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 meaningful unit in a language, and if that particular unit becomes smaller, it has no meaning.  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 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!

 

 

When Something Unexpected Turns into Something Spectacular!

This morning a student eagerly approached my desk.  “Mrs. Steven?  I have a question.  This weekend I was reading a book and came across the words <respect> and <suspect>.  I started wondering about them.  I’m pretty sure that <sus> is a prefix.  I remember seeing it during one of my word investigations.  So that left me thinking that maybe the base in that word would be <pect>.  But then, if these two words share a base, and I think they do, that would mean that the prefix in <respect> would be <res>, and I’m not so sure about that.” As you can imagine, I can think of no better way to start a day!  I thanked her for sharing her thinking about this situation, and promised that we would get the class to help us think further about this after they returned from the gym.  We began by writing the two words on the board.  Then I let Lauren explain her thinking about these words, and where she was stuck.

***When a question like this is raised, the air seems to change in our room.  The looks on faces indicate that thinking is going on.  No one is doodling or even futzing with desk things! Heads are lifted and are facing the board.  This is the look of engagement.  Each brain buzzing, considering what has been proposed. A hand went up.  “I agree that <sus-> is a prefix.  Our group was looking at <sub-> and that was a variation.” Another student jumped in, “Oh, right!  An assimilated prefix!” I asked, “What words can we think of that have an <sus-> prefix?”  In addition to suspect, the students thought of suspend, suspension, and suspicion.  We noted that the element following the <sus-> prefix began with a <p> in each of these examples.  That is not always the case.  If we had used Word Searcher to find more, we would also have found sustain, susceptible, and resuscitate. We thought about this word and the idea that <sus-> was assimilated from <sub->.  We tried to pair up the <sub-> with the <pect> that followed.   We talked about how <b> and <p> are formed using our lips and how difficult it is to pronounce them both in this context.  We all agreed that THAT didn’t work.  It makes sense that the <sub-> takes on an <sus-> form when the next element in a word begins with <p>. So now we had established that <sus-> was a proven prefix.  We turned our attention back to the two words on the board.  What next? Someone asked, “Maybe <res>is a prefix.  I’m thinking of the word <residue>. ” I wrote it on the board, and almost instantly someone said, “But couldn’t the word sum for that be <re + sid(e) + ue>?”

At this point I shared that a few years ago I had a student who investigated the word <president>.  He found out that the word sum was <pre + sid(e) + ent>.  The base <side> had a denotation of “sitting”.  A president is someone who sits before the people being represented.  (I wish you could have heard the swoosh of “Ohhh” ‘s that slid across the room!)  The student who had offered the word sum for <residue> then said, “And residue is something that just sits there!  It gets left behind and just sits there!”  There were smiles and nods all around. Now I posed the question, “What do you think is going on in the word <respect>?” The first student to respond said, “I think there is an <re-> prefix and an <spect> base.  After all, I can think of speculate and inspection.” Someone else called out, “Expect.”  (Perfect.  I wrote it below suspect and hoped it would inspire some thinking.  If not, I would point it out myself. But I was in no rush. ) “Great next step I said.  Can anyone else think of words that might be sharing this base?” “What about spectacles?  In Peter Pan, Smee wore spectacles!”  (We are 16 pages away from finishing this book.  Look for a future post about the rich conversations we have had about the many words we have encountered and thoroughly enjoyed!) A voice from the back of the room said, “Doesn’t <spect> have something to do with looking?  If you inspect something, you are looking at it.  If you wear spectacles, they help you see better.  When you respect someone, it is like you are looking at them, really looking at them, and seeing something cool that you didn’t see before.” “Yes!  Yes, it does.” I replied.  Think also of a spectator.  That is a person who has come to watch something.” The next thing I did was to underline the <spect> base we saw in the list we had accumulated.  The only two words that didn’t seem to fit that were suspect and expect. “Hmmm.  Who has
some thoughts about these two?”

Then from the back row someone said, “When we say the word <expect> there is already a /s/ as part of the pronunciation of <x>.” “You’re right!  Everyone say the word <expect> and feel the /s/ that is part of the pronunciation of <x>.  That’s some great thinking, Amelia!  Perhaps the initial <s> on the base <spect> elided with the /ks/ when this prefix and base joined.   So one hypothesis that might explain why the base element in <expect> does not include the initial <s>  would be that when the prefix <ex-> joined with the base <spect>, the initial <s> on the base was elided.  That means that the /s/ that was part of the /ks/ phoneme and the /s/ that was part of the <spect> base element became one.  They were not both needed.” I continued, “Would this same hypothesis work for what is happening with <suspect>? What do you think?” “Well, yes.  The /s/ at the end of <sus-> is pretty much like the /s/ in the /ks/.” ***Can you imagine how glorious it is to be able to have a discussion like this with 11 year old students?  Eight months of learning about our English language has brought us to this point.  I yearn for more time.  They know enough to think like scholars and ask questions like scholars.  They notice things about words that help them understand its origins, its structure, and its phonology. Now that we have a hypothesis, we need to do some research.  We checked at Etymonline.

expect (v.)

1550s, “wait, defer action,” from Latin expectare/exspectare “await, look out for; desire, hope, long for, anticipate; look for with anticipation,” from ex- “thoroughly” (see ex-) + spectare “to look,” frequentative of specere “to look at” (from PIE root *spek- “to observe”).
      
           
We talked briefly about the fact that this word hasn’t changed its sense and meaning very much since it was first attested in the 1550’s.  That’s pretty interesting!  We still use it to mean “wait, look out for, hope, long for, anticipate.”
 
In the middle of that discussion, a hand went up.  As soon as I called on the student, he said, “look at those two spellings in Latin!  The <s> was in one of them.  Does that mean that it was spelled both ways then?”
      
“It sure does!  Does anyone spot the Latin ancestor of this word?”
      
“Yes.  It’s spectare, and it’s an infinitive.”  At this point another student voice joins in and they say almost in unison, “There’s an <-are> infinitive suffix.  It’s a Latin verb!”
      
“What is its denotation?”
      
“To look.”
      
“Does that jive with what we thought when looking at inspect, spectacles, and speculate?”
      
Several answered, “Yes!”
      
“Has anyone noticed the sense given for the prefix <ex->?  It says “thoroughly”.  Hmmm.  What do we usually expect the <ex-> prefix to have a sense of?”
      
“Doesn’t it usually mean “out?”
      
“Yes, it does.  This just goes to show us that a prefix can bring more than one sense to a word.  In the word <exit>, the prefix <ex-> DOES have a sense of “out.”  The base element there is <it> “go.”  When you head for the exit, you head for the place you will go out.  But here the prefix has a sense of “thoroughly.”  When we expect something to happen, we are thoroughly looking ahead and watching for it.  We are focused on looking.  In your future, you may come across information that tells you that <ex-> means out.  You now know that it doesn’t always, and it doesn’t only mean that.  That is valuable information because understanding the sense a prefix adds to a word’s denotation effects the way you think about the definition of a word.”
      
When I asked if we found any evidence to support our hypothesis, I helped point out that the Latin stem was <spect> and that had the <s>.  I also repeated what was previously noted about the two spellings in Latin – one with the <s> following the <x> and one without.  What we DO know is that we don’t see it in this word today.  Next it was time to look at <suspect> to see if we could find any evidence there.

suspect (adj.)

early 14c., “suspected of wrongdoing, under suspicion;” mid-14c., “regarded with mistrust, liable to arouse suspicion,” from Old French suspect (14c.), from Latin suspectus “suspected, regarded with suspicion or mistrust,” past participle of suspicere “look up at, look upward,” figuratively “look up to, admire, respect;” also “look at secretly, look askance at,” hence, figuratively, “mistrust, regard with suspicion,” from assimilated form of sub “up to” (see sub-) + specere “to look at” (from PIE root *spek- “to observe”). The notion behind the word is “look at secretly,” hence, “look at distrustfully.”   Again we noted that the sense and meaning of this word hasn’t changed much since the 14th century.  We noticed that this word was used in Old French, but that didn’t affect its spelling.  (We have come across situations in which it did.)  Continuing on in the entry we saw that this word is from Latin suspectus which was the past participle of suspicere.  Once again the students noticed that both of these had Latin verb suffixes.  It made sense that suspicere would be the infinitive and suspectus would be the past participle.  That would mean that those two principle parts of this same Latin verb would come into English as the twin bases <suspic(e)> and <suspect>!

Someone said, “If we add an <-ion> suffix to the base <suspic(e)>, we’ll have the word <suspicion>!” “Right.  I am so impressed with how you recognize what to do with the information you are finding!” As we kept reading, we thought it interesting that the infinitive form <suspicere> was used to mean “look up to, admire, respect”, yet also “look at secretly, mistrust.”  Those are opposite meanings!  Even though it had those two senses at one time, today <suspic(e)> is used solely (I couldn’t find evidence to prove otherwise) to express a sense of mistrust or suspicion.  Over time, the sense of “admire, respect” became less and less associated with this word. The next thing we noticed was the identification of the prefix <sus-> as an assimilated form of <sub->.  It’s always great to find evidence to support what we were thinking earlier!

As we finished reading this entry, I again asked, “Did we find any evidence to support our hypothesis?” Well, yes and no.  We just found out that <suspect> is one of a pair of twin bases.  That means we can look at it as a base element that needs no further analyzing.  On the other hand, the entry at Etymonline does confirm that <sus-> is the assimilated form of <sub-> and that the modern base element is derived from Latin specere.  That is great information, but might leave a person with more questions than clarity. We saw that <expect> had a spelling in Latin that included the <s> after the <x> (exspectare).  We found out a lot of interesting things, but nothing that verified whether that initial <s> on the modern base had elided when the prefix and base were joined. ***The only time this becomes a question is when we think about the words synchronically and are trying to write a word sum or create a word matrix.  One thing we can say for certain is that we wouldn’t include expect or suspect on the same matrix as respect, spectator, inspect, or speculate.  I am not even sure I would create a matrix to represent the elements in <expect>.  I would prefer to write a word sum like this:  <ex- + (s)pect –> expect> and then explain why I included the (s).  Others might represent this differently, but the most important thing I want my students to understand here is that respect, suspect, and expect all come from the same Latin verb. There is another base element <pect> from Latin pectus with a denotation that is quite different.  We see it in pectorals and expectorate.  It has to do with the breast.  Pectorals were originally the breastplates men wore.  Now they refer to the chest muscles.  To expectorate is to spit or to expel from the chest.  This base element might look like the one we see in <expect>, but it obviously isn’t.  Let’s not get them confused. Here is one idea for representing these words in
a single visual:

All the words within the circle derive from the same Latin verb.  The fact that expect and suspect do not share the same spelling as the base of respect means they would not be on the same matrix as respect.  This matrix does not include all the possible elements it could, nor do the lists outside the matrix but within the circle.  I just wanted to illustrate one possible way to represent words in a situation like this. Just so you know, I’m still thinking about all this.  I’m thinking about what’s happening with inspire and expire, with exist, and exert.  I don’t feel like I have to have a ready answer for my students.  We just owe it to ourselves to investigate as we can and then think about what our current understanding is.  From there we identify what it is we still have questions about.  And then we move forward keeping our ears open for some piece of evidence or some bit of research that reveals a bit more and deepens our understanding. So our hypothesis still stands and awaits evidence.  My students have no problem with not finding  a clear and defining answer to Lauren’s question.  All an answer does is end that line of questioning, and what fun is that?

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!

DSCN6279

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!

IMG_0188

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!

IMG_0191

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!

img055 img058

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.

DSCN6192

DSCN6181 DSCN6185 DSCN6187 DSCN6188 DSCN6189

DSCN6190 DSCN6191 DSCN6193

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.

Night...Toad
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.

527 Ephemeroptera_2

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.

DSCN5012

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!