Guess What? They’re ALL Silent Letters!

I found an article the other day that made me kind of sad.  The article was posted online by the Oxford Dictionaries and was called, “Why English is so hard to learn:  silent letters.”  Here is a link to the article.  The first thing that struck me was the term “silent letters”.  I am aware that letters that are unpronounced in a word are commonly referred to as silent letters, but that doesn’t make it accurate.  I also admit that in the not too distant past I called them that as well … because that was what I was told they were.  In a world where children are taught that letters routinely “say” sounds, as in the letter f says /f/, it might indeed seem to make sense to call the <g> in <sign> silent since it isn’t “saying” anything.

But I’ve come to realize how misleading that way of thinking is.  And it is.  Very misleading.

Letters produce sound?

Let’s begin with the underlying assumption here that letters do make sounds.  Obviously they do not.  Can not.  They’re just symbols printed on paper.  Yet we ask children to believe that they do.  In fact we begin a child’s reading instruction by teaching them that the consonants each “make” one sound and the vowels each “make” two.   What we really mean here, and what we should really be saying to children is that letters represent pronunciation.  So for example, we can say that the letter <s> represents /s/.  But don’t stop there.  If you don’t want to get into all of the pronunciations that the letter <s> CAN represent, then just say, “The letter <s> CAN represent /s/.  It can also represent other pronunciations, but right now we’ll focus on /s/.”   Using this wording leaves the door open to other pronunciations of the letter <s> as they will, without any doubt, notice in words.  The students won’t be gobsmacked when it happens.  They will have been waiting for it and looking forward to understanding why and when <s> has other pronunciations.

With this slight change in OUR explanation, we are switching from having children think something is possible (that even THEY can recognize is not) to simply stating the truth to children.  Changing your wording may seem trivial to you as you are reading this, but within a year or two of learning to read and write, children are already beginning to see our language as one that makes no sense.  And the fact that the adults don’t understand our language as well as they could, doesn’t help.  Many just repeat what they were taught or what some teacher manual says to repeat.  They don’t question what they don’t understand because their own education regarding our language has unintentionally taught them to believe that our language makes no sense.  I imagine that you have seen the same kinds of “proof” that I have where someone asks about house and mouse, and that if the plural of mouse is mice, why isn’t the plural of house hice?  There are lots of those kinds of questions offered up as proof that English spelling cannot be understood.  And perhaps, if the only aspect of English spelling that has been presented is that of the “sounds” of letters and words, then of course it might feel impossible to understand.

Learning letter, digraph, and trigraph pronunciations in isolation?

Can you imagine teaching children to read music by holding up a card with a musical note drawn on it and expecting them to sing it?  Of course that wouldn’t work because until they see the note on the proper line of the musical staff, or hear it in comparison to the note in front of it or behind it within a song, they won’t know the right note to sing.  Expecting children to recognize and accurately sing all of the notes before they see any of them on a staff or in a measure of music is ludicrous.  Before children learn to read music, they have sung hundreds of songs.  They have sung the notes in hundreds of combinations. But not in isolation.  Each note makes sense in its setting, in the context of its song.

Is it so different with children who are learning to read?  Why don’t we teach them letters, digraphs, and trigraphs in the context of a word or even a sentence?  Because THAT’S where those pronunciations become clear and predictable.  Perhaps begin with a word that is used in a story you are reading.  The child can get a feel for how the word is used and what it means by pulling it out of context for a closer look.  Maybe you’ll want to think of other words related to this one.  For example, if you are focusing on the word ‘dog’, maybe you want to talk about a dog house or dog food or dogs.  You can both count how many letters are in the word.  Then point out that each letter in this word represents a grapheme, and that each of those graphemes represents a phoneme.  Then pronounce each.  You might point out that in any word that has a final <g>, that <g> will be pronounced /g/.  Then you can brainstorm some other words with a final /g/.  Then again, maybe the student wants to pick out a word to look at.  Maybe it could be routine that every time you read a story together, you each pick out a word to look at and think about.  Review the names of the letters and compare the way letters are pronounced in words.  For example, compare the <s> in small to the <s> in dogs.  Find some other words with a final <s> and practice reading the words together and feeling whether the final <s> in those words is pronounced /z/ or /s/.  This might even be that opportunity to find letters in words that are unpronounced!

It is common practice to teach graphemes and digraphs in isolation.  I remember back a bunch of years.  Our spelling list included words in which the main vowel was called “long e” and pronounced as /i/.  The students would brainstorm different letter strings we could use to represent that pronunciation.  We came up with <ee> as in reel, <ea> as in read, <ei> as in received, <ie> as in chief, <e> as in be, <y> as the final letter in baby, and <e_e> as in these.  Every week we would brainstorm these patterns and then think of words that used those spellings for that pronunciation.  What busy work!  The students would ask, “How do you know which of those spellings is in a particular word?”  I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know.  After a while they stopped asking and they resigned themselves to empty memorization.  What I was doing didn’t make them better spellers unless they were already great at memorizing.  You see, looking at the vowel pronunciation and all the letter strings that might represent it just made matching them up feel very random.  To the students, it was like playing “take a guess.”

It makes much more sense to start with a word that a student has come across and that they are interested in.

So why are some letters in some words unpronounced?

Let’s focus on some of the letters identified as “silent” in the article.  We’ll look through a few at a time so I can explain some possible reasons for that letter not being pronounced in that word.

Let’s begin with read, as in “She read that book yesterday.”  The <a> cannot be considered unpronounced because it is not functioning independently in this word.  It is part of the digraph <ea>.  That means that the two letters are representing one grapheme which is representing one phoneme.  In this word, the digraph <ea> is representing /ɛ/ as it does in bread, feather, and breath.  This digraph can also represent /i/ as it does in team, eat, and bean.  The fact that this one digraph can be representing two different phonemes makes it perfect for this word.  If you look at other words in this family, you’ll see that both of these pronunciations are present: <ea> as /i/ – read, reading, readable, reader, readability, readership, misread, and <ea> as /ɛ/ well-read, read, misread.  The meaning of this base is constant, but the pronunciation of the base is dependent on the context in which we find it, as well as the affixes attached to it.

The next word on the list is crumb.  The <b> in this word is considered a marker letter.  It is marking its connection to other members in its family in which the <b> IS pronounced.  That would include words like crumble, crumbling, and crumbled.  If the <b> were removed from <crumb> just because it is no longer pronounced, we would not recognize this word as belonging to this word family and sharing its meaning.

Since dumb and lamb have a similar placement of <b>, let’s look at them together.  These two have a similar story.  The final <b> in both of these words marks their etymological origins.  The word dumb is from the Old English word dumb.  At that time it meant “silent, unable to speak”.  Even though it has come to mean other things as well, its spelling has not changed.  The word lamb has a story that is not very different.  It is from the Old English word which was spelled either as lamb, lomb, or lemb depending on where one lived.  In both dumb and lamb, the final <b> has been there from the beginning.  And even though we don’t pronounce it, it is part of this word’s identity.  When we see words like lambskin, lambkin, and lambswool, we instantly know these are related to the animal we know as a lamb.

In Modern English spelling, the consonant cluster <mb>, when found final in a word, is considered to be unpronounceable.  In that case, the last letter in the word is unpronounced.  This explains why we don’t pronounce the final <b> in crumb, dumb, lamb, tomb, bomb, and thumb, yet we DO pronounce that <b> in related words like thimble, crumble, bombard, and rhombus.

The word debt has a very interesting story to tell.  It’s etymological journey begins in Latin with debitum “thing owed.”  Its spelling changed for a while because of a French influence (dette, dete).  Sometime after c.1400, the <b> was restored.  So once again, this unpronounced letter marks a connection to this word’s root.  It is interesting to note that the <b> IS pronounced in the related word debit where we see the two letters separated by a vowel.

Next up is ascend.  This word is from Latin ascendere “to climb up, mount.”  The <c> would have been pronounced /k/ in Latin.  When we compare it to descend, we can hypothesize that the base element is <scend>.  The prefix is an assimilated form of <ad-> “to, near, at”.  The Etymonline entry for this prefix states that the <ad-> is simplified to <a-> before an <sc>.  That gives us information about the word’s structure, but not the pronunciation (or lack thereof) of the <c>.

In thinking about the <c> here, I wondered whether or not it IS pronounced in words in which it appears to be paired up with the <s>.  I went to Word Searcher and found a long list of words with an <sc> letter string.  Here are a few of them:  scone, scope, scoot, scrub, screw, scab, scale, scarf, scream, and rescue.  I also noticed other words in which the <c> seemed to be unpronounced.  Here are a few of them:  descent, scion, scenic, scent, obscene, scepter, scissor, and scythe.  In looking at the lists it became obvious to me that this is just a case of knowing the pronunciations that can be represented by the grapheme <c> and what governs that.  When followed by an <e>, <i>, or <y>, it will be /s/.  When followed by anything else, it will be /k/.  When the <s> AND <c> in a word would both be representing /s/, they function instead as a digraph representing a single /s/.

Two other words in this list have the <sc> pronounced as /s/.  The first is scene.  This word originated in Greek as σκηνικός “of the stage, scenic, theatrical.”  It is transcribed as skenikos.  When the Greek suffixal construction <-ikos> was removed and this word was transcribed into Latin, the <k>’s were written as <c> (scene), but the pronunciation of the <c> remained /k/.  As had happened in many many instances, this word was influenced by Middle French speakers (scéne) and the <c> lost its hard pronunciation.  Today we can recognize the <sc> as a digraph representing /s/.

The last word in this group is science.  This word is from Latin scientia “what is known, acquired by study.”  If we further analyze this word, we find the base element of <sci> “know, be able to separate one thing from another.”  It’s the same base we see in conscience, unconscious, and conscientious.  Do you see the meaning connections there?  Isn’t that fascinating?  A tangent, I know, but sometimes I can’t help it!  Back to the phonology of the <c> in science.  In Latin, the <c> would have been pronounced as /k/, but like scene, as this word journeyed through time, it was influenced by French speakers – (Old French science).  The <c> took on a /s/ pronunciation which persists today.

It’s time to look at Wednesday.  This day of the week was originally named for the Roman god that corresponded to the planet Mercury.  That is why the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) spell this day as Mercredi, Mercoledi, and Miércoles respectively.  When the Germanic people adopted this naming of the days, they switched out the Roman gods for their own gods who had similar characteristics.  The day known as Dies Mercurii to the Romans became known as Woden’s Day to the Germanic people.  Can you see now how Woden’s Day became Wednesday?  There is a slight difference with the letters which no doubt prompted the <d> to lose its pronunciation.  Once the <en> in Woden was reversed and the <o> changed to an <e>, the <dn> letter string became less pronounceable.  If you say the word ‘Wednesday’ several times, you can feel the elision happening and the <d> becoming unpronounced.

Next up is reign.  The Etymonline entry shows that the verb form of this word is from Latin regnare “be king, rule.”  Moving forward through time, this word was adopted and adapted in Old French where it was spelled regner.  In its noun form it gained the <i> and was spelled reigne.  Seeing that the <gn> has always been part of this word’s spelling, I looked for relatives of this word to see if is pronounced in any of those.  I found the words regnant “reigning, exercising authority” and regnal “pertaining to a reign.”  So it seems that in Modern English the <g> is pronounced when the base is <regn>, but not pronounced when the base is <reign>.

Next on the list is anchor and what an entertaining story awaits!  The Etymonline entry lists this word as beginning in Latin as ancora “an anchor.”  The information there also points to the Greek ankyra “an anchor, a hook” as being either an earlier ancestor or perhaps a cognate (emerging at the same time).  This information is especially interesting because of the Greek letter kappa being transcribed to the Latin <c>.  A modern English <ch> spelling that is pronounced as /k/ usually originates from the Greek letter χ (chi) which was transcribed into Latin as <ch>.  That did not happen here.  So why is the <ch> representing /k/ in this word?

Reading on at Etymonline, the story is revealed.  The <ch> is NOT etymological and was inserted in the late 16th century, “a pedantic imitation of a corrupt spelling of the Latin word.”  So even though the <ch> in this word is NOT derived from the Greek letter chi, it now looks like and behaves like it was, including being pronounced /k/.  The <h> is part of the <ch> digraph.  It is not operating as an independent grapheme.

So what about architect, character, and chord?  They each have <ch> representing /k/.  Do they share a Hellenic ancestry?  Well, architect is from the Greek αρχι-τέκτων “chief builder.”  That would have been transcribed by the Romans as archi-tecton.  As you will notice, the third Greek letter was χ (chi).  When that letter was transcribed by the Romans, they transcribed it as <ch> and pronounced it /k/.

Digging into the etymology of character we find that it is from the Greek χαρακτήρ “engraved mark”.  As you can see, the initial letter in Greek was again χ (chi).  This word was transcribed by the Romans as character .  The initial <ch> was pronounced /k/.  This word lost that <ch> spelling for a while.  At one point it was adopted and adapted by Old French and its spelling changed to caratere “feature, character”.  It was sometime in the 1500’s that the <ch> spelling was restored.

So what about chord?  Will we see that it too has a <ch> that derived from the Greek letter χ?  Prepare for another interesting word story!  This word has two entries. The first is as a noun meaning “two or more musical notes sounded together”, and is from 1608.  It is an alteration of Middle English cord, a shortened form of accord.  The second is as a noun meaning “a structure of the body, emotions figuratively considered as a string on a musical instrument, straight line connecting two points on a circumference”, and is from 1543.  The note of interest is this statement in the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology:  “English chord(2) and Latin chorda, both meaning a string of a musical instrument have influenced this word by association of form and meaning.”  If the Latin word was chorda, that initial <ch> is like the others we encountered in character and architect.  It was originally a χ (chi) in Greek.  The Greek word was χορδή “a string of gut, the string or chord of a lyre or harp.”

So what about the claim that in the words anchor, architect, character, and chord the <h> is silent (unpronounced)?  It is not.  The <h> is part of the digraph <ch> that represents /k/ in these words.  When you see this particular digraph representing /k/ in a word, it is usually marking a Hellenic heritage.

The words autumn and column have a final <n> that is not pronounced.  Why?  When we look at autumn we see it is from Latin autumnus.  Minus the Latin suffix, the spelling is a direct derivation.  Interesting side note:  This season was called Harvest by the English until Autumn displaced it in the 16th century.

The word column is from Latin columna “pillar.”  Again, the Modern English spelling is a direct derivation.  The final <n>’s in these words may not be pronounced, but they are pronounced in other members of these word families.  Think of autumnal, autumnally, columnist, columnar, columniation.  We can think of the final <n> marking a connection to its relatives!

The word psychology takes us back to Greek.  How do I know?  Check out the <ch> grapheme representing the phoneme /k/!  But with this word we are to focus on the initial <ps> cluster in this word.  This word was coined in the 1650’s from a Latinized form of ψυχικός “breath, spirit, soul.”  You see and recognize the third letter in, right?  It’s χ (chi).  It was transcribed by the Romans as <ch> since they didn’t have a letter that was its equal.  Well, look at the first Greek letter in the same Greek word.  It is the letter ψ (psi).  When it was transcribed into Latin, the Romans had no equivalent letter, and so transcribed it as <ps>.  In Modern English, this cluster is considered unpronounceable when it is initial in a word.  Both the <p> and the <s> are pronounced though, in words like biopsy, autopsy, and epilepsy.

Next on the list is pneumonia, and the focus is on the initial unpronounced <p>.  This word comes from the Greek word πνεύμων transcribed as pneumon “lung.”  The reason we no longer pronounce the inital <p> is because of its placement.  Richard Venezky (The American Way of Spelling) describes this cluster as unpronounceable when it is initial.  When we see this cluster in another position, that is not the case.  Look at apnea and tachypnea.

Now let’s look at receipt.  The focus here is also the unpronounced <p>.  This word is from Old French recete and before that from Latin recepta “received.”  According to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “The English spelling with p (in imitation of the Latin form) is first recorded in the late 1300’s,  but did not  become the established form until the 1700’s.”  So the <p> was in the spelling of the Latin word recepta, but disappeared as this word was adopted and adapted in Old French.  It reappeared sometime in the late 1300’s, and became part of the established form of the word in the 1700’s.  That explains its place in the word, but what about it not being pronounced?  Well, according to Richard Venezky, there are a small group of “borrowings and scribal tamperings” in which the <p> is unpronounced.  Besides receipt, examples include corps and coup.

With mortgage we’ll be looking at the unpronounced <t>.  According to Etymonline, this word was first attested in the late 14th century as Old French morgage “conveyance of property as security for a loan or agreement.” This Old French word is from mort “dead” and gage “pledge”.  This name is fitting because “the deal dies either when the debt is paid or when the payment fails.”  Old French mort is from Latin mortuus.  The <t> was not evident in the Old French word, but was restored in English based on the Latin.  This word is considered a French borrowing with the <t> restored to mark an etymological connection to its Latin root mortuus.  As such, the <t> is not pronounced.

The next three words have unpronounced <u>’s.  The first is build.  It is from Middle English bilden and earlier (probably 1200) it was bulden “dwelling.”  According to Chambers, “It was not until the late 1500’s that our spelling begins to appear with frequency.  Even so, the spelling is not accounted for, unless it is simply a composite of the two earlier spellings bilden and bulden.”  The sense and meaning of putting something together came about in 1667.  Although <u> is found in words like guild, guilt, guitar, and circuit, and therefore might appear to be a <ui> vowel digraph, it is not.  The <u> has a specific function in those words that it is not performing in build.  I will explain further in the next paragraph as we look at the words guess and guide.  In the word build, the <u> is unpronounced.

The word guess is from Old English gessen “infer, perceive, find out.”  According to Etymonline, the <gu> was late 16th century.  This sometimes happened in Middle English to signal a “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.   In this word, the unpronounced <u> is considered a marker letter.  It marks the pronunciation of the <g>.

The last word in this group is guide.  This word is from Old French guider “to lead, conduct.”  The <u> has always been part of the spelling of this word.  Here, the unpronounced <u> is considered a marker letter as it was in guess.  It is marking the “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.

This last group of words are all listed as have a silent w.  Let’s find out what we can about them.

First up is playwright.   According to Wikipedia, “It appears to have been first used in a pejorative sense by Ben Jonson in 1853 to suggest a mere tradesman fashioning works for the theatre.  Jonson described himself as a poet, not a playwright, since plays during that time were written in meter and so were regarded as the province of poets.”  You see, at the time, the word wright was Old English wryhta, wrihta “worker.”  Ben Jonson saw what he did as above the rank of a worker.  He referred to himself as a poet and not a playwright.

As far as the <wr> spelling, Etymonline notes that it was a common Germanic consonantal combination (and that we can see for ourselves when we look at the Old English spelling).  It is especially interesting to note that the <wr> combination often starts words that imply twisting or distortion.  A worker or crafter might indeed need to twist in order to craft something!  Etymonline goes on to note that the <w> ceased to be pronounced sometime c. 1450-1700.

The next word on the list is sword.  This word is from Old English sweord, swyrd, sword “cutting weapon.”  As you can see, the <w> has been part of its spelling since its beginning and was no doubt pronounced at that time.  Even though that <w> is generally unpronounced in this word, we can consider the <w> as marking its language of origin.

Now let’s look at wrap.  This word was first attested in the 14 c. as Old English wrappen “to wind something around something else.”  This is the same common Germanic consonantal combination we saw in wright that starts words that imply twisting or distortion.  To wind something is certainly to twist it!

Wreck was first attested in the early 13th century, “goods cast ashore after a shipwreck.”  Before that it was from Anglo-French wrec and before that from a Scandinavian source.  A note of interest here from Etymonline is that “wrack, wreck, rack, and wretch were utterly tangled in spelling and somewhat in sense in Middle and early modern English.”  And, again we see that same Germanic consonant pair <wr> that can imply twisting or distortion when initial in a word!

I bet you already see the Germanic consonantal combination in wrestle and can see the implication of twisting and distortion in this word’s meaning.  This word has a frequentative suffix <-le>, which means the action happens over and over.  The base wrest is from Old English wræstan “to twist, wrench.”  Once again, the <w> may no longer be pronounced, but it is marking that etymological connection to Old English and the <wr> combination here implies twisting and distortion.

Next up is wrist.  I bet YOU could tell ME about that <w> this time!  Yes, it IS from Old English.  It was spelled wrist and the notion was “the turning joint.”  In other words, the <w> is unpronounced and marks the etymological connection to its Old English roots and the <wr> combination here implies twisting and distortion.

Now let’s look at write.  It is from Old English writan “to score, outline, draw the figure of.”  Once again we have the <w> marking its connection to its language of origin, Old English, and that <wr> implying twisting and distortion.

The very last word on the list is wrong.  Surely this word will have a different story to tell.  Let’s see.  It’s from late Old English “twisted, crooked, wry.”  According to Etymonline, “the sense of not right, bad, immoral, or unjust was developed by c. 1300. Wrong thus is etymologically a negative of right, which is from Latin rectus, literally straight.”  You will recognize the Latinate base <rect> in the word correct!  As for the <w>?  It functions just like the <w> in playwright, wrap, wreck, wrestle, wrist, and write.  It marks the connection to the Old English heritage each word has.  And when paired with <r> in words of Germanic heritage, an initial <wr> often implies a twisting and distortion of some sort.

Here’s a list of the words once more with an explanation for the unpronounced letter in each:

read … the <a> is part of the digraph <ea> and as such is not an independent letter in this word.
crumb … the <b> marks a connection to other members of the word family in which it is pronounced, such as crumble and crumbling.
debt … the <b> marks a connection to the word’s root and related words in which the <b> is pronounced, such as debit.
lamb, dumb … in Modern English, the <mb> is considered an unpronounceable cluster and as such the final letter is unpronounced.
ascend, scene, science … the <sc> represents /s/, so the <c> is part of a digraph.
Wednesday … the <d> followed by an <n> caused the <d> to be elided (unpronounced).
reign … the <g> is unpronounced but marks a meaning connection to a related base <regn>.
anchor, architect, character, chord … the <h> is part of the <ch> digraph representing /k/ which signals a Hellenic heritage.
autumn, column … the <n> marks a connection to other members of the word’s family in which it is pronounced, such as autumnal and columnist.
psychology … the <ps> marks a Hellenic heritage.  When the <ps> is initial, the <p> is unpronounced.
pneumonia … when the <pn> cluster is initial, the <p> is unpronounced.
receipt … the <p> is unpronounced in this word as well as in corps.  It is part of a small group of “borrowings and scribal tamperings” that have unpronounced letters.
mortgage … the <t> marks the historical language of origin (Latin) of <mort>.
build … the <u> is unpronounced and although there are ideas about the historical phonology, I could not find an agreed-upon explanation.
guess, guide … the <u> marks the “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.
sword … the <w> marks the language of origin (Old English) and a time when the <w> was pronounced.
playwright, wrap, wreck, wrestle, wrist, write, wrong … the <w> is part of the Germanic <wr> consonant cluster that implies twisting and distortion.

Labeling letters as silent is a problem.

The problem with calling a letter silent is that feels like an explanation to someone who is learning to read.  “Oh.  Don’t worry about the <g> in sign.  It’s a silent letter.  Just skip over it.”  That learner will probably become as complacent as the adults around him and not even look for an understanding as to WHY it is not pronounced in that word.  And, of course, by just moving on, thinking there is no reason for it to be there, they will miss out on understanding a whole lot about digraphs, markers, etymology, word families, and phonology.

Just imagine what it would be like if letters COULD talk.  What if they could each tell you their history or how pairing them up with other letters matters!  What if they could tell you that their coming together in a spelling is like music and the melody each word creates is in their sense and meaning!

Until then, let’s speak on their behalf.  Let’s not lump all unpronounced letters into one mislabeled group.  Unpronounced does not mean uninteresting or without purpose.  Let’s celebrate the history and individual awesomeness of each!

So what is the truth here?  Are these letters silent?  Sure they are.  But then again, so is every other letter in the alphabet.  A better attitude to instill in our young learners would be, “That letter isn’t pronounced?  Well, it MUST be there for a reason.  I wonder what it is?  Do you want to help me find out?”

 

 

 

A Simple Base Element That Has a Lot to Say

Today everyone grabbed a piece of paper. I asked them to put their name at the top and then to copy down the four words I had written on the board.  Once that was done, the students were to look carefully at the four words and identify the base that they all had in common.  Some spotted it right away.  That usually happens.  Hands went up right away, but I didn’t call on anyone.  I wanted each student (those who usually offer an answer and those who usually don’t) to think through what the base might be.
 
 
Once they had identified the base, they were asked to write word sums for each of the words.  One of the students said, “We’ve already got the words written down, so it will make sense to write analytic word sums.”  I just smiled and nodded.
 
Now I was ready to ask someone what they thought the base was, and how they came to that decision.  A student told me the base was <dict>.  He figured that out when comparing dictionary and dictator. They both had <dict> in common, but nothing beyond that.
 
I wrote the base <dict> on the board and next to it I wrote its denotation “say, tell”.  Right away the students started thinking about how each word was related to that meaning.  The hands shot up!  I said, “Pick any of the four words and tell me what it has to do with “say, tell”.
Dictionary
Kyla said, “A dictionary tells you what a word means.” I pointed to our rack of dictionaries and agreed that a certain kind of dictionary will do that.  What a great opportunity to talk about different kinds of dictionaries!  We know that the dictionaries we often refer to give us definitions of words.  We have a large collection of dictionaries in case what we are looking for is not listed in the first one we grab.  I even have a dictionary that has only words related to science!
But we also use the Online Etymological Dictionary almost daily, and that has a different purpose.  That dictionary gives us information about a word’s history.  We use it to find a word’s ancestors, and to learn its story.  We read about the ways a word has been used in its life.  We learn about spelling and/or meaning changes that have come about over time.  We also discover related words.  Sometimes it is valuable to cross reference words in our other etymological dictionaries as well.  I have copies of the Chambers Etymological Dictionary,  Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the Dictionary of English Down The Ages, and a Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms.
I showed them my Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short.  It is an old copy and well loved.  It is used when we want to find out more information about a Latin word.   I keep it on the shelf next to my Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott.  In both of these dictionaries, the words are listed in alphabetical order according to their respective alphabets!  These are valuable resources once one knows a bit about Latin and Greek.
Another kind of dictionary is one that one of our students carries – her Italian/English dictionary.  She speaks Italian and is learning English.  Just yesterday she was writing a poem.  Since she has only been in the U.S. since September, it is easier for her to think and write in Italian.  So she asked if she could write the poem in Italian and then translate it into English.  That system works well for her.  When she finishes, we look at it together, and I help with further editing.
I also have a few Rhyming Dictionaries on my shelf.   Students use these when they are writing rhyming poetry. By using this kind of dictionary, a student can often find a word that not only rhymes, but is a perfect fit!
Once we finished talking about dictionaries, we realized that we might want to revise our definition of a dictionary.  Katya said, “A dictionary lists words and gives us more information about them.”  Perfect.  And the type of information it tells us depends on the type of dictionary it is!
Prediction
Megan said, “Isn’t that like saying what will happen, but you don’t really know for sure?”  Then Clayton added, “Like our Science Fair Projects.  We are making predictions, but we haven’t run the experiments yet.”  I extended  the sense of this word by including those times when we predict how a movie will end, when we’ve only just begun to watch it.
I asked if anyone was familiar with the prefix <pre>.  A few hands in each class went up, and the students said it had to do with “before”.  Then I asked, “Isn’t that cool?  The word itself is revealing its own meaning!  The base has a denotation of “say, tell” and the prefix has a sense of “before”.  We use this word when someone is telling about something before the something has happened!
Dictator
There were very few fifth graders who clearly understood what a dictator was.  One or two mentioned that is was a person who told other people what to do.  I stepped in and explained that a dictator was a person who ruled a country and had absolute power over that country.  The most famous dictators in history were often cruel to the people they ruled.  They were more interested in having power.  Amelia asked, “So Hitler was a dictator?”  I told her that he was one of the worst dictators in history.  I told them that in the next few years they would also be hearing about Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Mao Tse-tung and others.
Next we talked about the <or> suffix on this word.  I told them it was signaling that this word is referring to a person.  An <or> suffix can do that in a number of words.  So a dictator is a person who dictates  orders to the people he rules.  An actor is a person who acts.  A governor is a person who governs.  A donor is a person who donates something.
Then I pointed out that the <er> suffix can sometimes behave in the same way.  A teacher is one who teaches.  A baker is one who bakes food.  A joker is one who makes jokes.  I could tell this was an idea they hadn’t thought about before.  They were intrigued.
Contradict
When I asked about this word, only one person offered a guess.  Hyja said, “Doesn’t it have something to do with arguing?”  That was a great place to start!  When someone contradicts something someone else says, it can be thought of as a counter argument.  A contradiction is often saying the opposite or something very different than what has already been said.  For example, if I said that our science journals were due on Tuesday, and Aiden said they were in fact due on Saturday, I could ask him why he was contradicting me.  We both can’t be correct.
Now I pointed out the base <contra> “against”.  I compared the word contradict to contraband.  With the use of contradict, a person is saying something against or with an opposite feel of what has already been said.  With the use of contraband, there is a feeling of smuggling something.  When you bring an object into an area and you know that object has been forbidden to be in that area, you are going against the rule or the command.  That object is contraband.
Word sums
At this point, I asked students to come up to the board, choose one of the four words and write a word sum.
You’ll notice a space in the word sum where a plus sign was.  I erased it and shared that the first base in this compound word was <contra>.  Then I mentioned that given our discussions recently about the prefixes <con> and <com> and their assimilated forms, I could understand how the students might spot the <con> here and think it was a prefix.
The interesting follow up discussion we had here was with the first word sum.  Someone asked, “Is <a> even a connecting vowel?”  What a great question!  We were able to review that the Greek connecting vowel was <o>, and the Latin connecting vowels were <i>, <u>, and <e>.  We were also able to review the suffixing convention of replacing a final non-syllabic <e>.  I asked if we could remove the <or> suffix and still have a recognizable word.  Everyone agreed that we would be left with dictate.  So I asked how we would spell that.  Immediately students recognized the final non-syllabic <e> on the suffix <ate> that would be replaced with the <or> suffix in this word.
It is important to keep pointing out that a final non-syllabic <e> may not always show up in a final word, but that doesn’t mean it is not part of a word’s construction or word sum.
This activity was well received.  Students who have been hanging back, not expecting to understand this are starting to volunteer to write word sums at the board.  Students who are thoroughly enjoying this way of looking at words are asking amazing questions.  As we were discussing how the words were related in meaning to the base <dict>, Kayden raised his hand and asked, “How does the word addiction fit in to all this?”  He recognized that <ad> would be a prefix, <dict> would be a base, and <ion> would be a suffix.  I told him that the prefix <ad> brought a sense of “to” to the word.  And that a person with an addiction is a person who has declared a specific habit to be controlling in their life.
We didn’t delve all the way into this base today.  We didn’t make a matrix full of <dict> possibilities.  But we did practice using a list of words as evidence for proving a base element.  And we did practice taking the time to understand the meaning connections between members of a word family.  And we did review a suffixing convention as well as learn about two agent suffixes.  Today was about building our knowledge base.  It was about learning things to take with us as we move forward in studying other words and their families.

Reviewing a Word’s Structure While Getting Better Acquainted with its Family

Almost all of the students have presented the Latin verb poster they put together.  We have had wonderful and rich discussions with each one.  And as we talked we noticed that not all Latin etymons became productive modern English bases.  Some of the bases we identified are found in a remarkable number of words while others are found in only a few.

For example, the twin bases <mote> and <move> are two that have become very productive in English.  My students can easily name words like remote, demote, promote, motion, emotion, motor, motel, movement, remove, moving, removal, movable and immovable.  That is certainly not a complete list, but it does demonstrate how common these two bases are.

Some of the Latin etymons became modern English bases that have not become very productive.  Take the Latin verb frango, frangere, frego, and fractus for example.  By removing the Latin suffixes on the infinitive and supine forms of this verb, we get the Latin etymons <frang> and <fract>.  The modern English bases that are derived from those etymons are spelled exactly the same!  You will no doubt recognize the following group of words with <fract> as the base: fraction, fracture, fractal, refractive, diffraction, and infraction.  But the only words my students found that share the <frang> base are frangible and refrangible.  See what I mean?  In English <frang> has not become a very productive base.

Since we have lined our hallway with Latin Verb posters, all we had to do was take a walk in order to identify those very productive modern bases!  We chose ten.  Some are twin bases and some are unitary.  We have decided to spend time looking at the words in these ten families and seeing what else we can notice.

We began with the bases <lege> and <lect>.  The denotation of these twin bases is “to gather, select, read”.  I asked the students to get out a piece of lined paper.  I read some words from this family and asked them to do two things. They were to write the word and they they were to write the word sum, keeping in mind that the base would either be <lege> or <lect>.  Some of the words they wrote down were lecture, select, lectern, collection, election, legion, legible and legibly.  The next step was for the students to come to the board and write the word and word sum up there so we could look at it and talk about it.

One of the first things I noticed was that someone wrote the word sum for <lectern> as <lect> + <urn>.  I wonder if that is a result of misguided practice in which students have been asked to search for a word within a word.  If this word was split into syllables, it might just be seen as ‘lec – turn’.  Anyway, I adjusted the suffix to read <ern>.  Then the students helped me list words with that suffix.  I got them started with lantern and cavern.  They added eastern, western, govern and modern.  Even though most knew that the suffix in <lecture> was <-ure>, we still brainstormed other words that use that suffix like treasure, pleasure, measure, nature and capture.

A third interesting thing to discuss was the way most students used an <-able> suffix in <legible> instead of an <-ible> suffix.  One certainly can’t choose which to use based on pronunciation!  I asked for  <-able>/<-ible> to be written on the Wonder Wall.  I have more information in a Smartboard presentation and will show it next week.

The most important thing of all, though, was how the students felt when they saw that they could spell these words when they concentrated on the morphemes.  They didn’t have to struggle with thinking about all the letters at once!  Instead they focused on each morpheme as it came and the spelling fell into place!

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Yesterday when the students walked in the door, I had <scribe / script> on the board with its denotation “to write”.  I didn’t even have to ask them to get out paper.  They sat down and quickly pulled out paper and pencil.  I read words like describe, subscription, prescriptive, scribble, scripture, subscribe, and scriptorium.  More students volunteered to write their word sums on the board than had volunteered yesterday!  They were enjoying seeing what they could figure out.

With this collection, we had the opportunity to talk about the way the <t> (final in the base <script>) represented a different sound in <prescriptive>, <subscription>, and <scripture>.  I’m sure that in their minds (until yesterday) the letter <t> represented only one sound – /t/.   When I saw that a boy in the front row had spelled <subscription> as ‘subscripshen’, I said out loud, “Wouldn’t it make sense for someone who has been told to sound out words when spelling to use an <sh> in <subscription>?  But look what is really happening.  The pronunciation of the letter <t> can be altered by the first letter of the suffix.”  We all said the three words so that we could feel the difference in pronunciation.  We talked about how some people pronounce <scripture> as if there is a <ch> following the <p> and some people pronounce it as if there is a <sh> following the <p>.  Another great opportunity to prove to the students that spelling is not about pronunciation.  It is about meaning!

An additional highlight with these particular twin bases (besides the students smiling at their increased level of successful today!) was the word sum for <scriptorium> that someone had written on the board.  It was written as <scriptorium> –> <script> + <or> + <i> + <um>.  I wasn’t so sure about there being a connecting vowel between two suffixes, and when I mentioned that, the students thought that made sense.  But instead of leaving it at that, we scheduled a Zoom session with our favorite French friend, Old Grouch!

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He helped us understand the Latin stem suffix <-i>, the Latin suffix <-um> and the present day English suffix <-ium>!  He showed us his own scriptorium and the students decided that a person who does the writing would be called a scriptor.  This recognition also lead to a discussion of agent suffixes (those that indicate the noun is a person).  That discussion led to a review of using the agent suffix <-or> instead of <-er> if the base can take an <-ion> suffix.  The examples Old Grouch used was profession/professor and action/actor.  Later, the students added animation/animator, instruction/instructor, and division/divisor!  My personal favorite is one that I noticed at an airport I visited in November.  The pair is recombulation/recombobulator!  If I was in the recombobulation area after going through security, and I was getting all of my things back in order, then I was a recombobulator!

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We are so grateful to be able to ask Old Grouch questions.  We always walk away smiling, and with a head full of interesting information to ponder!  Knowing that we began our Zoom session at 8:20 a.m. and knowing that it was 3:20p.m. where Old Grouch lives, one of the students asked if he had a nice siesta.  When he was remarking that he had, he also asked if we knew the word <siesta>.  We did not.  He explained that it is from Spanish for six.  Siesta is held six hours after daybreak!  Like I said, we always walk away smiling, and with something interesting to ponder!

Generating Word Electricity!

Preface:  Turning a magnet inside a generator makes the electrons flow, which in turn creates electricity.  Yes.  There is a parallel to be drawn here.

I had an amazing mother!  My favorite parts of me were influenced and/or nurtured by her.  I see that so clearly with every moment I spend remembering her.  One of my favorite memories involves our weekly trip to the library.  We each (five children and one mom) brought home a carefully selected stack of books.  The anticipation of getting home and reading those books was magical!

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Here is what I picture:  We all have our own spot in the living room, each with our stack in front of us.  We dig in and read.  It is electric in that room.  I can feel the words in everyone’s head leaking out into the room.  There is occasional laughter and it is noted by all.  There will be a request to pass that book around later.  After a lunch break, my brother pulls out one of his choice books and we all beg my mom to read it.  But what we really mean is for all of us to sing it.  It is one of those stories that is also a song.  It is called The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night.

That is how I learned new words.  We all read constantly and reveled in it!  We talked about what we read and recommended books to each other from our weekly choice stacks.  Unfortunately, that routine changed when I turned six and went to live with my dad.  BUT the love for words and books was embedded deep inside me where it resides still!

The current investigations my students are engaging in create that same atmosphere in our classroom.  I hear it when I listen to the videos.  At times everyone is chiming in at the same time with enthusiasm and enlightenment!  Students are redigesting familiar words and welcoming many new words.  They are seeing the true sense of what a word family is.  They are recognizing the role of a prefix in contributing to a word’s sense and meaning.  It is electric in the room.  I can feel the words in everyone’s head leaking out into the room!

Learning about the four principal parts of a Latin verb and how to remove Latin suffixes to reveal the etymon continues to lead to some of the richest discussions in my classroom!  In this first video, we look at the Latin verb Spondeo, Spondere, Spepondi, Sponsus.  One of the first questions that comes up is in regards to the potential <e> in the final position of the bases.  I love that the students challenge each other to explain why or why not we might consider adding one.  When considering the base <sponse>, Shelby points out that in the word <response> we see that final non-syllabic <e>.  That is evidence that it belongs on our base.  When considering the base <spond>, Kaeleb points out that it is not a 1-1-1 word.  What he means by that is that although it is a ONE syllable word, it doesn’t not have ONE final consonant with ONE vowel preceding that consonant.  Many of the students know that if a word has one syllable (or the stress is on the syllable to which suffixes will be joined), and has a single final consonant with a single vowel preceding that consonant, the final consonant will be forced to double when adding a vowel suffix.  It was a delightful bonus to hear Kaeleb also give more evidence supporting the final non-syllabic <e> in the base <sponse>!

The second student on this video looks at Frango, Frangere, Fregi, Fractus.  As she was reading through the words in this family of twin bases, I noticed that she had a “dictionary definition” for fraction.  I wanted to hear how the students define that word.  Then we talked about adding a word that we explored the previous day.  It was part of another student’s investigation of these same twin bases.  The word was <fractal>.

Fractals have always fascinated me, and I thought they might fascinate my students as well.  We began by watching a short Youtube video explaining what they are.  Then we drew a triangle fractal and a tree fractal.

A basic shape repeated over and over, each time the shape is smaller in size.  The students have been drawing both ever since!

In the next video, a student looks at the Latin verb Moveo, Movere, Movi, Motus.  As is becoming usual, the students ask the same questions I would.  One of the first questions was in regards to the word <smote>.  The students had never heard of it before.  I questioned the <s> representing a prefix.   We put it on our Wonder Wall for the time being.

The discussion about the words <promote> and <demote> also created a deeper understanding of both.  I try to ask often, “How do you use this word?  How else can we use this word?”  I want the students to be able to understand these words in several circumstances.

And then, of course, someone contributes another reason that the base <move> will have a final non-syllabic <e>!  Brilliant!

One of my favorite discussions has been regarding the word <commotion>.  It is becoming obvious to me that the students still do not automatically wonder what effect the prefix has on the base’s denotation.  Once I steered the discussion in that direction, there was quite a commotion as “light bulbs of recognition” went off all over the room!

In the next video, the first student looks at the Latin verb Tracto, Tractare, Tractavi, Tractatus.  This family of words led to some great discussions as well.  Parker was able to share his personal experiences working with bees to explain an extractor.  Ilsa was able to jump in when we used extract as a cooking ingredient in the kitchen.  We had an equally interesting look at the different circumstances in which we use <contract> and <contraction>.

The second student looked at the Latin verb Struo, Struere, Struxi, Structus.  I noticed right away that this student included <struthious> as a word that shared the <stru(e)> base.  When I saw the definition she included on her poster, I knew it didn’t belong.  She wrote, “resembling or related to the ostriches or other related birds”.  While I am surprised that she didn’t recognize that this word and this base don’t share meaning, I am used to seeing this kind of thing.  Even this far into the school year, my students need to be reminded that spelling represents meaning, and that in order for two words to be in the same family, they need to share spelling and meaning.   I need to remind myself that spelling and meaning have often been considered separate tasks in their past.  Making sense of spelling is new to them.  But as you can plainly hear in their voices, their enthusiasm and confidence is intensifying as they learn to question and search!

Turning a magnet inside a generator makes the electrons flow which in turn creates electricity.  Yes.  There is a parallel to be drawn here!

Two Words “Packed” Together Into One … Portmanteau

In mid-December I read a blog post at Word Nerdery called “My Portmanteau is Packed; I’m Ready to Go“.  I always enjoy reading Ann Whiting’s posts.  To me it is like finding out your favorite author has written another chapter!  I get comfortable and ready to savor what I’m about to read because I know it will sometimes tickle me, sometimes stump me, but always fascinate me!

Portmanteau words are something I’ve been intending to have my students explore, so I was especially interested in this post.  My heart was saddened however, when I read what the inspiration was for this look into portmanteau words.  Simply put, the  word was smog.  And it seems there was a lot of it in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.  Land being cleared for farming and palm oil plantations was leaving the air filled with noxious pollution.  Without minimizing the seriousness of the situation she was surrounded by, Ann invited her readers to take a closer look at the word <smog>.

After finishing the post (and I encourage you to visit her blog and do the same), I was excited to see what my students would do with this topic.  Over the next few days, as students came to me ready for a new orthographic investigation, I asked them to find out what they could about portmanteau words.  First they were to find out what they were.  Second they were to make a list of some of their favorites.  It didn’t take long before they were huddled around computers, sharing their discoveries and often laughing at the strange images being brought to mind.  Most were especially delighted by the imaginative blends that involved animals.

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What fun!  We went to the Gallery at Real Spelling and viewed the film on Blend Words (Portmanteau).  We found out that there were three different ways to create a portmanteau.  They can be juxtapositional, overlapping, or nested.  We started to recognize some of those types in the examples we found.

Since we knew that Lewis Carroll was the one who started calling blend words “portmanteau words”, we decided to look at his famous poem to see which portmanteau words we could spot.  What a treat! “Callooh! Callay!”   Everyone looked a copy of the poem over on their own.  Then I shared a youtube video I had found in which a very talented 10 year old recites this famous poem.

We talked a bit about how his recitation brought the poem (which seemed to be full of strange words that nobody knew) to life!  Suddenly there was a story here!  It still wasn’t perfectly clear, but the gist of it was!  Then we compared that to Johnny Depp’s partial sharing of the poem.

The consensus was that this version was a bit creepier, yet we felt the pull of wanting to hear more.

We found the following portmanteau words:
slithy, which is a combination of slimy and lithe     mimsy, which is a combination of miserable and flimsy
galumphing, which is a combination of gallop and triumphing
chortle, which is a combination of chuckle and snort

We played with the words of “The Jabberwocky” for days.  We analyzed the grammar in some of the sentences.  Here is a sample of that.  I realized as I watched it back that the apostrophe in (‘Twas) was put in the wrong place.  If it represents the missing letter, it needs to be before the letter <T>.  The other thing I found out was Lewis Carroll may have intended the word ‘brillig’ to mean a certain time of day.  If that is true, then it would be a noun and not an adjective.  But it would still be a subject complement.

The students surprised themselves by being able to identify some grammatical structure to this sentence, which at first had only felt full of strange foreign words.  Of course, we could make grammatical sense of this sentence because in English, it is the order of the words that helps signal relationships between the words in the sentence.  We know that we expect to find adjectives before nouns.  We know that we expect to find articles before nouns.  We know the predictable parts of speech to look for following a preposition.  And here is where I neatly planted a seed.  Latin wasn’t like that.  Word order was not that important.  The Romans knew whether a word was a subject or an object by its suffix, and not by whether it was in front of or behind the predicate.

We finish with this recitation of The Jabberwocky.  We thank Lewis Carroll, Word Nerdery and Real Spelling because these days we quote the Jabberwocky when it suits us, and we blurt out portmanteaus that we are inventing on the spot!  We are changed!

Orthography Brings Richness and Depth To Everything We Do!

The fifth graders are just finishing up a really great book called Night of the Spadefoot Toads by Bill Harley.  Now there are a lot of great things to love about this book, but being the fifth grade science teacher, I love that it includes the fascinating topic of vernal ponds (also known as ephemeral ponds).  Most of the students are aware that we have a pond in the woods behind our school that comes and goes, but they don’t know much about it.

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Immediately I had students researching and finding out what they could about the words <vernal> and <ephemeral>.   They found out that these two words do not share the same meaning, but are still appropriate names for the temporary pond we have in our own school woods!  The narrative that follows here happened over a few days.

At Etymonline we found out that <vernal>means “pertaining to spring” and that it has been found in print as early as 1530.  It is from Late Latin vernalis “of the spring”, from vernus “of spring”, from Latin ver, “the spring, springtime”.

After looking in several dictionaries, the sense of how to use the word broadened.  We could speak of vernal sunshine, sweet vernal grasses, vernal ponds and the vernal equinox.  Well, actually we couldn’t speak of a vernal equinox until we understood what it was!

I wrote the word <equinox> on the board and asked if anyone recognized any familiar morphemes.  One person saw the word <ox>, and one boy saw his own name (Quin).  I guess this is not surprising since so many scripted spelling programs use “finding unrelated words within a given word” as a strategy to help with remembering a spelling.  That is another one of those misguided strategies that may help with remembering a spelling, but no doubt distracts the student who also needs to understand the word’s meaning.  In my own opinion, it also reinforces the idea that spelling is about remembering letter order and not about understanding words so you can enjoy and use them.

So I explained that we were looking for morphemes (word parts with meaning), and that these would be prefixes, bases, or suffixes.  Because morphemes carry meaning, as we put them together, they help us understand the whole meaning of the word.  It was at that point that someone offered up “equal”.  We looked in a dictionary to see what <equinox> meant.  We found out that twice a year the length of our day and our night is nearly equal.  The use of the word <equal> in the definition confirmed our idea that one of the morphemes in this word was <equ>.  Since there is no <i> in the word <equal>, we thought that the <i> had to be either a connecting vowel (indicating Latin) or part of the other morpheme in the word.  It was at this point that a boy in the back row raised his hand with great enthusiasm and wondered if the <nox> had something to do with night, seeing that the definition of an equinox mentioned equal length days and nights.   Next stop – Etymonline!

We found out that the word may have come directly from medieval Latin equinoxium “equality of night (and day)!  Smiles all around.  The only question left to ask was, “So if an equinox happens twice a year, when is the vernal equinox?  Confidently and with exuberance, the whole class answered, “In the spring!”

Next we were onto the word <ephemeral>.  Since none of us recognized any morphemes in this word, we went right to a dictionary.  The students found out that it meant “short lived, perhaps even as short as one day”.   Then I remembered a word that I haven’t thought of since my husband was getting his Masters Degree in Aquatic Entomology and I was typing up his thesis.  I thought of <ephemeroptera>.  I knew it was an order of insects, but now I was ready to understand how or if it was related to the word <ephemeral>.  I wrote <ephemeroptera> on the board and underlined the <pter>.  Then I rewrote the <pter> to the side and asked if anyone knew a word that began with those four letters.  I didn’t have to wait long.  “Pterodactyl!”

I underlined the <pter> and shared that this morpheme was from the Greek pteron and meant “winged”.  Then I wrote the word <helicopter> on the board.  We looked together at the Etymonline entry for this word and found out that  the first base is from Greek helix (genitive helikos) “spiral”.  I reminded them that the <os> on <helikos> is a Greek suffix we have seen before (bios, lithos, cosmos, geos, tropos, thermos, hydros and mesos  — when we were looking at word sums for  biosphere, lithosphere, cosmosphere, geosphere, troposphere, etc.)  I also shared with them the logical switch from a <k> in <helik> to a <c> in <helic>.  I wrote the word sum next to it:  <helic>+<o>+<pter>.  Underneath the base <pter> I wrote “winged”.  Underneath the base <helic> I wrote “spiral”.  Then we imagined the movement of a helicopter.

I said to my students, “I don’t know about you, but recognizing the <pter> as a base in the word <helicopter> has been one of my favorite discoveries since I’ve started studying orthography!”
“Me too!”  came a cry back from a couple of students with open-eye looks on their faces.

Side trip over, we got back on track with the word <ephemeroptera>.  Somebody suggested that this was an insect with wings that lived only a short time.  We looked online and found these:  Mayflies.

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The top picture is what they look like as nymphs when they live in water.  The bottom picture is what they look like when they emerge as adults.  They do indeed have brief lifespans as adults since they emerge without mouth parts and therefore do not eat!  They try to mate within hours of becoming adults and die shortly afterwards.  It certainly makes sense to call these insects ephemeroptera!

Another neat connection came two days later when I came across an article about a man who creates ephemeral art.  His name is Andy Goldsworthy and he likes to use natural found materials to create his art.  It is ephemeral because he creates it outdoors and leaves it there.  Here is a lovely video of some of his work.  His art may last longer than a mayfly, but the influence of the weather will certainly shorten the length of its existence.  Some of it will definitely disappear once the vernal sunshine appears!

Next we went to Etymonline to see what else we could learn.  The word has been in print since the late 14th century.  It originally was a medical term and referred to a fever that lasted one day.  It is from Greek ephemeros “daily, for the day”, also “lasting or living only one day, short lived”, from epi “on” + hemerai dative of hemera “day”.  It wasn’t until the 17th century that it was used to refer to short lived insects and flowers, and it wasn’t until 1751 that it had the general sense of  “a thing of transitory existence”.  Fascinating!

Now that we had a deeper understanding of vernal and ephemeral, it was time to look closely at what goes on in a vernal or ephemeral pond.

This was an especially interesting film.  After watching it we took a walk into our woods.  Even though the recent rains meant there was water in our ephemeral pool, we now knew that it would not be there long enough for frogs to be laying eggs.  That would happen in the spring when the water is there for a longer stretch of time.  We imagined how the pool will be different in the spring and how much wider and deeper it will be.  We decided that this pool can be called vernal because the spring is when it is full, and the life in it is active.   We decided that this pool can be called ephemeral because it is not a pond like other ponds.  It is only a pond for a short time.

Before we left the woods, we collected some thoughts on paper that we have since been crafting into poetry.  Those will be ready to share soon!  Stay tuned.

Introducing the Mighty Yet Neighborly ‘igh’ Trigraph!

A couple weeks back we were talking about trigraphs.  I wrote <igh> and <ugh> on the board and we brainstormed words that had those trigraphs in them.  Then we further sorted the words with <igh> into two columns.  One column contained words with a consonant in front of the <igh>.  The second column contained words with either an <a> or an <e> in front of the <igh>.  As we read through the words in the first column (with the consonant in front of the <igh>), the students noticed that the <igh> represented long /i/.  This list contained words like right, frighten, mighty, and sigh.  As we read through the words in the second column (with either an <a> or an <e> in front of the <igh>), the students noticed that the vowel plus the <igh> represented long /a/.  This list contained words like eight, neighbor, straight, and freight.

When sorting the words with an <ugh> trigraph, we made one column in which the <ugh> represented /f/.  This list contained words like laugh, cough, rough, and tough.  The second column had words in which the <ugh> represented no sound at all!  This list contained words like though, through, caught, and bought.

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Next the students practiced spelling out the words and pronouncing them.  The practice helped everyone single out the trigraphs as they spelled.  For example, the word <night> was spelled out as <n> <igh> <t>.  the word <knight> was spelled out as <kn> <igh> <t>.

When we finished with this activity, someone mentioned that they wished they had known this stuff sooner.  I asked, “Are these words you often had trouble with on spelling tests or in written work?”  There was a resounding, “YES!”  It was at this point that I threw out the suggestion that we offer to present this to some younger students.  My fifth graders were very enthusiastic to do this.  So I emailed the second grade teachers and asked if they would be interested.  They were particularly interested in the <igh> trigraph, so we prepared a lesson and presented it today!

I think the fifth graders were a bit surprised that the second graders enjoyed this so much and caught on so quickly.  We left our materials with the second grade students so they could review, practice, and collect more words after we left.

The teachers invited us back to do a lesson on writing out word sums.  One of the fifth graders thought we should prepare a lesson on the <-ion> suffix as well.   I’m thinking that the third graders might be ready for a lesson on the <ugh> trigraph.  Oh! The places we’ll go!

What a Difference a Prefix Makes!

When Michael investigated the word <president>, he found that it shared a base with the word <dissident>.  They both come from the Latin root sidere which means “to sit”.

The prefix in <president> is <pre> which means before, so we can think of a president as a person who sits before the people he/she represents.

The prefix in <dissident> is <dis> which means away, so we can think of a dissident as a person whose ideas sit away from those of others.  The dictionary defines <dissident> as a person who disagrees with an established religious or political system.

Still trying to really understand <dissident> in the same way we understand <president>, I asked the students to look online to find examples of people who were or are considered dissidents.  This is where the understanding deepened.

Names of people we have studied this year, as well as names recognized as having been in the news recently popped up.  Here is a short list of people we recognized who have  been named dissidents.  Some were peaceful dissidents, some were not.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
John Brown
Thomas Paine
Woody Guthrie
Pete Seeger
Edward Snowden
Sitting Bull
Tecumseh
Nelson Mandela
Jesus Christ
Adolf Hitler

Are there names you recognize?  Do you know why they were/are considered dissidents?  Who would you add to this list?

Homophones – Springboards for Discussion!

We were in the computer lab the other day, and I was looking over a student’s poem before it was to be printed. She had incorrectly spelled the word <very> as <vary>.   I told her that <vary> is something the temperature has been doing lately.  I said, “It’s not consistent.  It varies from day to day.”  She shook her head and said, ” Ah.  I see.  It means changing.  I used the wrong word.”  When I asked her how to spell the word she really wanted, she spelled <very>, but with hesitation as she thought about which vowel to use.  She wanted to use <a> because that is the sound she was hearing herself say, but she knew that wasn’t right.  She settled on <e>.

It’s hard to fault our students who are using the strategies we give them:  “Sound it out.  If that doesn’t work, just plain memorize the spelling.”

Back in class I decided to talk about the word vary with the whole class.  I said, ” If I asked you to spell the word <very>, how would you do it?  Both spellings were suggested.  That led to a discussion of the word homophone and its meaning.

Then we went back to the two words <very> and <vary>.  I asked for a definition of each.  Students used them in sentences. They defined <very> as an adverb meaning extremely.  They defined <vary> as changing.  Next I asked for relatives.  For the word <vary>, students suggested <variety>, <variable>, and <various>.  We talked about what each means and how each might be used.  Then I asked for the spelling of <varying>.  Maya began with <v> <a> <r> … but then paused.  I knew she was questioning whether the next letter would be <y> or if that <y> would switch to an <i>.  I was giving her some think time when Ryan jumped in and said rather enthusiastically, ” English words don’t have two i’s in a row!  The <y> needs to stay a <y>!  Just as I was smiling and about to say, ” So glad you remembered that!”, Logan raised this question.  “What about the word <skiing>? (It seems that everything we look at in orthography leads to something else equally interesting!)

Ryan is correct in thinking that in complete English words there are never two i’s.  When we see such a spelling,  we know the word <ski> is a loan word from another language.  Loan words don’t behave the way English words do.

I wanted to visit the spelling of <skiing> a bit further so I wrote the word <skiing> on the board.  Right next to it I wrote <skying> and next to that I wrote <sking>.  I asked for the base of each spelling.  That helped us rule out <sking>.  Looking at <skiing> the students saw <ski> + <ing> and looking at <skying> the students saw <sky> + <ing>.  We couldn’t make sense of the word <skying> and realized that in the word <skiing> there isn’t a double <i>.  There is an <i> in the final position of the base, and there is an <i> in the initial position of the suffix.  It reminds me of the word <really>.  There isn’t a double <l> here either.  One <l> is the final consonant of the base, and the other is the first letter of the suffix.  Thinking about words in this way (as word sums) helps with spelling because as you are spelling you are thinking of the word sum and how the morphemes go together rather than a memorized letter order.

Now we headed back to our original query.  We tried adding a few more suffixes on to <vary> and talked about the suffixing rules before turning our attention to <very>.  “What are its relatives?” I asked.  We couldn’t think of any.  We decided that <very> with an <e> is very limited in the number of relatives it has, whereas <vary> with an <a> has a variety of relatives!   We also noticed that <very> is an adverb and only once in a while an adjective.  The word <vary> however can be various parts of speech, including noun, verb, and adjective depending on the suffix used.

A simple misspelling led to such a rich discussion!  Awesome!

Listen to the Sound of the Christmas Spirit!

When I finished reading aloud “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, I did a couple of things.  I collected drawings the students made as they listened to the story, I asked the students to write about some of the ideas brought up in the story, and I handed out scripts from parts of the story.

Here is a script reading from the part in the story where Fred invites his Uncle Scrooge to Christmas dinner.

Next is a script reading from Ebenezer Scrooge’s encounter with the ghost of Jacob Marley.  The visit (and conversation) is continued in the third script reading.

The next script reading is from the conversation between Ebenezer Scrooge and his fiance Belle.  This conversation takes place during Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past.

This last script reading is from the part in the story in which Scrooge’s nephew Fred is talking with his wife at their Christmas Day celebration.  It takes place during Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present.

 

When asked to write about some of the ideas brought up in the story, Zoe chose to write about Jacob Marley’s chains.

“When Jacob Marley’s ghost says, ‘I wear the chain I forged in life.  I made it link by link and yard by yard,’ he means that he has done wrong things and hurt many people by thinking only of himself.  Now he has to wear the heavy weight of that forever.  I think he realizes now that if he had shown people charity, mercy, and benevolence, he wouldn’t be forced to wear the chains.  Jacob Marley didn’t believe in charity.  He was greedy and wanted to keep his money to himself.  He never purposely wanted to hurt anybody, but he did hurt them by not caring about them or by not showing mercy when he could have.  Each time Jacob Marley turned someone who needed help away, he added another link to his chain.
I think everybody has at least one link on their chain.  Sometimes we do things and we don’t know we are doing them.  I guess that’s why it is important to think about your actions before you do them.  Think about what you are doing and how you treat people.”

Maya chose to write about Fred’s words : “And though it (Christmas)has never put a scrap of gold in my pocket, I believe that is has done me good and will do me good and I say God Bless it!”

“Christmas will do me good because it’s a time for me to get all the crazy distractions out of my head for a while and spend as much time as I can with my family.  One day I’ll be out of time to do that.  For me, it’s also a time to overstuff my stomach with turkey dinner and spend time with the people I most love.    When I was little I thought that Christmas was for the presents.  Christmas is really about spending time as a family and spreading joy to all the people of the world.”

Hannah had some interesting thoughts about Jacob Marley’s chains also …

“Jacob Marley must have done a lot of bad things to have it be yards and yards long.  I think my chain is very short.  I have teased my sister, but we’re usually just kidding around.  I wonder if thinking something bad would put a link on your chain?  I have thought some bad things, but have not done any.  I promise.  If I was like Jacob Marley, I might not have the friends that I do.  I would rather die again than have those chains.  Could he die again?  Jacob Marley probably regretted all the things he did.  I wonder exactly how many links are on Jacob Marley’s chain?  I also wonder if links could be removed.
Christmas has always ‘done me good’.  I love ice skating and snowboarding.  Making cookies is great too.  I love snickerdoodles!  My absolute favorite part of Christmas is when my grandma visits!”

Here are some delightful drawings of Scrooge, Jacob Marley’s ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.