For the last three weeks, we’ve gotten busy with two different writing projects that are taking longer than I anticipated. (Isn’t that always the way?) We’ve also been working on word investigations. My students are enjoying these projects. The word investigation-type projects are ongoing. Whenever someone finishes a required project (such as one of the two current writings or their current word investigation) they bring their orthography notebook to my desk and I get them started on a new project. It’s been my way of making good use of every spare moment we have together. What I didn’t realize was that the students actually love knowing there is always a next project, and that they don’t have to wait for everyone in the room to complete a project before they can start a new one.
I love it too. Everyone isn’t looking at the same thing at the same time, so when the students share their findings with the class, we have discussions about conventions and concepts that we circle back to when a group working on a similar investigation is sharing what they found. There has been just enough time between the presentations to let things sink in and in that way, prepare the students to hear similar information and ask great questions.
So we’ve been splitting our time between writing (and all that it encompasses), investigating (looking at words, graphemes and the modern bases that derived from Latin verbs), and moving ahead in our understanding of the hydrosphere (watching and discussing videos). I really thought I was checking off all the boxes for the curriculum I teach. And then several students asked this question:
“Mrs. Steven, do you think we can analyze a sentence today?”
It had been almost two weeks since we last analyzed a sentence. I was really surprised (and quite happy) to hear that it was something the students were missing! So I said, “Sure!” We must keep our students happy, right?
The basic plan I follow for teaching grammar comes from the mind of Michael Clay Thompson. I have been fortunate enough to attend several workshops with him and just about a year ago I took his online Grammar for Adults course. I use his book Grammar Voyage as a reference and have created my own interactive book to use with my students. Using ideas and materials by Michael Clay Thompson has changed the classroom attitude regarding grammar! When the students walk into my room and see a sentence on the board, they immediately start thinking about the overall sentence, the words in it, and the relationships between those words and phrases. Seem hard to believe? Here’s what happened on Thursday.
Some notes before you watch …
I split the video into two parts. Part one focuses on the parts of speech for each word in the sentence. It also focuses on the important parts of the sentence (subject/predicate/direct object, indirect object/subject complement). As you watch, you’ll notice that it’s impossible to identify parts of speech without considering how those words relate to the other words in the sentence. None of the steps in this four level analysis can be done in complete isolation. That wouldn’t make sense. As an example, one of the students points out early in the video that the word “her” can be both a possessive determiner (adjective) and an object pronoun. Brilliant. Then it becomes our job to figure out what its function is in this sentence before we can be satisfied that we have labeled it correctly.
You will notice that I begin by counting the words in the sentence and asking for that many volunteers to come to the board and identify the part of speech for each word. You will also notice that I have an abundance of volunteers! With everyone going to the board at once, no one is singled out as having put any particular identification underneath any particular word. And when they walk away, we have a place to start our discussion. The students can consider the labels placed beneath each word and either support them with evidence or question them. As a class we can figure out not only why we don’t think the current label is correct, but also what we think the correct label is and why. My plan is to turn the thinking and evidence finding back on the students as much as I can. When they are stuck, that is when I step in. You can tell by the types of questions they ask and the number of students participating that they are engaged in this type of analysis.
Here is Part 2. In this video the students identified the prepositional phrases and the sentence structure. You may have noticed that in Part 1 the students identified the sentence structure as complex when they labeled “because” as a conjunction. Now it was time to repeat what was said then and to talk about the difference between clauses and phrases. Then we reviewed the difference between independent and dependent. I love talking about the word sums for those two words and what the base’s denotation reveals to us about what the words mean. According to Etymonline, the base <pend> is from Latin pendere “to hang, cause to hang; weigh.” A few weeks ago when we first talked about dependent and independent clauses, I threw out the words “suspenders”, “suspend”, “pendant”, “perpendicular” and “pendulum.” We talked about how they each share a sense and meaning of “hang.”
Then I drew the T Model (one of Michael Clay Thompson’s brilliant ideas to visually represent a sentence) on the board, and the students told me how to fill it in. Normally the students create their own, but this was the first time we were using the T Model to represent a sentence with two clauses. I wanted to show them how we might show the connection between the two.
I know that there are those out there who insist that grammar is black and white, right or wrong and can only be diagrammed with trees. But in the same way that I am teaching my students to be open in their thinking about words, I am teaching them to be open in their thinking about grammar. As you can see, the students seek to understand the logic of the sentence and how the order of the words can affect that. You could probably hear them flipping through their grammar book (the interactive one I made for them) to find the evidence to back up their hypotheses about a particular word or phrase identification. They are engaged, they are thinking, and they are making connections. The next step will be to have them write their own complex sentences for us to analyze. I anticipate that they will relish doing so!
The first time I met Peter Pan, I was sitting in my living room with my brothers and sisters. He didn’t come flying through the picture window or anything else as exciting and dramatic as that. Instead, he flew into my imagination via our television set. Even though the version we were watching was old, the scenery was the furthest thing from life-like, and Peter Pan was himself played by a woman (Mary Martin), I was captivated. The idea of defying the inevitable enticed me. For me the idea of living as a child forever was the heart and soul of this story. Everything that happened happened because Peter Pan wasn’t going to grow up and he was trying fiercely to get others not to grow up either. But, of course, none of the viewers were fooled. Growing up can only be prevented by one thing. And it wasn’t until recently that I read about James M. Barrie’s personal connection with that. Because it was only recently that I actually read his book. Thanks to Michael Clay Thompson.
Here’s the song that I sang for weeks after watching Peter Pan for the first time:
Michael Clay Thompson is someone I have mentioned before when speaking of grammar instruction. But his curriculum materials regarding grammar are only one facet of his vision of a “literacy ecosystem” that involves grammar, vocabulary, writing, poetry, and reading. I am particularly favorable to picturing literacy in its whole as an ecosystem. Like an ecosystem, each component is vulnerable, not meant to stand alone, and if instruction of it dwindles or disappears, the ecosystem as a whole weakens. If, for example, students are not taught about the poetic features or the grammatic stability found in literary sentences, their reading experience will be significantly less than it could be. If grammar instruction is minimal and found only in work packets, the rest of the literacy instruction becomes narrower in its reach. It is the same with studying vocabulary. (MCT’s Caesar’s English books are great for looking at words frequently found in English literature. They pair well with investigating intriguing word families using Structure Word Inquiry!) For it isn’t just difficult words that stop students when they are reading. It is also rich complicated sentence structures that are often missing from the leveled readers handed to students. Therefore, I will continue this discussion with that idea of a “literacy ecosystem” in mind. It is necessary, of course, to look closely at each system on its own, but too often students spend entire school years focused on isolated skills within each of these “habitat” areas. How regularly do they get to practice the skills as they interact within the entire literacy ecosystem? As MCT says, “All of it pertains to all of it.”
When looking for teaching materials, it is pretty easy to find books and ideas for each of the areas I have described above. But where are the materials or ideas explaining how to weave all of the areas together as you teach? MCT has such a thing! He has put together trilogies of books that have a common theme. Last year I purchased the trilogy that includes Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wind in the Willows. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, we are currently reading Peter Pan. Below is the first paragraph from the teacher manual that accompanies the trilogy:
“The purpose of this literature program is to immerse children in great books so that they experience literature as literature and not as a drudgery of tedious school activities. I want children’s minds on the books themselves and not on attendant assignments. It is by loving to read that children become literate.”
MCT lays out a plan for Four-Level Literature that includes:
He suggests a few activities for Preparing, but most of the emphasis is on the actual reading of the story. That is the main event, as it should be. The last two levels MCT lists are important in that they help a student think about the story and its characters once the reading is finished. The prompts for Creative Thinking are creative in and of themselves. They stir discussion and are intriguing to think about. The last level, the Writing, is especially important for developing a student’s application of grammar and essay writing skills.
While reading, there should be pauses to reflect on the characters and to clarify the meanings of unfamiliar words. When I pause to talk about the unfamiliar words, I like to point out how the words J.M. Barrie used are something he chose. He passed over other words that might have kind of fit in favor of the one he used. At the end of the story or after we have read several chapters, I might choose a quote or a paragraph from the story and ask my students to again tell me about the word choice. What does the word J.M. Barrie used bring to the sentence or paragraph that a synonym of that word might not?
I especially love the following quote from the teacher manual:
“I do not like the practice of traditional written quizzes every so many chapters; that is too intrusive. It breaks the continuum of the reading. We should leave the story alone as much as possible. Our pedagogy should tiptoe and whisper.”
I love the reminder that we as teachers need to limit our interruptions to the reading. With that being said, in each of the books MCT includes in his trilogies, he does indeed interrupt the reading to point out some things. Sometimes it is the grammar of a particular sentence that he points out. Sometimes it is the rhythm of a particular sentence that is reinforcing the message of the sentence. Sometimes it is the poetic quality of a particular line, purposely creating a subtle feel in the reader’s mind. For example, here is one of the “language illustrations” he has included in this story.
As you can see, MCT not only points out the grammar using his 4 Level Grammar Analysis, he also connects the grammar use to the writing. He points out the meter and the word choice and how all those things enhance the moment in the story for the reader. His interruptions are not a list of questions for the students to answer. They actually enhance the reading experience by pointing out something that the readers (and sometimes the teacher) might not have noticed on their own. This is one way in which MCT is pulling together all facets of the literacy ecosystem that I’ve described above. If you’d like a look at his materials, here is a link: Royal Fireworks Press.
Francis Donkin Bedford (1864–1954) – Illustration from “Peter and Wendy” by James Matthew Barrie, Published 1911 by C. Scribner’s Sons, New York
James M. Barrie was born in 1860. He was the ninth of ten children. When James was 6 and his next older brother was almost 14, his brother died in an ice skating accident. His brother David had been their mother’s favorite and she was inconsolable. James tried everything he could think of to make her feel better. He even dressed in his brother’s clothes. He spent a lot of time with her and listened as she spoke of her childhood. Her own mother died when she was just 8, and she assumed the household duties at that time. She also told him that she found some solace in knowing that David would be a boy forever. That idea of being a boy forever ….
J.M. Barrie knew he wanted to be a writer early on. He began by writing some of the stories his mother told him. As his career began, he met a family with five boys, one of whom was named Peter. He became close to the family, often telling the boys stories. One of those stories included Peter’s ability to fly. When the parents died (1907 and 1910), J.M. Barrie adopted the boys.
I’m going to spend the rest of this post sharing some of the words and phrases my students and I found which have strengthened our connections to the action and to the characters. First off let me say just how refreshing it is to read a book with such beautiful language! My students and I are reading it aloud and thoroughly enjoy discussing the action, the characters, the author’s message, but most of all, we enjoy the words that Barrie uses. I’m not sure whether or not readers in his day would have been as intrigued by the vocabulary, but we sure are.
As I list each word, keep in mind that I did not stop the reading to investigate any of these words. We only stopped long enough to clarify the word’s meaning and its use in the context of the story. It is my plan to share the following list with my students at another time in our day and give them the opportunity to choose one to investigate. I’m sharing things with you that I find interesting about these words and giving suggestions for possible activities.
One of the first words to catch our attention was perambulator. It was in the middle of a paragraph describing the nurse dog, Nana.
“… the Darlings had become acquainted with her in Kensington Gardens, where she spent most of her spare time peeping into perambulators, …”
At the bottom of the page, MCT had included a definition of this word so that we didn’t have to look elsewhere at the moment and could get back to the reading. But a look later at Etymonline told me that this word was first used to mean a baby carriage in 1856 (that is what it is referring to in the story). Prior to that, the <-or> suffix indicated an agent noun. So a perambulator was someone who perambulated. The word <perambulate> is from Latin ambulare from <per-> “through” and <ambul> “walk, go about”. Here is an example of a matrix that could be created using the base element <ambul>.
What I absolutely love about this family of words are the compound words that can be made. Looking at <circumambulate>, we see the first base element <circum>, which is from Latin circum “all around, round about” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”. So someone who is circumambulating is walking all around an area. The next compound word on this matrix is <funambulist>. This word is from Latin funis “a rope, line, cord” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”. The suffix <-ist> is an agent suffix here and is indicating that a funambulist is a person who walks on rope – a tightrope walker! The last compound word is <somnambulate>. This word is from Latin somnus “sleep” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”. If you are guessing that to somnambulate would be to sleepwalk, you would be correct!
Of course, familiar words like <ambulance> would need to be noticed as well. But what does an ambulance have to do with walking? According to Etymonline, around the 17th century, the French used the phrase, a hôpital ambulant, which literally meant a walking hospital. The hospital was built in such a way that it could be torn down and moved to a new location. We might think of them as field hospitals. By 1798 it was known as simply ambulance. I know that any of my students would enjoy this rich treasure hunt!
According to Etymonline, <exquisite> was first attested in the 15th century. At that time it meant “carefully selected”. It is from Latin exquisitus “carefully sought out”. As it is used in the passage below, it has more of a sense of “with perfection of detail, elaborately, beautifully” (as listed in definition 2 in the Oxford English Dictionary). Both sources identify this word as from <ex-> “out” and quaerere “to search, seek”. So something that is exquisite is carefully sought after for its perfection of detail! That would make sense in the context of describing Tinker Bell’s skeleton leaf gown.
“It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage. She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”
The word <exquisite> is just one of many descendants of Latin quaerere “to search, seek”. Others include question, quest, query, inquire, inquisitive, acquisition, conquer, and require. If you think about it, can you see how the denotation of their common ancestor quaerere “to search, seek” binds them in meaning? Perhaps this would be a great opportunity for your students. Have small groups or individuals investigate the present meaning of one of the words I’ve listed and then come back together as a group to share. See if the students can notice the common sense and meaning at the core of each word.
Another interesting word in the same quote from the book as <exquisite> is <embonpoint>. According to Etymonline it means “plumpness”. It was first attested in 1751. Earlier (16 c.) it is from French embonpoint “plumpness, fullness.” Before that it was a phrase in Old French en bon point “in good condition.”
“It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage. She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”
If the word <embonpoint> is skipped over in this quote, the reader will get a different impression of Tinker Bell than the author intended! I quite like the idea that Tinker Bell had a realistic body shape. That is not the way she has been portrayed in any movie version I’ve ever seen!
According to the OED, it has been used as both a noun and an adjective. They offered no recent examples of its use, which is probably why it feels so unfamiliar. The most recent use they list is from 1876:
1876 R. BartholowPract. Treat. Materia Med.ii. 308 An increase in the body-weight and the embonpoint of those who take stimulants.
James M. Barrie, however, wrote this story in 1906. I wonder if this word is currently used in France?
Peter Pan tries several times but is unsuccessful in putting his shadow back on. That’s when Wendy offers to do it for him.
“I shall sew it on for you my little man,” she said, though he was tall as herself, and she got out her housewife, and sewed the shadow on to Peter’s foot.”
MCT defines a housewife as a sewing kit. I’d heard this term before, but was sure my students hadn’t. I was right. Later on that same day, I found a picture of a housewife that was used by a soldier in World War I through Wikipedia Commons. I’m glad I did because it won’t be the last time Wendy uses her housewife. The Lost Boys will wear holes in the knees of their pants and in the heels of their socks quite often!
It will also give us the opportunity to talk about why a soldier might need a housewife, and why this sewing kit would be called a housewife. In the 18th and 19th century, it was common for a mother, wife, sister, or girlfriend to make a housewife for someone who was going off to fight in a war. At that time, it was pronounced as “hussif” or “huzzif”. Read more about them HERE.
We came across this word just before leaving for a two day holiday. It was a timely find as this holiday is typically a day focused around a big meal. Before they left I wished them a great time with their families and warned them about stodging. We even joked around and wished each other a “Happy Stodgegiving!”
“You never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal or just a make-believe, it all depended upon Peter’s whim: he could eat, really eat, if it was part of a game, but he could not stodge just to feel stodgy, which is what most children like better than anything else; the next best thing being to talk about it.”
When I see these students again, they will no doubt want to talk about how stodged they felt (as Barrie says, “…the next best thing being to talk about it.”)
Both Etymonline and the OED agree that this word is of unknown origin. The OED suggests that it is “perhaps phonetically symbolic after words like stuff, podge. I particularly loved the imagery in this OED citation:
“1790 W. Marshall Agric. Provincialisms in Rural Econ. Midland Counties II. 443 Stodged, filled to the stretch; as a cow’s udder with milk.”
I think “filled to the stretch” says it all!
Peter Pan uses this word to describe what he would be required to learn in school. I can’t help but think that his biggest hurdle in attending school would be the confinement to a schedule!
“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things.”
This word was first attested in the mid 14c. according to Etymonline. At that time it had a sense of “performed with due religious ceremony or reverence.” Prior to that it was from Old French solempne and directly from Latin sollemnis “established, formal, traditional.” It has this sense of seriousness, and that is no doubt the aspect of schooling that troubles Peter Pan the most!
What is interesting about the spelling of <solemn> is the <mn>. We see this same final spelling in autumn, column, and hymn. Some may wonder why the <n> is needed since it isn’t pronounced. But if we remind ourselves that spelling doesn’t represent pronunciation, that instead it represents meaning, we are apt to look for another reason that the <n> is final in these words. If I take a look at relatives of each word, it doesn’t take long to see that the final <n> IS pronounced in some of the members of each word family. It isn’t pronounced in solemn, but it is pronounced in solemnity. It isn’t pronounced in autumn, but it is pronounced in autumnal. It isn’t pronounced in column, but it is pronounced in columnist. It isn’t pronounced in hymn, but it is pronounced in hymnal.
If we look back at the etymology of <solemn>, we see that the <mn> has always been part of this word’s spelling. It is the same with <column> from Latin columna, <autumn> from Latin autumnus, and <hymn> from Greek hymnos. Interesting, right?
This word was not unfamiliar to my students. What was unfamiliar was its use as a verb.
“I am just Tootles,” he said, “and nobody minds me. But the first who does not behave to Wendy like an English gentleman I will blood him severely.”
At Etymonline, I find that this word was first attested as a verb in 1590 with a sense of “to smear or stain with blood.” By the 1620’s it was “to cause to bleed,” which I think is the sense being used by Tootles in this story. At the Oxford English Dictionary, I found several ways <blood> was used as a verb, but when it referred to “to cause blood to flow from … (a person or an animal)” it was for therapeutic reasons, not specifically to cause harm.
1597 P. LoweWhole Course Chirurg.viii. i. sig. Dd Bee circumspect in blooding the foote. 1780 JohnsonLet. 14 June (1992) III. 275 Yesterday I fasted and was blooded, and to day took physick and dined. 1908 Brit. Med. Jnl. 13 June 1463/1 He was very fond of telling tales of..how the country labourers would come in crowds..to be ‘blooded’. 2007 M. NobleCase of Dirty Verger viii.107 She burst the girl’s eyebrow, blooding it immediately and sending the victim backwards, dazed and distraught.
Here is what Tootles did next:
“He drew back his hanger; and for that instant his sun was at noon.”
A hanger is a short sword that hangs from a belt. It was a common weapon used by hunters. What I really love about this sentence though, is the image created with “for that instant his sun was at noon.” Can’t you just picture this scene? Tootles is defending Wendy’s honor and all the rest of the Lost Boys are looking on. Tootles is having his moment. Just as with the sun at noon, there are no shadows cast on Tootles. His character is illuminated.
I know this word as a noun. We have a rain gutter on our house, and there is a gutter at the side of our street that directs water to the storm drain. But I am not as familiar with it as a verb, especially when it is not pertaining to a channel for water. James M. Barrie creates another wonderful image with an intriguing use of this word.
“Peter slept on. The light guttered and went out, leaving the tenement in darkness; but still he slept.”
As a verb, this word is first attested in the late 14th c. and was used to mean “to make or run in channels.” We see the same information in the OED where gutter most often refers to water being channeled and moved. But according to both Etymonline and the OED, it can also refer to a candle when the hot wax flows down its side by way of a gutter that has opened up. That use began in 1706. I’ve certainly lit my share of candles and have seen that happen many times, but never thought to describe it as guttering. Cool.
This word has been investigated by my fifth grade students in the past as part of understanding the water cycle, along with condensation, evaporation, transpiration, respiration, and infiltration. I remember enjoying what we found out. Prior to that, I was aware of words like precipice, precipitate, and precipitation, but never had a solid sense of how or if they were connected in meaning. I may have wondered, but if my tabletop dictionary didn’t make the connection obvious with its entry, I didn’t know how to pursue an investigation of this on my own. (I am grateful every day that I happened upon a fellow teacher’s blog, and that it magnified my enjoyment of language!) These are my own understandings of the words I mentioned:
Precipice – When you are at the precipice of a place or situation, you are at a steep edge with the possibility of falling.
Precipitate – This word can be used in many ways. It can be used as a verb meaning that water vapor is condensing and falling from the sky. Another meaning it has as a verb is to cause something to happen quite abruptly. It can also be used as a noun to describe a substance separated from a solution or a suspension (in science). There are other (less frequent) ways to use this word as well!
Precipitation – This form of the word is a noun, but you probably saw the <-ion> suffix and knew that. It refers to the various forms water vapor can take as it falls to the earth. It can also refer to the process of forming a precipitate (as described above).
Here is how James M. Barrie used <precipiate> in Peter Pan:
“Starkey looked round for help, but all deserted him. As he backed up Hook advanced, and now the red spark was in his eye. With a despairing scream the pirate leapt upon Long Tom and precipitated himself into the sea.”
Long Tom is a cannon on the deck of the pirate ship. At this point in the story, Starkey is told by Captain Hook that he must go into the cabin. Starkey doesn’t want to go because three others have gone into the cabin already and they have all been killed. Nobody knows what is in the cabin that is killing the men, and Starkey decides to die by precipitating himself into the sea rather than face whatever is in that cabin. Using context and combining that with the sense of falling that this word can have, it makes sense that by “he precipitated himself into the sea,” it means that he threw himself overboard.
At Etymonline we learn that this word was first attested in the 1520’s and meant “to hurl or fling downwards.” It is from Latin praecipitatus “throw or dive headlong,” from prae- “before, forth” and caput “head.” The chemical sense of this word is from the 1620’s, and it isn’t until 1863 that we see it used in the meteorological sense. Interesting, right? So in every use of this word or one of its related words, there is a sense of falling head first or the possibility of falling head first.
If you have not read this book with a child, I encourage you to do it. The character of Peter Pan is rather complicated. By that I mean that he isn’t consistently one way or another. Sure he delights the other characters and he saves them from harm, but he also disappoints them and sometimes he even lets them down. His personality is not as simple to understand as it is in movie versions. He seems a bit more human as described in the book, and that makes a big difference. It has led to wonderful discussions about what to expect from him next. The Lost Boys and the Darling children were at the mercy of his whims often. For instance, there were times that everyone ate food and other times in which everyone pretended to eat food. Peter decided which it would be based on his own preference. He wasn’t trying to be mean, he just didn’t consider anyone’s needs for that sort of thing besides his own.
Another character that we found amusing was Mr. Darling. He was so worried about appearances that some of his behaviors bordered on ridiculous. Okay, they were ridiculous! The scene near the beginning in which he is bragging about how he takes his medicine like a champ is particularly funny. As readers, we saw through his false bragging. We also saw the events of that night get out of hand because of it. Near the end of the book, we are informed that Mr. Darling feels guilty for his part in the children leaving and has imposed a punishment of confining himself to the dog kennel! The students had so much to say about that! “Did he go to work like that? Why? Did he sleep in there too? Why is he doing that when he doesn’t have to? Where did the dog sleep?”
Even if you have not read this book, I bet you’ve heard the following line in a movie or play version:
“Boy, why are you crying?”
This is said by Wendy when she is awakened by the sound of crying. Peter is sitting on the nursery floor and can’t seem to get his shadow to stick on. Of course, Peter quickly insists that he wasn’t crying. That’s the kind of vulnerability that he doesn’t like to show. Well, only pages from the end of the book, we find Peter once again in the nursery. He has come back for Wendy only to find that she has grown up and has a child of her own named Jane. Peter is so distraught that Wendy will not ever come to Neverland again, that he cries. It is at this point that her little girl is awakened and says:
“Boy, why are you crying?”
I will never forget what it felt like to share this story with those students as I read that line! They immediately recognized the words that had once been said by Wendy, but were now being said by her daughter. Their eyes jumped from the page to the other faces in the room. There were gasps and nervous laughter as they realized that what those words meant this time was so much bigger than what those few words meant the first time they were uttered. It meant there was a never ending ending to this story. And we all smiled big to know it.
My students would have given up on this book if it had just been handed to them or if they had been told to read chapters by themselves. Instead we read it aloud together. Sometimes I read, sometimes students volunteered to read, and when we could see a lot of conversation happening, we assigned parts and read it that way. We paused at the language illustrations that Michael Clay Thompson provided, and we sometimes stopped to talk about our reactions to the action or the characters. I helped when a sentence was particularly long or when I could tell that what was being read was not being understood. I shared my delight at a wording I wasn’t familiar with or a word that evoked a perfect image. The experience wouldn’t have been as rich with an abridged version. It just wouldn’t have. When asked why MCT doesn’t seek out modernized versions, he said this:
“It is precisely these articulate, complex sentences and powerful words that we seek; it is the very thing that we want not to miss.”
I get a lot of great comments about my blog, and about how lucky my students must be to be learning so much about English spelling. I appreciate each and every comment. It’s great that other teachers, parents, tutors, etc. recognize that the understanding I offer is very different to what they themselves learned when they were in fifth grade. Instead of seeing spelling as a mindless exercise in rote memorization, my students see it as fascinating because of all the investigating and discovering they now know how to do. There are stories and explanations embedded in every word, and every word is part of a family, complete with its own family tree!
What isn’t as obvious to my students, but is very obvious to me is how understanding the historical sense and meaning of a word can affect how a person uses that word when writing or understands that word when reading. Since spell check came out, many people are thinking that teaching spelling is not as necessary as it used to be. But then again, they are equating learning spelling with mindless memorization of strings of letters. They have not visited my classroom.
The people who read what I am doing and just know deep inside that this is what should be taught in all classrooms, often accompany their enthusiastic comments with questions.
“I want to begin, but do I know enough?”
“Should I wait until after I take more classes?”
“What other classes do you teach?”
“When did you start?”
“What if the students ask a question, and I don’t know the answer?”
“I’d love to investigate words with my students, but where do I start?”
I get it. When it comes to trying new things in the classroom, it can be a bit overwhelming. Especially when there is no scope and sequence to follow. As teachers, we are used to having step by step teaching guides that set a pace that we can follow. I have always been one to understand that, and yet, I must admit, the professional in me has always felt a bit claustrophobic when using one.
Back when I began teaching 5th grade, I felt confident that I could effectively teach all subjects except two – grammar and spelling. The materials left behind by the previous teacher just felt ineffective. The words, “Get out your English book” could quickly drain the color from the faces in front of me. The students weren’t involved enough in thinking about grammar and thinking about spelling. Everything was “fill in the blank” and “write definitions using the dictionary”. As a student, I used to find that kind of classwork super boring and usually finished the assignment without thinking about what I was doing or why. As a teacher, I couldn’t honestly see any long lasting benefit to the work. I knew I wasn’t really teaching children how the parts of speech they were learning about came together to represent a complete thought. I knew I wasn’t really teaching children to understand English spelling. But how could I teach what I, myself, didn’t understand?
That’s why I was thrilled back in 2004 to have had the opportunity to hear Michael Clay Thompson speak.
He changed my grammar teaching life! His 4Level Sentence Analysis was intriguing to my students and they learned more about grammar than ever before. MCT made grammar thought provoking, yet understandable. Over the years, my students and I have done a lot of analysis at the board and had rich discussions about the role words can play depending on their placement and function within a sentence. Students don’t just fill in a blank with a good guess. They are able to state how they know that in a specific sentence, a word is a specific part of speech. What follows is that they understand how the meaning of the sentence is constructed. Since 2004, MCT has expanded his selection of age level grammar and writing books. Find a full description and listing of his language arts materials HERE. The following video was taken in February of 2013. I had already been using MCT’s grammar materials for 8 years, but this gives you an example of the kind of thinking required to analyze the structure of a sentence in this way. [You might notice that the word ‘our’ as in ‘our wagon’ was incorrectly identified in this video as a pronoun, and that I did not spot the error. It is the kind of adjective that is a possessive determiner. It is pointing to the noun ‘wagon’.]
Because I was so impressed with the results I was seeing in my classroom, I also began using some of MCT’s other curriculum materials to enhance what I was required to use for spelling. I started with his Building Language books and loved that my students began learning Greek and Latin word stems. I also incorporated vocabulary words from his Caesar’s English 1 book. Teaching some Latin and Greek stems gave my classroom learning experience a big boost! I was satisfied with what I was doing … until I came across Dan Allen’s blog in late 2012.
In 2012 I decided to start a classroom blog, and went in search of other upper elementary classrooms to connect with. When I happened upon Dan’s blog, I was fascinated. He took what I was teaching my students using MCT’s Greek and Latin stems materials to a whole new level. After a weekend spent reading every post on Dan Allen’s blog, I was raring to do what he was doing. I just knew THIS was what I needed to do. THIS was what would make a difference in the lives of my students. Dan was digging into words and letting his students ask really deep, rich questions about spelling. He was teaching his students that spelling is NOT just a random collection of letters, and that it is NOT meant to represent the pronunciation of a word. By Sunday afternoon I had contacted Dan, and he put me in touch with Real Spelling. Seventeen years into my teaching career, I finally began learning and teaching how English spelling works!
I’ve never been shy about trying something new in my classroom. I have always kept my eyes open for ways to make the learning memorable and at the same time for my students to enjoy having learned. Studying English spelling by treating it as a science would be no different. But in such a big way it was. This wasn’t just a new and clever presentation of the same old thing. It wasn’t a program, and it didn’t come in a shiny box with 1001 accessory books/assessments/teacher guides. It didn’t even have a hefty price tag! This was inquiry. This was looking at spelling with a scientific methodology. My students and I could start working the minute we assembled the needed materials: our questions, pen and paper to record our thinking, and dictionaries (regular and etymological). Whoa! I couldn’t think of any good reason not to jump right in!
So here I was, halfway through the school year, knocking on my principal’s door. “Would it be okay if I abandoned our spelling books and tried something different for the second half of this year?” I went on to explain what I understood at that time about Structured Word Inquiry, or as we were also calling it, Scientific Word Investigation. Thankfully, my principal was open to the idea, and I was given permission to see if this way of learning about words could be as powerful in my classroom as it appeared to be in Dan Allen’s.
My next step was to write a letter to the parents of my students to explain what I was doing and why there would no longer be a spelling list or a spelling test. Then, of course, I needed to pitch this idea to my students. Quite surprisingly, not all were in favor of doing away with a spelling test. But as you might guess, those who hated memorizing spelling lists were delighted. And so we jumped in. I reread Dan’s posts and also read Ann Whiting’s blog posts. She was teaching a 7th grade Humanities class in Kuala Lampur and wrote inspiring blog posts. (Ann is no longer teaching, but you can read her wonderful wonderful posts HERE and HERE). I became part of an email group in which questions were shared and discussions ensued. At that point, I mostly listened and learned. I adapted activities from both blogs to use in my classroom. And everyday we spent time investigating and understanding words like we never had before! It was wonderful.
But was I prepared? Was I knowledgeable enough? No. I really wasn’t. But I didn’t pretend I was either. My students knew I didn’t have answers to their questions. I was very clear about that. I told them that I would be learning WITH them. And that was the truth. We asked questions of Real Spelling a lot in those first months. I was also in contact with Ann Whiting and Dan Allen, who were both helpful and made me feel comfortable about asking so many questions. To this day, that group of students holds a very special place in my heart because of the extraordinary shared learning we experienced. Their enthusiasm and level of questioning played off of my own and our classroom became a place where thoughtful questions came to roost. Here are two short videos of those students in the midst of investigations.
By May, my students and I sat down to reflect on the learning. It was unanimously stated that I should continue to study orthography with my next fifth grade group in the fall. I felt the same way. The students felt as if they had learned to spell without really consciously thinking about it. In focusing on the elements in their word sums, and then how to apply suffixing conventions, they had indeed become more accurate in their spelling! Besides spelling, they also felt more of a connection to words. After having investigated and discovered the stories of so many words, the students understood those words in a way that a dictionary definition just couldn’t match . They had zeroed in on the denotations of base elements and the senses that affixes contribute to words. They could compare what they knew a word to be revealing about its meaning to what a dictionary said about the word’s current usage. So many rich discussions!
To reinforce the learning that we were doing, the students brainstormed words that might fit on a matrix for <star>. I printed the matrix out, and scheduled time in each of the three second grade classrooms in our building to teach those students about word sums. In this way, each of my students was paired with a second grade student and then taught them about writing word sums (and also the suffixing convention that deals with doubling). At the time, I had a self-contained classroom (one group of students all day), so each of my students had three opportunities to teach word sums to second grade students. My students found out that, “The best way to know if you know something is to teach it to someone else,” is a true statement!
When school was out for the summer, I needed to seriously consider what training/classes I would seek. The first on my list was a 3 day training on Wolfe Island with Dr. Peter Bowers. Having spent most of my life thinking there wasn’t anything to understand about English spelling, I found this training exhilarating! Pete had spent ten years as a classroom teacher, so I knew he understood a teacher’s perspective. His goal was to open our eyes to what was true about our language and contrast that with what we have been taught that could easily be falsified. He gave us lots of opportunities to dig in and learn in the same way our students would. I met some great people who, like me, were excited to be finally understanding things about English spelling. Many of those friendships have flourished since then, since we email or see each other in classes (through Zoom) once in a while. These days Pete Bowers travels a lot and presents to teachers around the world. If you are wondering whether he’s presenting near you, read more HERE.
In the years since, I have taken classes when I could, started a collection of reference books so I could research on my own, and continued to write blog posts like this one to share some of what happens with my students and some of what I notice on my own. When posting here and when teaching orthography to my students each year, I am always cognizant and appreciative of how my story with Structured Word Inquiry began. It was one teacher sharing and then connecting with another. My regular posts on this blog have been my attempt to pay it forward. I realize that not all who read my blog are classroom teachers, but if you are in any way giving a child truth about English spelling in place of gimmicky tricks that are designed to help a person remember what does not make sense, you are a teacher.
So if you know in your heart that Structured Word Inquiry will help a child in your life, think carefully about how long you intend to withhold that information – that adventure of inquiry. Are you one who is most comfortable waiting for the understanding to gel in your own head before sitting down with a child? Are you one who is most comfortable jumping in and asking questions as you go? You have to determine when you are ready. The child you are thinking of is ready already. Don’t keep them waiting longer than necessary. Luckily there are some introductory classes that will help you learn the terminology to use and some of the basic understanding needed as you begin. Here is a list of introductory course offerings available in the SWI community:
Bringing Structured Word Inquiry into the Classroom – I teach a four episode (90 minutes each) online class. Check this out HERE.
Introductory SWI Class – Lisa Barnett at See the Beauty in Dyslexia offers a three episode (90 minutes each) online class. Check this out HERE.
Intro to SWI – Rebecca Loveless offers an online class. She also offers an ongoing study group opportunity. Check these out HERE.
An Introduction to Structured Word Inquiry – Dyslexia Training Institute offers a six week (30-40 hours) class. Check this out HERE.
I am also adding a link to the joint blog/workshop opportunities (Australia based) of Ann Whiting and Lyn Anderson: Caught in the Spell of Words. Check it out HERE.
The important thing to remember here is that you don’t have to have all the answers as you begin. That being said, you do need to identify what it is you don’t know as you move forward so you can seek the understanding you need. Do not be afraid of making errors. Expect to make errors. Celebrate the day you spot them and replace them with a deeper understanding and new questions. Investigate and present your findings to others. Then have a dialogue about what you found. The most wonderful learning happens when my students present their findings. We all move our chairs so that we are close to the board and the presenters. Then when the presentation is over, the questions, comments, dialogue and learning begins.
I am leaving you with this great quote that has inspired me through moments of self doubt:
I love teaching grammar. No, really! I love teaching grammar. Of course, I didn’t always love it. I began loving it when I met Michael Clay Thompson. He revolutionized the way I was teaching it. It’s hard to imagine something other than what I grew up doing – going through each part of speech as laid out in our English textbook with plenty of fill-in-the-blank sentences, in order to prepare for a test on things learned in isolation. But Michael Clay Thompson thought of a different way to teach it, and his idea is brilliant!
He encourages teachers to review/teach the parts of speech and the parts of a sentence within the first month of the school year. That sounds crazy, yes? That does not leave enough time to teach to mastery, but that’s okay. The mastery happens later on, after the sentence analysis starts. You see, after that first month of intense review and teaching, I start writing sentences on the board to be analyzed. And we spend the rest of the school year understanding the interrelationships and functions of the parts of speech, the parts of the sentence, and the phrases because we see them over and over in different sentences as they are being analyzed. In other words, we spend one month of reviewing/learning and 7-8 months of applying what was learned. See? Brilliant!
To begin with, the sentences are simple and short. But the analysis is the same:
Now here’s what that looks like with a real sentence:
The first row below the sentence is parts of speech. If you are wondering what ‘det.’ stands for, it is an abbreviation for determiner. Over the course of the last year, I have come to understand and embrace the idea of a ninth part of speech – that of the determiner. Prior to that, I had, like a lot of people, considered articles to be a type of adjective. But identifying a determiner as a word that begins a noun phrase has been especially helpful to my students. When they spot a determiner (and because of their frequent use in sentences, this is one of the first parts of speech students become confident about identifying) they know that a noun (or pronoun) will follow. It may be the next word, or it may be after one or more adjectives (or adjective with an intensifier), but it will be there!
Articles (definite and indefinite) are not the only types of determiners we see. Other types include quantifier, possessive, interrogative, and demonstrative. Identifying determiners in our sentences has given my students a predictable pattern to look for. The noun phrase usually begins with a determiner and ends with a noun or pronoun. In between those two we might see adverb-adjective pairs, adjectives, or nothing at all. There is also the possibility that a determiner won’t be used, as is the case with some noncount nouns.
Other than the abbreviation for determiners, I imagine you can figure out that ‘LV’ stands for linking verb. In the second row, the important parts of the sentence are identified. Because this sentence has a linking verb, we look for a subject complement (calm). If the verb was an action verb, we would look first for a direct object and secondly for an indirect object.
In the third row, we identify any phrases. This sentence has an appositive phrase. In the last row we identify the sentence structure. This sentence is a simple sentence with one independent clause. The word declarative identifies the type of sentence this is.
In a nutshell, my example above illustrates the four level sentence analysis my students and I engage in for 7-8 months of the school year. Can you imagine how comfortable some of this feels by the end of the year? They have the opportunity to keep making sense of the order of words in sentences! They have the opportunity to keep making sense of the functions and interrelationships of words in these sentences. They begin to realize that the function of a word within a sentence determines its part-of-speech label. I particularly love it when a sentence contains a word that is able to function as more than one part of speech and the students need to reason out what its particular function is in the sentence before them! They become so invested in figuring it out!
But a bigger benefit to all of this is what happens when I conference with the students about their writing. I can address specific aspects of their writing using specific language that they now understand. A typical comment from me might be, “You have a dependent clause here, but remember? A dependent clause is not a sentence on its own. It needs an independent clause either in front of it or behind it to complete the thought.” I might also say, “You have written a pretty terrific complex sentence, but it is missing its comma. Begin reading it aloud and tell me where the comma should be.” The students understand what I am saying to them and feel good about being able to make fix-ups so easily.
This is what it looks like as students are actively analyzing a sentence:
So this is obviously scholarship, but what does it have to do with Structured Word Inquiry? Yesterday I came across a recent article by Michael Clay Thompson. It was posted at Fireworks Press where you can find all of the Language Arts curriculum materials he has written. Click HERE to check it out. The title of the article is “Doing four-level grammar analysis is like practicing your piano”. In the article, he addresses why students need to continue analyzing sentences at every level, even if they’ve already been doing it for several years.
In my situation, students are analyzing sentences for the first time. The benefits are obvious. But what about next year and the year after that? When is enough enough? I sincerely hope you spend the time reading his response. To that end I will not post the highlights of it. If I tried, I’d have to post the whole article anyway! I will, however, share two of his thoughts because they philosophically parallel how I feel about my other passion, Structured Word Inquiry.
“Four level analysis is different because it is an expansive-almost cosmic-inquiry into language, with four tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously, and it is investigating something that is not concrete or simple but that is essentially bottomless.”
For those familiar with SWI, do you see the parallel? As I’ve been teaching my online class, Getting a Grip on Grammar, I’ve been realizing more and more how similar the investigations into these two areas can be. I love thinking of SWI’s four essential questions as well as MCT’s four-level analysis as “tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously”. And clearly neither is “concrete or simple”, but “essentially bottomless”. There was a time when I would’ve thought of that as an overwhelming idea – thinking I would be expected to know all of it at some point. But scholarship isn’t like that.
Scholarship is not what happens when you use a textbook, memorize definitions, and get tested. Scholarship is done leisurely. It is a continual pursuit to understand better what one only understands partially. There is no test. There are only questions to be posed, investigations to be launched, and evidence to be gathered. Here I will share another quote from Michael Clay Thompson’s article. In your mind, replace ‘Four-level analysis’ with ‘scholarship’ because clearly the one is a form of the other.
“Four-level analysis can lead you through the known, beyond the terms, past the things that have already been named, and on out to the edge, where the wild questions are.”
It’s alright if you read it a second time. Because of my passion for both SWI and grammar, this sentence not only resonates with me, it also makes me smile! Scholarship is a worthy pursuit, whether it be in regards to words, grammar, or in playing the piano. Thank you Michael Clay Thompson for the beautifully written, inspirational article!
**If you are interested in learning more about the grammar instruction my 5th graders receive, there is a tab at the top of this page that says “Grammar Class”. That is where you can find out about current schedules. If there isn’t one currently scheduled, just let me know your preference for time-of-day and dates. I will created a new schedule!