“Outer Beauty Attracts, but Inner Beauty Captivates.” ~Kate Angell

Like many native English speakers, those who are learning English often express disappointment that words that have identical letter strings do not rhyme (bomb/tomb/comb, read/red, thought/though/through). It’s interesting to me that my own attitude about that has become one of fascinated interest. Where someone else might throw their hands up and cross their eyes, I smile and pause to consider what might be going on with those words. Then I head to a trusted etymological dictionary (usually Online Etymology Dictionary​ first) to investigate and check out my hypotheses.  At times I search through a second or even third etymological resource.  Maybe I end up in either my copy of Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary or Liddell and Scott’s  Greek-English Lexicon.  I might even be led to Richard Venezky’s book, The American Way of Spelling for further understanding.  The point is that I will look because I expect there to be an explanation.  Those who throw their hands up and cross their eyes have never been taught that an explanation is possible.  What a shame.  Because an explanation is not on the surface of the word, those people think it doesn’t exist.  I guess they’ve never applied the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” to a word.  What a difference that has made for my students and me!

This morning I was reading THIS ARTICLE in Huffpost called “35 Confusing Things About the English Language”.  Nine out of the 35 comments listed were related to the expectation that things with similar spellings should be similar in their pronunciations.  That’s 1/4 of the comments!

Since I don’t fluently speak another language, I’ve never stopped to wonder whether or not a letter or letter combination in another language is reliably pronounced one certain way.  I’ve just always understood that in English it’s not that way.  As my respected orthography teacher says, “English spelling represents the language we already speak.  Its job is not to teach us how to speak our own language.”  The job of English spelling is to represent meaning.  You see, words are a combination of morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest functioning unit in the construction of a word’s meaning.  As morphemes are joined, the word’s meaning emerges.

A morpheme, either alone or in combination with other morphemes, constructs meaning. Each morpheme on its own might not carry specific meaning, (I’m thinking of a connecting vowel here and perhaps some suffixes) but each has a function in connecting the morphemes that do. In a completed word, every morpheme can be identified, and its function (as it relates to the construction of the word’s meaning) explained. Morphemes are bases (free or bound) and affixes.  The base carries the principle meaning in the word.  Affixes are either derivational (alter the meaning of the word by building on the base) or inflectional (have a grammatical function).  All prefixes are derivational whereas suffixes are either one or the other.  Very few people have been taught to look at a word and automatically think about what its morphemes might be and what sense and meaning they bring to the total word.  Instead, most people look at a word and think that the spelling of the word dictates its pronunciation.  Then they get frustrated that sounding out the letters doesn’t always result in a recognizable pronunciation of the word in question.

I have to wonder if it isn’t our own fault that we have this unrealistic expectation that words spelled similarly must rhyme.  After all, think about how we teach reading in our country.  Imagine yourself looking in on a primary grade classroom where students are being taught that word families include words that  1) have a certain string of letters and  2) all rhyme.  Here’s an example:

What is at the head of this “family”?  It is a string of letters that carries absolutely no meaning.  After completing worksheets and lessons focusing on many many “families” like this, a student might very well expect that whenever a string of letters seen in one word is also in another, the two words will rhyme.  Why wouldn’t they after having it demonstrated to them over and over?  Are they ever told that it doesn’t always work that way?  Are they ever shown examples of words that share the same string of letters but that DON’T rhyme?  Right from the start children are being told something that isn’t always true, only they aren’t told that it isn’t always true.  In other words, we are setting them up with this unrealistic expectation.  As they begin encountering words for which this is not true, they look to their teachers for explanations.  Unfortunately many teachers were never given an explanation themselves, and so have no explanation to share.  And boom!  The English-spelling-is-crazy-and-makes-no-sense fallacy is born to yet another generation.

What if?

What if we used that idea of a word family to signal something more helpful to a child’s comprehension AND spelling of words.  What if we taught children right from the start that a word family is a group of words that share a base, and that a base carries the main sense and meaning found in all words built from that base.  And most importantly, that sometimes the base is pronounced the same among words within a family, and sometimes it isn’t.  Here’s an example:

The base element here is <sign>, and it has a denotation of “mark”.  Now look at all the words I’ve listed that are morphological relatives (that means that they all share the spelling of the base AND they share an ancestor.  Their etymological root is Latin signum “identifying mark”.  As you think about each of these words, think about their meaning and how it has something to do with making a mark, marking something, indicating something, a symbol, or a designation.

THIS is a word family.  There is a meaning relationship and there is a spelling relationship among these words.  The meaning relationship is verified by checking an etymological resource to find evidence that they all are from the same root.  I found out that the root in this case is Latin signum by looking at Etymonline.  I began by searching for <sign>.  I know it is a free base (is a word without needing affixes) and found it as both a verb and a noun.  Its use as a noun is just a bit older, but both uses were attested in the 13th century.  Then I read both entries to find the origin of <sign>.   According to Etymonline, other interesting facts about the various uses of this word over time include:

“Ousted native token. Meaning “a mark or device having some special importance” is recorded from late 13c.; that of “a miracle” is from c. 1300. Zodiacal sense in English is from mid-14c. Sense of “characteristic device attached to the front of an inn, shop, etc., to distinguish it from others” is first recorded mid-15c. Meaning “token or signal of some condition” (late 13c.) is behind sign of the times (1520s). In some uses, the word probably is a shortening of ensign. Sign language is recorded from 1847; earlier hand-language (1670s).”

Isn’t it interesting that <sign> became preferred over the use of <token>?  When we teach children to check whether two words share a root and therefore a denotation, it is likely they will also learn something about a word’s story (find themselves delving into etymology).  They will also have looked at the etymological evidence to see if there is anything that helps explain a word’s spelling.  This particular base has had the spelling of <sign> right from the start, but there are other words whose spelling makes sense once we know the word’s origin or influence by languages along its diachronical journey ending in our modern day use.

Teaching children about a word family like this results in them understanding that words have structure.  Every word has a base element.  We build related words by adding other bases or affixes to the base.  Look back at my word web to see how obvious the structure of most of these words is.  When we teach children about a word’s structure, we are teaching them about a word’s morphology.  Announcing word sums is a way to reinforce our understanding of word structure.  Take <designate>.  The word sum is <de + sign + ate –> designate>.  It would be announced as “d e  plus  s i g n  plus  a t e  is rewritten as  de sign ate.”  The elements are spelled out, the arrow is announced with “is rewritten as”, and when spelling the finished word there is a slight pause between the elements to show recognition of those boundaries.

The third major consideration in teaching children about a word family as I have described it is that pronunciation piece.  Studying a word family teaches children the reality about whether a common string of letters will always rhyme.  It won’t.  And with this kind of word family representation, they won’t ever think it should or be surprised that it doesn’t.  As an example, let’s look at the family for <sign>.  When we pronounce <sign>, <signer>, <cosign>, and <assignment>, the base is pronounced [saɪn].  But what happens when we pronounce <design> and <resign>?  The base is pronounced [zaɪn].  And when we pronounce <signal>, <signify>, and <signet>, the base is pronounced [sɪgn].  In these three words the <g> is pronounced.  But it isn’t pronounced in eight of the family members I’ve included in this web!

Just think about that.  If spelling were there so we knew how to pronounce a word, most of the words in that one family would have different spellings.  But they don’t!  They are spelled the way they are to represent the meaning that they all share!  The meaning and the shared spelling is what binds these words together into a family.  We don’t have to blame the English language because words that look like they might rhyme don’t.  Instead we need to appreciate the fact that the unpronounced <g> in this family is a marker letter, and as such, it marks its meaning connection to members of this family in which it is pronounced.   Pronunciation is not consistent enough to be the reason for a word’s spelling, but a word’s sense and meaning is!

You may be thinking that <sign> is a word that would not be studied in a primary classroom.  But why not?  Surely the children know some of its related words.  They don’t need to be able to read the words to understand that they all have <sign> in their spelling.  They can talk about what the words mean and the teacher can talk about the structure, meaning, and even point out the differences in pronunciations of the base.  More of the students will understand this than you might think, and the rest will be gaining a foundation for a more accurate understanding of how our spelling system actually works.  Any classroom should make it a point to look at words that interest the students no matter how many letters the word has!  If the focus is always on the structure, the meaning, the word’s relatives, and the interesting things to note about the word’s grapheme/phoneme relationships, then the word is the vehicle for the understanding.  Perhaps have an “I Pick – You Pick” philosophy for choosing words to look at.  It will really drum up interest!

Look at this word web that is centered around <dog>.  As you include more and more of these, you can start the discussion with, “What do you notice?”

It will not take long before students say things like, “I see the word <house> in <doghouse>”.  Then you know it’s time to talk about compound words.  This word web could also lead to a discussion about the final pluralizing <s>.  Maybe your students could quickly help you make a list of plural words and you could write them in two columns:  those in which the final grapheme <s> is represented by /s/, and those in which it is represented by /z/.  It won’t be long after that before they will be pointing that very thing out in plural words they are reading!  And then there is the doubled <g> in <doggy>.  It is not too early to talk about the doubling convention that happens when we add a vowel suffix to a base.  Explain it and talk about it as an interesting thing to notice.  Say something like, “I think I’ve seen that in the word <scrubbing> as well.  Keep your eyes open.  If you see a word that you think has a doubled consonant because of a suffix being added, let me know, and we’ll look at it together!”

Here’s another great tip:  Don’t put a word web like this away until you have given students a chance to think of other words that might belong to this family.  It will give you the opportunity to see what kinds of connections they are making.  What if they suggested ‘hot dog’?  Instead of responding yourself, give the other students the opportunity to respond.  “What do the rest of you think?  Does it belong?  Why or why not?”.

This kind of word family is the only kind of word family.  You can still talk about rhyming words if you want, but don’t call them families.  If you are using them to help a child read, begin incorporating true word families as I have suggested.  Sometimes we decide what our students can and cannot handle.  Sometimes we misjudge them.  If you are hesitant to study word families, your students will be the ones to convince you otherwise. When they point out something as they are reading in class, when they bring in a word web they made on their own at home, when they explain a suffixing convention you have previously explained, or even when they ask a question about a suffix that you didn’t expect them to, you will know they are on their way to building an understanding about the reliability of our spelling system.  And you can feel great knowing that the group leaving your classroom has been taught to see below the surface of the word.  They’ve peeked beneath the cover and are now judging a word by its structure (morphology), story (etymology), and grapheme/phoneme correspondences (phonology).  And they are captivated!

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I encourage you to click on the comments.  The link is just below the end of this post in small letters.  Peter Bowers has written a great response and has included links to research that may be of interest.  Like I said, check it out!

 

“Stop Learning and Start Thinking”

I shared this video with my students the other day.  It is about 7 years old, but its message is timeless and crucial if we are to teach our students how to be in charge of understanding their world.  The boy speaking is Jacob Barnett.  At the time this video was made he was 11 years old.  At present he is 19.  If you have not seen this, please watch it now.  It is 18 minutes long, but well worth your time.  If you have seen it before, watch it again.  Having Jacob’s voice in your head as you continue to read this post will give strength to what you read.

When it was over, I said, “Well, What do you think about what he said?”  One student mentioned how smart Jacob is.  Another said it was weird that Jacob wore sandals.  Another commented that he could tell Jacob was “different”.  Yet another noticed that he had the Greek letter phi (φ ) on his shirt.  (We’ve been learning the Greek alphabet). It got kind of quiet after that.  So I said, “What do you think Jacob means when he says you have to stop learning and start thinking?”  Now it was completely silent.  And the silence was paired with facial expressions that said, “I don’t have any idea what that could mean!”

At that point I shared my own thoughts:  When Jacob says to stop learning, I think he is talking about learning as it is typically done in schools.  You know how it goes – the teacher tells the students what he/she wants them to know.  They learn it. (This might include reading about it, writing about it, watching videos, etc.) Then the students take an assessment to see how well they learned it.

THAT is what Jacob wasn’t able to do when he was young – because of his learning differences.  THAT is what Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t able to do when attending the University of Cambridge – because the school was shut down with the outbreak of the plague.  And THAT is what Albert Einstein wasn’t able to do – because he was Jewish and turned away from the local university, so he ended up taking a job working in a patent office instead.

Each was prevented from following this model of learning, and in doing so, had time to think.  Jacob believes it was this time to think and question and seek understanding that lead each person to their discoveries.  Now, does this mean Jacob didn’t learn things by reading books?  Of course not.  When he had posed questions that he wished to explore and knew more information was necessary to move forward in his thinking, he read the books he needed to read!  In other words, he read books and focused on understanding what he was reading.  He was a motivated reader.  The information he learned while reading helped him formulate new questions and better understand whether or not his past questions were on the right track.  In this manner he was always motivated to deeply understand a specific topic in order to weigh whatever questions he was currently posing.

So did he in fact  “stop learning”?  I don’t think so.  I think he stopped being a passive participant in learning, and became an active one.  And he found his inner voice – that unique perspective that he has – that each of us has with which to do our thinking.  Jacob explored the questions he had in a way that came natural to him.  Unfortunately, the way schools are set up, students often lose sight of their own unique perspective as they get older.  They get used to waiting for an adult to tell them what to do next, what information to search for, what answer to find.  They become passive learners.  And as passive learners, they rarely go beyond what has been laid out as the expectations for a particular assignment.  If doing “a, b, and c” is what is required, very few will ask about “d”.  Sometimes teachers will comment that there are students who are capable of doing more, but lack motivation.  Do they really lack motivation, or have they become passive?  Are YOU sometimes a passive learner?

At this point Ella raised her hand.  “When we study words, we’re not passive.  It’s like how Jacob learns.  We do a lot of thinking about what the word means, and then we come up with a hypothesis for our word sum. We read whatever dictionary we need to while collecting our evidence and the word’s story.  But WE do it ourselves.”

I answered, “Yes!  You work independently and are actively involved in your learning!  You look at resource books when you need to.  You search for evidence to support or disprove your word sum hypothesis. You discuss with others what you are thinking about as you are finding information and hypothesizing.  And often another person’s unique perspective helps you stretch your own thinking.  You research and investigate and gather your evidence until you’re satisfied you understand as much as there is to understand at this time!  The best part is that you recognize that you have not found an answer.  You have found a temporary understanding that may in fact deepen should other evidence come to light!”

Ella continued rather proudly, “When we were taking the Forward Exam a few weeks ago, I was trying to think of what the word sum would be for <conversation>.  I knew about the two possible suffixes <ate> and <ion> on this word which left <convers(e)>.  I also recognized the prefix <con>, although I couldn’t remember what it meant just then.  That left <vers(e)>.  When I thought about that, I thought of how a verse is something I read, write, or talk about.  A conversation is talking between at least two people, so I knew I was on the right track.  I couldn’t look it up during the exam, but later I checked it out to see if what I thought made sense.”

I was not expecting Ella to point out this correlation between what Jacob was describing and what we do in class, but I was delighted she did!  The students can FEEL the difference between passive and active learning.  They recognize their own level of engagement, and how using a scientific lens to look at words has drawn them in and increased their level of interest.  The fact that Ella shared her thinking about the word <conversation> and how being able to do that helped her in a situation outside of class, proves that  Structured Word Inquiry has become the way she thinks about words!  Ella KNOWS that a word’s spelling is not random.  She KNOWS to expect its structure to make sense and to help her understand the meaning of that word.

I remember what a former student said at the end of her fifth grade year, “In fourth grade we had a list of words.  We wrote them on our white board over and over again until we could spell them without looking.  It got very boring very quickly.  In fifth grade it’s different.  We investigate a word to find out where it comes from, and what it’s word sum might look like.  We find out its history and how it’s been used.  Then we write about what we found, and after we’ve collected words with the same base we make a matrix.  It’s a lot more work, but it is also a lot more fun!”

Did you hear that?  It was a lot more work, but it was also a lot more fun!  We have to stop deciding what is too much work or what is too hard for our students.  We have to stop simplifying tasks to the point of rendering them uninteresting and requiring too little thought.

 

Structured Word Inquiry versus the Scientific Method

What my students do with spelling is not much different than what they do in preparation for our Science Fair.  The first step is to choose a topic or a word.  Next they do a bit of research.  For both spelling and science, they need to know enough about their topic to create a thoughtful hypothesis.  Let’s say a student is curious about the effects of music on a person’s heart rate.  Before writing a hypothesis, that student would benefit from finding out what a typical resting heart rate is.  It might even be helpful to find out what is considered to be an elevated heart rate.  The student might also want to know how many beats per minute specific music has. The student’s hypothesis can include those pieces of information, and later on, the data collected can be compared to that hypothesis.   The student investigating a word will want to brainstorm a few other words related to the targeted word.  Which structural pieces are the same?  Which structural pieces are different?  I am speaking of morphemes.  Does the student recognize affixes that could be removed in order to identify the base or bases?  A hypothesis in this situation means a possible word sum.  Oftentimes a student will consider two or three different word sum hypotheses.

The next step in either scenario is to research deeply.  The person preparing a science experiment will want to find out more about music types, heart rates, the effects music has on people, and maybe even music therapy.  The person investigating a word will want to find out when his/her word was first attested and what it meant at that time.  The person may consult several etymological references to find out the word’s language of origin and its spelling in that language.  What was the lexical stem in that language of origin that became today’s base element?  In the process, the word’s story is revealed.  It may have meant different things at different times in history.  It may have had its spelling changed (for a variety of reasons) by the different groups of people who used it over time.

Now it is time for the scientist to set up the experiment, run it, and collect the data.  This will take some time.  The person running the science experiment will select a group of people to participate.  Resting heart rates will be taken, and then music will be played.  Then heart rates will be taken again.  There will be tests for different kinds of music, and the group of participants will be tested several times for each type of music.  The student investigating a word will now focus on collecting words that share the word’s root (ancestor) which was found during research.  Words found that share both the word’s ancestor AND the base’s spelling are listed as morphological relatives.  Words found that share the word’s ancestor but NOT the base’s spelling are listed as etymological relatives.  In both cases it is important to keep a journal detailing this collection process in case the experiment gets repeated at a future time.

The data is collected.  What’s next?  The student who is preparing for the Science Fair will begin making graphs and/or charts of the data so this person can make observations.  After careful consideration of what the data shows, the student draws some conclusions. Does the data support the initial hypothesis or does it falsify it?  At this point, either outcome is valid.  The student learns about the effects of different types of music on a person’s heart rate regardless of whether or not their hypothesis was “right”.  Proving the hypothesis is what drives the experiment, but if the hypothesis isn’t proven, the experiment has not failed.  It has only moved the student in a different direction with their questions and thinking.  In so many respects it is the same for the student investigating a word.  This student looks at the morphological relatives found (the words that share a common ancestor AND the base element’s spelling) and writes those words as word sums.  As the student does this, special attention is paid to the the morpheme boundaries.  This is where the student’s understanding of the single final non-syllabic <e> as well as suffixing conventions come into play.  For example, let’s say the student was writing a word sum for <describing>.  If the student wrote the word sum as <de + scribe + ing –> describing>, I would know that the student understands the importance of the single final non-syllabic <e>.  The <e> is part of the base element in this word.  If it wasn’t, then adding the vowel suffix (<-ing>) would force the (then) final <b> on the base to double.  The student includes the <e> on the base element to prevent doubling!  When the words are all written as word sums, a matrix is created.  (Just as there are several kinds of graphs on which to display science data, there are other ways to present word collections as well.  A matrix is the one to use when looking at all the elements – affixes and other bases – that can be used with a common base.)

Once the graphs/matrices are made and the students have made a list of observations, it is time to share their findings with a larger group.  The student who is presenting at the Science Fair will pull out the journal with the detailed notes and type up a list of procedures, some of the research findings, the hypothesis, the observations and more.  Those will be displayed along with the graphs or charts and any pictures on a display board.  The student doing the word investigation will decide whether to create a poster, a booklet, a skit type presentation, a video, or some type of digital presentation (perhaps similar to Powerpoint).  This person will also go back to their journal with the detailed notes and share the word’s meaning, the attestation date, the language of origin, and other interesting things that were found out about the word’s history.  They will also share the matrix they created, the related words, and any observations they have made as they reflected on their investigation.  For instance, they may have noticed interesting things about the phonology in this word’s family.  Perhaps this word is Hellenic and has a <ph> grapheme that represents a /f/ phoneme.  Perhaps there are pronunciation differences in the base of the word family as there is in the family that includes predict, diction, and indictment.  The students usually include the word in IPA so they can specifically talk about the grapheme/phoneme relationships.

As each student presents, they walk us through their exploration.  They share the most surprising things they found out and ask for questions.  Their explorations, whether the kind shared at a Science Fair or the kind shared with fellow word enthusiasts in a classroom, always get great interaction from the audience.  The work investigated with this scientific lens is so worthy that audience members can’t help but become engaged themselves and think of their own questions.

  

It sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it?  I bet some of you are even thinking, “My students can’t do all that.”  But given the chance, your students will prove to you that they can.  My students begin fifth grade with very little true understanding about our written language.  But amazingly, within two to three months of school they are eager to investigate words on their own and in much this way!  They are so hungry to be actively involved in their learning!  As we continue through the year, they become more and more independent in their pursuit.  THIS is what Ella was pointing at when she said that our word work was a lot like what Jacob Barnett was describing.  When we investigate words (and conduct science experiments), we  “STOP LEARNING AND START THINKING!

 

 

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?”

 

 

 

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.

 

Making Sure Our Misspellings Are Not Missed Opportunities!

Following our recent performances of The Photosynthesis Follies, I gave a test.  After all, the students had been living and breathing their photosynthesis script for two and a half weeks.  I was confident that if they participated and thought about what was happening in our play, they would understand this incredibly important process.  They did remarkably well!  But that is not the point of this post.

As I always do, while I was correcting the tests,  I was taking notes about sentence structures that needed attention and common spelling errors that needed to be addressed.  I began to notice how many different spellings were used for the word <xylem>.  But within a short amount of time, the number of different spellings for <xylem> was surpassed by the number of different spellings for <oxygen>.  As I looked over the spellings, it struck me that my students actually know quite a bit about graphemes and the phonemes they can represent.  I thought it might be interesting to specifically look at these two lists.

At the top of each list the word is represented by IPA and the symbols are surrounded by slash marks.  The slash marks indicate that this is a pronunciation and NOT a spelling.  I wanted the students to think about each word’s pronunciation and how each phoneme in the pronunciation is represented by a grapheme in the word’s spelling.  To that end, I underlined each phoneme in the IPA representation of the word <xylem>.

Right away someone asked about the spelling in which there was an <e> in front of the <x>.  I put that question out to the students.  “Can anyone think of why someone might have put that <e> there?”

“Perhaps it’s because of the way we pronounce the letter <x> when it’s by itself.”  That made a lot of sense to me.  After all, during play rehearsals, we had a few students that kept  pronouncing xylem as /ɛgzˈɑɪləm/.  Since the word began with <x>, those students wanted to pronounce it like we do in /ˈɛksɹeɪ/  (x ray).

At this point I pointed to what I had written on the board as pertains to the grapheme <x>:

We looked at the various pronunciations that are represented by the letter <x>.  We pronounced them aloud and felt the difference between the /ks/ of box, the /gz/ of exact, and the /kʃ/ of anxious.  Taking the time to pronounce and feel these pronunciations in our mouths was an eye opener for my students.  When all you remember being told is that “x is for x ray”, you’re at a disadvantage when trying to read and spell words with an <x>!

When we looked at the fourth phoneme that could be represented by the grapheme <x>, /z/, we recognized that not only was that the way we pronounced <x> in xylophone, but also in xylem!  We turned our attention back to the list.

We looked specifically at the unstressed vowel known as the schwa in IPA.  I reminded the students that some of them had this schwa as part of the pronunciation of their name.  They offered that the schwa, /ə/, is sometimes represented by the grapheme <i> as in Jaydin, by the grapheme <a> as in Amelia, by the grapheme <e> as in Kayden, and the <o> as in Jackson.

So with that in mind, we looked at the choices students had made in choosing a vowel to precede the final <m>.  Students chose either an <a>, an <e>, or a <u>.  This was in keeping with what we understand about the schwa.  I also reminded everyone that the schwa represents an unstressed vowel.  That meant that the other vowel in this word, represented by /ɑɪ/, would be carrying the stress.  And sure enough,  when we announced the word over and over, the stress was on the /ɑɪ/.

Looking back at the list, there were only two graphemes chosen to represent the /ɑɪ/.  It was either an <i> or a <y>.  I wondered aloud if it was possible for a <y> to represent /ɑɪ/.  Students named words like sky, xylophone, and cry to provide the evidence that it could.

So when we now looked at our list, we realized that only three of the spellings made sense and were possible — the first (*xilam), the second (*xilem), and the last (xylem).  The third, fourth, and sixth were missing the grapheme that paired up with the phoneme /ɑɪ/.

So now what?  Now it was time to check into this word’s etymology.  Looking at Etymonline, we see that it was first attested in 1875, meaning “woody tissue in higher plants”.  It was from German xylem, coined from Greek ξύλον, transcribed as xylon “wood”.  This was particularly interesting to us because we were focusing on the water that is transported in the xylem.  Now we knew that the xylem itself was made of woody tissue and helped physically support the plant or tree!  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, only the outer xylem (sapwood) is active in transporting water from the roots to the leaves.  The inner part of the tree (heartwood) is made up of dead xylem that no longer carries water, yet is strong and gives the tree that physical support.  The next time you count the rings on a cross cut piece of a tree, know that you are counting rings of xylem!

Image result for xylem

Here’s an easy way to see the xylem tubes in a piece of celery.

Image result for xylem

And just in case you are interested, the word xylophone was also coined from xylon “wood”.  The xylophone consists of wooden bars struck by mallets.

 

 

Related image

 

Getting back to the spelling of xylem, we also noticed that the vowel following the <x> has been a <y> all the way back to Greek!  As a matter of fact, seeing a <y> medially in a word is an indicator that the word is from Greek!

The only grapheme yet to check was whether the unstressed vowel preceding the final <m> was an <e> or an <a>.  At Dictionary.com  I found out that xylem was from <xyl> “wood” + <ēma >. The entry also said to “see phloem”.  Interesting!  So the second part of this word is the same as the second part of the word phloem.  Still at Dictionary.com, I found out that the second part of the word phloem is <-ēma >, a deverbal noun ending.  A deverbal noun is a noun that was derived from a verb.  Etymonline also listed <-ema> as the suffix in the word phloem.

So we now have evidence to support that <xylem> is the way to spell this word.  We also have an understanding of so much more!

It was time to look at the IPA for <oxygen> and see what we could learn.

I again underlined the phonemes in the IPA that would represent a grapheme in the spelling of the word.  We noticed that everyone chose <o> to represent /ɑ/.  The next phoneme was /ks/.  There were only two spellings that had something other than an <x> to represent this.  I asked if choosing a <c> or a <cs> made sense.  The students recognized that a <c> can sometimes be pronounced /k/, so we could understand someone choosing <cs>.  The <c> by itself, however, could not represent the phoneme /ks/.  We could rule that spelling (*ocegeon) out.  We also noticed that two of the spellings had <xs> as representing /ks/.  This brought us back to our discussion of expire from the other day.  We knew the <ex-> was a prefix with a sense of “out” and the base is from <spire> meaning “breathe”, but that when joined together, the <s> on the base was omitted or elided to make the word easier to pronounce.  Now we could also rule out the spellings *oxsigen and *oxsigin.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  A friend emailed me regarding this post and in particular, the above paragraph.  We are now both curious about instances in which the prefix <ex->is followed by <s>.  There are a few older words (very few) like exsanguine (bloodless) and exscind (cut off or out) where we see this letter combination.  Perhaps it was more common a while back and moving forward in time, the <s> in many of the words was elided.  I’m not sure.  My take away is that I don’t have to have the precise answer right now.  It is something I will keep in mind as I encounter other words.  In the meantime, I am also contemplating words in which the <ex-> prefix is followed by a base with an initial <c> as in <exciting>.  We know that the <c> (when followed by <e>, <i>, or <y>) is pronounced /s/.  So why is it that very few words follow the prefix <ex-> with an element that has an initial <s> for pronunciation’s sake, yet many words follow an <ex-> prefix with an element that has an initial <c> that is pronounced as /s/?  Interesting questions, right?  Well, as a very good friend says quite often, “There are no coincidences!”  That very question was asked in a scholarly group I was part of today!  Just because the <c> (when followed by <e>, <i>, or <y>) is pronounced /s/ in Modern English spellings, doesn’t mean it follows that convention in other languages, or that it did in Latin.  So the <ex-> prefix followed by an element with an initial <c> didn’t (and in many languages still doesn’t) present the same pronunciation situation that <ex-> followed by an element with an initial <s>. What an elegant explanation!

Back to the post:

The next phoneme in the pronunciation was a schwa – an unstressed vowel.  We knew from our look at xylem that several letters could represent /ə/.  There was one spelling that was missing the representation of this vowel.  We could take that spelling off the list of possibilities (*oxgen).  The rest of the letters used to represent /ə/ could be used, so we kept going.

The next phoneme in the pronunciation was /dʒ/.  The students pronounced it and noticed that every spelling left represented /dʒ/ with the grapheme <g>, even though it could also be represented with <j>.

It was time to look at the second /ə/ and again recognize that this pronunciation can be represented with many vowel letters.  It was interesting to note that almost all of the spellings used an <e>.  Only two spellings used an <o>.  I asked if anyone could think of words with a <gon> at the end.  Students thought of polygon, dragon, and wagon.  We wondered if following a <g> with an <o> and a <n> would always result in the <g> being pronounced as /g/ instead of /dʒ/.  If that was the case, the grapheme <o> wouldn’t work in this position in this word.

When looking at the final phoneme /n/, we noticed everyone chose the grapheme <n>to represent it.  That is, all except for the spelling with the final <t>.  Students offered theories about why someone might think there was a /t/ pronounced finally, but in the end we decided that was not the spelling we were after, and we could eliminate it as a reasonable choice.

It all boiled down to the first /ə/.  If we could find out which grapheme represents it and why, we will have found the logical spelling choice for this word.  Here were our final choices:

oxogen
oxigen
oxegen
ocsygen
oxygen

It was time to search our etymology resources!  There must be information in this word’s history that will lead us to the current spelling.

At Etymonline we found out that this word was attested in 1790, referring to “a gaseous chemical element”.  It was from French oxygène, coined in 1777 by the French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier.  It was from Greek oxys “sharp, acid” and French <-gène> “something that produces”.  The French <-gène> was from Greek <-genes> “formation, creation”.  The denotation of the <oxy> part of this word doesn’t seem to make sense until you know this word’s story.  At the time this word was coined, it was thought that oxygen was essential in the formation of acid (hence it’s name meaning something that produces acid).  We now know that isn’t the case.  Isn’t that interesting?  

Antoine-Laurent deLavoisier

As usual, the etymology added a lot as far as understanding the spelling of this word.  We found out that the <x> is the letter to represent /ks/ and the <y> will represent the /ə/.  That eliminates all spellings except <oxygen>.  Pretty cool, huh?

When all was said and done, we noticed one more thing.  In the word <xylem>, the <y> was stressed and pronounced /ɑɪ/.  In the word <oxygen>, the <y> was unstressed and pronounced /ə/.

There are many reasons I chose to take a closer look at these misspellings.  One of the biggest was that of letting my students know that they know a lot about graphemes and the phonemes that they represent.  So often a student will feel bad when they misspell a word.  Well, today I wanted to celebrate the logical thinking they do when they are thinking of how to spell a word.  But I also wanted to point out that without etymology, we can only go so far.  After that it becomes a guessing game.

I filmed this lesson with my first class.  It is similar to what I have described here, although what I have written here is an overall impression from my experiences talking about this with three classes.

What Does It Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come Right In, Have a Seat, and Let’s Talk!

I love parent/teacher conferences.  There.  I’ve said it.  Yes, there is a lot of preparation on my part.  Typically I spend 11 hours at school each day leading up to the big night .  Yes, it is one very long work day (14 hours).  But, the fact remains that I still love them.  And I look forward to them.

First off, I get to look into the faces of each child’s parents/guardians and let them know that I see in their child the sweet wonderful brilliance they were hoping I would see.   Years ago, a student of mine wrote out a Marva Collins quote on a sheet of construction paper.  “There is a brilliant child locked inside every student.”  I have kept it up on the wall in the front of the room ever since.  I love the fact that it is on construction paper, and I love the fact that it is in a child’s handwriting.  For many of the children who have sat in chairs before me, that lock has been fairly easy to pick.  But for some, their behaviors have presented quite a smoke screen, obscuring that brilliance!  Every child needs to know I see through to that brilliance.  Parents need to know it too.

Secondly, I get to explain what the students are learning about words!  I know it’s not the only subject I teach, but in my mind it is the one that illuminates all others.  I explain that in the first trimester, my main focus is to show the students that words have structure.  By that I mean that words are made up of bases and affixes.  To further explain, I share my own childhood experience of learning that a root word (commonly misused name – correct name is base) could have a prefix and/or a suffix.   I compare that with my recent discovery (since I began learning about Structured Word Inquiry), that in fact a word can have more than one suffix.  Wham!  The spelling of so many words makes so much more sense to me!

The seemingly complicated word <antidisestablishmentarianism> suddenly becomes a less complicated word with three prefixes, six suffixes and a rather short two letter base.  If I’ve peaked your interest, the base is <st> from the Latin root stare meaning to stand.  The three prefixes <anti->, <dis->, and <e->(a clip of <ex->) help us see the meaning of this word as to stand against, away from or out of the norm.  And once a person is familiar with all of the affixes used, spelling this word will be no problem.  The suffixes <-able>, <-ish>, <-ment>, <-ar>, <-ian>, and <-ism> can individually be found in a lot of familiar words.  The final suffix in the word tells us that this word is a noun.  I love talking about this word because it illustrates beautifully the reason for learning morphemes (the smallest unit in a word that still holds meaning) rather than the endless hours students spend learning syllables (no meaning and a no letter consistency from word to word) to help with spelling.

We also had a hallway of word work to share!  In the last few weeks, I have had the students each choose a word to research.  In doing so, they have become familiar with some great resources.  The first thing they discovered is that dictionaries are not all alike.   Finding a dictionary that you like, trust and can understand is important.  This project also gave the students great practice at reading the entries at Etymonline and understanding that words weren’t all created at the same moment nor in the same language.

Some really enjoyed noticing the journey their word experienced on its way to becoming a Present Day English word.

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Some found fun facts about when their word began acquiring alternative meanings.

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Everyone enjoyed making word sums and creating fascinating looking matrices.

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Once the word sums were typed in, there was this anticipation and glow of pride as the ‘update’ button was pressed and the matrix was revealed.  Absolutely everyone found out that words have stories!

Training Ourselves to Depend on Evidence

The first of the researchers have presented their findings!  The three groups presenting here all looked at the digraph <ch> and the trigraph <tch>.  I asked each group to begin by collecting two large lists of words.  One list contained words with <ch> in them.  The other list contained words with <tch> in them.  Then they were to make observations and put together a creative way to share their findings.

The first group decided to prepare an “Etymology Scoop of the Day”.  It is quite informative and very entertaining.  There is even a bit of song and dance!

The second group asked to create a Prezi.  They chose a colorful background, and it was also very informative.

The third group created a very colorful and informative poster.  They used color and the technique of drawing boxes around certain parts of words to draw attention to them.

All three groups of researchers are from three different classes.  They have not had the opportunity to collaborate, and yet they have noticed some of the same things in regards to the <ch> digraph and the <tch> trigraph!  Perhaps that means that there are some common truths here.  I look forward to hearing what the students final thoughts are after they watch these videos.