During the last week of our school year, I asked my students to tell me about orthography. After all, back in August it was a new word. They had never studied orthography or Structured Word Inquiry before this year. I had them choose a partner, look through the orthography notebooks they wrote in all year, and think about all they had done and all they had learned. Then they were to write down some specific things they enjoyed about learning orthography. I then filmed students telling me the types of things they wrote down.
Hearing what they have to say is always interesting. And real. They brought up the things that stood out to them. The things that made them stop and think. The word stories that they will remember always. Didn’t you love the moment in the video when one student mentions the word ‘gymnasium’ and the rest of the students react by laughing? That is the power of knowing something that lots of other people don’t know. Look it up sometime at Etymonline. It is from the Greek gymnos. We could not find many words with this base (besides gymnast, gymnastic,etc.), but just yesterday a student found the word ‘gymnophobia’. And it is NOT a fear of exercise! We laughed! It was like having a shared joke among friends.
And then, of course, there was the boy who laughed gleefully at the prospect of a word having a two letter base! One of the words I show my students early in the year is ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’. The boy is right. It is quite delightful to know that this great big word has such a tiny base. I like to point to this word as proof that a word can have more than one prefix and more than one suffix. How many prefixes can you spot? How many suffixes? Which two letters do you suppose make up the bound base that is central to this word’s meaning?
Another student comment pointed to one of my favorite things about Structured Word Inquiry. We learn a list of words that share a base instead of a list of unrelated words. For example, we looked at the free base <pend> from Latin pendere “to hang”. We collected a list of words and checked resources to make sure they were descendants of pendere. Here are words we had on our list:
We talked about what each of these words meant and what they had to do with the denotation of the base. Our understanding of what each of these words meant and how they can be used deepened. Then weeks later, after we had moved on and were studying something else, someone came bopping into the room wondering about the word ‘pendant’, and if the <pend> in ‘pendant’ is the same base as in ‘suspend’. Wonderful! Isn’t that wonderful? Long after we have investigated a single base and several of its relatives, students continue to make connections! They became more observant with words. They began to analyze words without even realizing they were doing it.
The boy in the video who compared past methods of learning words to what we did this year, said it well. “With a lot of spelling tests, you usually, like, remember it super hard. You take the test, and then you forget all of it to make room for the next test. With what we’re doing, it’s different because you, like, remember it in a way that you actually remember it, like, in a different way that you can remember it for life.” So true! With rote memorization, there is no hook. There’s nothing to connect the word too. Students, teachers, and parents end up making up stories or songs just to make the letter order memorable. But by looking at a word’s meaning, it’s structure, and it’s history, a student makes all kinds of connections. A word’s birth can be connected to an event in time. A word might have changed it’s spelling over time and there’s an interesting story about that. Students start appreciating words!
And speaking about the history of a word, several of the students mentioned how interesting it was to dig for just that. The further along in the school year, the better the students got at understanding the wealth of knowledge presented at Etymonline. One student talked about how the meaning of ‘awesome’ has changed. About a month ago a student investigated the words ‘terrific’ and ‘nice’. She was blown away to discover that at different times in history, those words meant very different things than they do now. She ended up making a timeline for each to show how the word’s meaning slowly evolved to be what it is today. Another example of this very thing is what happened today in class. A girl came in complaining that a boy in her grade was calling her 6 year old brother gay because he was playing around with a friend. I said, “We’ll have to talk to this boy.” But then I mentioned that this was another word that meant something else before it had to do with homosexuality. So we looked it up. I thought I would find that it once meant light-hearted and joyful. Well, I did. But that’s not all. I was surprised to find out that in Middle English it meant “excellent person, gallant knight, noble lady”. What a great opportunity to talk about the difference between a word’s denotation and its connotations.
What a year of meaningful learning. Every year of this is exciting and surprising. This kind of scholarship just can’t be boxed and repeated exactly the same way each year. And this kind of scholarship doesn’t just disappear because the students go back to less scientific ways to study words as they move in to 6th grade. Students come back. They sign up for orthography as a summer school class. They stop me in the street to tell me about words they have come across. They talk to me about words or Greek letters when I see them at local theater productions or even in the local grocery store.
One of my all time favorite insights on the study of orthography came two years ago. A student said, “Last year in 4th grade we’d get a list of about 15-20 words, and you just memorized them. During word work or whatever you’d write down the words, erase them off your white board, rewrite them, and do that about 20 times. And it got really boring really quickly. But with this, you kind of, like, look up on the computer what the base is and what the prefixes are, what it means, all the words that are related to it, and there’s just multiple steps. Making it more exciting.” Did you catch that? Structured Word Inquiry has multiple steps. It takes longer. It is ultimately more work. But that is what makes it more exciting! There is an element of discovery and surprise. It is not repetitious. It is not mindless. It is engaging. It is meaningful. And the students prefer to be mentally engaged – to be active learners!
I thought carefully for most of the summer about the best way to introduce the spelling truths (which I like to think of as the fabric of orthography) to my new fifth graders. Hmmmm. Where to begin? What to start with? What is the ground level understanding they will need in order to pursue independent inquiries?
It was obvious to me that they needed to understand some linguistic terminology, the fact that words have structure, and the fact that it is more important to understand the meaning and sense of what a word brings to the context in which it is found than it is to be able to pronounce it. Beyond that, further orthographical discoveries will be more like delightful and savory surprises.
Even with the determination of what I deemed an essential foundation, I continued to ponder what to start with. The students before me would not only be new to fifth grade, they would also be new to the idea of “spelling makes perfect sense”. There is very little they understand about “why” when it comes to spelling. They have spent their time sorting, grouping, using in sentences, copying and over-pronouncing words with the hope that the exposure alone will help the student memorize each word’s spelling. So, one word at a time, the students have been asked to memorize spellings. How deadening to the student who needs to understand in order to make a spelling stick! How unprofitable to the student who can easily memorize those spellings, but is never shown the relationships words have with one another.
So it isn’t just that the students are coming to me with a lack of understanding, they are also coming to me with little interest and low expectations that studying spelling can be anything but dry and dull. I thought some more. What will ignite their eagerness to know more? As I thought, I thought back to what ignited my own eagerness only three and a half years ago. What were those word examples that made me believe that I was indeed staring spelling truths straight in the face? Which matrices made convincing evidence obvious to me when I wasn’t even looking for it? Which orthographic nuggets made me lift my eyebrows and smile?
Here’s what I did. On day one I wrote three words on the board: <to> <too> <two>. The students were aware that these were homophones. They understood that homophones share a pronunciation but not a spelling. Next I asked them to give me a definition of each word. They found it easier to use the words in sentences than to define them, especially with <to>. At this point, I brought up the idea that words can be categorized as either function words or content words. Function words tend to have less letters than their homophone partners, and are less easy to define in isolation. The list of function words is closed as opposed to the list of content words. We identified <to> as a function word that is commonly used as a preposition.
Then we talked about the spelling of these three words, and noticed that the first had one <o>, the second had two <o>’s and that the third couldn’t have three <o>’s. That is something we don’t see in a complete English word. So why is there a <w>? A third <o> couldn’t be used so the next best thing was a <w>? Hmmmm. Interesting. Perhaps there is an explanation to be found if we look at words related to <two>? I asked if anyone could think of a word that had a <tw> letter combination and also had something to do with the number two. Almost immediately someone thought of <twelve>. As that person was explaining the connection to the number two, other hands shot up. We ended up with a list on the board that included twenty, twice, twilight, twist, twin and between. Suddenly the spelling of the number two was less weird, less random. The <w> was there to mark a connection between the number two and other words with <tw> that also have something to do with two.
On day two I began by showing Gina Cooke’s video Making Sense of Spelling.
It reaffirmed what they had realized yesterday about the <w> in <two> and led them to other interesting things. At its end we discussed things like free and bound bases, prefixes and suffixes, and the terms ‘word sums’ and ‘word structure’. We also addressed the appearance of a single non-syllabic <e> in the word sum <one> + <ion>, but not in its final form <onion>. Every student in the room knew that there would be a final non-syllabic <e> in the word <hope> and that the <e> was not in the word <hoping>, but because they do not know WHY it is in one and not the other, they don’t expect that same convention to happen in other words!
I followed our discussion by having the students brainstorm a list of words with <hope> as the free base. After the list was completed, I drew a matrix on the board to share a way to organize the morphemes that are part of completed words that share a base. When the hand drawn matrix reflected the words we listed, I quickly typed in the same list at Mini-Matrix Maker and created a computer drawn matrix. We compared the two and reviewed why some affixes seem to be in compartments and some seem to be part of a list. Then we practiced recognizing words by choosing morphemes in a specific order. Here is the matrix we made:
I patiently listened as the students pronounced the suffixes as if they were words, knowing that on day three I needed to show them why morphemes need to be spelled out and not pronounced.
On day three I wrote the word <sign> on the board and asked if it was free or bound. It was identified as free because it could be used without adding any affixes. Then I went to my desk and pulled Etymonline up on the SmartBoard. We looked together at the entry for <sign>. I talked a bit about the “early 13c.” that began the entry. I explained that that is when the word was first attested. Doug Harper, the author of Etymonline, looks at written documents to find the earliest date he can in which the word in question was in use. If he finds a written document with the word, he notes the date and looks at written documents from before that date. He stops when he cannot find the word in any earlier written documents that he has access to. Does that mean the word couldn’t have existed before that? No. It means we do not have evidence of it existing before that. I wanted to make sure that my students know that scholars rely on evidence, and if we are going to be scholars, we will need to rely on it too. We went on to read the rest of the entry and found out how recent the term sign language really is (1847).
Next I walked over to the white board again and began a matrix for the free base <sign>. After having read the full entry for <sign> at Etymonline, it was decided that “to mark” would be a denotation we could use. The students brainstormed words that belonged to this family, and I filled in the matrix. It didn’t take long before someone suggested the word <design>. “Say that again,” I asked. “Are you pronouncing the base in <design> the same way you would if the <de> prefix were not there?” The students noticed that the <s> was pronounced as /z/ in <design> and /s/ in <sign>. This is a reason to spell out our morphemes instead of pronouncing them as if they are words. Until a word is complete, we don’t know how to pronounce it.
After students suggested <signer>, <designs>, and <signing> there was a pause. “Can you think of any others?” I asked. A hand went up and a boy quietly and uncertainly asked if <signature> might be one. “Well, does a signature have anything to do with making a mark?”, I asked. While the students were agreeing that it did, someone else blurted out excitedly, “And this word is evidence for having the <g> in the base!” That was like music to my ears! More quickly than I expected, they are connecting dots! The final word added to our matrix was <signal>, to which someone blurted, “…more evidence for why there’s a <g>!” But it was also evidence to support the practice of spelling out morphemes until a word is complete and ready to be pronounced.
On day four I shared with the students my understanding of how the days of the week were named. None of the students really knew anything about this, although they had some pretty imaginative guesses. I began by sharing the names given by the Romans:
One boy quickly raised his hand and said that they looked like planet names. I smiled, commented “Nicely done,” and pointed up to the new poster on our wall:
I told them that the Latin word dies (day) has the bound base <di> that we see in our modern word <diary>. That made sense since a diary is where we do daily writing. They knew that solis had to do with the sun because they thought of <solar>. They knew that lunae had to do with the moon because they thought of <lunar>. As for the rest of the days, they named every planet except Jupiter (lovi).
The Romans, like the Greeks, paired up the planets with their Gods and the characteristics attributed to their Gods. When the Germanic tribes decided to use this idea of naming the days of the week after the planets and their associated Gods, they used their own Gods that matched in characteristics to the Roman Gods. Here is how the Germanic people who spoke Old English named the days:
sunnandæg Sun’s day
monandæg Moon’s day
tiwesdæg Tiw’s day
wodnesdæg Woden’s day
thurresdæg Thunor’s day
frigedæg Freya’s day
sæternesdæg Saturn’s day
At this point, we could definitely see that the names were becoming familiar! We especially enjoyed learning that <Friday> and <friend> share a base, and therefore a denotation! Friday was named for Venus which was associated with the characteristics of love and affection. Isn’t a friend someone for whom you have a level of love and affection?
Telling the story of the days of the week gave us an opportunity to understand how people can shape the spelling of words. The Germanic people liked the idea of naming the days after the sun, the moon and the planets. They even liked the idea of associating those planets with Gods. But they had their own Gods, and they adopted and adapted the weekday names to reflect their own Gods. Perhaps this has happened with other words in other places as well. Telling the story of the days of the week also gave us an opportunity to talk about letters that don’t exist anymore, as with the letter ash <æ> that has since become a single <a>. Perhaps there are other letters that were once common, but no longer exist as part of our alphabet
As we were finishing up our discussion of how the days of the week were named, one boy turned to the student next to him, put his hands to his head, and made a gesture as if his mind had just been blown! It was just the reaction I had hoped for! The eagerness is settling in. I can feel it.
On day five, I shared a video of two 6 year old boys who were investigating <carnivore> in Jim and Lyn Anderson’s classroom.
When it was finished, I asked if anyone thought that <carnivore> was a pretty big word for first graders. Lots of students raised their hands. Then I asked if anyone in the class had ever been fascinated with dinosaurs at the same age. Only a few hands went up, but the children those hands belonged to were ready to relive that enthusiasm and tell about their favorites! I was making the point that 6 year old children are not intimidated by large words. It is the adults and the writing programs they use who decide what length of word is appropriate at what age. How confining and insulting!
Secondly, look at the comfort these boys have in using the online resource Etymonline. They do not stop and embarrassingly try to pronounce a word in Late Latin. Instead they spell it and learn from it what they need to know – how its spelling compares to the word they are investigating. And they aren’t just blindly copying things down in their notebook. They are talking about what they are discovering and can easily explain their understanding without having to read it out of their notebook.
I wrote <carnivore> and <herbivore> on the board. We reviewed that the boys had said the base of <carnivore> was <carn> and meant “meat”. I reminded them that the teacher had mentioned a second base which was <vore> and that the boys had defined it as “eat or only eat”. I wrote a word sum: <carn> + <i> + <vore>. I didn’t say anything about the <i> just yet. Then we looked at <herbivore>. I began a word sum, bracketing the known base <vore>. Someone spotted the familiar base <herb> and could even tell me it was a free base. I finished the word sum: <herb> + <i> + <vore>. I wondered if anyone recognized what these two word sums had in common. That is when we turned our attention to the <i> in both words. I explained that it is a connecting vowel, and that because it is an <i>, we know that it is from Latin. Someone asked if it is like a conjunction. In a way it is. It is an affix that connects two morphemes in a word. Then I shared the word that first convinced me that a connecting vowel was a real thing: <speedometer>. This is a compound word with two free bases. It is obvious that the <o> is not part of either base, but is there to connect the two. And because the connecting vowel is an <o>, I know this word is from Greek.
We talked about the fact that these are both compound words because there are two bases in each. I pointed out that they have the same structure: a base + a connecting vowel + a base. All words have a structure. I demonstrated this by bringing back the examples we saw in our <hope> matrix and our <sign> matrix.
So that is how the first week went. I feel good about the choices I made in regards to what I shared and what was introduced. I’ve seen the eyebrows go up and the smiles cross their lips. At the end of day five, a girl told the class that every night her mom asks her what she learned that day. She hasn’t always had something to tell her mom. But this year it’s different. Every day this week she taught her mom some orthography!
Another school year has come to an end. The faces I have grown accustomed to will now grace someone else’s classroom. I will be left with remembrances of the many times we learned together, stumbled together, and laughed together.
As we take some time to think of the ways this year has moved us all forward by increasing what we understand about our world, the topic of orthography comes to mind. Back in September a few students lit up right away once we began talking about words and structure and reasons for spelling that had nothing to do with phonics. The rest were quite sure that it seemed like a lot of work.
The students were used to having spelling and pronunciation be the most important thing to know about a word. I flip flopped that thinking and asked them to consider the sense and meaning of the word before thinking about either of those. It was really one of the toughest challenges I faced this year.
You see, when spelling and pronunciation are considered more important than a word’s meaning, then the word is an empty thing. Learning its spelling becomes a memory task, much like memorizing digits of Pi. The digits of Pi are random and there is no pattern to rely on. The students had spent years memorizing words that were empty for them. They did not see how knowing the meaning of a word would be helpful to understanding its spelling. Long into the school year I would catch students who were trying to figure out the word sum for a word that they could not define.
Slowly but surely progress was made. The students became more and more familiar with common prefixes and suffixes. They began to understand that affixes affect the overall sense and meaning of the base. They began to see words as having a structure that brings sense to the word’s spelling. When the structure begins to be understood, then spelling doesn’t need to be memorized. The student will be able to rely on their knowledge of that underlying word structure and suffixing conventions to spell words.
Today I asked students to think back on the orthography work we have done this year. I asked them whether or not there is a benefit to studying it. The following video says it all. My students overwhelming wish other grade levels could experience it and learn some of what they have.
Over and over these comments mention that students felt a sense of depth when studying orthography that was lacking in their previous spelling programs. Studying orthography required more writing, more thinking, more research, more discussion, more questioning and more project work than their spelling program had. AND YET they liked it better! There are so many great quotes I could use, but I’ll leave you with this one, “Orthography opens your curious side!”
The following video is a conglomeration of silly moments from our year together. The students enjoyed making videos this year and were so patient with me when I was filming. I put this one together just for them.
This year I had a high school student who came to my classroom every day to help out. The other day while she was here, two 5th graders shared their poster about the digraph <wr>. They were listing words that began with <wr> and had something to do with twisting and turning. (Wringing, wrench, wrinkle, wrist, …) After the bell rang and the 5th graders left, she turned to me. “Every time I’m in here and these students present like this, I am blown away. This stuff is so cool and interesting! Do they have any idea just how lucky they are to be learning this stuff?” I had to admit that I’m not sure my students realize how unique their situation is.
So today I gave them the opportunity to reflect on our study of orthography. Each student spent 5 or so minutes writing down some of the things they learned. Then I asked them to share. Some were comfortable letting me record their thoughts. Others preferred to give me their thoughts on paper. Here is what some of the students had to say:
~Orthography makes spelling less complicated.
~I used to just write the word. I didn’t know nothing about the word or the base of the word. Not even the prefixes or suffixes. Some words are hard to understand, but this way helped me.
~I learned that the <carn> in carnival has the same meaning as the <carn> in carnivore.
~Syllables are not word sums.
~Orthography is not just learning the meaning of a word.
~Instead of learning how to spell words we learned their history and how they were made, allowing us to sort of understand what they mean.
~Word sums are not found in a dictionary.
~Yes! There were no spelling tests! We worked on something new almost every day! I now know new and harder words.
~I don’t like spelling, but I like orthography.
~Words have connections to other words that we don’t always recognize. Example: lavendar and lava.
~It helps me because I can remember the morphemes, and they help me remember how to spell the word.
~Lots of words have histories and were spelled different back then.
~Words have not just one meaning but multiple meanings.
~Back when some words were spelled a little different, they also had meanings that were a little different than their meaning today.
~Orthography helps you find bases so you know if the words have something in common like in sign and signal.
~I liked this more than spelling because it had more thought in it rather than just memorizing the spelling of a word.
~There is actually a reason words are spelled the way they are.
~I always used songs to remember how to spell words. Now I just need to break them down into morphemes and I can spell the words I don’t know.
~In the past we’d just get words and the teacher would be like, “Make sure to study!” But none of us did. Now we don’t have to study. It just kind of sticks. I can spell much better.
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.
If we go with the analogy in which words that share a base are like members of a family, then the following pictures offer proof that the fifth graders in our school live in a wonderfully diverse neighborhood!
Here are three more films in which students share their Latin Verb investigations. The first is a combination of what two groups found out about the Latin Verb Duco Ducere Duxi Ductus.
This group looked at Frango Frangere Fregi Fractus.
The following two groups investigated Scribo Scribere Scripsi Scriptus.
Last week we began talking about Latin verbs and their four principal parts. The students caught on quickly and wanted to investigate a set of verbs on their own. I wrote the four principal parts of different verbs on note cards and handed them out to students who then worked with partners.
The first group looked at Lavo, Lavare, Lavi, Lotus. The two boys explained how they knew that they were looking at twin bases. I enjoyed the discussions about lavendar, lavish, lavatory, and lava. Prior to this investigation, none of us would have seen a meaning connection here, but then again, that is the joy of orthography!
The next group looked at Struo, Struere, Struxi, Structus. This group found there were twin bases coming from this Latin verb. They found quite a few words with the <struct> base, but just two with the <stru(e)> base.
This third group looked at Tracto, Tractare, Tractavi, Tractatus. They determined that there was a single Latin base here. They shared their list of words and definitions.
How wonderful to hear the students talk about seeing word connections that they never saw before. Here is the evidence that words belong to families. Some of those words are related in the same way that siblings are. Some are related more like cousins would be. For example, <laundry> and <launder> would be cousins to the <lave> / <lote> family. They can all be traced back to Latin lavare, but <laundry> and <launder> do not share the base spelling of <lave> or <lote>. Another example would be <destroy> and <industry>. They are related to the <stru(e)> / <struct> family in the same way that cousins would be related to you. They can all be traced back to Latin struere, but again the cousins do not share the base spelling of <stru(e)> or <struct>.
Yesterday was one of those days when the orthographic sun was shining brightly. I was bathed in the light, and that light warmed me from the inside out.
It all started when a teacher on our fifth grade team said she was talking about suffrage with her class, and one of the students wondered out loud if the word suffrage was related to suffer in any way since they had so many letters in common. (Yes! Trying to make sense of unfamiliar words by looking for relationships to known words.)
A bit later, another teacher who works with one of my students asked me to follow her to her room. She had something to show me. The student had read a story about someone who was a philanthropist, and when the teacher drew attention to that unfamiliar word, the student began writing a word sum. The teacher wasn’t sure how to respond to the word sum and called me in. Here is what the student wrote: <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>.
(Yes! My students are aware that words are made up of morphemes, and they carry clues about their language of origin.)
Later that same day, a student ran across the word aquatic while doing some science research. She wondered aloud if the <quat> in <aquatic> was the same <quat> we see in <quaternary> (we’ve been studying primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary consumers in a food web). She also wondered about the <a>, and if it was the same <a> that we saw in <asexual> when we discussed living things reproducing.
(Yes! Words are made up of morphemes and those morphemes are categorized as bases and affixes. Some bases and affixes show up in a large number of words. Research is the only way to know for sure whether two words share a base or an affix.)
So today when class began, I shared my joy with my students. I wanted them to know that what pleased me more than anything was the fact that they were wondering and asking questions. They were looking for connections and recognizing previously used affixes and bases.
I wrote <suffrage> on the board. Below it I wrote <suffer>. Then someone called out <suffix>, so I wrote that down also. Because we had talked about <suffer> and <suffix> earlier this year, it was remembered that <suf-> (sub-) was the prefix in each of these words. But that didn’t necessarily mean it was a prefix in <suffrage>. We needed to do some research. I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard and we looked it up together.
We found that it was from the Latin suffragari “lend support, vote for someone”. The next bit was quite interesting. [Conjectured to be a compound of sub “under” and fragor “crash, din, shouts (as of approval), related to frangere “to break”. On another theory the second element is frangere itself and the notion is “use a broken piece of tile as a ballot”. The meaning “political right to vote” in English is first found in the U.S. Constitution, 1787.]
The words “conjectured to be” and “on another theory” brought interesting discussion in and of themselves. Both possibilities broaden the sense of the word. For now we are satisfied that the <suf-> in <suffrage> might be a prefix just as it is in <suffix> and <suffer> … and then again it might not be.
The conversation we had about <philanthropist> took us meandering through several words. I wrote the student’s word sum for it: <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>. I said, ” Looks like this student is considering whether or not this word has an <o> connecting vowel. What language would we associate with an <o> connecting vowel?” Several students piped up with “Greek”. Then I asked if there were any other clues in this word that it was in fact from Greek. After a thoughtful pause several said <ph> at once. Beautiful. At this point I asked everyone to consider the word sum and whether or not they agreed that there was an <o> connecting vowel.
Right away someone pointed out that <ist> is a common suffix found in words like <scientist>, <artist> and <therapist>. So if the <ist> was indeed a suffix, then the <p> would not be by itself – that perhaps <throp> all go together. At this point we went back to Etymonline. We found evidence that <ist> was a suffix and that this word came from the Greek philanthropia “kindliness, humanity, benevolence, love to mankind” from phil- “loving” + anthropos “mankind”. I shared with my students that when in college I had taken a course in anthropology.
With this information we created a new hypothesis: <phil> + <anthrop> + <ist>. We talked about what philanthropists do. I reminded them that a few years back our school was the recipient of a philanthropist’s generosity when someone purchased Smartboards for each of our classrooms!
But as we were finishing up that discussion, I wondered out loud if there were other words with <phil> as the base. Immediately the word <philosophy> was mentioned. We looked it up. We found that it comes from the Greek philosophia “love of knowledge, pursuit of wisdom”. How delightful!
Lastly we looked at <aquatic>. When we looked at Etymonline, we could not find any evidence to support <a> being a prefix or <quat> having to do with fourth. We only saw references to <aqua> meaning water. Some students may have been able to guess that without having to look, but I want to develop the habit of looking. There have been far too many unexpected connections (delightful surprises) when we have.
I leave you with a student/teacher exchange that happened later that day (inspired by our discussions):
“I’m thinking of the word <dinosaur> and thinking that if the <o> is a connecting vowel, then the word is probably from Greek. What do you think?”
“I’m thinking that you know how to find out.” (said with a smile)
What an orthographic opportunity! The students were quick to recognize that everyone of these had an <ion> suffix. Next I asked students to say and then spell the word that would remain if the <ion> suffix was removed. The words listed were now:
condensate evaporate transpirate
infiltrate percolate precipitate
With the exception of the word <intercept>, all the rest had something in common. The students again pointed out an <ate> suffix. I asked why the <e> on the end of <ate> didn’t show up once we added the <ion> suffix to the word? Everyone knew that it was dropped when the vowel suffix <ion> was added. At this point I recognized though, that some of the students thought the second suffix was <at> instead of <ate>. In our recent “The Great Suffix Challenge” activity I learned that some of those same students have little understanding of suffixes, other than their position in the word. We must keep writing out word sums and talking about each morpheme’s role in the word.
Next I asked if anyone recognized any proven prefixes. Several recognized <inter>, meaning between and <pre>, meaning before. Even though we had previously discussed <e> being a clip of <ex> (meaning out) and <con> (meaning together), no one recognized them offhand. I grouped the students and had each group further investigate each word.
As the bases were identified, discussions took us in all sorts of fascinating directions.
The meaning of the word <evaporation> became something we could clearly picture once we knew that <e> was the prefix meaning out and <vape> was the base meaning steam. We pictured water evaporating from a tea kettle, a puddle, and a lake. Our complete word sum hypothesis was <e> + <vape/> + <or> + <ate/> + <ion>. When deciding whether the base was <vape> or <vapor>, we looked for other words sharing this meaning and found <vapid>. This word was our evidence that <or> was a suffix. We decided that without the final <e> on the base, the final consonant <p> would be forced to double when adding a vowel suffix. Since we know that in words like vaporize and evaporate there is only a single <p>, then we also know there must be a final <e> on the base <vape>. For those who were confused as to why the base might have a final <e>, I wrote <hoping> on the board and asked them to remove the <ing> suffix. When they said the base was <hope>, I showed them that the final <e> in <hope> is doing the same job as the final <e> in the bound base <vape>.
Another intriguing discussion arose with the word <infiltration>. The word sum hypothesis was <in> + <filtr> + <ate/> + <ion>. As we typically do, we looked for other words that shared the base <filtr> and its meaning. We found filtration, infiltrate, infiltrator, infiltrated, filter, filtering, filtered, and filters. Much to my delight, someone asked how we could add an <er> suffix to the base <filtr> to get the word <filter>. The student knew we wouldn’t just drop the final <r> in the base, but also knew that simply adding the <er> suffix wouldn’t get us the spelling of <filter> either.
The bound base <filtr> behaves similarly to <centr>, <metr>, and <theatr>. Structurally it makes sense to spell these four with a final <re> rather than an <er>. Let me give examples using word sums:
In other countries, these words are indeed spelled <filtre>, <centre>, <metre>, and <theatre>. At some point in American history, the <re> ending was reversed so that these words resembled all of the other words in our language that have an <er> suffix. Alas! In doing so, another road block to understanding word structure was set in place. Center and central seemed to be two words that were related in meaning, but not in spelling or structure. But, of course, that is not what scholarly research and evidence reveals! My students are now as fascinated with this information as I am.
One final treasure was when we found the base of <transpiration> to be <spire> which means to breathe. The students began collecting other words with that base and we talked about how each word shared that sense of breathing. When we studied photosynthesis, we first used the word <transpiration>, and knew that it was that plant action of pulling water up from the roots, through the xylem, through the leaf into the cell and out the stomata. In this way the plant is breathing. When we came across the word <perspiration>, the light bulb of meaning connection went off in my own head and I said, “Transpiration. Perspiration. Anybody seeing any similarities in meaning?” Eyes widened and hands shot up. From there we talked about <respiration>, <inspiration> and <expiration>. THIS is the stuff you don’t find in spelling workbooks!
In our recent investigation of the word <biosphere> we found that the most likely hypothesis is <bi> + <o> + <sphere>. The base <bi> is from the Greek bios meaning life. In searching for some other words that share this same base students found:
The word biotic was an unfamiliar one until we added the prefix <anti> to it. When I asked if anyone had ever taken an antibiotic, almost all hands went up. With the shared understanding that an antibiotic was a medicine, we could talk about the word’s denotation or literal definition. The prefix <anti> means against and the base <bi> means life. An antibiotic is against (destructive to) micro-organisms (living organisms) in the body.
The word biotic took on another meaning last week when we went to the creek to see what kinds of macroinvertebrates live there. Our task was to use the Biotic Index to determine the quality of the water. The students each had a tally sheet that listed the types of macroinvertebrates we might find. On the tally sheet, the macroinvertebrates were grouped by how sensitive or tolerant each was to pollution.
Two students from each class wore waders and got in the water with me. We demonstrated how scientists take kick samples using a D frame net. Then the samples were carried to the waiting white pans. The rest of the class spent time examining the macroinvertebrates in the pans and marking down the types and numbers of macroinvertebrates they found. The calculations would come later when we returned to the class. In the meantime, we were looking at the insects living in the creek (biotic) knowing that their numbers and sensitivity to pollution would be what would determine the water’s quality.
Here are some pictures from our trip to the creek.