Conferences: An Opportunity to Get the Word Out

This is what I shared with the parents of my students at our recent set of conferences.  Since those conferences were scheduled three weeks before the end of the trimester (which meant that my grades were not yet finalized) I used the opportunity to explain what I teach under the heading of orthography.

I began by explaining that one of my goals is to teach students why words are spelled the way they are.  A word’s spelling is primarily representing meaning, and not pronunciation.  An example of what I mean by that is the word <goes>.

On the day after our final performances of The Photosynthesis Follies, I gave a photosynthesis test.  As I was correcting the tests, I couldn’t help but notice that more students than I would’ve thought, misspelled <goes>.  Five students spelled it as *<go’s>, two students spelled it as *<gos>, three students spelled it as *<gows>, three students spelled it as *<gose>, and one student spelled it as *<gous>.  Sometimes when I mention to colleagues that students struggle with spelling, their first reaction is to say, “They need more phonics!  Those lower grades must have stopped teaching phonics!”  But I say no.  It is pretty obvious that the students have learned to spell phonetically.  Anyone reading their work can guess what word they intended to spell.  They are spelling using the only strategy they’ve been taught:  Sound it out.  And if we started naming words that are similarly difficult to spell accurately using only “sound it out”, we could name quite a few.  Don’t you agree?  So what now?  If the problem isn’t phonics, what is it?

Well, what if,  when we were teaching our students that graphemes represent pronunciation, we also taught them that words have structure?  What if the students were taught to look at this word and recognize that <go> is at the heart of its meaning?  We could teach them that this word starts with its base element, <go>, and if we want to form other words using this same base element, we could add suffixes.  If the child is learning the spelling of <goes>, he/she is probably familiar with the words <going> and <gone> as well.  We could teach the student that <go + es  is rewritten as goes>, that <go + ing is rewritten as going> , and that <go + ne is rewritten as gone>.

If we look at other word families in this same way, it won’t take long before the student has learned some of the more commonly used suffixes and prefixes.  So even with early readers, recognizing some part of a word will help when encountering unfamiliar words.  When decoding, the student can focus on the base element in the word because they recognize a suffix they can remove.

So now let me show you what I am doing with fifth grade words.  We begin our science curriculum by studying the interactions of the biosphere, geosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere.  As an orthographer, I immediately noticed that this group of words shares a structure.  Focusing on that structure, I added lithosphere, troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and cosmosphere to the list.  I had the students investigate these words in small groups.

They are all compound words.  You can see the familiar base <sphere>.  Just in front of that base you’ll notice that each word has the connecting vowel <o>.  That leaves a rather unfamiliar looking base at the beginning of each word.  It looks unfamiliar because we have not been taught to recognize bound bases.  A bound base is not found as a word on its own.  It is always bound to another element in the word.  When we think of compound words, we think of words like chalkboard or hallway.  In those words we see two free bases joined together.  In biosphere, we have a bound base <bi> joined to a free base <sphere> by the connecting vowel <o>.  This <bi> is from Greek and has a denotation of “life”.  The second base <sphere> is from Greek too.  It has a denotation of “globe”.  So the biosphere is everything that is alive on our globe or planet.

It is great to  better understand a word by looking at its structure, history and the overall meaning we glean from paying attention to its elements. But if we stop there, we are only giving a student one more word to remember.  Instead, looking at a word’s relatives is how a student makes connections to other words and how a word’s meaning becomes memorable.  If we continue to look at <biosphere>, and focus on the first base <bi>, we can find words like <biographer> “someone who writes about other people’s lives”, <biohazard> “something that is dangerous to living things”, <biology> “the study of living things”, and <bioluminescent> “living organisms that emit light”.  Do you see how all of these words are connected in meaning?  If the students begin to recognize a base like <bi>, they will have a hint at what an unfamiliar word like <biometry> might mean.  At the very least they will know it has something to do with “life, living”.  If they also know the second base in this word (<meter>) has to do with measuring (geometry, diameter, speedometer, kilometer), they will put the two meanings together. They might still need clarification as to what it means to measure life, but a quick look at Etymonline will tell them that biometry is the calculation of a life expectancy.  A biometrist tries to calculate how long something (under certain conditions) might live!  Cool!

**At this point I encourage the parents to take a look at the posters in the hallway (once we have finished with the conference).  The posters show the various investigations by the students.  I feel it is important to also point out to the parents that when they look at the posters they should keep something in mind.  It is not my intention for the students to remember all of the words they find.  Rather, it is my intention for the students to realize how many words can be related to one base element and its shared denotation!  Then, of course, the students also begin to realize that all words have structure (morphology), and a history (etymology).

      

Next I showed parents the list of these words that was still on the whiteboard in the classroom.  The students had written the year each word was first attested next to its corresponding word.  It is my intention to have the students make a timeline to better organize the words and their attestation dates.  Then we’ll be able to talk about which word was around first and which was created most recently.  As it turns out, the word <atmosphere> was first attested in 1630.  It is interesting that the oldest of these is <atmosphere> “gaseous envelop surrounding the earth.”  It just goes to show how long scientists have been looking up and wondering about our atmosphere.

As the years passed and the technology became more advanced,  scientists were able to detect differences in different areas of the atmosphere.  It became important to be more precise in what they called things.  I find it interesting that the specific layers of the atmosphere were named so recently.  It began with the stratosphere in 1908, the troposphere in 1914, the thermosphere in 1924, and the mesosphere in 1950. You can almost imagine the scientists making their observations and then realizing that the atmosphere was actually made up of layers, each with unique properties.  And as there was a need to fittingly name each layer, they looked to the classical languages (Greek and Latin) for appropriate elements!

The next topic we discussed was the teaching of Chancery Script.  My goal is for the students to have consistent and legible writing that also reflects their personal style.  I have fountain pens that we use when practicing.  We focus on writing posture and a comfortable pen hold (as opposed to a tense grip).  Again, I direct the parents to stop on their way out and see the examples I have posted in the hall.

When I moved on to what the students were learning in science, we ended up weaving in orthography once more!  As we’ve taken a closer look at the biosphere, we’ve learned about food chains and food webs.  The Photosynthesis Play we recently performed for the school, gave us a good start in understanding that the sun provides the energy for photosynthesis.  In fact, the word <photosynthesis> means “put together with light”.  It is the Greek base <phote> that means light.  We see this base in photography, photojournalism, photocopy, and phototropism (since we’ve studied the word <troposphere>, we know that phototropism has to do with a plant turning towards the light).  We have also studied the word <synthetic> and we use it often when we write synthetic word sums.  We know that a synthetic word sum is one in which we put the elements together to form a completed word.

Because of our previous understanding of the words <synthetic> and <phototropism>, we could more easily understand that <photosynthesis> would be a combination of those meanings “put together with light”.  Quite by coincidence, a few days later we were watching a video that further explained food webs and trophic levels.  The narrator in the video spoke about photosynthesis (the process in which a plant produces its own food), but then added that some bacteria are too far from the sunlight’s energy, and so produce their own food using chemosynthesis.  Without skipping a beat, several students raised their hands and excitedly explained that chemosynthesis would mean “put together with chemicals!”

I love presenting words to the students that I know they will be unfamiliar with, but that share a base we have talked about.  In this way, I am teaching the students to look for familiar elements in a word.  Of course, I also teach them that while creating a hypothesis about a word’s structure is a great thing to do, checking a reliable source to confirm or falsify that hypothesis is a responsible habit to form!  To this end, we use many etymological and regular dictionaries on a daily basis.

The study of food chains, food webs, and trophic levels exposes the students to many great words and word families.  If the organism makes its own food, it is a producer.  If it eats the producers, it is an herbivore.  If it eats an herbivore, it is a carnivore.  If it eats both producers and carnivores, it is an omnivore.  If the organism has no natural predators, it is a top predator.  If it is not a producer, it is a consumer.  If it eats an organism’s waste, it is a detritivore.  If it helps break down a dead organism it is a decomposer.

So how do I help my students understand those words when there are so many?  We look for related words.  We look at their structure.  We look at their histories.

This first matrix shows how carnivore, detritivore, herbivore, and omnivore are compound words and share a structure.  They also share the base <vore> “devour”.  As you can see, the words voracious and voracity are also represented on this matrix.  The students may not know these words, but it makes sense to introduce them as other members of this family.  It deepens the connections being made.  I might even ask them to name a time they had a voracious appetite!

In this matrix I’ve chosen to include three related words (with options for suffixing).  I am illustrating this base in other words besides the one we are focusing on in our study (producer), but I choose not to overwhelm the students with too many unfamiliar words this time.

In this matrix, I am sticking to one word and its suffixing options.  I use a matrix like this to practice the suffixing convention of replacing the single final non-syllabic <e>.  I also use it to point out that suffixes can have grammatical functions.

As we are finishing up our time together, I once again point the parents to the display that is up in the hallway.  It shows our work with food chains and the terminology being learned.

***The parents were very interested to know what their child was learning.  Several expressed their own frustrations with spelling, and wished they had been taught these things.  A few with younger children were hoping that other classrooms were teaching orthography as well.

Just before getting up to leave, one mom turned to me and said, I have something I just have to share with you.  I think that because of what you’ve been explaining  about orthography tonight, I finally understand a conversation I had with my older daughter (the one that was in my class three years ago).

My daughter and I went round and round a while ago.  I was asking her how to spell a word.  She said, “What does it mean?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
She said, “I can’t tell you how to spell the word if I don’t know what it means.”
I gave her a surprised look.  “What?” I said, “I never knew what words meant. I just memorized how to spell them.”
She looked back at me even more surprised.  “That makes no sense!  You need to know what it means before you can understand how to spell it!”

That just made my day!  Spelling represents meaning.  My former student knew that, but her mom didn’t get it until this conference night.  I’d say it was a night well spent!

Here’s a final touch.  I had this on the whiteboard at the front of my room just in case anyone stopped to take a look.

Leaving Plans for the Sub

I remember when I first started incorporating orthography into my lessons.  I was kind of panicky about having to be absent and needing to leave plans.  How could I create a worthy activity, and then give the substitute teacher enough background information to lead it?  Would opportunities for rich discussion go unnoticed by a teacher without real understanding of English spelling?  The nagging answer to that question was, “Of course they would.”  And because I couldn’t stand the thought of those teachable moments dissipating without notice, I left plans for other subjects, but not for orthography.

It didn’t take long before I felt guilty about that.  I mean, studying orthography has become the most important subject I teach!  Surely there were some activities I could put together that would keep my students thinking about words with or without me.  Over the years I have repeated several of the activities that I found worked well.   Just as importantly, I have learned how to set my lessons up for the substitute.  I include notes on what to say as the activity is introduced and also on what to expect from the students.  Recently I was absent for three days in a row.  I thought I’d share the activities I planned for those absences along with my reflections of the student work (which always results in ideas of what to do next).

Being gone for three days is unusual for me.  So what to leave for the students to do?  I wanted to vary the activities so that they weren’t doing the exact same things each day, yet I wanted to reinforce the idea of a word’s morphemic structure.

DAY ONE

10:05-10:35  Orthography

Write the word <make> on the board.  Have students get a piece of lined paper from the shelf near the door.  They are to put their name in the upper right corner of the paper. They are to write the word <make> on the top line of their paper.  Then they are to write the words you read aloud as word sums. We have done this several times, so they know what to do. Remind them they are to write synthetic word sums for each word you read.  Ask someone to explain to you what a synthetic word sum is. Ask them to skip a line on their paper between each word sum. Here are the words to read. Use them in a sentence if you can think of one.

maker
making
remake
makeup
filmmaker
troublemaker
makeover

Next, ask someone to collect the papers.  As they are being collected, ask for volunteers to write the word sums for each word on the board. Here is what the word sums should look like (although please don’t  correct anyone as they are writing them up):

make/ + er → maker

make/ + ing → making

re + make → remake

make + up → makeup

film + maker → filmmaker

trouble + maker → troublemaker

make + over → makeover

Once all the word sums are on the board, ask the class if they question anything that’s on the board.  If there are questions, hear them out and ask what others think of the point being raised. Once everyone is in agreement over the word sums,  ask for  volunteers to read each word sum.  They should be read as follows:

“M-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as m-a-k (replace the e)  e-r.” Ask the student reading the word sum why the final non-syllabic <e> is replaced.  I am hoping they say something like, “it is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“M-a-k-e plus i-n-g is rewritten as m-a-k (replace the e) i-n-g.” Ask the student why the final non-syllabic <e> is replaced.  I am hoping they say something like, “it is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“R-e plus m-a-k-e is rewritten as remake”.   Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e>.  I am hoping they say, “we are not adding a suffix”.

“M-a-k-e plus u-p is rewritten as m-a-k-e-u-p”.  Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e>.  I am hoping they say, “we are not adding a suffix. We are adding another base and making a compound word.  We only apply suffixing conventions when we are adding suffixes”.

“F-i-l-m plus m-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as f-i-l-m-m-a-k-e-r”.  Ask why we replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>. I am hoping they say, “because the e is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“T-r-o-u-b-l-e plus m-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as t-r-o-u-b-l-e-m-a-k-e-r”.  Ask why we replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>. I am hoping they say, “because the e is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“M-a-k-e plus o-v-e-r is rewritten as m-a-k-e-o-v-e-r”.  Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>.  I am hoping they say, “because we are not adding a suffix. We are adding another base and making a compound word, so the suffixing conventions can’t be applied”.

Save the stack of papers that was collected so I can look them over.

This is an activity I do fairly often with my classes.  I get some valuable information from the student work, such as whether or not students recognize certain suffixes and/or suffixing conventions.  Here are a few examples of what the student papers looked like.

Looking at this first sheet, I realized we would need to address  the random capitalization of <maker> and <making>.  I notice each year that students come in capitalizing certain letters whether or not it is warranted.  The next thing I notice is that although this student understands that the single final non-syllabic <e> in the word <make> can be replaced when followed by a vowel suffix, they are not recognizing that <up> is not a suffix here.  It is another base element and this word is a compound word.  This student did the same thing with the word sum <make + over>.  The suffixing conventions apply when a suffix is joined to a base, when a suffix is joined to another suffix, and sometimes when a connecting vowel is joined to a base.

Looking at this sheet, I see that this student is not writing out a full word sum for each word.  I will need to explain again how writing word sums will help them as spellers.  It will get them in the habit of thinking of words as elements that join to form a word, and that the word’s specific meaning is represented by the sense and meaning of the specific combination of elements.

Another thing to note is the unfamiliarity of the word <filmmaker>.  We will need to talk about what a filmmaker is (in case the substitute did not catch this or address it).  One last thing I see here is the word sum for <troublemaker>.  I’m pleased that this student recognizes that in some words, <-le> is a suffix.  Some examples are <sparkle>, <single> (from Latin singulus “one, individual” – not related to Old English singan “to chant, tell in song”), and <nestle>.  We’ll have to look at <trouble> together to find out if this is one of those.  Better yet, perhaps I can send each student (or each two students) on an investigation of a word with a final <le> spelling.  Then we could compile our findings and see what we notice.  Is it always a suffix?  Is it sometimes a suffix?  Is it rarely a suffix?

Looking at this paper I’m curious about the shifting spelling of the base element we are focusing on here – <make>.  This student is not consistently recognizing the spelling of the base as <make>.  This seems to happen when a student has learned the spelling of a word like <making>, but never really understood its structure.

 

DAY TWO

10:05-10:35  Orthography

Arrange the students in groups of two.  Make sure you have one copy of the matrix sheet for each pair of students.  They are to work together to list word sums for words that could be made using the matrix.  I’ve included (for you) the list I used when I created the matrix. Put the example word on the board and ask a student to explain it.  (I am unable to put the slash through the final <e> in the word sum when typing, so it appears behind it. It should go through the <e> to show I am replacing that <e> with a vowel suffix.  Most students can explain this to you.)

Have someone read aloud the directions, and then please ask if there are any questions about those directions.  After that, they may begin. I’d like these turned in before they go to the next class.  Save the stack of papers that was collected so I can look them over.

Here is the matrix sheet the students used:

Here is a matrix for the bound base <mote>.  Remember that we call this kind of a base a bound base because it isn’t a word by itself.  It is ALWAYS bound to another element (a suffix or a prefix or another base). I’d like to see how many words you and your partner can recognize and write word sums for.  Make sure your word sum looks like the example below:

mote/ + ive/ + ate →  motivate

  1. Make your list on lined paper.  
  2. Put both your name and your partner’s name on the top.
  3. Skip every other line. Take turns writing the word sums.
  4. Write neatly so I can read it easily.
  5. Once you are finished, read through your list together.  Make sure you could use each word in a sentence.  If you aren’t sure what the word has to do with “move”, look the word up in a dictionary.
  6. Turn your sheet in to the teacher.

I wanted the students to work in partners because we had not done this particular activity before and I thought that two sets of eyes would keep the activity going.  The substitute teacher said that she let the students in the second group (I teach three groups of 5th graders each day) know the largest number of words found by the first group.  Then she did the same for the third group.  The slight bit of competition kept students focused.  Here are a few of the student papers:

What I learned from this paper is that the students understand the suffixing convention of replacing the single, final non-syllabic <e> when the suffix is being added to a base element, but don’t realize that the same convention is applied between two suffixes as well.  I notice this in the word sum for <motivating>.

Something else that is interesting to note is the word <demotive>.  When the students create a word like this, I love to point out its structure.  We can make sense of this word’s structure, but can we make sense of its meaning?  So next I ask them to use it in a sentence.  If they can use it in such a way that we all understand what it means, then we call it a word.  We do this whether or not the word is listed in a dictionary.  These become our two criteria for whether or not we can call something a word.  Does it have a structure that we can identify through looking at its morphological relatives?  Can we use it in a way that other people understand what it means?

With the word <motorcyclist>, I need to reinforce the idea that <-ist> is an agent suffix.  I’ve mentioned it before, but there is so much new information that I’ve presented since the beginning of the year that much of it needs to be repeated!  It indicates that this noun refers to a person who is driving a motorcycle.  We might then brainstorm some other words with this same agent suffix (chemist, scientist, artist, cellist, pianist, etc.).

On a day that I am directing their attention to <-ist>, I might also direct their attention to <-er> which can also be an agent suffix.  After we have brainstormed a list of words with an <-ist> suffix, we will brainstorm a list of words with an <-er> suffix.  Then we might sort those into lists of words that refer to a person and words that do not.  Examples of words with the agent suffix <-er> are teacher, baker, driver, potter, gardener, and painter.  Examples of words with an <-er> suffix that are not referring to a person are bigger, wiser, tower, paper, water, and outer.  We might take the second list and divide the words up further by thinking about which of those words are used when comparing one thing to another and which just name things.

Look at what this group did!  They knew there was a meaning connection between automotive and automobile, so they tried to make automobile fit this matrix!  Interesting!  This tells me that some of my students are still unclear about letters that we replace.  We only replace single, final non-syllabic <e>’s.  We don’t replace consonants!  They are starting to see that our language is orderly and can make sense, but there are still lots of moments when they fall back into crossing off and adding letters willy-nilly because spelling has always felt that way to them.

The word right below automobile is also interesting.  The students saw the single final non-syllabic <e> on the base and thought that just adding an <r> would work.  They didn’t recognize that this word actually took an <-or> suffix.  They also did not recognize that there is an <-er> suffix, but not an <r> suffix.  This distinction could be made clearer if we spent some time brainstorming words with an <-or> suffix versus words with an <-er> suffix.  In the past when I’ve looked at these suffixes with my students, we’ve noticed that many bases that can take an <-or> suffix also can take an <-ion> suffix.  Examples are motor/motion, equator/equation, tractor/ traction, reactor/reaction, and director/direction.  An activity like that can be done as a whole class if everyone is looking at Word Searcher and thinking about the words listed that have an <-or> suffix.  How many of them might take an <-ion> suffix, and how many can’t?

The substitute teacher on this day was not the same one as the day before.  This one wasn’t any more familiar with orthography than the first one.  Even so, she personally enjoyed the activity.  I later found a list of words she made by using the elements on the matrix.  She had 39 words on her list!  I especially loved the note she left me:

Looks like my lesson made an impression on her as well as my students!

DAY THREE

Have the students get out their orthography notebooks.  They have the same list you see below in their notebooks.  We have been exploring the list below for a while now.  We began reviewing these bound bases last week.  Pair the students up and tell them they have 5 minutes to quiz each other about what the bound bases mean.  The list is below:
<bi> –  life
<ge> –  earth
<therm> – heat
<trope> – turn
<hydr> – water
<atm> – vapor steam
<strat> – layering, spreading
<mes> –  middle
<cosm> – universe, order
<lith> –  stone, rock
After they have practiced, lead a review game.  You say either a base or it’s definition and each group writes down the base AND it’s definition.  Tell them to do this quietly so you can see which group has the most correct answers at the end.  When checking to see who had the most correct answers, announce that the base MUST be spelled right, but no point will be lost if the definitions are misspelled.
Next have each person grab a sheet of lined paper, and tell them to write their name in the upper right corner.  Then read the following words and tell them to write a word sum for each.   Remind them that every word has an <o> connecting vowel and the base <sphere>.   I’ve put the word sum in parentheses below:
1.  cosmosphere   (cosm + o + sphere)
2.  lithosphere   (lith + o + sphere)
3.  geosphere   (ge + o + sphere)
4.  atmosphere  (atm + o + sphere)
5.  biosphere  (bi + o + sphere)
6.  thermosphere  (therm + o + sphere)
7.  stratosphere  (strat + o + sphere)
8.  hydrosphere  (hydr+ o + sphere)
9.  troposphere  (trope + o + sphere)
10.  mesosphere  (mes + o + sphere)
Collect so I can see where everyone is at with this.
Here are some of the student sheets that were turned in:
In the above list you can see another instance of random capitalization with geosphere.  I addressed that the first day I was back.  Another thing I addressed was the single, final non-syllabic <e> on <trope + o + sphere –> troposphere>.  I explained that the crossing out of the <e> happens when we are considering whether or not there are suffixing conventions that apply to this particular joining of elements.  So in a finished word sum, the single, final non-syllabic <e> would have a slash through it to show that it will be replaced by the <o> connecting vowel that follows it and will not appear in the finished spelling of the word.  When the finished word is being written, the student is thinking, “t-r-o-p-replace the <e>-o-s-p-h-e-r-e.
Another aspect of the <trope> base to discuss was the reason for the single, final non-syllabic <e> in the first place.  I began by reminding the students that:
– the bound base <cosm> was from Greek cosmos
– the bound base <atm> was from Greek atmos
– the free base <trope> was from Greek tropos
“When we were identifying the stem that has become a modern English base element, we removed the Greek suffix <-os>.  Why did I put an <e> on <trope>, but not on <atm> or <cosm>?”  There was a flurry of hands waving in the air and some hypotheses about pronunciation, but no one understood the reason.  So I said, “Let’s try to understand why that <e> is there by looking at two words that are more familiar to you.  I wrote <hope> and <hop> on the board.  “One of these has a single, final non-syllabic <e> and one does not.  What happens when we add a vowel suffix to each of these?
<hope/ + ed –> hoped>
<hop + ed –> hopped>
“Do you notice that the one with the single, final non-syllabic <e> did not have a double <p> in its final spelling, but the one without the <e> did?  You might say that that final <e> prevented the consonant <p> from being doubled.”  When we looked at the spelling of the related words <tropic> and <tropism>, we noticed that the <p> was not doubled.  If we didn’t place the final <e> on the base element after we removed the Greek suffix <os>, that <p> would double when we added the vowel suffixes <-ic> and <-ism>.
The bottom line is that we added the <e> to the base because the base was monosyllabic and had a final consonant with just one vowel before that consonant.  If we hadn’t, the doubling suffixing convention would have been applied.  The final <e> prevented that from happening.
The third day was part of an ongoing review of this particular list of words.  It began with investigations and continued with presentations of those investigations.  At this point I want to show them that knowing a word’s structure helps them think of the word as a joining of elements (often familiar).  Instead of memorizing this list by reciting the letter order of each over and over, they connect the base to other words that share that base.  Those connections are what make the base and its denotation easier to remember.  Then, of course, the reciting of word sums helps the students remember the spelling of each element in the word.  I discourage my students from pronouncing the elements as if they are completed words.  I ask them to spell out all parts of a word sum.
The following are pictures of another kind of review.  This is called the “Sixty Second Draw”.  I announce one of the words, and the student has sixty seconds to write its word sum, the denotation of the bases, and to draw something that they think of when they think of what that base means.  We did this today to reinforce their understandings of these bases and the shared structure of these words.
As part of our deeper look at the biosphere, we have been learning about food chains, food webs and, of course, photosynthesis.  Today, as we were watching a video called “Energy Transfers in Trophic Levels”, the word <hydrothermal> came up.  It was brilliant to see the recognition of these two bases among the students!  This word was used to describe the vents deep in the ocean that release heat from inside the earth.  Certain bacteria live in and near these vents.  Since there is no light reaching that depth in the ocean, these bacteria make their own food using chemicals.  Instead of doing photosynthesis, they do chemosynthesis!  Faces just lit up when the students saw the connection between these two words.  My face lit up just watching the students.
All three days my students practiced recognizing a word’s structure.  By reviewing their work, I was able to assess which skills and understandings still needed to be reinforced.  I even came up with lesson ideas for the coming weeks!   I had three different substitute teachers stepping in for me, and yet I feel like my students moved forward in their understanding.   Their learning deepened, my awareness of what they know and need to know deepened, and I aroused the curiosity of those teachers who visited my classroom!  What a great welcome back for me!

The school year ends, but the scholarship never does

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:

suspenders
suspend
dependent
independent
independence
perpendicular
depending
impending

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!

 

Where to Begin When There’s So Much to Say

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.  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 a video my students made a few years ago.  It’s called “Can You Prove It?”  It’s a game show in which the two contestants are given words, and they have to identify the suffix.  As they name the suffix, they also provide evidence to prove that their choice makes sense.

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 <mote> + <ion>, but not in its final form <motion>.  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:

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-3-07-31-pm

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:

dies solis
dies lunae
dies Martis
dies Mercurii
dies lovi
dies Veneris
dies Saturni

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:

img_0471

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!

 

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“Orthography Opens Your Curious Side!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“Orthography Makes Spelling Less Complicated”

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.

Training Ourselves to Depend on Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Beautiful Day in our Neighborhood!

Our investigations of Latin verbs have been most interesting!  We have uncovered many twin bases which helped us understand the difference in spelling when looking at word pairs like:

produce / production
consume / consumption
describe / description
invade / invasion
respond / response

But then again, we have also uncovered many twin bases which helped us understand the meaning connections when looking at word pairs like:

lava / lotion
obstruction / misconstrue
frangible / infraction
individual / visage

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!

DSCN5148 DSCN5149 DSCN5150 DSCN5155

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.

 

Latin Verbs Teach Us About Family

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>.

“Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.” – Charlotte Whitton

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)

“Yup.” (said with an even bigger smile)