Instead of Being Submerged in a Sea of “Sound It Out”, We Suggest Spelling Success with Structured Word Inquiry!

My students have been working on several things lately.  Some have been looking at specific graphemes/digraphs and the phonemes that they can represent.  Others have been looking at prefixes and the assimilated forms they often have.  Still others have begun to explore Latin verbs and the unitary/twin bases that come from them.   So with all of these different  investigations going on at once, how do I make sure that all the students are learning all these things?  It happens on a day like today.  It happens when I plan a simple review that turns into a simply rich inquiry.  I can’t imagine that any other review set up in the same way would yield anything less.  You see this wasn’t a fluke.  It didn’t just happen once today.  It happened three times … in each of my three classes.  Fortunately I set up my camera during one of the classes and am able to invite you in.  If I tried to tell you all about it without letting you see for yourself, you might think I was exaggerating.

Setting the scene …

Here are a few of the posters my students have presented lately.  When I say they presented the poster, I mean they told the class what their investigation was all about.  They read any words they found that were related to the investigation, and then they shared the definitions of some of the words that were new to them as they investigated.  After that, the students listening asked questions and discussions ensued.

With other investigations still in process, I thought it was a good time to pause and reflect on what we have been learning.  Every once in a while I see the students sliding back into the comfortable yet unproductive habit of robotic research.  I define that as collecting what has been asked for without thinking about what the words mean or whether or not they fit the focus of the investigation.  Their whole spelling lives they have been asked to mindlessly focus on letters and letter strings.  They have not been asked to see those letter strings as anything in particular.  I am asking them to think critically about whether those letter strings constitute a morpheme in a word.  This is a new skill for most.

Before the students walked in, I wrote the prefix <sub-> on the board along with the most common sense it brings to a base, “up, under.”  Then once the students were seated, I asked them to think of words with a <sub-> prefix.  It could actually be <sub>, but it could also be one of this prefix’s assimilated forms (<suf>, <sug>, <sup>, <suc>, <sur>).  Here is what the board looked like:

At this point I asked the students to look at the board and let me know what they thought.  Did all of these words indeed have an <sub-> prefix or one of its assimilated forms?  Is there anything you question or wonder about?

I turned on my camera and the students were engaged in discussion for 50 minutes.  Fifty minutes! Take a listen and see where their questions and observations took the discussion.  (Don’t worry.  I edited so that the first video is 12 minutes and the second is 7 minutes.  I must say it was hard to find parts of the discussion to cut.  It was all as great and interesting as what you are about to see!)

As you can see, the questions just kept coming and the students exhibited a comfort level in using the resources (on this day it was Etymonline and the Collins Gage Canadian Paperback dictionary).  They were connecting dots all over the place!  They were understanding familiar words in a new way and understanding unfamiliar words enough to connect them to other words by their structure.  Structured Word Inquiry is never about memorizing a word’s spelling.  It is about understanding it.  But becoming a better speller is a pretty reliable side effect of the work my students do each day.  We talk about words every day whether we are focused on SWI or not.

When my third group of fifth grade students brainstormed their own list of words with the <sub-> prefix or one of its assimilated forms, this is what the board looked like.  I did not take video, but you can imagine by what you see that it was every bit as rich a discussion as with my middle class.  You’ll notice that some of the same words were thought of by students in each class, but then there were words that didn’t appear in the last group’s discussion.  Is that important?  I don’t think so.  We focused on the meaning and structure of the words.  And when we needed it, we went to a resource to find out which language the word originated in and perhaps what other languages had an effect on its spelling.

You will notice that we crossed off the words <sucking> and <super>.  It was in a quick discussion that a student explained why the <suc> in <sucking> couldn’t be a prefix like we see in <success>.  In the word <sucking>, the students recognized that the base was <suck> and that the <ck> was representing one phoneme, /k/.  The students decided that if <super> had an <sup> prefix, that would leave <er> which is a pretty common suffix.  But then there wouldn’t be a base!  As I did with the other class, I had someone look up the word <super> to verify that the <sup> was indeed  part of the base and NOT a prefix.  As it turns out, this word is from Latin super “above, over, beyond.”  This word is a free base and it’s spelling hasn’t changed at all!  We talked about superheros and supervisors and how that denotation of “above, over, beyond” made sense.

That brought us to the word <supper>.  Everyone was familiar with supper being a meal eaten in the evening.  One hypothesis was that the prefix was <sup> and the base was <per>.  Another was that the prefix was <sup>, the base was <p>, and that the suffix was <er>.  I had someone go get a dictionary.  That person reported that the base was <sup> with a denotation of “dine.”  That meant that the <er> was a suffix and the second <p> was the doubled <p> from when the vowel suffix was added.  They were not familiar with the base <sup>, so I reminded them of the base <hap> that we see in <happy>.  A very similar thing happens in that word.  So even though the <sup> in <supper> is followed by a <p>, that doesn’t mean it is a prefix.  In this word, the <sup> is the base!  It’s a third word we could have crossed off.

Since we had just found a word in which the <sup> was a base and the <p> that followed it was the doubled <p>, someone wondered if the same thing was happening with <supply>.  They asked if <sup> was the base and there was an <ly> suffix.  But then someone else pointed out that <ly> is a consonant suffix and wouldn’t cause doubling.  (It is so amazing and wonderful to watch one student’s understanding broaden another student’s understanding!)  So then the student who had raised the question went to get a dictionary to find out whether or not the base was <ply>. The student found out that in this word, the prefix <sub> has a sense of “up” and that <ply> is from Latin plere “to fill.”  Someone immediately thought of buying school supplies.  Someone else thought of the way the school supplies desks and chairs for the students.  Both are example of items that fill a need.

From <supply> we went directly to <supplement>.  I wondered aloud what a supplement was?  Someone was familiar with a supplement being extra sheets of ads that comes with their newspaper.  I mentioned that I sometimes take a supplement.  I sometimes take a vitamin C tablet.  Several students nodded and shared that they sometimes do too, like when they have a cold.  So we came to the understanding that a supplement is something added to something else.  When a student looked in the dictionary, the student found out that <supplement> is from Latin supplere “to fill up.”  Then the entry said, “See supply.”  Aha!  This is the same Latin base we saw in <supply>!

Another interesting word was <submarine>.  The students were pretty confident that <sub> was the prefix here because they knew that a submarine was a vessel that went under the water.  So I asked if they thought <marine> would be the base or whether it could be further analyzed.  It was quiet for a bit while everyone gave it some thought.  Then someone said, “Could the <ine> be a suffix like in <saltine>?”   I added, “And <routine>.”  Hmmm.  A student once again offered to look up <marine> to see what evidence there was to help us with identifying the base.  The student found out that it was from Latin mare “the sea”, which really made sense to everyone seeing as a submarine goes under the sea!  Could we think of any other words with <mare> as its base?  I thought of <maritime> which I explained as having to do with the sea.  I could say that a dolphin is a maritime mammal, meaning it lives in the sea.  Then, when I was just about to move on, someone suggested a student’s name.  Marissa.  I had no idea if that would share the base or not.  It shares spelling, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they share meaning.  So I told Marissa to get a Chromebook and find out what her name meant.  Sure enough!  It comes from the Latin maris “of the sea!”  How about that?

Reflections …

In each of my three classes we started the same way, but then followed the path led by their questions.  Over and over we talked about the prefix <sub> and the sense it brought to each of the words it was part of.  We made great discoveries about some unfamiliar bases, both bound and free.  We even talked about twin bases when the opportunity arose.  They eagerly jumped up to get a dictionary when we were ready to understand a word’s structure better.  We connected the literal meanings of the base and prefix to what we understood the words to mean in our daily lives.  We stretched that understanding to other words with the same base when we could.  Most importantly, the students looked critically at the words and determined for themselves whether or not there was an <sub-> or other assimilated form of an <sub-> prefix.  When the letters at the beginning of the word were found not to be a prefix, the students could explain why that was.

This kind of critical thinking, this kind of scientific inquiry comes without judgement.  Students offer suggestions without the fear of being wrong and the embarrassment that goes along with that.  Everyone has the same pursuit, which is to make sense of a word’s spelling.  And everyone participates in that common pursuit.  Some think to themselves.  Some think out loud.  Some ask questions.  Some jump at the chance to look something up in one of our dictionaries or at Etymonline.  The engagement is high and the delight in discovering something about a word or a connection being made is often audible.  (And usually accompanied by a sweet smile!)  This is what I have always imagined learning to be like!  As Malina said at the end of the second video, “Every single time that someone comes up with an idea, we should put a little light bulb above their head.”  Man would there ever be a glow coming from our room!

 

Stepping Beyond Pronunciation and Definition…

Many people think that if you can pronounce a word and understand what it means, that there is nothing more that matters.  What a mistake!  What about cultivating an enjoyment and fascination of words?

If my students learn enough about words, they are going to see them as connected to other words with the invisible threads of familial relatives.  They will learn about a word’s roots and the fascinating journey it has taken on its way to being a modern English word.  They will learn that from historical events new words emerge, and that even without a major event, new words are entering our language all the time.  They are going to understand a structure they never noticed before by studying word sums.  They’re going to be a bit choosier about words when writing.

In my last post, I shared some of the “word posters” that my students have been working on.  They are on display in the hallway we use most often.  Heads are turning constantly as people walk this hallway.  It is a glorious sight!  But more than that it is an opportunity for my students to look deeper into a word.  Deeper than just its modern day definition and spelling.  It’s been an opportunity for my students to connect a present day spelling to a word’s roots, relatives and past spellings.  They’ve found out that not all words were born at the same time, nor in the same language!

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Some of the words chosen were free bases, and some were not.  In order to collect words for a matrix, this had to be determined right away.  Kaeleb had a rather enjoyable journey finding out about the base of <computer>!  Before he went to any resources, he hypothesized that <er> was a suffix.  His reasoning was that he could easily use the word <compute> in a sentence.  As he began his research at Etymonline, he found that <com> was a prefix meaning “with” and the base was from the Latin root putare meaning “to reckon”, originally “to prune”.  I shared with Kaeleb what I knew about the Latin infinitive suffix -are.  That helped him identify the modern base to be <pute>.

I mentioned to Kaeleb that if he typed the Latin root putare in the search bar at Etymonline, he would get a list of words that share that root.  Now that he knew the bound base,  he could get busy collecting words and figuring out word sums, so he could create a matrix!

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As you can see, he enjoyed identifying a great many members of this word family!  As I was looking over his matrix, my eyes hesitated at the words <amputation> and <deputy>.  This is what I love about pausing to look past the spelling and definition.  Wow!  A connection between computer, amputation and deputy?  Even though Kaeleb explained his understanding of the meaning they shared, I needed to look at the resources for myself.   With the word <amputate>, the prefix <am-> is a clip of the prefix <ambi-> and means “about” and the base <pute> takes on its original meaning “to prune, to trim”.  With the word <deputy>, the prefix is <de-> and means “away” and the bound base is again <pute> meaning “to count, to consider”, literally “to cut, to prune”.  So the deputy is considered as having the full power of an officer, but is one position away from being the sheriff.

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When Elizabeth chose the word <illusion> neither she nor I expected such an interesting study!   She hypothesized that this word had an <-ion> suffix, but didn’t recognize either <illus> or <illuse> as a word.  It was time to look at Etymonline.  We found out that the prefix <il-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <in-> meaning “at or upon”, and that the base comes from the Latin root ludere meaning “to play, to mock, to tease”.  This part was a bit confusing for Elizabeth since the root ludere didn’t share the <lus> that we see in <illusion>.  I immediately recognized the Latin infinitive suffix <-ere> and took Elizabeth to Latdict to see if we weren’t looking at twin bases.  (I haven’t talked about twin bases with my students yet, but when opportunity knocks, I say, “Go for it!”)

At Latdict we found the four principal parts of this Latin verb.  They are ludo, ludere, lusi, lusus.  In order to find out if we have twin bases here, orthographers look at the second and fourth parts.  The second verb part is ludere, and when we remove the infinitive suffix, we have <lud(e)>.  The fourth verb part is lusus, and when we remove the supine suffix, we have <lus(e)>.  These two verb parts are not the same, so we have determined them to be twin bases!  Embracing the idea that there could be such a thing as twin bases, Elizabeth wondered if bases could be triplets!  That led us to asking questions and getting clarification from our favorite Old Grouch in France.   (“He’s not grouchy at all,”  my students quickly discovered.)

After that, Elizabeth went to Etymonline and typed ludere, the Latin root, in the search bar.  That took her to a list of modern words that share that root and have either <lud(e)> or <lus(e)> as their modern base element.  Once she determined the word sums for her collected words (some from Etymonline, some from Word Searcher, some from the dictionaries in our classroom), she created her matrix and recounted her discoveries about the word <illusion>!

Here are a few of the other posters on display in our “Hallway of Word Histories”.

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Focusing on Word Structure

As we were watching a video about the water cycle, I wrote the following words on the board:

condensation                  evaporation                         transpiration
infiltration                       percolation                          precipitation
interception                     evapotranspiration

What an orthographic opportunity!  The students were quick to recognize that everyone of these had an <ion> suffix.  Next I asked students to say and then spell the word that would remain if the <ion> suffix was removed.  The words listed were now:

condensate                     evaporate                            transpirate

infiltrate                         percolate                              precipitate

intercept                        evapotranspirate

With the exception of the word <intercept>, all the rest had something in common.  The students again pointed out an <ate> suffix.  I asked why the <e> on the end of <ate> didn’t show up once we added the <ion> suffix to the word?  Everyone knew that it was dropped when the vowel suffix <ion> was added.  At this point I recognized though, that some of the students thought the second suffix was <at> instead of <ate>.   In our recent “The Great Suffix Challenge” activity I learned that some of those same students have little understanding of suffixes, other than their position in the word.  We must keep writing out word sums and talking about each morpheme’s role in the word.

Next I asked if anyone recognized any proven prefixes.  Several recognized <inter>, meaning between and <pre>, meaning before.  Even though we had previously discussed <e> being a clip of <ex> (meaning out) and <con> (meaning together), no one recognized them offhand.    I grouped the students and had each group further investigate each word.

As the bases were identified, discussions took us in all sorts of fascinating directions.

The meaning of the word <evaporation> became something we could clearly picture once we knew that <e> was the prefix meaning out  and <vape> was the base meaning steam.  We pictured water evaporating from a tea kettle, a puddle, and a lake.  Our complete word sum hypothesis was <e> + <vape/> + <or> + <ate/> + <ion>.   When deciding whether the base was <vape> or <vapor>, we looked for other words sharing this meaning and found <vapid>.  This word was our evidence that <or> was a suffix.  We decided that without the final <e> on the base, the final consonant <p> would be forced to double when adding a vowel suffix.  Since we know that in words like vaporize and evaporate there is only a single <p>, then we also know there must be a final <e> on the base <vape>.  For those who were confused as to why the base might have a final <e>, I wrote <hoping> on the board and asked them to remove the <ing> suffix.  When they said the base was <hope>, I showed them that the final <e> in <hope> is doing the same job as the final <e> in the bound base <vape>.

Another intriguing discussion arose with the word <infiltration>.  The word sum hypothesis was <in> + <filtr> + <ate/> + <ion>.  As we typically do, we looked for other words that shared the base <filtr> and its meaning.  We found filtration, infiltrate, infiltrator, infiltrated, filter, filtering, filtered, and filters.  Much to my delight, someone asked how we could add an <er> suffix to the base <filtr> to get the word <filter>.  The student knew we wouldn’t just drop the final <r> in the base, but also knew that simply adding the <er> suffix wouldn’t get us the spelling of <filter> either.

The bound base <filtr> behaves similarly to <centr>, <metr>, and <theatr>.  Structurally it makes sense to spell these four with a final <re> rather than an <er>.  Let me give examples using word sums:

<filtr> + <ate/> + <ion> –> <filtration>
<centr> + <al> –> <central>     OR     <centr> + <i> + <fuge/> + <al>  –>  <centrifugal>
<metr> + <ic> –> <metric>       OR    <metr> + <o> + <nome>  –>  <metronome>
<theatr> + <ic> + <al>  –> <theatrical>

In other countries, these words are indeed spelled <filtre>, <centre>, <metre>, and <theatre>.  At some point in American history, the <re> ending was reversed so that these words resembled all of the other words in our language that have an <er> suffix.   Alas! In doing so, another road block to understanding word structure was set in place.  Center and central seemed to be two words that were related in meaning, but not in spelling or structure.  But, of course, that is not what scholarly research and evidence reveals!  My students are now as fascinated with this information as I am.

One final treasure was when we found the base of <transpiration> to be <spire> which means to breathe.  The students began collecting other words with that base and we talked about how each word shared that sense of breathing.  When we studied photosynthesis, we first used the word <transpiration>, and knew that it was that plant action of pulling water up from the roots, through the xylem, through the leaf into the cell and out the stomata.  In this way the plant is breathing.  When we came across the word <perspiration>, the light bulb of meaning connection went off in my own head and I said, “Transpiration.  Perspiration.  Anybody seeing any similarities in meaning?”  Eyes widened and hands shot up.   From there we talked about <respiration>, <inspiration> and <expiration>.  THIS is the stuff you don’t find in spelling workbooks!

 

The Third Affix … The Connecting Vowel

Onward to our next science topic … the Earth’s Systems.

What a  fabulous opportunity to introduce connecting vowels!  In groups of two, students were given one of the following words to investigate:
-geosphere         -atmosphere        -biosphere          -lithosphere
-hydrosphere     -cosmosphere     -stratosphere

The first step was to look in a standard dictionary to find a definition.  Once each group had an understanding of the word, it was time to look at the structure of the word.  Students came up with one or more hypotheses about their word.  For example, one group thought that the structure of geosphere might be either <geo> + <sphere>, <geo> + <sph> + <ere>, or <geos> + <phe> + <re>.  It was time to research the word to see if we could find the root of the word.  That would likely help us identify the base element.

As a group we looked at the Online Etymology Dictionary.  We read several entries together to get ourselves familiar with the manner in which the information is presented.  We found that the following bound bases had Greek roots:
-<ge> meaning earth
-<atm> from atmos, meaning vapor or steam
-<bi> from bios, meaning life
-<lith> from lithos, meaning stone
-<hydr> from hydros, meaning water
-<cosm> from cosmos, meaning universe
-<strat>  from stratos, meaning spreading out

The students recognized that <sphere> is a familiar word and doesn’t need an affix to be a word.  It is therefore a free base.

In each of these words there is an <o> that is neither part of the base nor is it a suffix.  It is a connecting vowel.  Since all of these words have their roots in Greek, it is not surprising that they all have <o> as a connecting vowel.  Most words of Greek origin that have a connecting vowel use <o>.  (A connecting vowel is an affix.  Since it comes after the base, it cannot be a prefix, and since it cannot be final in a word, it cannot be a suffix.  It is therefore a third type of affix.  For more information I recommend watching this film on Connecting Vowels at Real Spelling.)

Now they were ready to use Word Searcher.  Each group went to work finding relatives of each bound base’s family.   This search often included quick trips to Etymonline or other dictionaries to make sure that the words collected did indeed share meaning with the base.

Once their list of relatives was compiled in their notebooks, the students began writing out word sums and creating a matrix.

Having a list of words to investigate that were so structurally similar was interesting.  Once we talked about the free base <sphere> that was common to all the words on the list, we had the opportunity to practice using online tools like etymonline and word searcher to find out about the other base in each word.  At first it was hard to see these words as compound words because the first base was a bound base and not as recognizable as a free base would be.

We had opportunity to practice spelling out words using word sums.  The students are so used to spelling words letter by letter, that they keep forgetting to group the letters into morphemes as they spell.  This will take some practice.  I know!  It was a habit that I personally had to break not so long ago.  But I also know it will be worth it in the long run.

Students created their own matrices.  This was challenging because the students don’t recognize many suffixes besides <s>, <es>, <ed>, and <ing> yet.  They are definitely becoming comfortable with the idea that a word can have several suffixes.  With so many students presenting, we were able to notice an <ant> and <ic> suffix being used in several of the matrices.  I was also able to begin demonstrating how to collect evidence to prove whether a letter combination was a suffix or not.

There are still several groups ready to present their word investigation.  This will give the students more opportunity to talk about spelling and words in a way that is foreign to them.

I know that these students have never been as mentally engaged with words as they will be this year.  I smile when I think of how much they will learn!