Guess What? They’re ALL Silent Letters!

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

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

Letters produce sound?

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

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

Learning letter, digraph, and trigraph pronunciations in isolation?

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

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

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

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

So why are some letters in some words unpronounced?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labeling letters as silent is a problem.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

A Simple Base Element That Has a Lot to Say

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

Something I don’t want for Christmas?

I have several students in each class who begin any writing assignment with a long pause.  For some that pause can be 10 minutes or more.  While I respect that “think time” is important, these same students will say (after their “think time”) that they don’t know what to write.  I know that their “think time” is not very productive.  So I’m very choosy about the writing topics I pick.  Free choice doesn’t usually work.  For the students who hesitate, it’s like looking into a snow globe and trying to decide which snowflake to describe.

                

Something that worked!

Recently we studied photosynthesis.  AFTER the students had memorized lines for a play, and AFTER we had taken a test (so I could be sure the vast majority of students understood the process), I asked the students to write an informative paper about photosynthesis.  We brainstormed that the introductory paragraph might reveal what photosynthesis was, along with where it happens.  We brainstormed that the concluding paragraph might wrap things up with why photosynthesis is so important.  The middle paragraphs were to explain the process – naming the ingredients and how they arrived at the chloroplast  – naming the result (sugar and oxygen) and where they went when they left the chloroplast.

The best part of this was that the students didn’t have to think about what to include.  They knew the information.  They could focus on organization and making sure details explained what a reader might not understand.  A rough draft was finished within three days for most.  I conferenced with students as they were writing and we talked about making the introduction inviting.  Then they typed it, and I made editing suggestions.  Final copies are now in my hands.  If there was confusion about the photosynthesis process that the test did not catch, this writing certainly helped the students make sense of it.

What a beautiful pairing of science and writing.  And because they had such a grasp of the information already, we could really focus on the writing.  Those who normally begin by pausing so long, began relatively quickly!  For a change, they didn’t see writing as such a daunting task.

So what writing practice to do next?

Yesterday I asked the students to write a paragraph.  Just one paragraph – three to five sentences long.  The nervous looks shot around the room like in a pinball game.  Then I revealed the topic:  Tell me the one thing you would absolutely without-a-doubt NOT want for Christmas (or as a gift in general for those who don’t celebrate Christmas).  I thought this might be fun, seeing as it was unexpected, but I could not have predicted how their responses made ALL of us laugh!  Bravo!  And everyone wrote a paragraph!

I don’t think you’ll mind if I share a few …

“Something I do not want for Christmas?  An avocado.  I really really dislike avocados.  I’ve actually seen kids get avocados, so I know it can happen.  I tried one once and started gagging.  Please, just know that if you’re getting me anything for Christmas … make it anything but avocados.”      S.B.

“What I don’t want for Christmas is my sister!  She is always so annoying and rude.  She is much older than me, so I can’t fight her.  I still do, but then I get punched, so I back off.”  T.R.

“One thing I do not want for Christmas is a math test.  They are too hard and they get me frustrated.  I do not like math tests!”  J.K.

“I absolutely do not want Expo Markers!  My math teacher told us that if we needed them we could ask for them for Christmas.  I thought he was crazy when he said we could sacrifice one present for Expo Markers.  No way!”  M.B.

“The one thing I don’t want for Christmas is underwear.  It is so weird.  Why can’t you buy your own if you want some?  Just imagine getting excited for your presents and then you get underwear.  Then when someone asks what you got for Christmas you have to say, “undies”.  What the heck?  Please don’t give someone undies!”  M.B.

“There is one thing I really DO NOT want for Christmas, and that is to be sick!  If I were sick on Christmas, that would really stink.  I would miss everything because I would probably have to stay in bed ALL day.”  G.L.

“The one thing I don’t want for Christmas is a snake.  One reason I don’t want a snake is because of their skin.  Ick!  I also hate the tails of snakes and the fact that they can kill you if they bite you!  I hate mice too, and I would have to feed it mice.  Otherwise it might eat my dog!”  R.G.

“The one thing I really don’t want for Christmas is socks.  I have lots of socks already.  Whenever I get socks, they never fit.  Please don’t get me socks!”  K.B.

“The thing I do not want for Christmas is chores.  Chores are not a gift.  Since chores are work instead of spending time with family, I would rather not have chores for Christmas.”  N.A.

“Please!  Don’t get me this for Christmas.  I do not want a dead fish.  First off, you can’t play with it!  Secondly and thirdly, it smells and does not move.”  J.S.

“Something I don’t want is crayons.  I have too many.  I have about 500, so if you are thinking about gifts for me, do not get me crayons.  It’s not that I don’t like them.  It’s that I have too many.  I have so many colors.  We had to sort them.”  E.G.

“I would absolutely not want to spend Christmas without my family.  My family is my life.  Without them it would not be fun or enthusiastic.”  R.B.

“I would not, not, not want a life supply of pizza.  I wouldn’t even like ONE piece of pizza.  And a life supply?  Uggghhhh!  Pizza is my second to last least favorite food.”  A.S.

“One thing I would not want for Christmas is another sister.  That just means more makeup.  I might even have to share a room with her.  She would probably be very annoying, too.”  G.S.

“I do not want a toad.  They’re boring.  They do nothing but eat, sit, and sleep.  That is why I do not want a toad.”  M.W.

Aren’t those great?  I need to make a list of other writing prompts that are unexpected in this same way.  With this prompt they were able to practice thinking on paper with less hesitation time.  I want the ideas to flow and the writing experience to be enjoyable.  I want their ‘critic’ to remain silently tucked away while their ‘creator’ is free-styling!   For some reason, these students try to to the writing and editing all in one step (and generally they skip revising altogether).  That’s like seeing all three of the stoplight colors at the same time while you are driving!  Yikes!

First they need to have something to say.  If I can choose something for them to write about that is fun or that they already know about, the writing is less labored.  The next steps of revising and editing are there to improve the writing.  They provide an opportunity to reflect on the initial message to the reader.  Maybe rephrasing a sentence will make the idea in it stronger.  Maybe certain words used don’t capture the feeling the writer intended.  Is there another word that would work better?  Is there information that is missing?  Do the ideas in the sentences keep the reader focused on the intended message?

But like I said, first they need to have something to say.  My goal is just that – to give them prompts that interest them and make it fun to respond.

 

Phonology is something … but it isn’t EVERYTHING!

It is a hard-to-believe concept, but it’s true.  Words do not have the spellings they have so that we know how to pronounce them.  Words like busy, does, piano, action, and pretty prove that.  The truth is that words are spelled the way they are to represent their meaning.  That’s such a foreign idea to so many.  “If that was true, wouldn’t we teach that to children who are just learning to read?”  You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  But the majority of schools don’t.  So why do we resist believing this obvious truth?

When I first began studying orthography and learning Structured Word Inquiry, I was skeptical myself.  I wondered what people in this community meant when they said that spelling represented meaning and not pronunciation.  How can that be?  I learned to spell by “sounding words out” – by pronouncing them.  Sometimes I pronounced them in unnatural ways so that I could remember the spelling (Wed – nes – day  or  ap – pear – ance, both with parts pronounced unlike they are in the whole).  I knew what the words meant, but that didn’t have anything to do with the spelling, did it?  I learned to spell one word at a time, twenty or so words a week.  I was pretty good at rote memorization.  I also studied definitions right out of the dictionary.  They didn’t always make sense to me, but because they didn’t, I didn’t know how to reword them.  I found out when my children went to school that times haven’t changed much in this regard.

I remember when my son was in high school and had to be able to match up a list of words to their definitions.  I offered to help him study.  That was when I realized that he had figured out a system to pass the test without having learned anything useful.  If I read the word, he could give me the first four words of the definition.  If I read the definition, he could tell me the first four letters of the word the definition would match up with on the test.  Blech! He became very annoyed with me when I pointed out how useless this test was.  “Mom!  It doesn’t matter.  I have to pass the test tomorrow.  Go away.  I’ll study by myself.”

One thing is for sure.  He was smart enough to know that passing the test didn’t hinge on him actually understanding anything.  I was sad, but remembered cheating my own learning in the same way as I went through schooling years.  I didn’t cheat my learning to the extent my son did, but cheat it I did.  Neither of us were taught to look to the word for meaning – we had learned that spelling and meaning were two separate activities and rote memorization was the only way to handle them in order to pass the test.

Recently Oxford Dictionaries posted the ten most frequently misspelled words in their Oxford English Corpus (which they describe as “an electronic collection of over 2 billion words of real English that help us see how people are using the language and also shows us the mistakes that are most often made”) .  Seeing as I spend a fair amount of my teaching life looking at misspelled words, I took a look, wondering if I could predict the words that made the list.  As I was clicking, my mind was betting that the people who misspell these words (whichever they were), had an education like mine and have been taught to “sound out words” and not to even consider morphology or etymology as they relate to a word’s spelling.

Here is their list:
*accomodate (accommodate)
*wich (which)
*recieve (receive)
*untill (until)
*occured (occurred)
*seperate (separate)
*goverment (government)
*definately (definitely)
*pharoah (pharaoh)
*publically (publicly)

Once you begin to study orthography and use Structured Word Inquiry, it doesn’t take long to see how easily the above spelling errors could be avoided altogether.  The people misspelling these words do not understand the spelling – have not been taught to understand the spelling.  Let’s look closer at each of these.  Along the way I’ll point out the information that would actually help a person understand and remember these spellings.

accommodate   (*accomodate)

meaning:
Before we talk about spelling, it’s always important to talk about how the word is used.  What does it mean?  I could talk about the fact that my classroom can accommodate 30 students, meaning that the space is adequate to fit that many students.  I could also use it if I was talking about accommodating the needs of a student who has a broken leg.  In that sense, I am fitting the needs of the student by perhaps getting a different type of desk.

morphology:
A person without any understanding of morphology might be wondering, “Is it two <c>’s and one <m>, or is it one <c> and two <m>’s?”  That person might even write the word down on a piece of paper with several different spellings to see which one looks right.

Here’s what you understand when you understand morphology.  All words have structure.  That structure will include a base element and perhaps affixes.  A base element will either be free (doesn’t HAVE to have an affix) or bound (MUST have an affix).

Let’s look at the structure of <accommodate>.  This word consists of four morphemes:  two are prefixes, one is a base, and one is a suffix.  Its structure is <ac + com + mode/ + ate>.

The first prefix is <ac->, and it is an assimilated form of the prefix <ad-> “to”.  When a prefix is assimilated, it means that the final letter in the prefix might change to better fit phonologically with the first grapheme of the next morpheme in the word.  In this case, the original form of the prefix is <ad-> “to”.  Seeing as the next morpheme begins with a <c>,  the <ad-> assimilated to <ac-> to better match the phonology of that <c>.

The second prefix is <com->, and it is an intensifying prefix.  That means that it brings a sense of force or emphasis to this word.  There are people who have learned this prefix and will tell you that it means “together”.  Well, it does bring that sense to some words we find it in.  But there are prefixes that can also be intensifiers, such as this one!

etymology:
The base element of this word is <mode>.  It is a free base element from Latin modus “measure, manner”.  This base can also be found in words like:

modify, modular, accommodation, model, modest, and yes, even commode!

The suffix is <-ate>.  It is a verbal suffix.

Let’s put the morphemes together and understand this spelling:  <ac + com + mode/ +ate –> accommodate>.  If you stop yourself from thinking of there being a double <c> and instead think of the prefix <ac> plus the prefix <com> plus the base <mode (replace the <e>)> plus <ate>, you will have spelled this word with very little problem.  At the same time, you will understand that the denotation of this word is “to fit with emphasis”.  Compare that denotation with a connotation (how the word is used now), and you will have the spelling AND the meaning, and understand both!

phonology:
It is important to recognize that pronunciations are affected by many things.  I will include a generally accepted pronunciation for each of these words.  But please know that there may be pronunciation variations in different parts of the country / world.  The pronunciation is /əˈkɑməˌdeɪt/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<accommodate>
/əˈkɑməˌdt/

It is interesting to note that the first <o>, which is stressed, has a different pronunciation than the second <o>, which is unstressed.

  

which   (*wich)

meaning:
We often use the word ‘which’ when we are searching for more information about one or more things or people in a specific group.   One might ask, “Which book is yours?”

morphology: 
This word is a free base.  It has no affixes.

etymology:
To understand the spelling of this word, we need to look at its etymology.  I have several sources I use when researching words.  One of my favorites is Etymonline, but I also have copies of Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

This word is Old English in origin. According to Etymonline, it was spelled both hwilc (West Saxon, Anglian)and hwælc (Northumbrian).  (Notice that the <hw> is now <wh>).  It is short for hwi-lic “of what form”.  It is interesting to note that in early Middle English there were two other forms (hwelch and hwülch).  They later lost their <l> and became hwech and hwüch.  Both of those spellings disappeared in late Middle English.

When you understand that the <h> has always been part of this word, and that in fact, it used to be the first letter, it is easier to remember that it is STILL part of this word.  It is pretty obvious that those who misspelled this word used phonology alone.  But its spelling takes us back to Old English and the important evidence that the <h> has always been part of this word.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /wɪtʃ/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<which>
/wɪ/

 

receive  (*recieve)

meaning:
This word generally means to be given, presented with or be paid for something.  I receive a pay check.  I have received several awards.  I received help from my neighbor.

Now I’m willing to bet you are already thinking, “i before e except after c … blah, blah, blah”.   I came across an article by The Washington Post recently.  To read it, CLICK HERE.  It seems a statistician named Nathan Cunningham plugged a list of 350,000 English words into a statistical program to check out this age old rule.  He found that in words with a ‘ie’ or ‘ei’ sequence, <i> came before the <e> almost 75% of the time.  So then he checked for the “except after ‘c’ part”.  He found that in words with a ‘cie’ or ‘cei’ sequence, ‘cei’ occurred only 25% of the time.  That leaves 75% of that group of words to be exceptions!  So much for that rule! Yup!  The rule with lots and lots of exceptions.  And as any good researcher will tell you, if your rule has a lot of exceptions, you need a new rule!

Besides wasting time memorizing a rule that you can’t count on statistically, there is another reason to abandon the “i before e” rule.  It simply doesn’t take into consideration what else is important about a word – like its morphology and its etymology!  Let’s get out of the land of ‘hit and miss’ and look at this word seriously.

morphology:
Based on other words I have investigated, I might make a hypothesis about this word’s structure like this:  <re + ceive –> receive>.  I know that in words such as recall, reclaim, and refill, <re> is a prefix.  It could be a prefix in this word too, although I need specific evidence pertaining to this word to be sure.  I need to look at where this word comes from – its etymology.

etymology:
This word has come into English by way of Old North French receivre.  Further back, it is from Latin recipere  (re– “back” + cipere, combining form of capere “to take”).  Looking back in time, this word has had a meaning and sense of “regain, recover, take in, admit”. When I look closer at the Latin verbs capere and its combining form cipere, I find other words that share this base <ceive>:

~perceive (<per-> has a sense of “thoroughly”, thus when you perceive something, you are thoroughly taking it in in order to comprehend it),
~deceive (<de-> has a sense of “from”, thus when someone deceives you, they take from you – they cheat you),
~conceive (<con-> is an intensifying prefix, meaning it gives emphasis to the base, thus when someone conceives either an idea or a baby, they are taking something in and holding it)
~transceiver (which is a relatively new word – 1938, created by combining transmitter and receiver).

So what we learn from this word’s history is that its spelling has been fairly consistent since the 1300’s.  No gimmicky rhymes needed.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ɹəˈsɪv/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<receive>
/ɹəˈsɪv/

It is interesting to note that the final <e> is non-syllabic and is preventing this word from ending in a <v>  (no complete English word ends in a <v>).

 

 

until  (*untill)

meaning:
This word means “up to (either an event or a point in time)”.  If you say, “I will wait until you call,”  it is functioning as a subordinating conjunction. If you say, “We swam until 5:00,” it is functioning as a preposition.

morphology:
This word is a free base in Modern English.  It has no affixes.  It might be tempting to identify the <un> as a prefix, but all you have to do is compare the etymology of the <un> in this word to that of the <un-> in words like unhappy and unzip.  They do not share ancestors, nor do they share denotations.

etymology:
This word, as most, has an interesting story.  The verb ’till’  meaning “to cultivate the soil” was first attested in the 13th century.  It is from Old English tilian “cultivate, tend, work at”.  There is a thought that the idea of cultivating and having a purpose and goal may have passed into Old English with the word ’till’ meaning “fixed point”.  It was then converted into a preposition meaning “up to a particular point”.  ‘Until’ was first attested in the 13th century.  The first element <un> is from Old Norse *und “as far as, up to”.  (The asterisk next to the Old Norse spelling means it is reconstructed.)  So when we put the two parts of this word together, we get <un + til –>  until>  “up to a particular point”.  The use of ’til’ is short for ‘until’.

It isn’t about “one ‘l’ or two”.  It’s about the word’s story.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ənˈtɪl/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<until>
/ənˈtɪl/

 

occurred  (*occured)

meaning:
If something has occurred, it has happened.  It could be an event or even a thought.

morphology:
Someone who is misspelling this word, doesn’t understand its morphology.  That would include how suffixing conventions are applied.  The structure of this word is <oc + cur + ed –> occurred>.  Notice that the final <r> on the base was forced to double when the vowel suffix <-ed> was added.  This happened because of the position of the stress in this word.  The stress is on the second syllable – the one closest to the suffix.

etymology:
This word was borrowed from Latin occurrere “run towards, run to meet”.  The prefix <oc-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <ob-> bringing a sense of  “towards”.  The base is <cur> “run “.   This base is seen in present day words including curriculum, current, recur and concur.

phonology:
This word is pronounced /əˈkɜɹd/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<occurred>
/əˈkɜɹd/

It is interesting to note that the initial <o> is unstressed and that affects its pronunciation.

 

 

separate   (*seperate)

meaning:
This word generally means to divide or cause to be apart.  I might separate old coins from new coins.

morphology:
Growing up I remember this word being one that I could never get right.  The reason I misspelled it time after time is because all I had was its pronunciation to work with.  Had I known its morphology and etymology, I would have had a better chance of remembering its spelling.  First, let’s look at its morphology.  The structure of this word is <se + pare/ + ate –> separate>.

etymology:
The prefix <se-> has a sense of “apart”.  The base element <pare> is from Latin parare with a denotation of “make ready, prepare”.  The suffix <-ate> is a verbal suffix in this word.  The base element in this word, <pare>, is also seen in words like:

~apparatus (The prefix <ap-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <ad-> and brings a sense of “to”.  Apparatus helps to make things ready or be prepared.)
~preparation (The prefix <pre-> brings a sense of “before”.  When you prepare, you make things read before you need them.)
~pare (This is a free base that means to “trim or cut close”.  Again we see the denotation of “make ready” in the image of this word’s action.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ˈsɛpɹət/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<separate>
sɛpɹət /
It is interesting to note that the <a> is not typically pronounced in this word.  The final <e>, which is the final letter in the <ate> suffix, is non-syllabic.  That means it is not pronounced either.

  

government  (*goverment)

meaning:
A government is a way to regulate or control members or citizens  of a particular region (state or country) or of an organization.  In the United States, we have a federal government with different branches that creates laws for the entire country, and we also have state governments making decisions for each of the fifty states.

morphology:
Why does this word get misspelled?  Again, it is because of the way it is pronounced.  So let’s look at this word’s morphology and phonology as we have with every other word so far.  The structure of this word is <govern + ment –> government>.  People who leave out the <n> in this word, don’t think about the word’s structure.  The base shares its spelling with all words in its word family.  See the matrix below.

etymology:
The base element <govern> was first attested in the late 13th century, and at that time it meant “rule with authority”.  It is from Old French governer which meant “steer, be at the helm of, rule, command”.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ˈgʌvəɹmənt/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<government>
gʌvəɹmənt/

It is interesting to note that the <n> is not typically pronounced.  This is evidence that it is important to have knowledge of a word’s morphology and etymology when trying to understand its spelling!

 

 

definitely  (*definately)

meaning:
When used, this word is intended to remove all doubt.  I will definitely watch your dog this weekend.

morphology:
The structure of this word is <de + fine/ + ite + ly –> definitely>.  The single final non-syllabic <e> is replaced by the <-ite> suffix in the final spelling.  The suffix <ite> is adjectival, but the addition of the suffix <ly> makes this word adverbial.

etymology:
This word is from Old French definir, defenir  “to finish, conclude, come to an end, determine with precision”.  Before that it came directly from Latin definire “to limit, determine, explain”.  The prefix <de-> brings a sense of “completely” and the base <fine> has a denotation of “to bound, limit”.

phonology:
This word is pronounced /ˈdɛfənətli/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<definitely>
/ˈdɛfənətli/

It is interesting to note that both <i>’s are unstressed which affects their pronunciation.  The final <e> on the suffix <-ite> is predictably unpronounced.  The final <y> on the <ly> suffix also has a predictable pronunciation.

 

 

pharaoh  (*pharoah)

meaning:
A pharaoh is an ancient Egyptian ruler.

morphology:
This is a free base with no affixes.

etymology:
This word has an interesting trail to follow.  It was first attested in Old English as Pharon.  Earlier it was from Latin  Pharaonem.  Earlier yet it was from Greek Pharao. Even earlier it was from Hebrew Par’oh.  But its origins are in understandably Egyptian Pero’ where it meant “great house”.  Note that the spelling sequence of ‘pharao’ was present in Greek and in Latin.  That is the spelling sequence we currently see.  Once again the spelling represents where the word came from and what it means, not how it is pronounced!

phonology:
This word is pronounced
/ˈfɛɹoʊ/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<pharaoh>
fɛɹ/

It is interesting to note that the <ph> represents /f/.  This is a signal that this word has a Greek heritage.

 

publicly   (*publically)

meaning:
When something is done publicly, it is done for all to see.

morphology:
The structure of this word is simply <public + ly>.  The <ly> suffix can be an adverbial one.  The misspelling listed shows a misidentification of structure.  There are many words that actually HAVE that structure, including basically, magically, comically, and tropically.  This brings us to an important point!  Just because two things are pronounced the same, it doesn’t mean they are spelled the same.  It doesn’t take much time or effort to check with a reference book!

etymology:
The word ‘public’ was first attested in the last 14th century.  Earlier it was used in Old French public.  It comes directly from Latin publicus “of the people, of the state, common, general”.  The meaning of “open to all in the community” is from 1540’s English.

phonology:
This word is pronounced /ˈpʌblɪkli/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<publicly>
/ˈpʌblɪkli/

It is interesting to note the predictable pronunciation of the final <y> of the <-ly> suffix.

 

 

Reflection

Think about the words on this misspelled list.  Everyone of them has a spelling that can be explained by looking at the word’s morphology, etymology , and its phonology.  I’ll say it again … by looking at the word’s morphology, etymology, and its phonology.  Teaching all three is so powerful.

It’s time for schools to change the way they teach children about words and spelling!  Phonology is just ONE ASPECT of a word.  When it is seen as THE ONLY THING (as it is in most every classroom), students are cheated out of the opportunity to understand a word’s story.  And understanding a word’s story is often the thing that connects a word’s meaning to its spelling.  Understanding a word’s meaning leads to understanding the word in context, which in turn increases reading comprehension.  How could it not?

Teaching spelling and reading via phonology alone makes spelling a giant guessing game.  For example, there are a number of graphemes that can represent the phoneme /iː/.  I can think of <ea>, <ee>, <y>, and <ei> off hand.  There are no doubt more.  A student faced with memorizing which grapheme to use in which word based on pronunciation alone is clueless – literally!  That student NEEDS the clues that morphology and etymology provide.  Why not teach a student where to find the information needed in order to make informed decisions about a word’s spelling?

Another huge disadvantage of teaching as if spelling represented only pronunciation is that our students never see for themselves how words are connected to one another.  They miss realizing that each word is a member of a larger family.  The family is full of words that all share a common base with a common ancestry and a common denotation.  Why are words like busy, business, and businesses found on different spelling lists?  Why not present them together so a student can see they are part of the same word family?   Or present them together so the students can internalize an understanding of the suffixing conventions that can happen within a family of words.  The matrices I have created above do just that.  They help us see connections among words that we have not been taught to see before now.

Let’s go back to the list of commonly misspelled words.  Oxford Dictionaries only gave us their top ten, but I’m willing to bet there are hundreds and hundreds of such words in their Oxford English Corpus.  I say, let’s raise the bar for our students.  Let’s give them engaging word work that supplies them with resources for all the clues they need in order to understand a word’s spelling.  What schools have been teaching students during reading and spelling instruction  — phonology alone  —  has not worked for the vast majority of students.  If it had, we would not see the spelling errors we do.  We would not hear adults blaming the English language when they misspell a word or misunderstand a paragraph.  We would not hear parents claim, “I was a terrible speller too” at parent-teacher conferences, as if not having been taught to understand our language is a trait one inherits much like height or hair color.

 

Four-Level Sentence Analysis and Structured Word Inquiry – Both Rooted Solidly in Scholarship …

I love teaching grammar.  No, really!  I love teaching grammar.  Of course, I didn’t always love it.  I began loving it when I met Michael Clay Thompson.  He revolutionized the way I was teaching it.   It’s hard to imagine something other than what I grew up doing – going through each part of speech as laid out in our English textbook with plenty of fill-in-the-blank sentences, in order to prepare for a test on things learned in isolation.  But Michael Clay Thompson thought of a different way to teach it, and his idea is brilliant!

He encourages teachers to review/teach the parts of speech and the parts of a sentence within the first month of the school year.  That sounds crazy, yes?  That does not leave enough time to teach to mastery, but that’s okay.  The mastery happens later on, after the sentence analysis starts.  You see, after that first month of intense review and teaching, I start writing sentences on the board to be analyzed.  And we spend the rest of the school year understanding the interrelationships and functions of the parts of speech, the parts of the sentence, and the phrases because we see them over and over in different sentences as they are being analyzed. In other words, we spend one month of reviewing/learning and 7-8 months of applying what was learned.  See?  Brilliant!

To begin with, the sentences are simple and short.  But the analysis is the same:

Now here’s what that looks like with a real sentence:

The first row below the sentence is parts of speech.  If you are wondering what ‘det.’ stands for, it is an abbreviation for determiner.  Over the course of the last year, I have come to understand and embrace the idea of a ninth part of speech – that of the determiner.  Prior to that, I had, like a lot of people, considered articles to be a type of adjective.  But identifying a determiner as a word that begins a noun phrase has been especially helpful to my students.  When they spot a determiner (and because of their frequent use in sentences, this is one of the first parts of speech students become confident about identifying) they know that a noun (or pronoun) will follow.  It may be the next word, or it may be after one or more adjectives (or adjective with an intensifier), but it will be there!

Articles (definite and indefinite) are not the only types of determiners we see.  Other types include quantifier, possessive, interrogative, and demonstrative.  Identifying determiners in our sentences has given my students a predictable pattern to look for.  The noun phrase usually begins with a determiner and ends with a noun or pronoun.  In between those two we might see adverb-adjective pairs, adjectives, or nothing at all.  There is also the possibility that a determiner won’t be used, as is the case with some noncount nouns.

Other than the abbreviation for determiners, I imagine you can figure out that ‘LV’ stands for linking verb.  In the second row, the important parts of the sentence are identified.  Because this sentence has a linking verb, we look for a subject complement (calm).  If the verb was an action verb, we would look first for a direct object and secondly for an indirect object.

In the third row, we identify any phrases.  This sentence has an appositive phrase.  In the last row we identify the sentence structure.  This sentence is a simple sentence with one independent clause.  The word declarative identifies the type of sentence this is.

In a nutshell, my example above illustrates the four level sentence analysis my students and I engage in for 7-8 months of the school year.  Can you imagine how comfortable some of this feels by the end of the year?  They have the opportunity to keep making sense of the order of words in sentences!  They have the opportunity to keep making sense of the functions and interrelationships of words in these sentences.  They begin to realize that the function of a word within a sentence determines its part-of-speech label.  I particularly love it when a sentence contains a word that is able to function as more than one part of speech and the students need to reason out what its particular function is in the sentence before them!  They become so invested in figuring it out!

But a bigger benefit to all of this is what happens when I conference with the students about their writing.  I can address specific aspects of their writing using specific language that they now understand.  A typical comment from me might be, “You have a dependent clause here, but remember?  A dependent clause is not a sentence on its own.  It needs an independent clause either in front of it or behind it to complete the thought.”  I might also say, “You have written a pretty terrific complex sentence, but it is missing its comma.  Begin reading it aloud and tell me where the comma should be.”  The students understand what I am saying to them and feel good about being able to make fix-ups so easily.

This is what it looks like as students are actively analyzing a sentence:

So this is obviously scholarship, but what does it have to do with Structured Word Inquiry?  Yesterday I came across a recent article by Michael Clay Thompson.  It was posted at Fireworks Press where you can find all of the Language Arts curriculum materials he has written.  Click HERE to check it out.  The title of the article is “Doing four-level grammar analysis is like practicing your piano”.  In the article, he addresses why students need to continue analyzing sentences at every level, even if they’ve already been doing it for several years.

In my situation, students are analyzing sentences for the first time.  The benefits are obvious.  But what about next year and the year after that?  When is enough enough?  I sincerely hope you spend the time reading his response.  To that end I will not post the highlights of it.  If I tried, I’d have to post the whole article anyway!  I will, however, share two of his thoughts because they philosophically parallel how I feel about my other passion, Structured Word Inquiry.

“Four level analysis is different because it is an expansive-almost cosmic-inquiry into language, with four tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously, and it is investigating something that is not concrete or simple but that is essentially bottomless.”

For those familiar with SWI, do you see the parallel?  As I’ve been teaching my online class, Getting a Grip on Grammar, I’ve been realizing more and more how similar the investigations into these two areas can be.  I love thinking of SWI’s four essential questions as well as MCT’s four-level analysis as “tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously”.  And clearly neither is “concrete or simple”, but “essentially bottomless”.  There was a time when I would’ve thought of that as an overwhelming idea – thinking I would be expected to know all of it at some point.  But scholarship isn’t like that.

Scholarship is not what happens when you use a textbook, memorize definitions, and get tested.  Scholarship is done leisurely.  It is a continual pursuit to understand better what one only understands partially.  There is no test.  There are only questions to be posed, investigations to be launched, and evidence to be gathered.  Here I will share another quote from Michael Clay Thompson’s article.  In your mind, replace ‘Four-level analysis’ with ‘scholarship’ because clearly the one is a form of the other.

“Four-level analysis can lead you through the known, beyond the terms, past the things that have already been named, and on out to the edge, where the wild questions are.”

It’s alright if you read it a second time.  Because of my passion for both SWI and grammar, this sentence not only resonates with me, it also makes me smile!  Scholarship is a worthy pursuit, whether it be in regards to words, grammar, or in playing the piano.  Thank you Michael Clay Thompson for the beautifully written, inspirational article!

**If you are interested in learning more about the grammar instruction my 5th graders receive, there is a tab at the top of this page that says “Grammar Class”.  That is where you can find out about current schedules.  If there isn’t one currently scheduled, just let me know your preference for time-of-day and dates.  I will created a new schedule!

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.