Prose and Cons

Not too long ago I asked my students what they do when they are unsure of how to spell a word.  I wanted to know how many strategies they had been taught that might help them.  Here is what they told me.

  1.  Sound it out.
  2.  Make up a rhyme or song to help remember how to spell words that aren’t spelled the way they sound.
  3.  Ask someone to tell you how to spell the word.
  4.  Spell it some kind of way and then don’t use it after that.
  5.  If someone suggests that you look in a dictionary, groan loudly because you know you will spend a lot of time at the dictionary and never find the word anyway because you don’t know how to spell it.

We haven’t equipped them very well, have we?  I was recently having a discussion with someone who teaches children who are just beginning to learn to read.  She told me that “sound it out” is a strategy for reading, not for spelling.  Hmmm.  When are the children ever told that?  When are the people who teach the children ever told that?  What are children offered instead?  If it is recognized by both adults and children that “sound it out” isn’t reliable, what else are we teaching in its place?

This is an important question to ask.  I need to know how well equipped they are for what I will be asking them to do all year — which is to write with minimal spelling errors.   Those students with remarkable memories smile, feeling quite confident that they are pretty good at spelling.  Those who can’t seem to remember the order of the letters in a word (even when they’ve written and rewritten the word twenty times), feel the opposite.  They feel frustrated and dumb.  It’s not uncommon to find out that those students started hating writing long before now – especially if they can’t read their own writing!  I have a student currently who hates to go back and fix up his spelling so much that he insists on getting the right spelling for each word as he writes each sentence.  As you can imagine, his ideas don’t flow very well in his writing.  His mind is on spelling more than it is on the ideas he is trying to express.  He has entered 5th grade absolutely hating writing because of spelling.

It pleases me to no end that I can offer my students real help.  This is the year that they will learn a strategy that will actually help them understand spelling. And when they understand a spelling, there is a larger likelihood that they will remember the spelling of the word.  They will learn how to spell words and not remember working at it to do so!  Sounds hard to believe, doesn’t it?  Listen to these two students.

The first student clearly expresses that learning to spell a word and then having to attach meaning to it is completely different than learning to spell a word based on that word’s structure and the denotation of its base(s).  Her second grade memories illustrate the two things as separate activities.  By studying orthography and noting the sense and meaning that is inherent in the base(s), she understands the spelling of the word AND its meaning, realizing that the meaning is represented in the spelling.  Learning the word’s structure and meaning, and then noting the connections of the word’s base(s) to other words that share that base, is a revelation to anyone who has wondered about the English spelling system.  It is as powerful for adults in remembering a word’s spelling and meaning as it is for children.

The second student in the video clearly expresses how effortless remembering the spelling of a word can feel.  Notice that I did not say “memorizing a spelling.”  That is what students do prior to coming to my classroom.  It happens when teachers don’t have an understanding themselves, yet need the students to spell words accurately.  I’m pretty sure that a large number of you (I’m including myself in that group) grew up memorizing spelling without any further understanding of that spelling.  You can’t imagine what more there is to learn until you actually engage in investigating a word for yourself.  The second student in this video has found this type of looking at words to be so helpful!  As she says at the end, she learned how to spell the words she investigated and she didn’t even know she was!  Every year my students tell me they know they are better at spelling than they were at the beginning of the year.  If they feel empowered, isn’t that what it’s all about?

This next video features a student who has never struggled with memorizing the spelling of words.  So how does studying orthography benefit her?

Even when our goal of having students know the spelling and meaning of a word is met, there is much we have left out!  Here is a student that can easily memorize both the spelling and meaning of words she encounters.  But even she recognizes that by studying orthography she is engaging in the learning in a way that she has not been asked to do before.  “Here’s a list of words.  Memorize them and then write out definitions.”  Sound familiar?

I find that students are engaged in the word inquiries we conduct because they are leading the investigations.  They are not being asked to regurgitate information that I collected for them about words.  They are not matching definitions I wrote to words that I want them to know.  They are creating hypotheses about a word’s structure.  Then they are using resources (authentic, reliable, and not necessarily made for kids) to understand the information for themselves.  Yes, I need to guide them in their use of those resources at first.  But it doesn’t take long before they are independently finding out the story and word sum of a word.  And in the course of doing so, they are understanding and learning its spelling.

Recently I saw a post from Haggard’s Hawk .  (Click on the name to visit the Home Page.  Haggard’s Hawk posts things on Facebook, Instagram, blog, and Twitter.  I saw this on Twitter.)  I find Haggard’s Hawk to be a fascinating source of word etymology.  Paul Anthony Jones has written eight books that you can also check out at the link I have provided.  So here is a screen shot of the post I saw:

My point in sharing this post is that until I looked at the etymology, I thought of the words <bereavement>, <bereaved>, and <bereft> as meaning someone is feeling sad because a loved one died.  Adding the sense of “plunder” and “rob” amplifies (in a way) what bereavement means.  My mother passed away several years ago now. Describing my bereavement as the feeling one has when being robbed of something is so much more accurate than describing what I was feeling as “sad.”  Sad is used generically for hundreds of situations that happen every day.  Being robbed of someone has that sense of unexpectedness and outrage (in a way).  It truly feels as if I was robbed of having my mother in my life.  My life has not been destroyed because of she died, but I do feel a sense of my life having been plundered by it.  I’ve had to try to put things back that were set askew.  But something big will always be missing.  And there’s that sense of having experienced being robbed.

Do you see how looking specifically at a word’s base element and its denotation can bring depth to a word?  Having spent seven years learning about words with students, I am only more excited each and every day.  I will never know the story of every word, but I will always be delighted to know one more.  In the classroom, it is like the student in the video says, “Mrs. Steven learns it along with us.  She just doesn’t have all the answers, and that’s really fun.”

So let’s get to the nitty gritty of this post.  I teach my students to identify the structure of a word.  I teach them that words are made up of a string of morphemes.  Each morpheme contributes to the meaning of the entire word.  The morpheme that carries the main sense and meaning of the word is the base element.  A word that has more than one base element is a compound word.  Most people understand this.  The part they might not understand is that not all bases are free bases.  What I mean by that is that not all bases can be words on their own.  A base like <hope> is a free base because it is a recognizable word on its own.  We could add a suffix, but we don’t have to in order for it to be a word.  A base like <fer>, however, is a bound base.  We never see it as a word on its own.  We see it when it is paired up with affixes.  You’ll no doubt recognize it in <offer>, <different>, and <conifer>.  It has a denotation of “carry.”  If I was guiding an investigation of <fer>, I would definitely encourage my students to find related words as I have done here.  Then I would ask them to tell me how that sense of “carry” is there in the word.  Sometimes it is a strong sense in the modern word, and sometimes it is faint.  But it is always there.  Check out this student’s enjoyment of learning about these connections.

This is another example of a student who didn’t necessarily struggle with memorizing spelling words.  Yet here she is, excited to really understand that words have a structure and a history, and that by using the sense and meaning denoted in the base along with the sense that affixes contribute, she can understand the meaning represented in the word’s spelling!  This is her “Eureka” moment and she looks forward to making the same comparisons and connections with each word she investigates!

In order to strengthen each student’s ability to create a logical hypothesis, we do the following.  I write a word on the board and ask the students to think about it for a minute.  Then I ask for volunteers to write a word sum hypothesis on the board beneath it.  Here is an example:

As each hypothesis is added to the list, I will point out certain things we are seeing.  With these three hypotheses, I noticed that all three have identified <ex-> as a prefix.  I will now ask students to brainstorm other words that seem to have an <ex-> prefix.  When students have collectively thought of three or more, then we decide that identifying <ex-> as a prefix is a logical idea seeing as we know it to be a prefix in other words.

Next I would point to what has been identified as suffixes.  In two of the words <ion> has been suggested and in one word <sion> has been suggested.  Now I ask the students what they think of those two suggestions.  Can they think of other words that have either an <ion> or <sion> suffix?  Since we recently took part in an activity in which students were focused on finding certain suffixes, a few of the students recognized that <-ion> is a suffix in <adoption> and in <action>.  We thought of <expression>, but realized that even here, the suffix would have to be <ion> since the <s> before the <ion> in that word is part of the stem <express>.

That left us to consider whether the first or second hypothesis was more likely based on what we knew.  No one was familiar with <pl> or <os> as morphemes on their own, but that doesn’t mean that neither of them is  or isn’t a morpheme.  Next we brainstormed words related to <explosion>.  The students thought of:

<explosive>
<explosives>
<explosiveness>
<explosively>
<implosion>

Our related words list gave us evidence that the <ex> was a prefix because we could see that it could be replaced with an <im> prefix.  We also saw the evidence that <ion> was a suffix because it could be replaced with <ive>.  We were pretty sure that the base in this word was <plose>.  A look at Etymonline revealed that this word’s furthest back relative was <plodere>.  When I see that final ‘ere‘ on a Latin ancestor, I recognize that this was a Latin verb and the ‘ere‘ was an infinitive suffix. When removed, it reveals the stem that came into modern English as a base element.  You have probably already noticed, however, that when we remove the ‘ere‘ we are left with <plode> and not <plose>.  These are alternant spellings of the same Latin verb meaning “drive out with clapping.”  You see, this verb was originally used in the theater.  I bet you can imagine an audience exploding with applause.  By the way, <applause> and <applaud> are related to these.  They continued to be used in a theater sense, and <explosion> and <explode> began to be used in other situations as well.

The evidence we gathered supported the word sum <ex + plose + ion>.

Giving the students opportunities to hypothesize word sums encourages them think about many of the words they encounter in and out of school!  It is not uncommon to hear from either students or parents about word conversations that took place in the car or at the dinner table!  Here’s another example from last week.  I put the word <constantly> on the board.  Here are the word sum hypotheses the students created:

Because we had done this activity several times before, I did not begin by sharing what I noticed about these hypotheses.  Instead I asked the students what they noticed about the three word sum hypotheses.  “What do you see that you agree is a logical hypothesis for either an entire word sum or part of a word sum.”  The first person noticed that all three hypotheses suggested that <ly> was a suffix.  Other students easily thought of words with an <ly> suffix (lonely, quickly, happily).  It may have helped that we looked at a list of words with <ly> suffixes the day before.  And that may be why I chose a word with that suffix for today.  A little reinforcing is always a good thing!

Then someone noticed that two of the hypotheses had <con> as prefixes.  So we did some brainstorming again and thought of concert, construction, contract, concussion and congress.  The students weren’t sure whether <con> really was a prefix in concert and congress, but they could think of replacing the <con> with <de> in <construction> (<destruction>), removing the <con> and adding an <or> suffix to <contract> (<tractor>), and replacing the <con> with <per> in <concussion> (<percussion>).

I specifically asked what everyone thought about the second word sum – the one that read <constant + ly>.  I wanted to point out that when you absolutely cannot point to anything you recognize as a possible morpheme, then this would be a good choice.  It is far better to “under-analyze” than to “over-analyze” without evidence.  When you first start this activity with your students, you may notice that they assume that every two letters is a morpheme.  Sometimes it is obvious to me that they are breaking the word into syllables, but sometimes it’s not even that.  They just have no idea what’s what yet.  They do not recognize enough affixes or bases.  That is why I choose words that reinforce affixes we’ve already noticed.  That is also why I show them how to think logically as they are thinking through the hypothesis they intend to propose.

The last two things to consider then are the possibility of a <stant> base or an <st> base and an <ant> suffix.  My first question to the class was, “Can you think of any words with an <ant> suffix?  Can we provide evidence that it might be a suffix?”  After some thinking time someone offered up <pleasant>.  Then the words <migrant> and <pollutant> were named.  That was enough evidence that the <ant> might be a suffix.  But then that left an <st> base.  Is there such a thing?  I thought back to the moment when the student wrote this particular hypothesis on the board.  Another student kind of sniggered from his seat as if suggesting an <st> base was going too far.  It does sound improbable, doesn’t it?  We were now at the point when it was time to go to a resource.  I called up Etymonline and shared it on the Smartboard with everyone.  I searched for <constantly>.  This is what came up:

The students were so perplexed.  “What?  Why does sourball come up?”  I told them to read what they were looking at and then to raise their hand when they had an idea why this word came up in the search.  It didn’t take long at all before they saw the word <constantly> in the entry for sourball.  I then told them how glad I was that this happened.  It just shows us that when we list a word in the search bar, the program looks for that word in all the places it exists on the site!

My next question was what to do next?  How should I alter what I have in the search bar so we can keep going with our investigation?  As if in harmony, most all of the students responded with, “Take off the <ly> suffix.”

As we read through the entry together, I pointed out that this word was first attested in the late 14th century.  It is obviously a very old word.  Then I went on to say that at that time this word was used to mean “steadfast, resolute; patient, unshakable; fixed or firm in mind.”  I paused to think out loud and to model what I hope they do when they read during research.  “Is that how we still use this word?  What is something that we might describe as constant?”  After a moment of thought someone said that a noise could be described as constant.  So we talked about a dog who is constantly barking or an alarm that is constantly going off earlier than it should.  Then we thought of the 14th century sense and meaning of this word – unshakable, fixed.  We knew that we still use this word in the same way.  It was time to keep reading.

Next we noticed that this word was either from Old French and had the same spelling then as we have today, or it was from Latin constantem with a sense and meaning of “standing firm, stable, steadfast, faithful.”  As I kept reading, I saw the words “assimilated form” and pointed that out.  “Look here!  The word is from the assimilated form of com meaning ‘with, together.’  Then it says, ‘see con-‘.   What do you suppose that is evidence of?”

Again they all responded, “A <con-> prefix!”

“Now keep reading.  Do you notice how this is from an assimilated form of com + stare “to stand?”  Do you see that?  Well, let me tell you about that Latin verb.  I happen to know it is a Latin verb because I recognize the infinitive suffix on it.  You know how we have certain suffixes that we recognize as suffixes we use with verbs?  You know, like <ing> sometimes and <s> sometimes?  Well in Latin, one of the suffixes found on the verb in its infinitive form is an ‘-are.’  When we remove that suffix from this Latin verb, we see the Latin stem that came into Modern English and is now a base element.”

I wrote the Latin verb stare on the board and boxed out the infinitive suffix so the students could see what I was doing.  In this way they could also see what would be left without the Latin suffix.

There was a bit of excitement mixed in with a bit of “I don’t believe it” when they realized that the Modern English base is indeed <st> and has a denotation of “stand!”  The next step, of course, was to put together what we knew the base meant along with the sense carried by the prefix.  We had a literal sense of “stand together.”  Looking back at the way <constant> has been used in the past, several students right away spotted the words “standing firm” and “fixed.”  Again we could relate these senses to how we use the word <constant>.

It was time to draw everyone’s attention back to our three hypotheses.  It is always important to point out that there aren’t any right or wrong answers on the board.  There are only hypotheses that can be supported by evidence and hypotheses that can’t.  Nurturing that understanding builds an atmosphere in the classroom that is free of judgement.  That is huge!  In this case, there are two that we can support with evidence, and one that we can’t support with evidence.  But even the one we can’t support with evidence had some logical and evidence-supported morphemes in it!

So as we were wrapping up this activity, a student in the back row raised her hand and asked, “What about pros and cons?  Is the <con> in this same prefix, or is it a clip of something?”

The smile on my face was immediate!  What a thought provoking question!  I paused for a bit before saying, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like some time to think about this.  Maybe others in here feel the same way.  Would you please write your question over on the Wonder Wall?  We’ll look at this tomorrow.  In the meantime we can all have some time to think about it.”

When this group of students came in the next day, I started by asking how many had given this some thought.  At least eight hands went up.  I was impressed.  One student explained that she had laid in bed the night before trying to think of what <pro> and <con> might be a clip of.  Another student wondered if <pro> was a clip of proactive and that maybe <con> was a clip of conflict.  Interesting.  Someone else piped up and offered that <pro> might be a clip of proficient.

At this point, I said, “Let’s back it up a second and make sure we have a sense of what we mean when we use this phrase.  Is there another phrase that is sometimes used in place of this one?”  Students replied with:

“How about advantages and disadvantages?”
“Or pluses and minuses?”

Next we thought of a scenario in which we might make a list of pros and cons.  Examples from our discussion included deciding whether or not to get a new pet and convincing parents to start/increase an allowance.  Now I felt like we were ready to see what Etymonline had to say.  We began by looking up <con>.

Immediately it was agreed that this fit our search.  The first words “negation; in the negative; the arguments” were exactly what we thought of when we thought of the “cons” of a proposal.  As we continued to read, we were surprised to see “mainly in pro and con.”  I paused to think aloud again.  “So this use of <con> to mean something negative is mainly used in the phrase pro and con.  Interesting! And look!  It’s been around since the 1570’s!  Isn’t it surprising that this phrase is that old?”  But little did we know that the most interesting part was yet to come.   The very next words told us that <con> was indeed a clip.  It was a clip of contra “against.”

Before we used the link to find out more about <contra>, we finished reading the entry and saw the direction to compare <con> with <pro>.  We decided we would come back and do that after we looked at <contra>.

What we found at the entry for <contra> was that this is a free base with a denotation of “against; on the opposite side.”  What really caught my eye was the list of related words.  I chose three to talk about, thinking that those three might be familiar to my students.  The first was <contradict>.  I explained that the bound base was <dict> “say.”  The example I used was, “If I were to say that today was Friday and someone were to say it was Thursday, I might tell them not to contradict me.”

The second word was <controversy>.  To illustrate this, I brought up the current issue of climate change.  I told them that this is a controversial issue because some people believe it is a problem and some people have the opposite view.  They do not believe it is a problem.  Since both sides are feeling strongly, this becomes a controversial issue.

The last word we spoke about was <contrast>.  A student shared that when we point out contrasts we are pointing out differences.  Great!  But here was an opportunity I was not going to miss.  “Does anyone have a hypothesis about what the word sum for <contrast> might be?  Think about the entry we are looking at.

A student raised his hand with movements of urgency.  “<contra + st>!”  Eyes lit up everywhere.

I suggested we look at the entry for <contrast> to see if we could support this hypothesis with evidence.  Sure enough!  This word is from Latin contra “against” and Latin stare “stand.”  How cool that we found another word with an <st> base already!  It was great to be able to reinforce how I knew that the base was <st>.

It was time now to go find out about <pro>.  I took them back to the Etymonline entry for <con>.  I wanted to point out something.  Right behind the link to “Compare pro,” there was a set of parentheses with (n.2).  I asked, “What do you supposed that means?”  The silence that followed made me glad I had asked.  It is opportunities like these where I can make their individual visits to Etymonline more productive.  I asked if anyone ever noticed that sometimes a word is listed twice in a dictionary because it has two different meanings.  Many had.  That was enough to trigger some understanding that (n.2) meant that <pro> is a noun and we would be looking for the second entry.

Even with pointing out that we would be looking for the second entry, several students shouted out that <pro> was a clip of <professional>.  So we read together the second entry and realized that “a consideration or argument in favor” is the sense we use in the phrase pros and cons.   Further in the entry we found corroboration that pro and con is short for pro and contra “for and against.”  We even noted the Latin spelling (pro et contra).

I ended our discussion by sincerely thanking the student who had brought the phrase pros and cons to our attention.  What a delight to find out this information about it!  At first we wondered if <pro> was a clip of either proactive or proficient, but we found out that it wasn’t a clip at all.  Instead, <con> was a clip of <contra>.  We now understand <pro> to mean an argument in favor of something and <con> to mean an argument against something.  And yes, some may have had a sense of that before we started, but I do believe there is a difference between knowing something superficially and knowing something in a way that it didn’t before.

Within 24 hours of this discussion, three more word quandaries appeared on our Wonder Wall:

– Is influence related to influenza?
-Why is there a <u> in some spellings of <color>?
-What does “hemmed and hawed” mean?

Looks like I won’t ever have to wonder what we should talk about next!  These students are in orthographic orbit!

 

An Alphabet Book that Proves How Important Etymology Is!

I have read some entertaining alphabet books in my time.  My favorites are the really old ones. The antique ones with the detailed drawings.  But then again, I’ve also enjoyed the variety that has been available for a long time.  There are alphabet books that specifically name flowers, ocean creatures, plants and animals.  There are clever ones like Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers.  Each letter has its own short story and some of those stories connect as you continue reading through the book.  (I recently read this book to my granddaughter.  It was definitely written with both of us in mind!)

Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

There are alphabet books that aren’t really for children, but for adults like myself who are beginning to understand linguistics!  One such book is An ABC for Baby Linguists by Michael Bernstein.

Recently I found yet another great alphabet book, … but it’s only great if you are willing to ignore some of the statements made by the authors.

What they have collected here is a thing of beauty and wonder, yet they label it as “the worst alphabet book ever.”  The subtitle only makes their ignorance more obvious – “All the letters that misbehave and make words nearly impossible to pronounce.”  See what I mean?  How on earth can a letter misbehave?  It’s an inanimate object!  And for those who were once taught that letters can “say their name,” they can’t do that either.  (I like to prove this to my students by writing down any old letter and then putting my ear right up to it.  Then I wait.  I wait for the thing that will never happen.  The letter will never say its name nor any other letter’s name.  The letter will never push, trip, or pull the hair of another letter.  See?  A letter will never misbehave either.)

A letter WILL however, represent something.  If it is not a grapheme representing a phoneme in a word, it might be an orthographical marker. Either way, it has information to share.  We are so conditioned (and incorrectly so) to believe that a letter’s only purpose is to “say” a sound, that we don’t even consider that there is more to know!  But there is!   And this book does a beautiful job of reminding us of that!  Except …

The authors are painfully unaware of it.  The idea they had in collecting these words is fabulous.  The information they share about each word is interesting.  Their conclusions about this collection are sad and feed into the collective ignorance about how our language really works.  We don’t need more of that.  What we need is to see this collection of words as an opportunity to understand our language better.  To appreciate that our language is full of immigrants and each of those immigrant words enlarges us and completes us in a way.  To appreciate that our language has a history and that in the same way I got my lack of height from my grandfather, so do words acquire and/or lose letters according to their family tree. These words connect our humanity across the world, but also across time.

Armed with my own take on this book, I read it to my students. They thoroughly enjoyed it.  It IS unexpected, isn’t it?  What we expect is “P is for pickle” or “P is for panda.”  What we do not expect is to find the focus on the one letter in the word that is not pronounced.  After all, alphabet books have a mission to help early readers understand letters better by giving examples of words that begin with that letter.  In other words, words in which the first letter IS pronounced.  I guess in that regard, this book misses that mark.  But in my opinion, it hits a bigger mark that seems to be always missed.

The job of spelling is to represent meaning and NOT to represent pronunciation.  I think that is the beauty of this book.  It is best appreciated by people who know that P can be for pickle, panda, AND pterodactyl.

As we read the pages and flipped to the next, the anticipation of which word would represent each letter was kind of a sweet wait.  Our minds raced ahead trying to guess.  Once I finished reading it to the class, I thought it might be interesting to have some of the students find out more about some of what we saw in the book.  The students were ahead of me with that thought.

“Mrs. Steven, can I investigate <pterodactyl>?  I want to find out if there are other words with <pt>.”
“Can I borrow that book?  I want to pick something I might like to investigate!”

And then they were off!

 

 

P is for Pterodactyl

Two boys (two different classes) asked to investigate <pterodactyl>.  Let’s start with what Sam presented.  He has a word sum right under the word <pterodactyl>.  He identifies the first base <pter> as having a denotation of “wing” and the second base <dactyl> as having a denotation of “finger.”  The <o> is a connecting vowel.  All parts of this word are from Greek.


He also wrote the word in Greek with my help.  I brought in my Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon and showed him how to look it up.

Many of the words that shared the <pter> base “winged” he found at the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).  This is the first year my students have had access to the OED.  They were able to find many related words by using this resource.  The thing I asked them to keep in mind, though, was how recently the words they were finding were used.  If the last time we have evidence of a word being used was 1672, it probably isn’t a word we will be using any time soon.  Perhaps it would be better to stick with more commonly used relatives!  This poster was created by Sam.  What I love about it is the key at the bottom.  Some words he marked as “interesting” and some he marked as “favorites.”

For example, one of Sam’s favorites was <pterostigma>.(Sixth from the bottom.)  He has defined it as “a pigmented spot on the anterior margin of the wings of certain insects.”  Here is a picture.  The second base in this compound word is <stigma> and it has a denotation of “mark made on skin” often made with a tool, so something like a tattoo.  I can certainly see why scientists named these spots in this way!

dragonfly wings

Another of Sam’s favorites was <pteranodon>.  (Third from the top.) He has defined it as “a large tailless pterosaur of the family pteranodontidae.” Below is a composite cast of a pteranodon.  The second part in this compound word is <anodon>.  It has the Hellenic privative prefix <an-> that carries a sense of “without” and the Hellenic base <odon> “teeth.” Once again you can see that the scientists thought carefully as they named this flying reptile.

Pteranodon amnh martyniuk.jpg
Mounted composite cast of Pteranodon longiceps (=P. ingens) at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Photo credit Matt Martyniuk henteeth.com

Sam loves to draw, and did a pretty great job with his pterosaur!

Now let’s look at Jude’s work.

Jude has his word sum up front along with the denotations for each base in this compound word.  He wasn’t finding too many related words, so I sent him to a post I wrote previously that focused on <pter>.  Find it HERE.  In that post, I reflected on some insect names I learned when my husband was working on his masters in entomology.   Quite a few of the insect Orders have <pter> as part of their name.

After Jude wrote word sums for the related words he collected, he created a matrix.  Here is a larger version of it.

You’ll notice that there is an <o> connecting vowel used to connect two bases to form a compound word.  I am noticing that the <dactyl> should be bolded to show it is a base and not a suffix.  The <a> that is listed alone is NOT a connecting vowel.  In the word <siphonaptera>, the <a> is a Hellenic privative prefix added to the base <pter> with a sense of “without.”  You see, a siphonaptera is an insect that has siphoning mouth parts and is without wings.  An example would be a flea.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d4/A_dog_flea_%28Ctenocephalides_canis%29%3B_adult%2C_pupa%2C_egg_and_lar_Wellcome_V0022501EL.jpg

Gallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0022501EL.html

Another related word that Jude found interesting was <iopterous> “violet wing.”  The first base is from Greek ion “violet, violet color.”  It is related to <iodine> which is an element on the periodic table and means “violet in appearance.”


Hans (pixabay.com)
Iodine is a violet vapor or blue-black solid.
Iodine is a violet vapor or blue-black solid. Matt Meadows/Getty Images

As you can see, even though both boys investigated the same word, they each found related words and learned things that the other hadn’t.  This is one of the things I love about Structured Word Inquiry.  There is no expected “complete” answer.  There is only what you find based on the resources you use and the length of time you remain interested in the task.  An answer key would stifle the curiosity and the drive.

One other important observation Jude made when we put both of these posters side by side was that when the <pter> was initial in the word, the <p> was not pronounced.  Most of the related words listed on Sam’s poster had the <pter> base first.  On Jude’s poster, the opposite was true.  The <pter> was usually the second base, and in such words, both the <p> and <t> was pronounced.  Interesting observation, am I right?

So what other interesting words in this book inspired investigations?

 

 

M is for Mnemonic

Danny asked to find out more about <mnemonic>.  He was familiar with remembering all five of the Great Lakes by remembering the word HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), so he understood what mnemonic meant.

He read at Etymonline that this word was first attested in 1753, and that it has always had something to do with “aiding the memory.”  He also read that it was from a Latinized form of Greek mnemonikos “of or pertaining to memory”, and before that it was from mneme “memory, remembrance.”  That was helpful because as Danny collected related words, he noticed that although some had the <mnem> spelling, some had something different.  Some had <mnes>.

He sorted the words he found into the two lists and then looked up <amnesia>.  He found out that this word was coined from the Greek amnesia “forgetfulness.”  You see the <a> brings a sense of “without,” so to have amnesia is to be without memory. (There’s that same Hellenic privative <a>!) You’ll notice that same <a> in <amnemonic> on his poster.  I’m guessing that he found that related word at the OED because it is not used much any more.  Since it means the same thing as amnesia, there must not have been a need for both words and amnesia became the more commonly used word.

Another interesting word Danny found that has that same <a> is <amnesty>.  This word was first attested in 1570 and was used to mean “a ruling authority’s pardon of past offenses.”  In other words, when someone is granted amnesty, the party granting it is saying they will not remember your past offenses.

Published byBartholomew Collins

The big thing that Danny couldn’t help but notice was that when <mn> was initial in a word, only the <n> was pronounced.  But when the <a> was initial in the word, both the <m> and the <n> were pronounced.  It’s the same thing that happened with the <pt> in pterodactyl and helicopter!

 

 

P is for Pneumonia

Alright, you got me.  There weren’t two “P is for …” pages.  But once I saw what Danny was discovering, I thought of <pneumonia> and the <p> that isn’t pronounced and is also followed by an <n>.  The next person to come to my desk looking for a new project was Cally, so I asked her if she’d like to investigate words that begin with <pn>.  She was excited!

As Cally collected words, she noticed that there was a common sense of “lungs, breath, wind” among them.  She was familiar with <pneumonia> and knew it was a sickness that was centered in the lungs.  It definitely interferes with breathing as the air sacs in the lungs become inflamed and fluid filled.

When I saw she had the word <pneumatic> on her list, I asked her to google “pneumatic drill.”  She did, and immediately understood what it had to do with air.  She watched a few Youtube videos in which someone was demonstrating how a pneumatic drill works.  I asked her to pick one out that we could show the class.  She chose this one.  It does a great job in explaining how the compressed air is used to move the drill bit up and down.

Another word that Cally found pretty fascinating was <pneobiognosis>.  I found this entry in An Illustrated Dictionary of Medicine, Biology, and Allied Sciences by George Milbry Gould.  Notice how the entry names the three stems used to create this word.  The first is πνειν (transcribed as pnein) and has a denotation of “to breathe.”  The second is βιος (transcribed as bios) and has a denotation of “life.”  The last is γνωσις (transcried as gnosis) and has a denotation of “knowledge.”  But what does the word mean?  How do those denotations combine to make a word’s meaning?

Next we went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).  Cally read that this word is pretty rare.  It was first attested in 1890, so it’s not that old.  I guess that there are other words we use more often to represent this meaning.  You see this word was created to describe a situation in which a newborn has died and there is an examination of the lungs and chest to see whether or not the baby had ever breathed.  So did it die before or after birth?  While it was kind of a sad thing to think about, it was interesting to Cally to see bases she knew (<bi> and <pne(u)>) used in an unfamiliar word like this one.

When I saw the spelling of another word in Cally’s notebook (pneumatique), I saw an opportunity to point out something to her.  Together we googled this word.  Here is the first entry that popped up.  There were several others on the same page written in French as well.  As you can imagine, Cally wondered why the entry was in French.

“Perhaps Google recognized this word as a French word,” I responded.  “I have a suspicion it is the spelling of the suffix here that is giving this word a French identity.”

So we looked at the OED.  The entry there listed this word as French.  It was defined as “a letter or message sent by a pneumatic post system in Paris.”  My first reaction was to wonder aloud if this is the system we see at our local bank.  We pull up in our car, put our deposit slip in a container that sits in a tube and then watch as the container is sucked up the tube and into the bank.  Cally had seen the same thing and agreed that it was a pneumatic system for transporting money or paper.  But then I noticed something else.

“Cally.  Look at the use of the <-ic> suffix on <pneumatic> in the definition.  Let’s find out more about that suffix and it’s connection to <-ique>.”

I sent Cally to Etymonline to search for <-ic>.  This is what we found:

“Oh!  These two spellings are the same suffix!  Cool!”
“Yes.  Sometimes it is more common to use one over the other.  In the U.S., we spell this word with an <-ic> more often than an <-ique>, but they are both acceptable.”

******

Because writing this post is such a reflective process, sometimes I think of questions as I am writing that I didn’t think of in the moment.  Right now I am wondering about the words <critic> and <critique>.  There is not just a suffix spelling difference with these two words.  There is a meaning difference as well.  They are obviously morphological relatives with a common denotation, but the <-ic> is an agent suffix in this case whereas that is not the case with the use of the <-ique>.  In other words, they are not interchangeable because each brings a different sense to the overall meaning of the word.  The same applies to the words <mystic> and <mystique>.  But then there is <communique>.  We switch to the <-ic> suffix when we add the <-ate> suffix, as in <communicate>.  It seems that in some words these two suffixes are interchangeable, and in some word families they are but not strictly.  In yet other word families they may not be at all.  Hmmmm.  This sounds like a great investigation for one of my students next year!

******

One last word that intrigued Cally was a very long one.  It was <pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis>!   After sending Cally to several dictionaries, we came to the conclusion that there is not a consensus on this word’s history.  At Etymonline it is mentioned that it may have been invented by seventh grade students in Norfolk, Virginia.  At Lexico Dictionary there is mention of it being created in the 1930’s and invented “(probably by Everett M. Smith, president of the National Puzzlers’ League) in imitation of very long medical terms.” All sources do agreed that this word describes a lung disease from breathing in very fine ash or dust.

 

 

P is for Psychic Pterodactyl

I know, I know.  This is the third investigation regarding an initial <p> that can be unpronounced in a word.  But when I read aloud the “P is for Pterodactyl” page in the book, the pterodactyl was indeed described as psychic which immediately stirred up Samantha’s curiosity.  I sent her to find some words with an initial <ps> where the <p> was not pronounced.  Look at what she found!

Samantha grouped the words she found by their spelling.  One of the bases she noticed was <psyche> “soul, spirit, mind.”  In her left hand list, you’ll see the words she found.  You will also notice that she wrote the denotation of the base as if it were the definition of the word.  That’s not very helpful.  All of the words have something to do with “soul, mind, spirit of life,” but they aren’t synonyms.  The affixes and bases that combine with the target base provide variations to the overall meaning of the word.

For instance, the first word she has listed is <psychologist>.  The word sum would be <psyche/ + o + loge/ + ist>.  This is a compound word with a second base denoting “study” followed by an agent suffix indicating a person.  A psychologist then, is a person who studies the “soul, mind, spirit of life.”  A more current definition according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is “a person who has, or claims to have, insight into the motivation of human behavior.”  What the bases and affixes add to the overall meaning of the word is important!

Another on that list is <psychosis>.  I’m sure the ending on this word feels familiar.  We see it in halitosis, neurosis, osteoporosis, fibrosis, and mononucleosis.  Notice anything about all of those?  Yup.  They all have something to do with a medical condition.  That is what the <-osis> brings to the word.  Someone with psychosis would have a disordered mental state, usually involving a loss of contact with reality (from the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).

The last word in that list is pretty interesting as well.  The word <psychedelic> is a word I heard a lot when I was young.  Bright flowy colors moving on a wall were psychedelic.  Most art images reminded me of the thoughts and feelings that can spill out of our heads.  The colors were always bright.  I was a little too young to understand the drug culture of the times.  But when I look at the word <psychedelic> now, I am intrigued by what the rest of the word means.  The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) lists it as being from Ancient Greek ψυχή (transcribed as psyche) and Greek δηλουν (transcribed as deloun “make visible, reveal”).  In combination, this word describes the effects of mind altering drugs, and the idea that the drugs made the soul and mind visible.

Love, 1969 - Peter Max

Love  Peter Max 1969; c. Peter Max, Fair Use

Notice that in Greek, the letter that was later transcribed into Latin as <ps> was ψ “psi.”  The Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ps>.  In Greek, both the <p> and the <s> were pronounced.  In the same base we also see the Greek letter χ “chi.”  Again, the Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ch>.  The pronunciation was /kh/.  You may not recognize the Greek letter, but you’ll recognize the <ch> spelling with the modern /k/ pronunciation in words like chemistry, chorus, and school.

The next group that Samantha found had a base of <pseud> “false.”  She did a much better job of defining the words on this list.  The first word on this list is <pseudonymous>.  This is a compound word.  The word sum would be <pseud + onym + ous>.  The second base <onym> is Greek for “name.”  I see that at Etymonline the word <pseudonym> is a back formation of <pseudonymous> which is originally from Ancient Greek ψευδώνυμος “under a false name, falsely named.”  This <onym> base is present in many commonly used words like synonym “same sense or name,” antonym “opposite name,” eponym” named after a person, “toponym” named after a place, “acronym” formed from first letters of words,” and my favorite, anonymous “without a name”. (There’s the same Hellenic privative prefix <an> that we saw in Sam’s investigation of <pteranodon>, in Jude’s investigation of <siphonaptera>, and in Danny’s investigation of <amnesia> and <amnesty>.)

One last word that is interesting is <pseudepigrapha>.  What I like about this word is that it  is proof that the <o> we see in all the other words Samantha listed is not part of the base – it is a connecting vowel!  What we have here is a compound word made up of <pseud> “false” and <epigrapha> “write on.”  If we look closer at the second base we see <epi> “on” and <grapha> “write.”  This completed word was formed in Modern Latin, which means it was purposely put together using classical stems.  This word was coined in 1842 “ascription of false authorship to a book,” according to Etymonline.

 

****  Final Thoughts

I could continue.  Another student looked at <qu> because of the page that started, “Q is for quinoa.”  This person didn’t find other words in which the <qu> was pronounced as it is in <quinoa>, but still the investigation was fruitful.  Check out the two lists this student created and what was noticed.  This person noticed that many words with a <qu> has something to do with four.  The second list were words that had something to do with making noise.

Here’s what Etymonline has to say about <quinoa>:

Some of the words in this book are loan words from different languages, but many are not.  All have delightful tales to tell.  I challenge you to look up the story of why <czar> is spelled that way.  It is not the Russian spelling.  Why not?  Etymonline has the story. Then there is <gnocci> and <gnomes>.  Did you know that the first garden gnomes were imported to England from Germany in the late 1860’s?  And what about <heir>, <honest> and <herbal>?  Instead of “the <h> is misbehaving,” why not seek understanding?  Why not find out where this word came from and how its etymology might very well hold some clues to its spelling.  I see the possibility of some fascinating stories and some interesting word families.

So let’s go back to the authors assertion that these words and letters are misbehaving and not following the rules.  I say it is not the letters who are misbehaving.  I say it is the rules. Who set such a narrow view of words anyway?  Why are so many bamboozled into thinking that spelling is solely to represent sound?  This book proves that that notion couldn’t be further from the truth!  This book proves how lost we can get when we ignore etymology!

 

Having a Blast! Creating a Podcast!

When a colleague forwarded a notice back in January about a podcast contest that NPR was hosting, I was immediately interested.  It sounded like something my students and I would enjoy doing.  The fact that I had never created a podcast before didn’t deter me.  Back when I was doing my own student teaching, I had my students create radio shows.  Wouldn’t this be similar?

The idea of having the students prepare a script that didn’t rely on visuals was appealing.  They would have to make sure they spoke in ways that complemented what they were saying.  They would have to think about the words they were using and not just assume that the orthography terms they use every day would be familiar to their listener.  They would have to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse so that they sounded more like they were speaking than reading.  And in my mind, I knew they would need to write a script that was longer than anything they’ve written to date!  What a lovely marriage of research, writing, revision, reading, speaking, and collaboration this could be!

Podcast Microphone

NPR supplied a well-thought-out plan for guiding educators and students through this process, so I decided to present this idea to my students.  Since I teach three groups of 22 students each, I wondered how many of the students would be interested.  I needn’t have wondered.  It turns out they were ALL interested!  Okay!  We were in!

We began by listening to some of the podcasts recommended by NPR.  We listened to one a day for several days, pausing to discuss the kinds of information we felt was important to have been included, the overall feel of the podcast, the seriousness of the overall information sharing, even when humor was involved, and the sound effects.  Each day, the excitement grew in regards to writing their own.  Many were regular podcast listeners and  were especially enthusiastic.  The majority of students, though, had never listened to a podcast before this.  But they too became enthused as they listened to the well-put-together podcasts each day.

The first thing we had to do was think of our topic.  For me, that was obvious.  The students would be randomly placed in groups and would each investigate a word of the group’s choosing.  They loved that idea!  The students had investigated words on their own several times and were familiar with the resources to use.  This idea gave them a level of comfort as they began.  Putting them in groups of 4-5, meant there were five groups in each class.  That meant we would be creating a series that included 15 podcasts.  The students wouldn’t just be looking at the word’s etymology or root, they would also be looking at how the word’s use or spelling might have changed over time.  It would also be important to include current information about this word’s meaning and its use.  In other words, they would be providing a broad look at a single word.  This was going to require a lot of research before script writing could even begin!

The students took a few days to think about what word they would choose.  Some were inspired by what they had been learning about during their study of the Civil Rights Movement (segregation, peace).  Others brainstormed a list and then looked up information on each to see which sounded more interesting to them.  One group paged through a copy of John Ayto’s book, A Dictionary of Word Origins, and found their word (eureka).  As soon as each group had decided, they let me know and then started learning as much as they could.  As they found out things, they shared the information with the group.

Several days in, each group started writing a script.  According to the NPR guidelines, the podcasts were to be a minimum of 2 minutes long with a maximum length of 12 minutes.  These scripts were no doubt the longest scripts any of these students have been a part of writing!  When they would tell me they were finished, I would ask them if they timed themselves practicing their podcast.  When they did, they would realize their podcast was too short.  So then the real digging began.  The search for related words.  The search for changes in spelling over time or changes in meaning over time.  The search for the word to be used in different ways depending on a context.  The search for how the word is used today and perhaps which people have become associated with the word.

And with this renewed digging, this need to find more, came some surprising facts which were surprisingly satisfying!  I could feel the level of engagement increase among the students.  They would enter my room each day with the same question ready for me, “Are we going to work on our podcasts?”  After a quick progress check (making sure each person knew their role and each group was focused), they grabbed their Chromebooks, found a table or grouped desks together and got to work.

Every once in a while I would hear an extended patch of laughter coming from one or another group.  When I went over to check it out, it was always related to their script or the misreading of it or some information they found that seemed funny.  They were still engaged, just enjoying the team work atmosphere and the shared experience of creating something worth creating!

A few groups included interviews.  The group that was looking at “segregation” interviewed their social studies teacher.  The group that was looking at “frog” interviewed me.  (My fondness for all things “frog” is obvious to those who enter my room!)  And the group that was looking at “lexical” interviewed the creator of The Online Etymology Dictionary, Doug Harper.  That interview was something we all benefited from.  It was a Zoom (online) interview and the whole class was able to meet and listen to Mr. Harper!

After three weeks or so (I kept reassuring them that the research and writing should be the most time consuming of any part of this project) the first of the groups finished, and said they were ready to record.  It was time to start the next phase of this project.

According to the guide at NPR, I could have recorded these audio files on my iphone, but with 15 groups, I could imagine running into problems with space on my phone.  So I purchased a recorder.  I’m so glad I did!  I would get it set up for the students and they took it from there.  Most all of the groups recorded more than once.  That was fine.  We were all getting used to the equipment, being loud enough, being slow enough, and having enough expression in our voices.  We turned a small storage room into our “recording studio.”  You can see my recorder on the inverted tin can in the center.  The students read their scripts from their Chromebooks so they wouldn’t have to worry about the added sound of papers shuffling.

Next we went down to the computer lab and uploaded the audio file into Audacity which is a free software for editing audio files. The students had never used Audacity before, and neither had I.  So the students learned to use the HELP tab.  When they couldn’t find their answer there, they tried looking for a video at Youtube that would walk them through editing at Audacity.  Sure enough!  They not only found answers, but could watch someone do what they needed to do.  They became pretty confident at editing and offered help to other groups who became stuck.  So not only was I seeing cooperation within the groups, I was seeing cooperation between the groups!  This experience just kept getting better and better!

The trickiest part of this editing was that at some point we had five groups in the lab all trying to listen and edit their podcast.  If headphones were used, that meant that only one person would be making decisions, so the groups usually used headphones only for listening to the instructional videos at Youtube.

But one by one, the groups finished the editing and I saved the file to a flash drive.  Then it was back to the classroom for the group.  Once they finished their podcast, I asked them to present their same script as a video.  They now had the opportunity to add pictures, images, and matrices to enhance their information.  This seemed like another way to share their word investigations in a slightly different platform!

As the groups finished, I uploaded each podcast to SoundCloud.  From there, NPR will be able to access them as part of their judging.  Then I filled out the entry form for each group.  They will be judged in the 5th-8th grade category.  Will one of these podcasts win?  Who knows.  All I know is that in the hearts and minds of my students, they have already won.  When I hear students say, “I am really proud of our group!  I’m proud of me!” then I know that this learning experience has been rich and worthwhile.  We all know that learning isn’t just about learning the content.  And this experience was no different.  These students had to persevere when the editing got confusing or they just couldn’t figure something out.  They had to ask for help when needed because this project had a deadline and there wasn’t time to waste.  They had to use patience when one member stumbled over speaking parts or pronunciation of words.  (They were so helpful and kind to one another and never minded practicing just one more time before recording.)  They had to be willing to go back and re-record if the group felt that was the best option.  You see, with every group I saw a serious goal of turning in the best version of their podcast that they could.  I was constantly proud of their attitude, work ethic, and respect for members in their groups.  Were there moments of chaos and discord?  Absolutely!  But all in all, the students learned to redirect their attention, be accountable for their contribution to the group, compromise with members in their group, and compliment each other for little things done well!

In other videos my students have created, I have been the script writer.  This time the students can proudly say they did every facet of this project themselves.  Mind you, if I noticed that something was incorrect or mispronounced, I spoke up and the students willingly amended their podcast.  But I’m sure I missed a few things as well.  Just today I was listening to the episode about “Eureka!”  About three fourths of the way through, I realized that the name of the city they were mispronouncing was Syracuse!  Made me chuckle.  Their mispronunciation made me think at first that it was a city I didn’t know!  It is still one of my favorite podcasts in this series.  Okay, so in truth I have around 15 favorites in this series!

Here is a link to my SoundCloud channel.  I hope you will listen to a few of these podcasts.  If you are wondering where to start, you might enjoy “Lexical” which has the interview with Doug Harper.  Some other great ones are “Hippopotamus,” “Not so Nice,” “Kerfuffle,” “Eureka,” and, well, all of them!  You can either listen here by clicking on the arrow in the top left corner, (in which case the podcasts will play in the order they are listed)  or you can click on my name and it will take you to my page on SoundCloud where you can see the full name of each episode and choose the one you’d like to listen to.  You can also scroll through the list below my image and choose one (although the full name of each episode isn’t always showing.)

If you prefer the video versions, there are about four finished so far.  I am busy editing more and will be adding them to my Youtube channel in the next two weeks.  Here is a link to my Youtube channel:

https://www.youtube.com/user/MaryBethSteven/featured

 

 

 

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!