“Stop Learning and Start Thinking”

I shared this video with my students the other day.  It is about 7 years old, but its message is timeless and crucial if we are to teach our students how to be in charge of understanding their world.  The boy speaking is Jacob Barnett.  At the time this video was made he was 11 years old.  At present he is 19.  If you have not seen this, please watch it now.  It is 18 minutes long, but well worth your time.  If you have seen it before, watch it again.  Having Jacob’s voice in your head as you continue to read this post will give strength to what you read.

When it was over, I said, “Well, What do you think about what he said?”  One student mentioned how smart Jacob is.  Another said it was weird that Jacob wore sandals.  Another commented that he could tell Jacob was “different”.  Yet another noticed that he had the Greek letter phi (φ ) on his shirt.  (We’ve been learning the Greek alphabet). It got kind of quiet after that.  So I said, “What do you think Jacob means when he says you have to stop learning and start thinking?”  Now it was completely silent.  And the silence was paired with facial expressions that said, “I don’t have any idea what that could mean!”

At that point I shared my own thoughts:  When Jacob says to stop learning, I think he is talking about learning as it is typically done in schools.  You know how it goes – the teacher tells the students what he/she wants them to know.  They learn it. (This might include reading about it, writing about it, watching videos, etc.) Then the students take an assessment to see how well they learned it.

THAT is what Jacob wasn’t able to do when he was young – because of his learning differences.  THAT is what Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t able to do when attending the University of Cambridge – because the school was shut down with the outbreak of the plague.  And THAT is what Albert Einstein wasn’t able to do – because he was Jewish and turned away from the local university, so he ended up taking a job working in a patent office instead.

Each was prevented from following this model of learning, and in doing so, had time to think.  Jacob believes it was this time to think and question and seek understanding that lead each person to their discoveries.  Now, does this mean Jacob didn’t learn things by reading books?  Of course not.  When he had posed questions that he wished to explore and knew more information was necessary to move forward in his thinking, he read the books he needed to read!  In other words, he read books and focused on understanding what he was reading.  He was a motivated reader.  The information he learned while reading helped him formulate new questions and better understand whether or not his past questions were on the right track.  In this manner he was always motivated to deeply understand a specific topic in order to weigh whatever questions he was currently posing.

So did he in fact  “stop learning”?  I don’t think so.  I think he stopped being a passive participant in learning, and became an active one.  And he found his inner voice – that unique perspective that he has – that each of us has with which to do our thinking.  Jacob explored the questions he had in a way that came natural to him.  Unfortunately, the way schools are set up, students often lose sight of their own unique perspective as they get older.  They get used to waiting for an adult to tell them what to do next, what information to search for, what answer to find.  They become passive learners.  And as passive learners, they rarely go beyond what has been laid out as the expectations for a particular assignment.  If doing “a, b, and c” is what is required, very few will ask about “d”.  Sometimes teachers will comment that there are students who are capable of doing more, but lack motivation.  Do they really lack motivation, or have they become passive?  Are YOU sometimes a passive learner?

At this point Ella raised her hand.  “When we study words, we’re not passive.  It’s like how Jacob learns.  We do a lot of thinking about what the word means, and then we come up with a hypothesis for our word sum. We read whatever dictionary we need to while collecting our evidence and the word’s story.  But WE do it ourselves.”

I answered, “Yes!  You work independently and are actively involved in your learning!  You look at resource books when you need to.  You search for evidence to support or disprove your word sum hypothesis. You discuss with others what you are thinking about as you are finding information and hypothesizing.  And oftentimes another person’s unique perspective helps you stretch your own thinking.  You research and investigate and gather your evidence until you’re satisfied you understand as much as there is to understand at this time!  The best part is that you recognize that you have not found an answer.  You have found a temporary understanding that may in fact deepen should other evidence come to light!”

Ella continued rather proudly, “When we were taking the Forward Exam a few weeks ago, I was trying to think of what the word sum would be for <conversation>.  I knew about the two possible suffixes <ate> and <ion> on this word which left <convers(e)>.  I also recognized the prefix <con>, although I couldn’t remember what it meant just then.  That left <vers(e)>.  When I thought about that, I thought of how a verse is something I read, write, or talk about.  A conversation is talking between at least two people, so I knew I was on the right track.  I couldn’t look it up during the exam, but later I checked it out to see if what I thought made sense.”

I was not expecting Ella to point out this correlation between what Jacob was describing and what we do in class, but I was delighted she did!  The students can FEEL the difference between passive and active learning.  They recognize their own level of engagement, and how using a scientific lens to look at words has drawn them in and increased their level of interest.  The fact that Ella shared her thinking about the word <conversation> and how being able to do that helped her in a situation outside of class, proves that  Structured Word Inquiry has become the way she thinks about words!  Ella KNOWS that a word’s spelling is not random.  She KNOWS to expect its structure to make sense and to help her understand the meaning of that word.

I remember what a former student said at the end of her fifth grade year, “In fourth grade we had a list of words.  We wrote them on our white board over and over again until we could spell them without looking.  It got very boring very quickly.  In fifth grade it’s different.  We investigate a word to find out where it comes from, and what it’s word sum might look like.  We find out its history and how it’s been used.  Then we write about what we found, and after we’ve collected words with the same base we make a matrix.  It’s a lot more work, but it is also a lot more fun!”

Did you hear that?  It was a lot more work, but it was also a lot more fun!  We have to stop deciding what is too much work or what is too hard for our students.  We have to stop simplifying tasks to the point of rendering them uninteresting and requiring too little thought.


Structured Word Inquiry versus the Scientific Method

What my students do with spelling is not much different than what they do in preparation for our Science Fair.  The first step is to choose a topic or a word.  Next they do a bit of research.  For both spelling and science, they need to know enough about their topic to create a thoughtful hypothesis.  Let’s say a student is curious about the effects of music on a person’s heart rate.  Before writing a hypothesis, that student would benefit from finding out what a typical resting heart rate is.  It might even be helpful to find out what is considered to be an elevated heart rate.  The student might also want to know how many beats per minute specific music has. The student’s hypothesis can include those pieces of information, and later on, the data collected can be compared to that hypothesis.   The student investigating a word will want to brainstorm a few other words related to the targeted word.  Which structural pieces are the same?  Which structural pieces are different?  I am speaking of morphemes.  Does the student recognize affixes that could be removed in order to identify the base or bases?  A hypothesis in this situation means a possible word sum.  Oftentimes a student will consider two or three different word sum hypotheses.

The next step in either scenario is to research deeply.  The person preparing a science experiment will want to find out more about music types, heart rates, the effects music has on people, and maybe even music therapy.  The person investigating a word will want to find out when his/her word was first attested and what it meant at that time.  The person may consult several etymological references to find out the word’s language of origin and its spelling in that language.  What was the lexical stem in that language of origin that became today’s base element?  In the process, the word’s story is revealed.  It may have meant different things at different times in history.  It may have had its spelling changed (for a variety of reasons) by the different groups of people who used it over time.

Now it is time for the scientist to set up the experiment, run it, and collect the data.  This will take some time.  The person running the science experiment will select a group of people to participate.  Resting heart rates will be taken, and then music will be played.  Then heart rates will be taken again.  There will be tests for different kinds of music, and the group of participants will be tested several times for each type of music.  The student investigating a word will now focus on collecting words that share the word’s root (ancestor) which was found during research.  Words found that share both the word’s ancestor AND the base’s spelling are listed as morphological relatives.  Words found that share the word’s ancestor but NOT the base’s spelling are listed as etymological relatives.  In both cases it is important to keep a journal detailing this collection process in case the experiment gets repeated at a future time.

The data is collected.  What’s next?  The student who is preparing for the Science Fair will begin making graphs and/or charts of the data so this person can make observations.  After careful consideration of what the data shows, the student draws some conclusions. Does the data support the initial hypothesis or does it falsify it?  At this point, either outcome is valid.  The student learns about the effects of different types of music on a person’s heart rate regardless of whether or not their hypothesis was “right”.  Proving the hypothesis is what drives the experiment, but if the hypothesis isn’t proven, the experiment has not failed.  It has only moved the student in a different direction with their questions and thinking.  In so many respects it is the same for the student investigating a word.  This student looks at the morphological relatives found (the words that share a common ancestor AND the base element’s spelling) and writes those words as word sums.  As the student does this, special attention is paid to the the morpheme boundaries.  This is where the student’s understanding of the single final non-syllabic <e> as well as suffixing conventions come into play.  For example, let’s say the student was writing a word sum for <describing>.  If the student wrote the word sum as <de + scribe + ing –> describing>, I would know that the student understands the importance of the single final non-syllabic <e>.  The <e> is part of the base element in this word.  If it wasn’t, then adding the vowel suffix (<-ing>) would force the (then) final <b> on the base to double.  The student includes the <e> on the base element to prevent doubling!  When the words are all written as word sums, a matrix is created.  (Just as there are several kinds of graphs on which to display science data, there are other ways to present word collections as well.  A matrix is the one to use when looking at all the elements – affixes and other bases – that can be used with a common base.)

Once the graphs/matrices are made and the students have made a list of observations, it is time to share their findings with a larger group.  The student who is presenting at the Science Fair will pull out the journal with the detailed notes and type up a list of procedures, some of the research findings, the hypothesis, the observations and more.  Those will be displayed along with the graphs or charts and any pictures on a display board.  The student doing the word investigation will decide whether to create a poster, a booklet, a skit type presentation, a video, or some type of digital presentation (perhaps similar to Powerpoint).  This person will also go back to their journal with the detailed notes and share the word’s meaning, the attestation date, the language of origin, and other interesting things that were found out about the word’s history.  They will also share the matrix they created, the related words, and any observations they have made as they reflected on their investigation.  For instance, they may have noticed interesting things about the phonology in this word’s family.  Perhaps this word is Hellenic and has a <ph> grapheme that represents a /f/ phoneme.  Perhaps there are pronunciation differences in the base of the word family as there is in the family that includes predict, diction, and indictment.  The students usually include the word in IPA so they can specifically talk about the grapheme/phoneme relationships.

As each student presents, they walk us through their exploration.  They share the most surprising things they found out and ask for questions.  Their explorations, whether the kind shared at a Science Fair or the kind shared with fellow word enthusiasts in a classroom, always get great interaction from the audience.  The work investigated with this scientific lens is so worthy that audience members can’t help but become engaged themselves and think of their own questions.


It sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it?  I bet some of you are even thinking, “My students can’t do all that.”  But given the chance, your students will prove to you that they can.  My students begin fifth grade with very little true understanding about our written language.  But amazingly, within two to three months of school they are eager to investigate words on their own and in much this way!  They are so hungry to be actively involved in their learning!  As we continue through the year, they become more and more independent in their pursuit.  THIS is what Ella was pointing at when she said that our word work was a lot like what Jacob Barnett was describing.  When we investigate words (and conduct science experiments), we  “STOP LEARNING AND START THINKING!



The Intertwining of Etymology and Entomology

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A long time ago and in a land just down the road,  my husband asked me to type up his Master’s Thesis.  I was faster at typing than he was, so I agreed.  What an interesting venture THAT was!  So many words that were unfamiliar to me, but that made perfect sense to him.  You see he was getting his Masters in Aquatic Entomology.  Of course I knew that entomology had to do with insects.  Hadn’t we spent numerous weekends at Otter Creek with a white sheet and a flashlight making observations and noting the adult caddisfly species inhabiting the area?  Hadn’t I also gone with him as he collected caddisfly larva from the same creek that he would later identify to species?  Hadn’t I been to his lab at UW-Madison often enough and checked out the artificial creek in which he was raising caddisflies?  Of course I had.  But when I typed up his thesis, I became fascinated with something other than the caddisflies.  I became fascinated with the scientific names of the insects he was writing about.  Each had a name that was either Latinate or Hellenic.  And because the names were from Latin and Greek, they carried meaning which helped me understand something about the insect named.  At that point, I was years away from understanding that ALL words have a spelling that specifically represents their meaning.  Back then it made scientific terms seem magical.

Today my husband forwarded an article about Carl Linnaeus.  He was a naturalist who lived from 1707-1778.  He created a system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms that is still in use today.  Here is a link to the article.  I enjoyed many interesting things about this article, but one of my favorites was his reason for wanting to describe all living organisms with a two word name (binomial nomenclature).  The example given in the article is that of the European honeybee.  Before 1758, it was known as the Apis pubescens, thorace subgriseo, abdomine fusco, pedibus posticis glabris utrinque margine ciliatis.  The article roughly translates that Latin to “furry bee, grayish thorax, brownish abdomen, black legs smooth with hair on both sides.”  While quite detailed and helpful in describing one species from another, it was very cumbersome to remember or write down.  Thanks to Carl Linnaeus, the European honeybee is now known as Apis mellifera  “honey-bearing bee.”

I encourage you to watch this  short video about him and his scientific contributions.

Long before my husband’s thesis was ready to be typed, I was hearing the scientific names of many insects.  As part of his Masters coursework he prepared a prodigious insect collection.  I remember that we carried collection jars wherever we went!  In this post I will focus on the some of the Order names I became familiar with during that time period.  The levels of classification are Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.  What caught my attention with the Order names was the consistent use of the element <ptera>.

I was fascinated that caddisflies were part of the larger Order known as Trichoptera.  At the time I was told it  meant “hairy winged.”  Now I know that <trich>  had a Hellenic ancestor, τριχίνος (transcribed as trichinos) meaning “of hair” and <pter> is from Greek pteron and means “winged.”  The Caddisflies in this Order are often confused with moths in the Lepidoptera Order.  They are confused because they are similar in size and color to many moths, but upon a closer look (and because of what is revealed in the name Lepidoptera), one can see a major difference.  You see, Lepidoptera is also a compound word with one element deriving from Hellenic λεπιδος (transcribed as lepidos) “a scale” and the other from Hellenic πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”

This is an adult caddisfly, Order Trichoptera “hairy winged.”

Image result for trichoptera free clipart

This is a Brown House-moth, Order Lepidoptera “scaley winged.”


Some of the other Orders of insects I learned about while typing my husband’s thesis were Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, Diptera, Siphonaptera, and Megaloptera.  There were others, of course, but looking at even these few will unlock your understanding of scientific names used in classification.

As I was looking up more information about the Order Hemiptera, which is from ἠμί (transcribed as hemi) “half” and πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged,” I found out that historically, the Order Hemiptera was split into two suborders.    The first was Heteroptera.  Its first element is from ἑτεροειδής (transcribed as heteroeidēs) “of another kind” and its second element is πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”  The second Suborder was Homoptera, whose first element is from ὁμοείδεια (transcribed as homoeideia) “sameness of nature or form” and its second element is πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”

From that we can note that insects in the Order Hemiptera are half winged.  That doesn’t mean that their wings are halved in some way.  It means instead that if they are in the Suborder Heteroptera, one pair of their wings has a tough and leathery upper half with a membranous tip and the other pair of their wings is strictly membranous.  You might say that of their two sets of wings, one set is “of another kind.”  If they are in the Suborder Homoptera, both of their wing pairs share a “sameness of form.”  Their forewings can either be toughened or membranous, but not both.

This is one of the insects classified as a Heteroptera.  You can see both the membranous wing and the leathery wing.

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This is an aphid, one of the insects classified as a Homoptera.  You can see that both pair of wings are the same.  They are membranous.

Euceraphis species Birch Aphid Bugs Homoptera Images

Now let’s find out about the name for the Order of insects known as Hymenoptera.  Are you making guesses as to this word’s meaning at this point?  In looking at the Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott, I actually found the full word ὑμενόπτερος (transcribed as hymenopteros) “membrane winged.”  This group includes wasps, bees, and ants.  One thing to note about their wings is that the front set is bigger than the back set.

Here is a picture of a Tawny Mining Bee.  I chose this picture so you can see the smaller second set of wings.

Andrena fulva Tawny Mining Bee Hymenoptera Images

Let’s move on to the order known as Diptera.  Think about what the word sum will be.  We now know the second element in this word.  What’s left?  It would have to be <di + pter + a –> diptera>.  So far all of the elements in all of the words we have looked at have been Hellenic (Greek in origin).  The English base <di> is derived from the Greek word δοιοί (transcribed as doioi) “two.”  This group of insects includes flies, mosquitoes, gnats and more.  These insects belong in this Order because of the characteristic stated in the denotation of their name.  They have just two wings.

Here is a picture of a Green Bottle Fly.  You can see the two wings.

Lucilia species a Green Bottle Calliphoridae

Next let’s look at the Order Megaloptera.  Do you have any guesses about this word?  The second element is the same in all of the words we’ve looked at, so the first element will no doubt be describing the wings on the insects in this order.  Searching in Liddell and Scott, the first element is derived from μεγάλον (transcribed as megalon) “big, great.”  If you guessed that this order of insects includes those with big or great wings, you can pat yourself on the back!  Some of the insects we find in the Order Megaloptera are alderflies, dobsonflies, and fishflies.

Here is a picture of a dobsonfly.  Its wings are obviously larger than any others we have looked at today.

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The last Order we’ll look at here is Siphonaptera.  There are things about this word that are similar to the ones we’ve already looked at, and yet there’s something new to notice.  First off, we see the now familiar element <pter> “winged.”  What will the rest of this word reveal?  Well, I found σίφων (transcribed as siphon) “tube, pipe.”  That leaves us with that curious letter <a> between the first element and the second.  That is a negativizing <a> that is a modern prefix to <pter>.  In this case, insects in the Order Siphonaptera are without wings!  They have no wings!  But what their name reveals to us is that they have mouthparts that are tube-like for sucking.  You guessed it.  The insects we find in this Order are fleas!  They stay alive by feeding on the blood of their host.

In this picture of a flea, you will notice there are no wings.  The tubes for sucking are hanging down near the mouth on the far left.

File:Ctenocephalides felis ZSM.jpg


There are, of course, many other Orders of insects.  We could keep making sense of their names for quite a long time!  What is an especially interesting find in the few we HAVE looked at is that Hellenic element <pter>. I wonder if you recognize it from words outside of this particular context.  The most common word I can think of is helicopter.  The word sum is <helic  + o + pter  –> helicopter>.  The Hellenic base <helic> “spiral” and the Hellenic base <pter> “winged” are joined with the Hellenic connecting vowel <o>.  Can you picture the blades of a helicopter and the way they move?

Another familiar word you may recognize is pterodactyl.  You will notice that when this element is initial in a word, the <p> is unpronounced.  The word sum is <pter + o + dactyl –> pterodactyl>.  The Helenic base <pter> “winged” and the Hellenic base <dactyl> “finger” are joined with the connecting vowl <o>.  Here is a picture of the pterodactyl.  You can see the fingers.

Credit: Joe Tucciarone

Entomology.  The word itself has an interesting story.  Using Etymonline, I found out it is from French entomologie, which was coined in 1764 from -logie “study of” and Greek entonom “insects.”  Entonom is the neuter of entonomos “cut in pieces, cut up.”  In this case, “cut” refers to the way an insect’s body is in segments and each segment is cut in or notched between the segments.  The word sum is <en + tom + o + loge/ + y –> entomology>.  The <en> prefix “in” is joined to the first base <tome/> “cut” which is joined to the second base <loge> “study, discourse” by the Hellenic connecting vowel <o> (which replaces the final non-syllabic <e>on the base).  Finally the suffix <y> replaces the final non-syllabic <e> on the base <loge>.

Here is a drawing that clearly shows the segmenting of an insect’s body.

File:ABDOMEN (PSF).png

People who study science expect the words they use to represent meaning.  It is one of the things I love about teaching science.  The words we use in class as we are learning any science topic are ripe with meaning.  They seem so unpronounceable and weird to the students because they have not been taught to look to parts of a word (morphemes) as parts of a meaningful structure.  Syllable division steers students away from believing that spelling makes any sense at all.  It misguides and makes them think a word’s spelling is not understandable, but it IS pronounceable.  But that is the opposite of what is true.  As you have seen with these seemingly difficult and nonsensical insect Order names,  the spelling of a word – EVERY WORD – reveals to us a structure.  Looking to understand the structure, we find the word’s story and begin to understand how and why the spelling of that word makes perfect sense.  Once we understand the structure and the word’s etymology, we can understand the possibilities for pronunciation.  As we noticed with the base <pter>, the pronunciation of this base is dependent on its placement in the word.  That is just one example of what I meant when I said “possibilities for pronunciation.”

The amazing thing is that it isn’t just science words that are spelled to represent meaning.  It is so hard for many to let go of the idea that spelling represents pronunciation.  When thinking about how to spell a word, the strategy to “Sound it out” is so deeply ingrained.  It is the only strategy many adults and children have been taught.  That makes it feel right.  But it is not.  Your logical and reasoning brain will tell you that.  So will all of these fascinating scientific names.  If it is now obvious to you that the name for the insect Order Megaloptera makes sense, it’s time to look at other words that catch your eye.  Look at math words and history words and guidance words and, well, all words.  There are revelations waiting for you in every word you read!

Review, revisit; every time seeing something you didn’t see before

When thinking of a timeline between the introduction of words and their structure, and the final assessment of them, I’m in no hurry.  Here’s how a recent review of a list of science words we have been talking about for a while went.  A few months ago students were sent off in pairs to investigate ten words.  After hypothesizing the structure of the word, their task was to figure out what the base was.  As the groups began to dig in at Etymonline, I circulated to help them understand what to look for, and how to know if they found its earliest ancestor from which our modern day base is derived.

Each group of two made a large poster which was shared with the whole class before being posted in the hallway.  We took our time in sharing those posters.  We never presented more than two in one day.  The students would hang their poster on the white board at the front of the room.  All other students were asked to bring their chairs up front.  I wanted them close, and I wanted them to participate in the sharing of each poster.  I tell the “audience” that if we are to have learning that is worth anything, they need to participate.  They need to listen carefully and to ask questions when something doesn’t make sense.  They need to be thinking about other words that are not listed on the poster but just might be related.

In my experience, the research each student does and the information collected does not necessarily lead to long term understanding.  The presenting of the information also does not necessarily lead to long term understanding.  Instead it is the interaction with the rest of the class.  It is the off the cuff discussions.  It is the unplanned questioning.  It is the words suggested as belonging to the base’s family and the reasons given.  This kind of participation happening over and over leads to students who make contributions to the class that really do help all of us understand in a wider way.  It doesn’t take long before the students realize that comments like, “I like how neatly you wrote on your poster” pale in comparison to “How did you know that the <o> was a connecting vowel in the word biosphere?”  Yes.  Their beginning of the year observations and comments are really that shallow and surfacey.   It is quite different by the end of the year.   Something is happening.  They are noticing things that matter, and they are not remaining quiet about it.

Here are a few of the posters I am speaking about.

It has been two months since we last shared a poster.  But we have continued to point out some of these bases to one another as they have popped up in familiar and unfamiliar words.

Last week I decided it was time to assess how well these bases have taken root in their minds.  I had the students take a plain sheet of paper and divide it into ten areas.  I read aloud each word.  I told them that if they wanted to consistently spell sphere correctly  (if they sometimes forgot the ‘p’ or ‘h’ or put them in the wrong order) I had a tip.  I told them to think of the first phoneme of the word, /s/.  They all knew it would be represented by the grapheme <s> and should write it down.  Then I told them to think of the second phoneme of the word, /f/.  They all knew that in this word (Hellenic) the grapheme that represented the /f/ was a <ph>.  That’s as far as we had to go.  They knew the rest.  It is much more reliable to think of the phoneme / graphemes in this word than to try to remember a string of letters without being taught a reason for them to be in any particular order.

The students chose a square on their paper to write the synthetic word sum for the announced word, the denotation of the base, and then to make a quick drawing of something that they thought of when they thought of the first base.  These are called “Quick Draws”.  Here are a few of the sheets:

We stopped once we were half way done and took a moment to brainstorm other words that shared each base.  With each suggested word, we talked about how that word’s meaning related back to the denotation of the base.  So, for example, when speaking of the base <hydr>, students suggested hydrant, as in fire hydrant and explained that water is accessible for firemen at fire hydrants.  Students suggested hydrate and dehydrated and explained that the first was taking in water while the second is describing when someone’s body is low on water and needs more.  You get the idea.

I told the students to be reviewing these bases and that there would be an assessment in 1 1/2 weeks time.

The next day, when they came in, I asked them to get out a piece of lined paper.  I told them to write <therm> on the top line with its denotation of “heat” beneath it.  This is an activity they have come to be comfortable with.  They know that when I read a word, they will write a synthetic word sum.  I read aloud seven words that share the base <therm>.  Before I began, I reminded them that <therm> is the base.  It is not further analyzable, so that means it will show up in a word sum as it is.  Affixes may be added to it, other bases may be joined to it, but this base will always be listed as <therm>.

I did not collect the student papers that day, so I cannot show you their work.  I did, however, take pictures of the board after the students had volunteered to write the word sums there and read aloud the word sums.

Notice in the picture above that I had both thermograph and thermography on my list.  I read thermograph first.  Several words later I read thermography.  I was curious to see whether or not the students would recognize the base <graph> and its spelling in both, even though that base is pronounced differently in each of the words because of the stress shift.  That did not appear to be a problem!  After checking out the word sums, we reviewed what a thermograph is.  In case you aren’t familiar with one, it is a self recording thermometer.  It keeps a continuous recording of what might be a fluctuating temperature.  Now if you know that the second base in the compound word thermograph has a denotation of “write”, then thinking about a thermograph as a machine that writes down (or records) the amount of heat (or temperature) makes perfect sense!

As you can see, the students are starting to rely on meaning to help them with their spelling and less on pronunciation.  This doesn’t meant they aren’t pronouncing the word as they spell.  It means that as they are pronouncing the word to themselves, they are focusing on the morphemes that make up each word rather than on the letter-letter-letter sequence.  When I say thermometer, my hope is that they recognize the first base is <therm> and the second base is <meter> and they are connected with the Greek connecting vowel <o>.

In the above picture, you see the words thermal and geothermal.  Believe it or not, the students smiled when I said geothermal!  They knew both bases from our list and knew how to represent this word in spelling!  Then, of course we talked about thermal underwear (after all, what fifth grader doesn’t love it when someone in the room mentions underwear?) and thermal pane windows.   Geothermal energy is an interesting thing, so we talked about that as well.  Since we’ve just finished our study of the geosphere, we’ve recently been talking about the tectonic plates.  It was interesting to note that many of the geothermal energy plants are found along the tectonic plate boundaries!

First day back from the weekend!  When they walked in, I asked them to get a sheet of paper.  Different base, new list of words, new observations.  Today’s base was <ge> “the earth, the land”.  Today I read the words and the students wrote synthetic word sums like they did the other day.  But today I collected the papers before they wrote those word sums on the board.  I wanted to see how the individual understanding was growing.  I wanted to see which bases /suffixes needed more exposure so they would become recognizable to my students.  I wanted to see how many are starting to make the switch from spelling phonetically to spelling morphemically.  Here’s an example of what I mean by that:

This student is straddling two worlds.  He understands that words have structure, but because he also relies on “sounding out words” in order to spell, this student does not recognize that three of the words have the base <loge>.   In the first word, he spells the <loge> base as *<leg>.  The good news is that he recognized the <ist> suffix!  In the fourth word, he correctly spelled the base <loge>.  In the fifth word, he did not recognize <loge> as a base at all.  The fact that the <loge> base in all three words has a slightly different pronunciation probably accounts for the difference in spelling here.  I think what he did was to guess that there was an <al> suffix and an <*igy> suffix.  We have been talking about the <al> suffix recently and how common it is. With more exercises like these, he will rely more on recognizing consistently spelled bases and affixes!

The rest of this list is pretty great!  Very few knew that the <o> in geode was not a connecting vowel.  I chose that word on purpose.  I don’t want to create a false sense of <ge> always being followed by a connecting vowel.  If you think about it, this student is busy trying to make sense of the orthography we are studying.  He knows that a connecting vowel can connect a base to a suffix.  Even though he incorrectly guessed that the <o> was a connecting vowel, he did write that the final /d/ as <ed>.

Here’s another I’d like to share:

Look at what is understood and what is iffy.  In the first word, this student went back to a deeply embedded strategy – that of breaking a word into syllables to aide in spelling.  Except that it didn’t aide him here (and I suspect doesn’t usually).  What is interesting about word two and four is  that the student knows that when /k/ is final and there is an /ɪ/ preceding the /k/, as in stick, the grapheme representing the phoneme /k/ is <ck>.   What he doesn’t realize, is that it is true for a base but not a suffix.  So now I know I want to weave in words with the <loge> base as well as words with the <ic> suffix on my next few lists.

Many other students are feeling confident about recognizing bases and affixes:

The next step was to ask volunteers to write the word sums on the board.  Somebody writes it on the board, we talk about it and notice things in common between words on the list.  We talk about what each word means, and then another volunteer comes up to read the word sum aloud.  As we were discussing the inital large posters that had these bases, we had also discussed the meanings of these words.  But I always like to find a word we haven’t talked about yet to see if the students can use what they know about the bases, to give clues about the word’s meaning.  The word on this list was hydrogeology.  The base <hydr> was one of the bases on the large posters, so I thought this word might feel easy to spell (if they spelled it morpheme by morpheme).  They did!  And much to my delight, several wondered what it would mean.  It was obvious that it had something to do with both water and the earth, but they weren’t sure what.  When we searched, we found out that it refers to the branch of geology involving groundwater!  Makes so much sense!

Looking at the above picture, do you see what I see?  Just a few days ago, the students were writing the words thermograph and thermography.  Today I asked them to write geographic.  I’m trying to reinforce what is fresh in their minds.

Isn’t it great that a few of the students are starting to incorporate the Script we are practicing?  I love it!  Anyway, I paused with this word geographic and asked if anyone had an idea of what would be needed in order to make geographic become geographically.  I wasn’t sure if anyone would recognize that we would be adding two suffixes: <al> and <ly>.  As it turned out, no one did.  The suggestions were for an <ly> suffix only.  What a great opportunity to talk about how common it is to add the two suffixes to an <ic> suffix.  Offhand I could think of basically, logically, musically, typically, magically, historically, and tragically.  Then when we went to Word Searcher and put ‘ically’ into the search bar, there were 240 more!  I then wrote the only word I knew of that had only an <ly> suffix added to an <ic> suffix.  That word was publicly.  We went back to Word searcher and typed in ‘icly’.  Publicly was the only word that came up!  From Word Searcher, I went to Etymonline.  I found out the same thing:  publicly is the only example of a word having <ic> and <ly>, but not <al> between them.  How interesting!

Geotropism is a word we have talked about before.  The base <trope> “turning” is another one of the bases that was the focus of a big poster.  Geotropism happens with roots.  They always grow downward toward the earth.  If the plant or stem gets turned for some reason, the roots turn to continue growing towards the earth.

So here’s the assessment.  I read each of the ten words.  The students wrote the word sum on their paper.  Beneath each base they wrote the denotation for that base.  If they could think of one or two words that also share the first base, they were to list them.  That’s it.


So my classes did very well!  They can spell these ten science words! But really?  That was only part of what I was hoping to see on these papers.  I wanted to see coherent word sums.  I wanted to see denotations in quotation marks to signal to all that they are just that – denotations.  I wanted to see which of my students have been making connections between these bases and other words we’ve looked at.  Are they “getting” that a base with its denotation can be part of a large family of words?  After having seen how these eleven base elements can be found in so many other words, are they beginning to expect that of other bases we encounter as well?   Are they realizing that seemingly big words are made understandable by first understanding their structure?


Making Sure Our Misspellings Are Not Missed Opportunities!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for xylem

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

Image result for xylem

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



Related image


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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the post:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Antoine-Laurent deLavoisier

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

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

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

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

Orthography Builds Understanding … Say Good Bye to Memorizing Definitions!

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

First there’s collaborating…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


And now this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result          Image result for perspiration


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

Image result for spiracle  Image result for spiracle

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

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

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

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

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Multiple Monomers Merge to Make a Unique Polymer

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

“Perfect!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Building Cars Powered by Hot Air

Sir Isaac Newton.  That’s where this project began. Sir Isaac Newton and his three Laws of Motion.

Law Number One:  An object at rest tends to stay at rest.  An object in motion tends to stay in motion.  These conditions cannot change without being acted on by a force.

Law Number Two:  Force equals mass times acceleration.  The more force, the more acceleration.

Law Number Three:  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

We talked about these laws and were helped with our understanding of them by watching this Youtube video:

The students, in groups of two, were about to build cars.  The body and wheels were cut from a styrofoam meat tray.  The axle, to which the wheels were held steady with clay, was a wooden stir stick.  The axle was positioned in a straw which was taped to the bottom of the car body.  The car was powered by a balloon.  All of the materials came as part of a kit that I purchased from Carolina Biological .  What I liked about having this as a kit is that everyone had the exact same materials and the exact same set of directions.  Each pair of students had to read and follow around 30 directions in order to complete their car.

The engagement and cooperation within the groups was impressive.  I had them read through the directions with their partner before coming to get the materials.  I wanted them to have an idea of where this was going, and what the materials were for.  Once they had the materials, they read aloud the directions carefully and began assembling their car.

On the second day of class, students were fine tuning.  Once the car was ready for testing, the students went into the hall outside our room to make sure the wheels were steady and the car moved straight.  There were quite a few cars that veered to one side or another.  In that case the students took the car back in to make adjustments to the wheels.  When the cars were “competition ready”, we went down to the cafeteria to race them.  Here is video of that for each of my three classes.

Two of the cars from the third class went extraordinary distances.  The winner went 331 inches (27 1/2 feet)!  The second highest distance was 318 inches (26 1/2 feet).  No other car all day went even half that distance!  At this point there was so much to talk about!

Why did some of the cars not move at all?
Why did the wheels keep falling off?
How were the winning cars different from the others?

The first thing we did back in the classroom was interview the builders of the two winning cars.  The four students involved gave a lot of credit to the wheels of their cars.  They spent time making sure they were uniformly round.  They sanded them to help the car roll smoothly.  And they measured to make sure the axle was as close to the center of the wheel as possible.  Then they used the clay to make them snug on the axle.  No wobbling!

Next we were ready to review Newton’s Laws of Motion.

We considered the second law: Force equals Mass times Acceleration.  The balloon was the force that powered the car.  Could we alter that? Would it help?  Would more balloons result in more force?  Will several balloons of different sizes lose all their air at the same rate?   What would happen if the mass was increased?  How would that impact the speed or distance?  What if it was decreased?  What could we make the body and wheels from besides styrofoam?

We considered the first law:  An object in motion tends to stay in motion and an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by a force.  What force caused the cars to slow down and stop?  Was it just the lack of air in the balloon?  What about friction?  What would happen if we altered the wheels?  What else could we make them out of?  What if we varied their width?  How important is it to cut them so they are perfectly round?  How important is it to measure to find the exact center of the wheel when attaching it to the axle?

We considered the third law:  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The air from the balloon is being released in one direction, but the car is moving in the opposite direction.  Does the position of the balloon matter?  Does the angle of the balloon and straw matter?  Does the order of the different sized balloons matter?

Equipped with the experience of having already built one car along with the understanding gained from discussing the Laws of Motion, the same groups were asked to build another car.  This time they could use whatever they wanted.  The only thing I discouraged was bringing manufactured wheels off of a toy car.  I put out cardboard, more balloons of different sizes, cardboard tubes and the remaining supplies that came with the initial kit.  The students got started, knowing that they would have the opportunity to bring additional supplies from home.

On day four of this activity, the students had some time to get their cars “competition ready”.  We had a car show (it seemed necessary now that no two cars looked alike).  It was so interesting to see the variations.  During work time, those who sought to use five balloons realized that it was difficult to keep the air in three while trying to blow up the others.  In the end, three balloons was the most that anyone used.  Here are the cars and then races from the three classes:

Even when the cars didn’t leave the starting line, the students laughed and enjoyed this challenge!  In the end, the group whose first car went the furthest, built a second car that also went the furthest!  Their second car was quite different from their first car in that the wheels in the second car were Kerr jar lids!  They struggled during work time in keeping them from wobbling, but by the time the race was run, they had figured that out!

Another group used plastic bottle caps with holes drilled for the axle.  The wheels worked beautifully, but this group struggled with attaching their balloon.  Two other interesting sets of wheels were made out of cardboard tubes.  One group used rubber bands around the tubes to grip the floor!  These two groups struggled with attaching the wheels securely to an axle.

At the beginning of class the next day, I asked the students to share what they had learned while doing this project:

  1.  The cardboard wheels went faster than the styrofoam wheels.
  2.  The wheels on each axle needed to be the same size.
  3.  The wheels needed to be sanded smooth.
  4.  It really helped having a partner to talk with and to help hold parts while taping.
  5.  Having more balloons didn’t always work.  It was difficult to inflate and release several balloons all at once.  Sometimes the first balloon was leaking air as the second was being filled.
  6.  It gets too crowded to have too many balloons.
  7.  The car body needs to be big enough to keep the balloons off the floor.
  8.  Large balloons worked better than small ones.
  9.  Masking tape worked well to tape the wheels to the axle.

When you watch the races of both car 1 and car 2, it is pretty obvious that overall there was more success with car 1.  But in the end that didn’t matter.  It wasn’t the end product that was the most important thing here.  It was the mission and the process.  It was the student input, the focus and the cooperation.  Everyone had moments of frustration, but they worked through those moments.  Students cheered each other on and made this a memorable fun activity.  When asked if I should repeat this activity next year, ALL students said, “YES!”

Photosynthesis … More Amazing Than We Knew!

Our performances are over.  Two weeks of running lines and rehearsing ended with two days of wowing our crowds with our knowledge and our sparkle.  Today Sam called to me from his locker where he was tying his shoe.  “Hey, Mrs. Steven!  I have a new appreciation for a leaf now.  I never realized that the leaf is where the sugar and oxygen is made!  Now I like leaves more than ever!”

And well he should!  One of the amazing facts students read towards the end of our performance is, “One million acres of corn can produce enough oxygen in eleven days to supply ten million people with enough oxygen to breathe for a whole year!”

One of the big things learned here was the fact that we have a pretty amazing relationship with plants.  Think of it.  We’re sitting around exhaling carbon dioxide.  The plants are sitting around “exhaling” oxygen.  We are happy to use their byproduct, and they are happy to use ours!  One might call our relationship symbiotic!  We are two living organisms receiving mutual benefits.


Since we finished our play, I wanted to know what each individual student understood about the photosynthesis process.  First I gave a short answer test.  By short answer I mean full sentences – as many as needed to answer each question.  Out of 58 students, only 10 missed more than 3 questions!  I call that success!  But I am never satisfied with only one assessment type.

Next I asked the students to write out the process as if they were explaining it to someone who had never heard of it before.  The subject matter didn’t require any further research.  The play provided all of the information needed.  All the students had to do was to retell the information in a logical way and develop paragraphs that would enhance the reader’s overall understanding of photosynthesis.

Students began by freewriting.   That means that they retold the story without stopping to check on spellings.  When they felt they had written what they understood about photosynthesis, I asked them to check their paragraphing.  If they had only one paragraph, they were to mark where they might split that one into several.  I suggested they look at their use of the word ‘then’ to begin sentences.  Often it is used as a transition word.  (Often it is overused as a transition word!)


“Chloroplasts are very, very small beings (so small that you need to look at a thin slice of leaf under a high-powered microscope to see them) that live inside cells in a plant.  They make food for the plant and oxygen, which we need, using photosynthesis.”      ~Brynn G.

“This process happens in the chloroplast.  The chloroplast is super duper tiny and it lives in the cell.  First the chloroplast traps some fresh light energy direct from the sun.”      ~Cade

“Water gets pulled out of the roots by a tube called the xylem.  Water normally doesn’t flow up, but in a plant and even in a tree, water is sucked out of the roots.  This process is called transpiration.  The water will mix with the carbon dioxide to make sugar.”      ~Jada

“The next step is the carbon dioxide which comes in the underside of the leaf.  There are little openings on the underside of the leaf called stomata.  A huge amount of air molecules every second (like millions of air molecules) come into the cell.”         ~Carter L.

“The light energy gives energy to the carbon dioxide molecules and the water molecules.  Together they make one molecule of sugar (or food) and six molecules of oxygen. ”        ~Perry

“When the sugar is made, oxygen is made also.  But the plant always makes more than is needed, so all the extra oxygen will have to leave the plant.  The extra oxygen will leave through the stomata.”      ~Mara

“The sugar that is made is used to help the plant grow.  The sugar is sent to different parts of the plant that need it.  Some is sent to the stem, some is sent to the fruit part of the plant, and some is sent down to the roots so they can get bigger.”       ~Alexis

“There is another tube called the phloem.  The two tubes are like elevators.  The xylem takes water up the plant and the phloem takes sugar down to the roots of the plant.”        ~Hailey J.

“Photosynthesis helps everything on planet earth that breathes oxygen.  Without photosynthesis, everything would die out because nothing else can produce oxygen.”            ~Elijah


Having my students write a narrative of the photosynthesis process has been great for two reasons.  First off I can tell how much they really understand about what happens when a plant makes food.  Overall, I was very impressed with the detail they remembered from the script.   Secondly, I can look at their writing skills.  Many of my students do not yet fully understand how to convert a thought into a written sentence.  They either connect sentence after sentence after sentence with conjunctions (will this ever end?), or they isolate a prepositional phrase, capitalizing its first word and putting  ending punctuation after its last word.

This writing was a great opportunity to address the idea of transition words.  As I was able to conference with each student about revising and editing, writing a sentence became a bit clearer of a task as well.  We just need to keep on writing!



A Component of Science – Engineering

The first engineering project this year was building locker shelves.  The students had to identify how many shelves they would need and how those shelves would be used.  Then they were ready to begin researching existing shelving units and collecting building materials.  The project challenge was to use as many recycled materials as possible, and to build shelves that would still be functioning as such in eight months time.  The students made drawings in their notebooks that included measurements.  Then they started building.

Here are some interesting things the students learned:

~Once cardboard is bent, it isn’t stiff like it was before.
~The thicker the cardboard, the stronger the shelf.
~Many layers of thin cardboard work as well as one layer of thick cardboard.
~A piece of cardboard cut to the exact measurements of the locker can be wedged in place and not need supports of any kind.
~Circular supports such as cardboard tubes from paper towels or soda cans make great support columns.
~Shelves can be supported with string/rope/yarn stretched across the width of the locker.
~String is stronger than yarn, and rope is stronger than string.
~One support in the middle makes the shelf a bit wobbly when weight is put on it.

They were given four days to build/rebuild.  Once the due date was past, there were two more days built-in for groups wanting to add finishing touches at their recess time.  Then it was time to take a look and reflect on how well everyone did with this project.  I gave every student a post-it note.  They were to look at all of the locker shelving and write a compliment to the locker they felt was the most functional, fun, and likely to still be standing come May.  Then they were to stick it to the inside of the locker they liked.  It was a nice surprise for students to later open their locker only to see nice comments waiting for them.

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After a month and a half, we noticed that many students had developed a strange habit as they  headed out to recess each day.  Instead of setting their planners and folders in their locker, they were dropping them on the floor in front of their locker!  It prompted me to take a peek at the conditions of the shelving.

Most of the shelves had fallen or partially fallen, making them unfit to hold much of anything.  A few looked like a storage space for cardboard!  As engineers, this gave us the perfect opportunity to rethink these shelves!


In the first picture, only the middle shelf was functional.  The shelf above it was covered in duct tape, but unable to hold anything.  The shelves below were also to weak to be used.


In the second picture, two wooden shelves were held up by rulers.  That worked until something was set on the shelf.  The more that was set on the shelf, the more the shelf slid downwards.


In the third picture, someone had built shelving using PVC pipes.  I think the intention was that the structure would be set in the locker turned 90 degrees from its current position.  Unfortunately it doesn’t fit in that way and as a result very little fits on the shelves (except for the top shelf).

As engineers, this gave us the perfect opportunity to rethink these shelves!We began with a discussion about the purpose of building shelves in the first place.  The personal locker was needed to house outside clothing and backpacks, and the shared locker was to be used to house school supplies.  In this way the school supplies would stay dry during rainy or snowy weather because it would be separated from the wet outer clothing.

I created a rubric and shared it with the students so that they would be able to keep in mind the goals of this project.


The students had a second chance to make it work.  What would they do differently?


This first locker shows shelves that were once supported by rulers that didn’t hold much weight.  Now the shelves are held in place by a network of string, and they are very sturdy!  The rest of these show some designs that have been improved and are now quite functional!  It is interesting that there are as many shelves built up from the bottom as there are suspended from above!  I think some great improvements were made!

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I loved the innovation in the last locker shown.  See the extra shelf suspended on the inside of the door?  This was a fascinating process to observe!



‘Multi-‘ or ‘Poly-‘?

Friday was one of those days when we were all needing to get our hands on some science!  I purchased some supplies from Steve Spangler Science and the students had an introduction to polymers.  Of course the first thing I did was to write the word <polymer> on the board.  No one had ever heard that word before, but right away they wondered if it was related to <polygon>, <polyester>, and <polyhedron> because those were words that they HAD heard before.  I wrote those to the side.  It was obvious that the small collection of words all had <poly> in common, but no one was sure what it meant.


Next I wrote the words <multisyllable> and <polysyllable> on the board.  I said that these two words meant the same thing.  Since we had recently talked about multicellular and unicellular in science, the students knew that <multi-> had a denotation of “many or much”.  They were able to tell me that a word that was multisyllabic was a word with more than one syllable, and that a polysyllabic word would also be a word with more than one syllable.  Then I shared that I am currently taking a LEXinar with Gina Cooke and that during the last session she spoke about these two words.  Even though multisyllable is used quite commonly, Gina said that she preferred to use polysyllable.  And here’s why.

I pointed out the medial <y> in <syllable> and wondered if anyone remembered the probable origin of words with a medial <y>.  No one did.  Then I said, “Remember when we looked at <gymnasium>?”  Almost immediately, there was laughter and several said, “Greek!”  (The laughter had to do with the Etymonline entry of <gymnasium>.  I won’t spoil it for you.  Go find out for yourself!)  Next I pointed out that <poly-> was also of Greek origin.  When we can put two morphemes together that are each from Greek, the whole word has Greek ancestry.  If we use <multi-> with <syllable>, we are using a Latin stem with a Greek stem.  That is called a hybrid.  It still works as a word, and people understand what that is, but it’s like this — once you know the origins of morphemes, you are more likely to want to see them paired with morphemes of the same origin.  That is why Gina prefers <polysyllable> over <multisyllable>.  The students understood and accepted that logic.

Then I wrote the words <multicellular> and <unicellular> on the board.  I underlined <multi-> and <uni-> in each word.  I posed this question:  If the stems <multi-> and <uni-> are from Latin, what language do you suppose <cell> is from?  They guessed Latin.

I asked, “What would happen if we paired <poly-> with <cellular>?
Luke said, “We’d have a hybrid word.”
“Would we all understand what it meant?”

I wrote <monocle> on the board and underlined <mon->.  At least a few students in each class knew that a monocle was a single lens used to see.  I pointed out that <mon-> was the opposite of <poly-> and was also from Greek.

I asked, “What would happen if we paired the stem <mono-> with the stem <cellular>?
Brynn said, “We’d have a hybrid.”
“Would we all understand what it meant?
“Now that we know that the stems <multi-> and <uni-> are from Latin, and the stems <poly-> and <mono-> are from Greek, perhaps we will be more interested in pairing them up with a stem of the same origin.

Then, without prompting, Carter raised his hand and said, “I’m thinking about <universe>.  Is the <verse> part from Latin then?”
“What we now know about the stem <uni-> certainly makes it seem likely.  Is there a way to find out for sure?”
“Carter replied, “Etymonline!  Can I go look now?”

It was time to go back to where we started.  The students could now tell me that a polygon could have many angles (from Greek gonos).  Surprisingly, one student even knew that a polyhedron was a solid shape with many faces (from Greek hedra)!  I explained that polyester is a synthetic textile made from many polymers.  So what was a <polymer>?

They knew that <poly-> had a denotation of “many” and I added that <mer> From Greek meros had a denotation of “parts”.  We were going to look at a thing with many parts.  In this case the parts are called molecules and they link together under certain conditions as a long chain.  The powder we had mixed in the warm water would create such a condition.  When I squirted the blue liquid into the bowl at each table, the molecules in the liquid would instantly form long chains known as polymers.

After the students had a chance to play with their worms and discover that the outside felt more like a balloon skin and the inside was liquid and watery, there was yet another interesting word to talk about.

The worms were a dark blue until I came around and put hot water in the bowls.  When the students dipped the worms into the hot water, they faded to an almost white color.  I directed their attention to the board once more and told them that the worm goo was made with a thermochromic dye.  It felt so good for the students to come across an unfamiliar word, and yet to be able to say without hesitation that its meaning had something to do with heat!  One of the boys enthusiastically remarked, “The hot water triggered a color change!”

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On Monday I intend to revisit the word <thermochromic>.  I’d like to talk more about the stem <chromic> and then do a simple activity with chromatography.  We’ll use markers to draw on coffee filters, and then dip one end in water and watch the marker separate into a range of colors.  The most surprising for me is always the range of colors in black marker (not Sharpie).  We’ve been encountering the base <graph> quite a bit, and this will be just one more opportunity to see it in another word.  I will start by asking for word sum hypotheses for <thermochromic>, <chromatography>, and no doubt <monochromatic>.  I know they will enjoy this!