“Orthography Opens Your Curious Side!”

Another school year has come to an end.  The faces I have grown accustomed to will now grace someone else’s classroom.  I will be left with remembrances of the many times we learned together, stumbled together, and laughed together.

As we take some time to think of the ways this year has moved us all forward by increasing what we understand about our world, the topic of orthography comes to mind.  Back in September a few students lit up right away once we began talking about words and structure and reasons for spelling that had nothing to do with phonics.  The rest were quite sure that it seemed like a lot of work.

The students were used to having spelling and pronunciation be the most important thing to know about a word.  I flip flopped that thinking and asked them to consider the sense and meaning of the word before thinking about either of those.  It was really one of the toughest challenges I faced this year.

You see, when spelling and pronunciation are considered more important than a word’s meaning, then the word is an empty thing.  Learning its spelling becomes a memory task, much like memorizing digits of Pi.  The digits of Pi are random and there is no pattern to rely on.  The students had spent years memorizing words that were empty for them.  They did not see how knowing the meaning of a word would be helpful to understanding its spelling.  Long into the school year I would catch students who were trying to figure out the word sum for a word that they could not define.

Slowly but surely progress was made.  The students became more and more familiar with common prefixes and suffixes.  They began to understand that affixes affect the overall sense and meaning of the base.  They began to see words as having a structure that brings sense to the word’s spelling.  When the structure begins to be understood, then spelling doesn’t need to be memorized.  The student will be able to rely on their knowledge of that underlying word structure and suffixing conventions to spell words.

Today I asked students to think back on the orthography work we have done this year.  I asked them whether or not there is a benefit to studying it.  The following video says it all.  My students overwhelming wish other grade levels could experience it and learn some of what they have.

Over and over these comments mention that students felt a sense of depth when studying orthography that was lacking in their previous spelling programs.  Studying orthography required more writing, more thinking, more research, more discussion, more questioning and more project work than their spelling program had.  AND YET they liked it better!  There are so many great quotes I could use, but I’ll leave you with this one, “Orthography opens your curious side!”

The following video is a conglomeration of silly moments from our year together.  The students enjoyed making videos this year and were so patient with me when I was filming.  I put this one together just for them.



Syllable Use Helps With Spelling? Not Likely!

I walked into a classroom last week and had an opportunity to really and truly understand how breaking words into syllables does not help students learn spelling.  Let me explain.

The lesson was focused on the base word <male/mal>.  There were 10 words written on the board and they were all divided into syllables to aid in pronunciation.  I asked if pronunciation or meaning was the most important thing this teacher wanted her students to know about these words.  She said meaning.  I tried then to point out that by breaking the words into syllables, she had disguised the word parts (morphemes) that HAD meaning.

Here’s an example using the word <malevolent>.  The syllable breakdown on the board was <ma + lev + o+ lent>.  So how hard have we as teachers just made it for the students to recognize that one of the base words here is <mal> which means bad … or that the other one is <vol> which means will?

Instead of a syllabic breakdown I would suggest an orthographic word sum that looks like this:  <mal> + <e> + <vol> + <ent>.  In an orthographic word sum, the word is separated into morphemes (a word part with meaning that cannot be made smaller).

With this kind of examination, the students will learn several things.  First, once they have researched this word, they will find the meaning of it — not just the general meaning, but the meanings of the morphemes <mal> and <vol>.  While researching (using Etymonline), they will also learn the history of the word and these bases.

With teacher guidance they will learn about the connecting vowel <e>.  They learn that with two bases in one word, this word is a connected compound (meaning it is a compound word with a connecting vowel between the bases).

Lastly the student will recognize that <ent> is a commonly used suffix (based on previously investigated words with that suffix  and also a list of words compiled by students in which <ent> is clearly the suffix).  By separating a word into syllables, the suffix <ent> is not recognizable because it is visually paired with an <l>, forming a familiar word <lent>.

None of the syllables in the word <malevolent> have meaning.  They do not enhance a student’s understanding of what the word means.  What if … instead of having students break words into meaningless parts that may or may not make the rote memorization of the word easier, we have them break words into meaningful parts that the student can then relate to what they know of other words and other spellings?  Gina Cooke referred to this process as peeling back the layers of a word in her video called “Making sense of spelling“.  What a beautiful way to think about a word and its affixes.

Initially, the teacher said that she wanted her students to be able to pronounce the words.  Teaching the students IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) would be better suited to this end than syllables anyway.

Teach It! Then You’ll Know If You Know It!

Our class was invited to teach the three second grade classrooms in our building about word sums!  With great enthusiasm and excitement, we accepted.   We chose the word <star> because we knew they were studying the solar system.  Next, the fifth grade students brainstormed a list of words with <star> as a base.  Once we had that list, we sorted out the compound words from the “base plus suffix” words.  Someone volunteered to create the matrix based on our brainstormed list, and we were ready to practice.

For three days, the students practiced explaining what they knew to a partner.  We talked about naming bases and suffixes.  We talked about adding vowel suffixes to <star>.  We talked about spelling out loud while writing the word sum.  We talked about the “is rewritten as” arrow.  We talked about having in mind a logical order in which to share all this. We talked about compound words.

I was fascinated by our first visit.  The second graders were eager to please.  A few of the  fifth graders weren’t as secure in their own understanding as I thought.  I heard the “is rewritten as” arrow referred to as “equal” and “combines”.  There weren’t enough second graders spelling out loud.  But there were also these lovely moments when the joy of teaching and the joy of learning lit up each pair of students.



After that first experience, my students were looking forward to visiting the second and third classrooms and doing it again, only better!  We talked more about the importance of repeating the spellings out loud and of having slight pauses between two bases (compound) or between a base and a suffix.  I also stressed the importance of teaching that the arrow be referred to as “is rewritten as”.

With experience grows confidence.  The fifth graders thoroughly enjoyed being the teachers.  I enjoyed seeing them cement the cracks in their own understanding.  One second grade boy was paired up with his fifth grade sister.  He asked if she would teach him more when they got home!  Another second grader asked why there wasn’t another matrix on the back side of the paper!  Both groups decided this was fun!