What Does It Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry Pi

In honor of Pi Day (March 14th) I like to do a number of things.  I know that Pi is associated with math, but that sequence of numbers can be used to create some cool art, music and even poetry!  I know, I know.  It is no longer March.  But now is when I have the time to post about some great things we did this year.  Perhaps writing Pi poems will be something you’d like to try!

In case you are curious, a Pi Poem can be written on any topic.  What makes it a Pi Poem is the number of words in each line.  Because the sequence of Pi is 3.141592653589 … , The poem must have 3 words in the first line, 1 in the second, 4 in the third, 1 in the fourth, 5 in the fifth … get it?   I tell the students to stop when your poem feels done.  When what you wanted to say is said.

So many of the poems written this year were  just plain lovely!  Here are a few of them:

Flying Pi was written by Kaila and Fish Pi was written by Petra.

I don’t often post my own writing, but thought it was important for you to know that when my students write, I write.

 

False lizards? Pseudosaurs!

There is nothing fifth graders love as much as making stuff up!  When I saw Skot Caldwell’s post back in February called “Dinosaur Discoveries“, I knew it was an activity my students would love!  Imagine creating your own dinosaur and giving it a name that had clues to its characteristics — much like the actual dinosaurs! When we look at some familiar dinosaur names, we see:

stegosaurus

The stegosaurus lived about 150 million years ago.  It was a herbivore with small teeth, which no doubt made it necessary to eat constantly.  As you can see in the picture, the stegosaurus had bony plates along its spine.  If we look at its name, we see that it has two bases:  <stege> from Greek stegos “a roof” and <saur> from Greek sauros “lizard”.  When the first stegosaurus fossils were found in Colorado, they were named by Othniel C. Marsh (1877).  It was thought at first that the bony plates functioned as a type of covering or roof for the dinosaur.  Many scientists since have wondered about the function of those plates.  Have you noticed that there is a connecting vowel <o> in this name?  It is the vowel that is typically used to connect bases that are Greek in origin.  Have you also noticed that the suffix on the Greek word for “roof” is <os> and there is a <us> suffix on this word instead?  Saurus is the Latinized form of the Greek sauros.

velociraptor

The velociraptor lived about 75 million years ago.  It was a carnivore with sharp teeth, especially towards the back.  This dinosaur was unique because it was a biped.  It could move much faster than larger quadruped dinosaurs.  If we look at its name, we see that it has two bases:  <veloc> from Latin velocis “speedy, swift” and Latin raptor “robber”.  Have you noticed that there is a connecting vowel <i> in this name?  It is one of the vowels (<e>, <i>, <u>) that is typically used to connect bases that are Latin in origin.  The velociraptor was named in 1924 by Henry Fairfield Osborn.  He felt that the name reflected such a swiftly moving carnivore.

brachiosaurus

The brachiosaurus lived about 100 to 150 million years ago.  It was an herbivore that fed on foliage that was higher up than what other dinosaurs could reach.  This dinosaur was huge!  It was about 85 feet long and weighed between 30 and 45 metric tons!  If we look at its name, we see that it is also a compound word with two bases:  <brachi> from Greek brakhion “an arm” and <saur> from Greek sauros “lizard”.  Since both bases are of Greek origin, we are not surprised to see them connected with an <o> connecting vowel.  As in stegosaurus, we see the Latinized <us> suffix.  The brachiosaurus was named by Elmer Riggs in 1903 when he found fossils in western Colorado.  He named it to point out that the front legs are considerably longer than the back legs.

As we can see, dinosaurs were named to reflect their characteristics.  I shared Skot Caldwell’s post with my students.  They loved the drawings and information each “paleontologist” in Skot’s class included on their posters.  They were hungry to create their own.  Once they had named their pseudosaur (false lizards), I asked them to write about them.  I wanted to know their size and weight.  I wanted to know how they moved and ate. I wanted to know if they lived with others of their kind or if they were loners.  I wanted to know how their characteristics (indicated in their names) were used in their daily lives.  This was a writing that took little nudging.  This was fun writing!

Don’t Just Tell Me, Offer Evidence So I Can See for Myself.

We had talked earlier in the year about the bound base <fer>, so I thought it was time for a review.  I listed the following words on the left side of the board:

difference
conference
referee
refer
preferring
infer
different
offered
reference
inference
confer
suffering

We began by reading the words.  Next we discussed each one, often using it in a sentence as well as defining it.  I pointed out the suffixes used and how they indicated a specific part of speech.  After that I asked someone to underline the base in each word.  Now we were ready to build a matrix.  This particular matrix became interesting when we came to the word <preferring> and were looking to represent it on the matrix.  One of the students explained that the <r> was doubled because we were adding a vowel suffix.  So then I pointed to <offered> and <suffering> and asked why the <r> wasn’t doubled in those words.  The vowel suffix <ing> was the same suffix used in <preferring>.

At this point we needed to talk about stress.  I had the students say the words out loud, switching the stress from the first syllable to the second.  Then we began to notice how that affected the doubling convention.

I led students through this activity three times today.  The video below was taped with the third group, although all three classes were engaged and participated with enthusiasm!  My favorite part of the video is where the students have one of those “light bulb” moments and it is clear that they understand when to double the final <r> in the base before adding a vowel suffix and when not to.  To quote one of the students, “That is so cool!”

 

“Learn to see what you are looking at.” –Christopher Paolini

The first time I heard the term phonestheme mentioned, I was taking an online class.  The presenter was talking about words that have in common a specific set of letters representing a specific pronunciation. The surprising thing is that the words also share a broad meaning.  Let me give you an example:  The letter string <gr> is initial in the following words:  groan, growl, gruff, grump, grunt, grouch, grate and grief.  Pretty obvious, right?  Now when you stop and think about the meaning of each of those words, there is a common theme here.  It is one of low unpleasant sounds.   Cool, huh?

Here’s another:  The letter string <ump> is final in the following words:  bump, dump, stump, lump, slump, hump, and rump.  When you stop and think of the meaning of each word, there is a shared sense of heavy and compactness, isn’t there? Once you begin an investigation of your own, you will be surprised at how many of these phonesthemes there are.  If you are like me, you will ask yourself, “How could something be right there in front of me all my life, yet I didn’t see it?”

With phonesthemes, it takes a bit of slowing down and thinking about each word to really appreciate what has happened here.  These words share a sound and a broad meaning without sharing a heritage.  They do not all originate from the same language, and they do not all share a root.  It makes a phonestheme all the more fascinating.  When I ask my students to investigate phonesthemes,  they willingly agree.  It seems like such a simple assignment.  If the phonestheme is initial, I recommend they grab a dictionary so they can check to make sure there is a shared sense of meaning.  A surprising number of words have phonesthemes, but just because a word has a letter combination (<gr> for instance),  it doesn’t necessarily mean the word shares this phonestheme for sure.  Here are some of the posters my students created.

***** The next time I talk about phonesthemes with my students, I will have them represent the phonestheme in IPA.  That way they will know that the phonestheme is phonetic, regardless of its spelling.

So now what?  My students have each had the opportunity to collect words that fit as a particular phonestheme.   Last year I asked my students to write poems using a particular phonestheme.  Some of the poems were fantastic.  Some felt forced.  I wanted to have them write, but we needed to talk about poetry in general first and the role sounds of pronounced words play.

I pulled out my new book by Michael Clay Thompson, A World of Poetry.  I read to them, “Poetry is not just expression in words.  It is also expression in sounds.  Poets compose sounds; they choose words that contain the sounds they need, and then they arrange the words into a composition that is an artistic combination of words and sounds.”

I read more from his book.   We talked about the vowels and the consonants, and how some consonants are breathy (like /s/, /f/, or /h/).  We said aloud other consonants like /v/,  /j/, and /z/ and found them to be hummy and buzzy.  We talked about how some pronounced letters remind us of movements or nature sounds.  I read examples of poems with end rhyme, internal rhyme, eye rhyme, and even no rhyme at all.  And then we were ready to play, to experiment, to explore.

The directions were to go out into the hall and look at all the phonestheme posters completed by classmates.  While reading the lists of words, they were to think of something to write a poem about. It was to be a poem that could incorporate words from several lists.  The words needed to fit.  I was not looking for every other word to be a phonestheme, and the poem to be about nothing.

I let them think through this and begin writing for about 15 minutes.  Then we stopped and talked again.  Some really knew what I was looking for, some did not.  I asked for some volunteers to share what they were working on so far.  I have found that this step gives the students who are unsure a better idea of what others are writing, and then they are able to think of what to write for themselves.  The point was to use the feel and meaning of the words with phonesthemes to improve the feel and meaning of the poem!  Here are a few of the finished poems.

The Former World Has Passed Away

The former world
has passed away.

All trees
have turned to stumps.
Lush lands
have turned to dumps
as we attacked each other
with fire and metal.

Now the only
beauty in the world
is the glimmering glaze
of stars above.

                                                   ~ Perry

The Wind

You swish my hair as I walk by
You blow like a trumpet
yet sometimes you’re hard to find

You knock leaves off trees
You push logs to the river
You swoosh and move plants

Blowing, moving,
huffing and puffing
in your courageous way

If only I was as powerful as you,
WIND

                                             ~Mara

Gone

He fled.
With a whoosh
he was gone –
gone down
that glossy field.

No time to flinch.
No time to whimper.

He was a flash,
a glimmer of speed,
a whisper taken away,
a glowing star.

The flick of his feet,
the glamor of his stride,
and when he finished,
a glint of pride.

                                      ~Zoey

My Little Sister and Me

My little sister
flings dust
in the places
I already swept
because I told her
to get out of the room.

I get so mad
I hit her.
She whacks me back.
I flip out,
my anger
flashing in flames.

                                                 ~Esperanza

Roots of the Past

See that stump?
It used to be a tree.
Now it’s just a clump
of what it used to be.

The tree is dead.
The stump is here.
The canopy’s lost its head.
The poor tree’s fate is clear.

Forever eternal
ash.

                                        ~Oliver

Movement

The swoosh of air that I feel
as I enter the water to swim.

The sweat tearing off my skin
into the swaying water.

Swoosh!  I pass everyone else
swimming next to me.

And that sweep of success
when I swoosh into the wall.

                                       ~Jordyn

The Candle

There was a candle
so bright and new
until somebody lit it.

The flame flickered and flicked
and magically grew.
It glittered and glistened
and gleamed out of sight
and swiftly swooped down
and died in the light.

                                      ~Francesca

I saw this poetry writing as an opportunity to play with words as one might play with Play-Doh.  We don’t always know where we are going to end up, but we start by picking something to create.  Then we add and take away  and keep doing that until we are pleased enough to share.

 

 

“Words are how we think. Stories are how we link.” ~Christina Baldwin

You know the practice of teaching someone a new language by immersing them in that language?  Putting them in a situation where no other language is spoken or written?  I imagine it is a bit scary and frustrating at first for the learner, but I also imagine the new language is acquired more quickly and spoken more fluently than with other methods.  Well, a little less dramatically, that is what I do when I ask my students to investigate and report on a word of their choosing.  Yes, we have investigated words together as a large group, and yes, the students have investigated words with a partner, but all-by-yourself is different.

Some feel like they have been plunked into the vast ocean of information at Etymonline with only swimmies (little experience) to help them navigate.  Others have surfaced successfully with a smile and a cool story about their word.  Regardless, all students need my guidance.  For several days, I hear my name so often it is crazy!  But every question needs to be honored and every student needs to be steered in the direction of the information they are seeking.  Some need explanations for concepts and ideas that are so new to them.  Often times these explanations become something I bring to everyone’s attention – whether it be that day or just put on a list for another day in which we can spend time collecting more examples that will make the concept more visible.

Because I teach orthography, writing, grammar and science in a 90 minute block to three groups of fifth graders, the students work on these posters for only a portion of their time with me.  They do not finish these in a day and only a few finish within a week and a half.  For some it even takes a month.  But no worries.  Sometimes the students who finish more quickly ask to investigate a second word.  Sometimes I give them something else to investigate.  By the end of a month and a half, I have students working at different places on different projects.   The students like working at their own pace.  It doesn’t feel like a race.  At some point, I decide which investigations are required and I make a list on the board.  Once everyone has completed the items on the list, we are ready to move on as a class.

Here are some pictures of the hallway outside my room.  My students have named it our “Word Gallery”.

These posters are across the hall from each other, so if you are reading one wall of words, you need only turn around to look at some more.  When I look at them now that they are finished, I remember so many of the conversations that took place during each investigation.  For instance:

When Alex asked to investigate <inimitable>, I said he sure could, but wondered what his connection to this word was.  When he said he heard it used in the Broadway show “Hamilton”, then I knew it was a good choice for him.  (He and I share a love of the soundtrack!)  Following the links in Etymonline, Alex was able to collect a lot of related words right away.  As he followed the first hyperlink to <imitable>, I saw this: [1550s, from French imitable (16c.), from Latin imitabilis “that may be imitated,” from imitari “to copy, portray”].  Having taken Latin 1 and Latin 2 Spellinars at Real Spelling, I recognized the Latin verb imitari.  I told Alex that if he searched imitari at Etymonline, he would get a list of words derived from it.  The words that came up were:

imitator
imitable
imitative
imitate
image
imitation

As we looked at this list together, I asked him if he could see which letters they all had in common.  What might the base be?  Because of the word ‘image’, the common factor was <im>.  I asked about words with an <age> suffix.  Between the two of us we thought of package, postage, and footage.  That made it feel obvious that the base would be <im>.  Except that we must always consider the potential of a final <e> on the base.  If we spell the base as <im> and then add a vowel suffix such as <age>, won’t that force the doubling of the <m> as it does in cottage and baggage?  Since there isn’t a doubled <m> in ‘image’, we thought that the bound base should be spelled <ime>.  That made sense in the word sum <ime> + <age>.  Then Alex started looking at the other words on the list and building word sums for each.  I turned his attention to ‘imitate’ and ‘imitation’.  Alex knew that <ion> was a suffix in ‘imitation’.  I asked if the remaining letters were a familiar word.  At the same time he said “imitate”, be said “Ohhh.”  I replace the <e> that was covered up by the <ion>.  In this fashion he worked through the word sums before he made his matrix.  I see that on his poster, he has the word sum for ‘inimitability’ as <in> + <ime> + <it> + <able> + <il> + <ity>.  It’s interesting to me that he didn’t recognize that what he thinks he hears there is already in the suffix <able>.  I have noticed that with several students.  I think it must be the transition between working with syllables and working with morphemes.  They are still looking for syllable type chunks that are about sound in and of themselves rather than recognizing that pronunciation within a morpheme considering stress shifts that might occur.

My favorite part of Alex’s poster? When he asks his viewer to “Think about it.  Inimitable means something can not be imitated and image is a copy of imitation of the original.  Imitation and image share a meaning by copying the original thing.”  Alex now understands the meaning of this word, the structure of this word, and how this word relates to others in its family. Boom!

Here’s another:

Frankie chose the word ‘animals’.  She mentions on her poster that it was attested in the early 14th century, but not used often until the 16th century.  What Frankie didn’t mention is that ‘beast’ was the preferred term prior to the 16th century.  The delightful part of the story with this word was the relationship between the words ‘animal’ and ‘animation’.  As Frankie says, “Animate has something to do with bringing something to life.”  It’s like giving a drawings a life and making drawn characters breathe and move as if alive.

What’s interesting about the word ‘animosity’ is that when attested in the early 15th century, it had a sense of vigor and bravery.  But by the 16th century, it had a sense of “active, hostile feeling”.  Over time, the sense of vigor and bravery disappeared from this word completely.

As Frankie was preparing to make a matrix by writing out the word sums, she noticed the suffix <ate> and how many suffixes could follow it.  We talked about the <or> suffix and recalled an earlier classroom discussion about it often being an agent suffix.  So an animator is a person who does animation.  I also mentioned to Frankie that when a base takes an <ion> suffix, it can also take an <or> suffix.  As an example, ‘animation’ can become ‘animator’ if the <ion> suffix is replaced with an <or > suffix.  Other examples are ‘creation’ and ‘creator’, ‘action’ and ‘actor’, and ‘invention’ and ‘inventor’.  When we compare the agent suffix <or> to the agent suffix <er>, we see that bases that can take an <er> cannot take an <ion> suffix.  Look at ‘baker’, ‘dancer’, ‘banker’, ‘healer’, or ‘jumper’.

Here’s another one:

Saveea’s word gave us the opportunity to talk about frequentative suffixes.  I shared what she and I discovered with all three classes.  The <le> suffix on ‘spark’ lets us know that the action is ongoing.  There wasn’t just a spark and then it stopped.  It kept on catching our eye because it kept going.  It was a sparkle!  The <le> suffix is also a frequentative suffix in ‘crackle’, ‘crinkle’, ‘tremble’, and ‘waddle’.  See?  These are ongoing activities, and the <le> suffix tells us that!

Here’s another:

Alexis thought it would be fun to find out more about the word ‘octopus’.  She wasn’t disappointed!  She remembered being in my Orthography summer school class where we spent time looking at the Greek alphabet.  So she wrote this word that was originally a Greek work in Greek!  She told a great (and true) story about the plural of ‘octopus’ being ‘octopodes’ at one time.  Many people still use that plural form.

Over time, people noticed what happens to ‘stimulus’ and ‘fungus’ and ‘alumnus’ when they change to the plural form.  The <us> switches to an <i> suffix.  They become ‘stimuli’, ‘fungi’, and ‘alumni’.  Since ‘octopus’ has what looks like the same final <us> in its singular form, people assumed it would be made plural in the same way and become ‘octopi’.  But the thing is … stimulus, fungus, and alumnus are of Latin origin and they follow Latin suffixing conventions.  Octopus is of Greek origin and follows Greek suffixing conventions.  If you pluralize ‘octopus’, the proper plural form is either ‘octopodes’ or ‘octopuses’.

Here’s another:

When Zoey picked ‘like’, she didn’t expect to find such an interesting story!  The first thing she found out is that it has been many different parts of speech!  Then she found out the original spelling was gilik.  If you cover up the first two letters, it looks like our present day spelling (minus the final <e>).   Zoey and I enjoyed talking about the Old English pronunciation of this word.   The <ġ> was pronounced [j] as in Modern English yes.  The <i>was pronounced  [i] as in Modern English feet.

The other fun thing with this word is how easy it was to build a rather large matrix!  I appreciated having the opportunity to discuss the base ‘busy’ and that when adding the <ness> suffix, the <y> becomes an <i>.  This happens with bases that have a consonant in front of the final <y>.  Other examples are when happy becomes happiness or lazy becomes laziness.

Here’s another:

Continue reading

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.

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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!

 

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Learning From 16th Century Scribes

At the beginning of the year I asked my students to write me a letter.  It was a way for me to get to know them.  It was also a way for me to assess their writing skills.   I gave them prompts for each paragraph so that they didn’t have to wonder what to write.

The first time I read through them I just plain enjoyed hearing each student’s voice – the way they talked to me on paper.   I got a peek into their “outside of the school day” life.  I will look back at these letters often throughout the year to remind myself that each child is so much more than what I see in 90 minutes each day.

The second time through I kept track of things so I would know which writing skills each student needed to improve on.  I specifically made notes about:

sentence structure
spelling
paragraphing
friendly letter format
margins – left, right, bottom

One of the unexpected finds was inconsistent letter formation.  Lower case g’s, j’s and p’s were the same size (height-wise) as a’s.  The letter p was often capitalized, even when it didn’t make sense to do so.  Lower case h’s and n’s were difficult to tell apart, as were i’s and j’s!  This made some student writing very difficult to read.  Not everyone’s letter formation was this inconsistent, but paired with the students’ lack of awareness for white space on the page, I made a decision to teach them script.

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I am so glad I did!  As we moved forward with this and learned about proper posture and paper placement, I began to notice some rather peculiar ways in which students gripped their pen!  Most involved forcing the joint nearest the index finger tip to bend counter to its natural bend.

I recognized that tightfisted grip because it’s the same one I have used for most of my life.  For me, it forced the pencil or pen I wrote with to push against the same first joint of my middle finger, and I ended up with a rather large callus.  I remember that my elementary teachers called it a “writing bump” and spoke of it as a wonderful thing that indicated how much I loved writing.  Even though it became painful to write with such a huge callus,  I accepted that explanation in the same way I accepted so much other misinformation about writing and our language.  After all, what other way was there?

Imagine my joy in learning that writing doesn’t have to be a laborious painful activity.  Instead it can be fun … really fun!  It can be a pleasure to write and a pleasure to read.  It can be oh, so satisfying!    I want that for my students.  I want my students to feel pride in what they write and also in the presentation of what they write.

Learning a more comfortable pen hold felt odd at first, but within a month, most were enjoying the switch.The students have been able to choose between two pen holds.  One is similar to what they were using, it’s just that the index finger remains relaxed along the length of the pen.  The middle joint is free to control the movement of the pen instead of the wrist (which controls the movement when the pen is held in a tight grip).  I personally use a plume hold so that my index finger doesn’t fall back into its old habit of forcing that joint closest to the finger tip to bend in an unnatural way.

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I first learned script from Real Spelling.  I’ve taken the spellinar offered, and I’ve watched the dvd’s, pausing to practice certain letters and flourishes. Chancery Script itself dates back to the early 16th century.  An Italian scribe, Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi, wrote a pamphlet in 1522.  It remains quite influential as it describes the writing of Chancery Script.  It is called La Operina.  Chancery Script was developed by scribes who spent their lives copying documents and needed a comfortable yet aesthetically pleasing writing.  Here is a sample of Arrighi’s writing from La Operina.

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For starters, we focused on holding up our hands and imagining that the body of each lower case letter had a consistent height.  You will understand this best if you try it.  Hold up your hand and draw an X across the palm with your finger.  That is what we call the “X height”.  If you are writing the letter b, you would begin in the ascender area (tips of your fingers) and pull down to the bottom of your palm (bottom of the X).  Then you would bounce back up to the X height’s right corner before pulling down again to complete the letter.  As the combination of proper posture, a relaxed pen hold and the use of a fountain pen meld together,  the pen strokes become less independently drawn, and become more of a flowing movement, as if the pen is dancing across the page!

We spent time each day practicing our lower case letters and the ligatures we might use to connect certain letters.  We learned some flourishes to use with lower case letters, and practiced them so we could make personal decisions as we developed our personal style of script.

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The capital letters are done a bit differently.  They are drawn.  They can be of a different size then the rest of the letters depending on your purpose for writing and the space you have available.  The students were enthusiastic to see possibilities for the initial letters of their names.  They were particularly impressed with Queen Elizabeth’s signature and wanted to develop their own.  Here are some samples of the students practicing Queen Elizabeth’s signature.  The first picture is her signature.  Notice the flourish at the beginning of the lower case b and the knotting below the z!

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The following pictures are of the students practicing some capital letters.

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As you can see, the students write on unlined paper, but use an underlay so that the writing remains straight.  The lines on the underlay are a bit wider apart than regular lined paper.

The next step was to create a sheet of writing in script.  Some had already been turning in assignments in script, but not all.  I asked each student to write a fall poem.  I gave them a poem to model it after.  The poem would have three stanzas.  In this way we could practice not only script, but also using white space on a page.  As the students finished their poem (which was now a work of art on several levels), I hung them in the hall.

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There’s quite a difference between the first day letters and these poems!  Not all students are using script consistently yet, but the majority already feel a personal pride they never felt before!  In the following video, the students explain what it is they like about writing in script.

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Involve Me and I’ll Understand…

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There’s a quote attributed to the Chinese Confucian philosopher, Xun Kuang that goes, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”  It’s a quote that I think of often as an educator.  What does it look like “to involve students” so that they understand?  It seems obvious to me that if I want them to understand the steps of experimenting or engineering that they need to actually experiment or engineer something on their own.  That is why I offer a Science Fair in the spring and several engineering projects throughout the year.   But it doesn’t seem so obvious to me when it comes to subjects that are not typically taught as a science.  When we observe the emphemeral pond out back or sample the macroinvertebrates in the creek, the students are physically involved.  They are out of their seats and using all of their senses.  How do you recreate that total involvement for subjects like writing, grammar, and orthography?  Below are a few things we’ve done so far this year.

Writing…..
As an introductory activity to the general topic of writing, I involved my students in an experience that would help them see just how similar writing is to sculpting.  Both demand creative ideas and persistence.  That is where we began.  I gave each student a small can of Play-Doh.  I asked them to just pull, mash, break, and squeeze.  I wanted them to get used to the material they would be using.  I then compared it to the materials of a writer – words, pen, paper, thesaurus, dictionary.  Then I gave them a task.  They were to create a pencil holder.  Having this focus helped them have a goal in mind as they worked.  In writing, this would be the main idea of the piece of writing.  What do you want your reader to know?  How do you want them to feel?

As I looked around and saw a variety of shapes ready to hold pencils, I asked everyone to smoosh their design.  Completely mash it up!  “That was just your first draft,” I told them.  “Maybe you want to try some other way to approach it this time.”  Again they flattened, rolled, and sculpted until they had something that they liked.  Something that would work.  That’s when I told them to smoosh it again!

This time they really moaned.  “It’s fine.  That was your second draft.  Start again.  Show yourself that you have even more ideas in that creator of yours!”  As they worked I continued to talk about how this was similar to writing.  I shared with them my personal writing process.  I write.  Then I reread and change some things.  Then I start all over again with a whole different approach.  I write.  I read.  I change.  I write.  I read. I change.  I do this until I am satisfied my writing says what I want it to say and in the way I want it said!

As I asked them to begin their fourth and final pencil holder, I told them they could choose to create something completely different, go back to a design they loved, or combine one or more of their previous ideas.  The whole point here was that the creative part of us has lots of ideas.  When it comes to writing, it’s no different.  “Let your creator drive you in the beginning writing stages and don’t ask your editor to come out until the final stages of your writing!”

When they were ready for their first edit, I asked them to get feedback from one other person.  Perhaps they would make a change, perhaps they would not.  I asked them to look at the pencil holder from many angles.  I told them this was like revising writing.  Making sure what feels clear to you as the writer is also clear to your reader.  Then we were ready for final editing.  In writing that would mean checking spelling, punctuation use, paragraphing, and other writing conventions.  In the art of pencil holders, it meant adding a small amount of one other color for some finishing touches.

Since then we have played with writing ideas.  We haven’t finished anything, but we are getting familiar with the materials a writer uses.  We have tried some story starters and a few were ignited enough to take home their notebooks to write more.  We are trusting that our creator is indeed full of ideas and we are enjoying being pleasantly surprised at ourselves!

Orthography and Science…..
In my last post I described how I involved the students during orthography by asking them to create posters that illustrated the structure of a specific science word.  There were only two in a group, so in order to keep the project moving forward, each needed to contribute!  The students wrote out the word and then wrote it again as a word sum or algorithm.  They researched the word to find the denotation of each base (all words were compounds).  Next they found words that shared the first base in their words.  So, for instance, the group that investigated <thermosphere> shared a list of words that included:

thermos
thermometer
geothermal
thermostat
thermonuclear
thermoplastic
hypothermia

As you can imagine, looking at these words and discussing their relationship to their shared base <therm> which has a denotation of “heat” is a great way to understand not only <thermosphere> and this specific list of words, but also of words they may encounter in their future that have <therm> as part of their morphological structure!

But as wonderful as that process is, I realized this week that for many of my students brand new to the idea of a bound base, morphemes such as <bi>, <ge>, <atm>, and <hydr> seem foreign and totally unfamiliar.  They are so used to working with lists of words that are unrelated to each other, that they don’t expect words to be related to each other (unless the examples are walk, walks, walked, etc.)    It is extremely difficult for them to see <atm> and not think of the ATM machine near the bank.  So I needed to go back to the idea of involving them in yet another way in order to make <geosphere>, <atmosphere>, <hydrosphere>, and <biosphere> memorable.

This time I thought of using their bodies and their voices paired up with good old fashioned repetition and rhythm.  I worked the denotations of <bi>, <ge>, <atm>, and <hydr> into what they chanted as a class.

As we continue our discussions and discoveries about the bases we are encountering in these science words, we are also noting how often we see the bases <graph>, <meter>, and <loge> used with them.  That in itself has led to connections between the words biology, geology, astrology, zoology, and hydrology, biography, geography, lithography, and thermography, thermometer, atmometer, geometry, and hydrometer.

At least once a week I overhear someone say, “Mind blown!”  The first time I heard it I was delighted.   The fact that it has become frequent gives me even more satisfaction.  They are understanding like never before!  With some patience (you can’t push the river), these students will discover for themselves the fascinating stories that await them when they look closer at words!  They will know for themselves that words have structures that are reliable, and that English spelling makes more sense than the majority of its speakers realize!

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”  I know I teach with a combination of all three.  I tell, I show, and I involve.  And I keep trying to get the balance right — which means load heavily on the “involve me” end!

 

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“Traveler, there is no path, the path is made by walking.” ~ Antonio Machado

Last fall Daniel came into my classroom with writing that was almost indecipherable.  Even the most common words were misspelled.  When asked to read his writing, he stumbled, often saying, “I don’t know what that says.”  But he had a lot to say.  His head was full of humorous stories and his life was full of interesting moments.  This was fifth grade!  I wondered, “How did he get this far with such an obstacle?”

Knowing that whatever happened or didn’t happen in his previous years of schooling wouldn’t help me now, I put that on the back burner in my brain.  The only consideration given to those thoughts was the recognition that I had something to offer Daniel that hadn’t been offered to him before.  Orthography.  Perhaps this would be the year when misunderstandings about English would stop blocking his ability to express his ideas in written form.

All you need to do is read back through this blog to see the kinds of activities and explorations that happened in my class during the last year.  Beyond what I’ve posted about, we spoke ‘words’ every day.  Often I pulled misspelled words from student work, and we talked about them.  I wasn’t looking to spot out “wrong” spellers, but rather what the student might have been thinking about as he/she spelled the word.  What strategy was being used?  How might this misspelling benefit us?  What might we all learn from it?  Often times it was this activity that dictated the direction we needed to take next.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the suffixing conventions.  We started with knowing when to replace the final non-syllabic <e> and when not to.  I used a flow chart so that they could see the predictability of this convention.  It didn’t take long before the majority of the students were writing <making> instead of  *makeing.  We looked at the other suffixing conventions in the same way.  There was always an immediate effect in their writing.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the use of <k> and <ck> in words.  Students made a list of words whose spelling included <ck>.  They compared that to a list of words whose spelling included a <k>.  When comparing, they looked at the position of the phoneme within the base (initial, medial, final).   For instance, the <ck> in <picking> is not medial, it is final.  The base is <pick> and the <ck> is final in the base.  When they got the hang of keeping their focus on the base element, they found that <ck> is most often found in the final position of a base and is never initial.  The next thing to compare were the letters immediately preceding the <k> or <ck>.  They noticed that a single vowel always preceded the <ck>, and it was always short.  They also noticed that when <k> was final in the base, there were either two vowels preceding it or a consonant (usually <r> or <n>).  Students conducted research in the same way for <ge> and <dge>.  This particular research felt so scientific that I had the students calculate percentages to represent how often they found certain things (<r> before a final <k>, for example).

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the phonology of <c>.  Students made lists of words in which the grapheme <c> represented /s/ and /k/ in words.  We made lists for several days in a row, until students could confidently explain why the /s/ or /k/ pronunciation was used.  Knowing that there was a reliable way of knowing how to pronounce the grapheme <c> in a word was a light bulb moment for my students.  “Why didn’t we know this in second grade?  It would have been so helpful!”

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the phonology of <t>.  Students made lists of words in which the grapheme <t> represented /t/, /ʃ/, or /tʃ/.  Students who have already memorized the spelling of <motion> know that *moshun is wrong, but they don’t understand that the mistake is related to the phonology of the <t>.  In order to talk about these three phonemes, I needed to explain that the IPA symbol /ʃ/ represents the pronunciation of <t> in words like <lotion>, <action> and <edition>, and the IPA symbol /tʃ/ represents the pronunciation of <t> in words like <creature>, <actual>, and <question>.  This inquiry really made the students slow down and think about pronunciation.  It also made them aware of what is really going on in the spelling of the word – especially since they wrote the words in the lists as word sums.  They began to realize that pronunciation of a final <t> in a base element can change depending on the suffix that follows it.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at assimilated prefixes.  In groups of three, students were assigned a prefix group to explore.  For example, one group looked at <con->, <com->, <cor->, <col->, and <co->.  Another group looked at <in>, <il>, <ir>, and <im>.  Once they realized that many prefixes have variations in their spelling, the students slowed down and spent a moment considering when making hypotheses about a word sum.  I began seeing <immature> instead of *imature, <illegal> instead of *ilegal, and <corrode> instead of *corode.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the role of the final non-syllabic <e> in various words.  It didn’t take the students long to be able to share with others at least 6 or 7 reasons for it to be there.  One way of sharing what was learned was to make a video called, “For <e>’s a Jolly Good Fellow“.  Knowing why the final non-syllabic <e> is in a word makes it easier to remember to include it when spelling!  I began seeing <change> instead of *chang and <breathe> instead of <breath> (when breathe was what was needed).

There was certainly much more we learned by looking at the words my students were using and misspelling, but I think you get the idea of how I turned “spelling mistakes” into something rich and useful.  Which takes us back to Daniel.  The orthography we were doing encompassed wonderful things he had never been asked to think about before.  But was it enough?  Will his next teacher wonder about his writing obstacle the way I had last fall?  The truthful answer is, “maybe.”

Daniel made a lot of progress.  He improved his writing in a lot of ways.  Besides looking at orthography, we studied grammar and writing.  There was a lot of practice at all of it.  But when I ran into Daniel’s mom a week after school was out,  I offered to tutor him for the summer.  Why had I done that?  What did I think I could accomplish in a few sessions that I wasn’t able to accomplish in a school year?

Some things that I learned about Daniel during the school year:   He is a dodger.  Anytime he is in a group, he counts on someone else to take the lead and he waits for their direction. He does what they tell him.  He writes what they tell him. It’s easier that way.  He pretends to be listening in class, but isn’t always.  He does not ask questions when he is confused.  His misspellings and poor writing have been pointed out so many times that he accepts failure as the norm.  He is not angry, just accepting.  He sees no point in trying to fix something that is part of the definition of who he is.  The strategy that he sticks to (that gets him into more spelling errors than not) is to “sound it out”.

I knew he “hid” in a larger class.  If I worked with him one-on-one, I felt he stood a better chance.

I started our first session by asking him to write a few sentences about his summer.  As usual, I was looking for mistakes he was making in his writing.  As it turned out, he wrote great sentences and there was only one word misspelled.  It was *calfes.  This led to a great investigation of pluralizing words such as <wolf>, <wife>, <half>, <knife>, and more.

After that I pictured a spelling error I had seen him make during the school year.  He had used the letter sequence ‘ints’ when he should have used the suffix <-ence>.  He was trying to sound out the word and spell it according to what he though he was hearing.  So he and I made two lists.  We made a list of words with the <-ence> suffix and a list of words that had a final ‘nts’ letter sequence.  The first list included words like <difference>, <reference>, <influence> and <evidence>.  The second list included words like <cents>, <quotients>, <agreements> and <payments>.  When asked to compare the two lists, Daniel recognized that the second list of words were all plural!  Then we went through each word, identifying its morphemes and talking about how it is used, and then spelling it out.  By that I mean he wrote it down, and then spelled each word aloud with a pause between each morpheme.  By doing this, he saw that <-ence> was consistently a suffix.

During the next session we reviewed the phonology of <t>.  We made lists and he spelled the words out.  We talked about the morphemes, their sense and meaning, and any related words.  We also reviewed <wolf> to <wolves>.

At the most recent session, we went back to the <-ence> suffix.  I wanted to fluctuate between <-ence> and <-ent>.  So I asked him to spell <evidence> and then <evident>, <influence> and then <influential>  (Reviewing the phonology of <t>).  We talked about them, and then I had him spell them out.  When we came to <dependence>, we paused to talk about the bound base <pend>.  We talked about a pendulum and a pendant and how they relate to being a dependent child.  Daniel spelled the word on paper and then out loud.  Thinking about another related word, I threw out the word <independence>.  Daniel quickly explained how the prefix <in-> brought a sense of “not” to the word before he proceeded to write the word on his paper.  When he spelled it out, I was surprised.  He had spelled <in – du – pend – ence>.

Interesting!  I asked him why the spelling of the prefix <de-> changed when we added the prefix <in-> to the word.  He said, ” I don’t know.  It just does?”  Interesting.  So even as I’m training him to spell out with morphemes, he’s still listening to the Queen of Hearts in his ear bellowing, “Sound it out!”

It was time to switch gears and talk about stress and the schwa.  When we pronounce the word <dependence>, the stress is on the second syllable.  Even though the first syllable is unstressed, the <e> is still pronounced clearly as a long <e>.  When we pronounce the word <independence>, there is stress on both the first and third syllables.  Some might consider the third syllable to be the primary stress in this word and the first to be secondary stress.  Either way, the second syllable becomes even more unstressed than it was in <dependence>, and the <e> in <de-> is pronounced as a schwa <ə>.  In this word, the schwa pronunciation is similar to the way we pronounce a short <u>.

To illustrate the point better, I brought up the word <chocolate>.  I asked him to say it.  We both noticed that when you say the word, there are two syllables, but when you go to write it, you think of three.  That <o> in the middle is a schwa with zero pronunciation when this word is spoken!  He played around with this idea for a bit and smiled as he spoke and the schwa syllable disappeared.

This discussion led us back to the first time Daniel spelled <dif-fer-ence> as *dif-r-ints.  I showed him both spellings and asked why he might have missed the <e> in the bound base <fer>.  The idea of written syllables versus spoken syllables was becoming slightly comfortable one.  The idea of a vowel having a schwa pronunciation was almost a relief!  When we meet again, we will pick up where this left off.  I’ll be ready with a list of words in which the schwa has altered the way the letter used might typically be pronounced.

*** Note to reader:  Daniel is a real student.  Daniel is not his real name.