prefixes determine that difference with the sense they bring to the base.  Being able to see those difference in the videos I found also makes the sense that these prefixes represent easier to remember.

Conclusion

Every day the students remarked that the hour we spent together went by incredibly fast.

“It’s really time to go already?”
“How does that happen so fast? Our time’s up ?”
“Awww.  Really?  Class is over?”

And then as they packed up they let me know what they thought about studying words.

“This is so much fun!  What are we going to do tomorrow?”
“I loved it today.  Can we choose our own words to look at tomorrow?”
“Thank you.  I had no idea it would be this much fun!”

The students don’t have to understand every bit of what they are being shown.  They should not be expected to have memorized any spellings at this point.  I am letting them discover that there is much about English spelling that is interesting.  They are beginning to understand that words have structures and understanding that structure helps us get to the heart of the word which is its base element/s.  Once we know its base, we can find out the word’s main sense and meaning and also learn this word’s story.  That story and the connections we begin to see between words is what keeps us investigating.  It is what keeps us asking questions.  It is what brings out the true scholar in each of us.  Children are no different that adults in this respect.  Once they believe that they CAN understand English spelling, they will think about words wherever they are and in everything they do!

“Outer Beauty Attracts, but Inner Beauty Captivates.” ~Kate Angell

Like many native English speakers, those who are learning English often express disappointment that words that have identical letter strings do not rhyme (bomb/tomb/comb, read/red, thought/though/through). It’s interesting to me that my own attitude about that has become one of fascinated interest. Where someone else might throw their hands up and cross their eyes, I smile and pause to consider what might be going on with those words. Then I head to a trusted etymological dictionary (usually Online Etymology Dictionary​ first) to investigate and check out my hypotheses.  At times I search through a second or even third etymological resource.  Maybe I end up in either my copy of Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary or Liddell and Scott’s  Greek-English Lexicon.  I might even be led to Richard Venezky’s book, The American Way of Spelling for further understanding.  The point is that I will look because I expect there to be an explanation.  Those who throw their hands up and cross their eyes have never been taught that an explanation is possible.  What a shame.  Because an explanation is not on the surface of the word, those people think it doesn’t exist.  I guess they’ve never applied the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” to a word.  What a difference that has made for my students and me!

This morning I was reading THIS ARTICLE in Huffpost called “35 Confusing Things About the English Language”.  Nine out of the 35 comments listed were related to the expectation that things with similar spellings should be similar in their pronunciations.  That’s 1/4 of the comments!

Since I don’t fluently speak another language, I’ve never stopped to wonder whether or not a letter or letter combination in another language is reliably pronounced one certain way.  I’ve just always understood that in English it’s not that way.  As my respected orthography teacher says, “English spelling represents the language we already speak.  Its job is not to teach us how to speak our own language.”  The job of English spelling is to represent meaning.  You see, words are a combination of morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest functioning unit in the construction of a word’s meaning.  As morphemes are joined, the word’s meaning emerges.

A morpheme, either alone or in combination with other morphemes, constructs meaning. Each morpheme on its own might not carry specific meaning, (I’m thinking of a connecting vowel here and perhaps some suffixes) but each has a function in connecting the morphemes that do. In a completed word, every morpheme can be identified, and its function (as it relates to the construction of the word’s meaning) explained. Morphemes are bases (free or bound) and affixes.  The base carries the principle meaning in the word.  Affixes are either derivational (alter the meaning of the word by building on the base) or inflectional (have a grammatical function).  All prefixes are derivational whereas suffixes are either one or the other.  Very few people have been taught to look at a word and automatically think about what its morphemes might be and what sense and meaning they bring to the total word.  Instead, most people look at a word and think that the spelling of the word dictates its pronunciation.  Then they get frustrated that sounding out the letters doesn’t always result in a recognizable pronunciation of the word in question.

I have to wonder if it isn’t our own fault that we have this unrealistic expectation that words spelled similarly must rhyme.  After all, think about how we teach reading in our country.  Imagine yourself looking in on a primary grade classroom where students are being taught that word families include words that  1) have a certain string of letters and  2) all rhyme.  Here’s an example:

What is at the head of this “family”?  It is a string of letters that carries absolutely no meaning.  After completing worksheets and lessons focusing on many many “families” like this, a student might very well expect that whenever a string of letters seen in one word is also in another, the two words will rhyme.  Why wouldn’t they after having it demonstrated to them over and over?  Are they ever told that it doesn’t always work that way?  Are they ever shown examples of words that share the same string of letters but that DON’T rhyme?  Right from the start children are being told something that isn’t always true, only they aren’t told that it isn’t always true.  In other words, we are setting them up with this unrealistic expectation.  As they begin encountering words for which this is not true, they look to their teachers for explanations.  Unfortunately many teachers were never given an explanation themselves, and so have no explanation to share.  And boom!  The English-spelling-is-crazy-and-makes-no-sense fallacy is born to yet another generation.

What if?

What if we used that idea of a word family to signal something more helpful to a child’s comprehension AND spelling of words.  What if we taught children right from the start that a word family is a group of words that share a base, and that a base carries the main sense and meaning found in all words built from that base.  And most importantly, that sometimes the base is pronounced the same among words within a family, and sometimes it isn’t.  Here’s an example:

The base element here is <sign>, and it has a denotation of “mark”.  Now look at all the words I’ve listed that are morphological relatives (that means that they all share the spelling of the base AND they share an ancestor.  Their etymological root is Latin signum “identifying mark”.  As you think about each of these words, think about their meaning and how it has something to do with making a mark, marking something, indicating something, a symbol, or a designation.

THIS is a word family.  There is a meaning relationship and there is a spelling relationship among these words.  The meaning relationship is verified by checking an etymological resource to find evidence that they all are from the same root.  I found out that the root in this case is Latin signum by looking at Etymonline.  I began by searching for <sign>.  I know it is a free base (is a word without needing affixes) and found it as both a verb and a noun.  Its use as a noun is just a bit older, but both uses were attested in the 13th century.  Then I read both entries to find the origin of <sign>.   According to Etymonline, other interesting facts about the various uses of this word over time include:

“Ousted native token. Meaning “a mark or device having some special importance” is recorded from late 13c.; that of “a miracle” is from c. 1300. Zodiacal sense in English is from mid-14c. Sense of “characteristic device attached to the front of an inn, shop, etc., to distinguish it from others” is first recorded mid-15c. Meaning “token or signal of some condition” (late 13c.) is behind sign of the times (1520s). In some uses, the word probably is a shortening of ensign. Sign language is recorded from 1847; earlier hand-language (1670s).”

Isn’t it interesting that <sign> became preferred over the use of <token>?  When we teach children to check whether two words share a root and therefore a denotation, it is likely they will also learn something about a word’s story (find themselves delving into etymology).  They will also have looked at the etymological evidence to see if there is anything that helps explain a word’s spelling.  This particular base has had the spelling of <sign> right from the start, but there are other words whose spelling makes sense once we know the word’s origin or influence by languages along its diachronical journey ending in our modern day use.

Teaching children about a word family like this results in them understanding that words have structure.  Every word has a base element.  We build related words by adding other bases or affixes to the base.  Look back at my word web to see how obvious the structure of most of these words is.  When we teach children about a word’s structure, we are teaching them about a word’s morphology.  Announcing word sums is a way to reinforce our understanding of word structure.  Take <designate>.  The word sum is <de + sign + ate –> designate>.  It would be announced as “d e  plus  s i g n  plus  a t e  is rewritten as  de sign ate.”  The elements are spelled out, the arrow is announced with “is rewritten as”, and when spelling the finished word there is a slight pause between the elements to show recognition of those boundaries.

The third major consideration in teaching children about a word family as I have described it is that pronunciation piece.  Studying a word family teaches children the reality about whether a common string of letters will always rhyme.  It won’t.  And with this kind of word family representation, they won’t ever think it should or be surprised that it doesn’t.  As an example, let’s look at the family for <sign>.  When we pronounce <sign>, <signer>, <cosign>, and <assignment>, the base is pronounced [saɪn].  But what happens when we pronounce <design> and <resign>?  The base is pronounced [zaɪn].  And when we pronounce <signal>, <signify>, and <signet>, the base is pronounced [sɪgn].  In these three words the <g> is pronounced.  But it isn’t pronounced in eight of the family members I’ve included in this web!

Just think about that.  If spelling were there so we knew how to pronounce a word, most of the words in that one family would have different spellings.  But they don’t!  They are spelled the way they are to represent the meaning that they all share!  The meaning and the shared spelling is what binds these words together into a family.  We don’t have to blame the English language because words that look like they might rhyme don’t.  Instead we need to appreciate the fact that the unpronounced <g> in this family is a marker letter, and as such, it marks its meaning connection to members of this family in which it is pronounced.   Pronunciation is not consistent enough to be the reason for a word’s spelling, but a word’s sense and meaning is!

You may be thinking that <sign> is a word that would not be studied in a primary classroom.  But why not?  Surely the children know some of its related words.  They don’t need to be able to read the words to understand that they all have <sign> in their spelling.  They can talk about what the words mean and the teacher can talk about the structure, meaning, and even point out the differences in pronunciations of the base.  More of the students will understand this than you might think, and the rest will be gaining a foundation for a more accurate understanding of how our spelling system actually works.  Any classroom should make it a point to look at words that interest the students no matter how many letters the word has!  If the focus is always on the structure, the meaning, the word’s relatives, and the interesting things to note about the word’s grapheme/phoneme relationships, then the word is the vehicle for the understanding.  Perhaps have an “I Pick – You Pick” philosophy for choosing words to look at.  It will really drum up interest!

Look at this word web that is centered around <dog>.  As you include more and more of these, you can start the discussion with, “What do you notice?”

It will not take long before students say things like, “I see the word <house> in <doghouse>”.  Then you know it’s time to talk about compound words.  This word web could also lead to a discussion about the final pluralizing <s>.  Maybe your students could quickly help you make a list of plural words and you could write them in two columns:  those in which the final grapheme <s> is represented by /s/, and those in which it is represented by /z/.  It won’t be long after that before they will be pointing that very thing out in plural words they are reading!  And then there is the doubled <g> in <doggy>.  It is not too early to talk about the doubling convention that happens when we add a vowel suffix to a base.  Explain it and talk about it as an interesting thing to notice.  Say something like, “I think I’ve seen that in the word <scrubbing> as well.  Keep your eyes open.  If you see a word that you think has a doubled consonant because of a suffix being added, let me know, and we’ll look at it together!”

Here’s another great tip:  Don’t put a word web like this away until you have given students a chance to think of other words that might belong to this family.  It will give you the opportunity to see what kinds of connections they are making.  What if they suggested ‘hot dog’?  Instead of responding yourself, give the other students the opportunity to respond.  “What do the rest of you think?  Does it belong?  Why or why not?”.

This kind of word family is the only kind of word family.  You can still talk about rhyming words if you want, but don’t call them families.  If you are using them to help a child read, begin incorporating true word families as I have suggested.  Sometimes we decide what our students can and cannot handle.  Sometimes we misjudge them.  If you are hesitant to study word families, your students will be the ones to convince you otherwise. When they point out something as they are reading in class, when they bring in a word web they made on their own at home, when they explain a suffixing convention you have previously explained, or even when they ask a question about a suffix that you didn’t expect them to, you will know they are on their way to building an understanding about the reliability of our spelling system.  And you can feel great knowing that the group leaving your classroom has been taught to see below the surface of the word.  They’ve peeked beneath the cover and are now judging a word by its structure (morphology), story (etymology), and grapheme/phoneme correspondences (phonology).  And they are captivated!

************
I encourage you to click on the comments.  The link is just below the end of this post in small letters.  Peter Bowers has written a great response and has included links to research that may be of interest.  Like I said, check it out!