Phonology is something … but it isn’t EVERYTHING!

It is a hard-to-believe concept, but it’s true.  Words do not have the spellings they have so that we know how to pronounce them.  Words like busy, does, piano, action, and pretty prove that.  The truth is that words are spelled the way they are to represent their meaning.  That’s such a foreign idea to so many.  “If that was true, wouldn’t we teach that to children who are just learning to read?”  You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  But the majority of schools don’t.  So why do we resist believing this obvious truth?

When I first began studying orthography and learning Structured Word Inquiry, I was skeptical myself.  I wondered what people in this community meant when they said that spelling represented meaning and not pronunciation.  How can that be?  I learned to spell by “sounding words out” – by pronouncing them.  Sometimes I pronounced them in unnatural ways so that I could remember the spelling (Wed – nes – day  or  ap – pear – ance, both with parts pronounced unlike they are in the whole).  I knew what the words meant, but that didn’t have anything to do with the spelling, did it?  I learned to spell one word at a time, twenty or so words a week.  I was pretty good at rote memorization.  I also studied definitions right out of the dictionary.  They didn’t always make sense to me, but because they didn’t, I didn’t know how to reword them.  I found out when my children went to school that times haven’t changed much in this regard.

I remember when my son was in high school and had to be able to match up a list of words to their definitions.  I offered to help him study.  That was when I realized that he had figured out a system to pass the test without having learned anything useful.  If I read the word, he could give me the first four words of the definition.  If I read the definition, he could tell me the first four letters of the word the definition would match up with on the test.  Blech! He became very annoyed with me when I pointed out how useless this test was.  “Mom!  It doesn’t matter.  I have to pass the test tomorrow.  Go away.  I’ll study by myself.”

One thing is for sure.  He was smart enough to know that passing the test didn’t hinge on him actually understanding anything.  I was sad, but remembered cheating my own learning in the same way as I went through schooling years.  I didn’t cheat my learning to the extent my son did, but cheat it I did.  Neither of us were taught to look to the word for meaning – we had learned that spelling and meaning were two separate activities and rote memorization was the only way to handle them in order to pass the test.

Recently Oxford Dictionaries posted the ten most frequently misspelled words in their Oxford English Corpus (which they describe as “an electronic collection of over 2 billion words of real English that help us see how people are using the language and also shows us the mistakes that are most often made”) .  Seeing as I spend a fair amount of my teaching life looking at misspelled words, I took a look, wondering if I could predict the words that made the list.  As I was clicking, my mind was betting that the people who misspell these words (whichever they were), had an education like mine and have been taught to “sound out words” and not to even consider morphology or etymology as they relate to a word’s spelling.

Here is their list:
*accomodate (accommodate)
*wich (which)
*recieve (receive)
*untill (until)
*occured (occurred)
*seperate (separate)
*goverment (government)
*definately (definitely)
*pharoah (pharaoh)
*publically (publicly)

Once you begin to study orthography and use Structured Word Inquiry, it doesn’t take long to see how easily the above spelling errors could be avoided altogether.  The people misspelling these words do not understand the spelling – have not been taught to understand the spelling.  Let’s look closer at each of these.  Along the way I’ll point out the information that would actually help a person understand and remember these spellings.

accommodate   (*accomodate)

meaning:
Before we talk about spelling, it’s always important to talk about how the word is used.  What does it mean?  I could talk about the fact that my classroom can accommodate 30 students, meaning that the space is adequate to fit that many students.  I could also use it if I was talking about accommodating the needs of a student who has a broken leg.  In that sense, I am fitting the needs of the student by perhaps getting a different type of desk.

morphology:
A person without any understanding of morphology might be wondering, “Is it two <c>’s and one <m>, or is it one <c> and two <m>’s?”  That person might even write the word down on a piece of paper with several different spellings to see which one looks right.

Here’s what you understand when you understand morphology.  All words have structure.  That structure will include a base element and perhaps affixes.  A base element will either be free (doesn’t HAVE to have an affix) or bound (MUST have an affix).

Let’s look at the structure of <accommodate>.  This word consists of four morphemes:  two are prefixes, one is a base, and one is a suffix.  Its structure is <ac + com + mode/ + ate>.

The first prefix is <ac->, and it is an assimilated form of the prefix <ad-> “to”.  When a prefix is assimilated, it means that the final letter in the prefix might change to better fit phonologically with the first grapheme of the next morpheme in the word.  In this case, the original form of the prefix is <ad-> “to”.  Seeing as the next morpheme begins with a <c>,  the <ad-> assimilated to <ac-> to better match the phonology of that <c>.

The second prefix is <com->, and it is an intensifying prefix.  That means that it brings a sense of force or emphasis to this word.  There are people who have learned this prefix and will tell you that it means “together”.  Well, it does bring that sense to some words we find it in.  But there are prefixes that can also be intensifiers, such as this one!

etymology:
The base element of this word is <mode>.  It is a free base element from Latin modus “measure, manner”.  This base can also be found in words like:

modify, modular, accommodation, model, modest, and yes, even commode!

The suffix is <-ate>.  It is a verbal suffix.

Let’s put the morphemes together and understand this spelling:  <ac + com + mode/ +ate –> accommodate>.  If you stop yourself from thinking of there being a double <c> and instead think of the prefix <ac> plus the prefix <com> plus the base <mode (replace the <e>)> plus <ate>, you will have spelled this word with very little problem.  At the same time, you will understand that the denotation of this word is “to fit with emphasis”.  Compare that denotation with a connotation (how the word is used now), and you will have the spelling AND the meaning, and understand both!

phonology:
It is important to recognize that pronunciations are affected by many things.  I will include a generally accepted pronunciation for each of these words.  But please know that there may be pronunciation variations in different parts of the country / world.  The pronunciation is /əˈkɑməˌdeɪt/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<accommodate>
/əˈkɑməˌdt/

It is interesting to note that the first <o>, which is stressed, has a different pronunciation than the second <o>, which is unstressed.

  

which   (*wich)

meaning:
We often use the word ‘which’ when we are searching for more information about one or more things or people in a specific group.   One might ask, “Which book is yours?”

morphology: 
This word is a free base.  It has no affixes.

etymology:
To understand the spelling of this word, we need to look at its etymology.  I have several sources I use when researching words.  One of my favorites is Etymonline, but I also have copies of Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

This word is Old English in origin. According to Etymonline, it was spelled both hwilc (West Saxon, Anglian)and hwælc (Northumbrian).  (Notice that the <hw> is now <wh>).  It is short for hwi-lic “of what form”.  It is interesting to note that in early Middle English there were two other forms (hwelch and hwülch).  They later lost their <l> and became hwech and hwüch.  Both of those spellings disappeared in late Middle English.

When you understand that the <h> has always been part of this word, and that in fact, it used to be the first letter, it is easier to remember that it is STILL part of this word.  It is pretty obvious that those who misspelled this word used phonology alone.  But its spelling takes us back to Old English and the important evidence that the <h> has always been part of this word.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /wɪtʃ/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<which>
/wɪ/

 

receive  (*recieve)

meaning:
This word generally means to be given, presented with or be paid for something.  I receive a pay check.  I have received several awards.  I received help from my neighbor.

Now I’m willing to bet you are already thinking, “i before e except after c … blah, blah, blah”.   I came across an article by The Washington Post recently.  To read it, CLICK HERE.  It seems a statistician named Nathan Cunningham plugged a list of 350,000 English words into a statistical program to check out this age old rule.  He found that in words with a ‘ie’ or ‘ei’ sequence, <i> came before the <e> almost 75% of the time.  So then he checked for the “except after ‘c’ part”.  He found that in words with a ‘cie’ or ‘cei’ sequence, ‘cei’ occurred only 25% of the time.  That leaves 75% of that group of words to be exceptions!  So much for that rule! Yup!  The rule with lots and lots of exceptions.  And as any good researcher will tell you, if your rule has a lot of exceptions, you need a new rule!

Besides wasting time memorizing a rule that you can’t count on statistically, there is another reason to abandon the “i before e” rule.  It simply doesn’t take into consideration what else is important about a word – like its morphology and its etymology!  Let’s get out of the land of ‘hit and miss’ and look at this word seriously.

morphology:
Based on other words I have investigated, I might make a hypothesis about this word’s structure like this:  <re + ceive –> receive>.  I know that in words such as recall, reclaim, and refill, <re> is a prefix.  It could be a prefix in this word too, although I need specific evidence pertaining to this word to be sure.  I need to look at where this word comes from – its etymology.

etymology:
This word has come into English by way of Old North French receivre.  Further back, it is from Latin recipere  (re– “back” + cipere, combining form of capere “to take”).  Looking back in time, this word has had a meaning and sense of “regain, recover, take in, admit”. When I look closer at the Latin verbs capere and its combining form cipere, I find other words that share this base <ceive>:

~perceive (<per-> has a sense of “thoroughly”, thus when you perceive something, you are thoroughly taking it in in order to comprehend it),
~deceive (<de-> has a sense of “from”, thus when someone deceives you, they take from you – they cheat you),
~conceive (<con-> is an intensifying prefix, meaning it gives emphasis to the base, thus when someone conceives either an idea or a baby, they are taking something in and holding it)
~transceiver (which is a relatively new word – 1938, created by combining transmitter and receiver).

So what we learn from this word’s history is that its spelling has been fairly consistent since the 1300’s.  No gimmicky rhymes needed.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ɹəˈsɪv/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<receive>
/ɹəˈsɪv/

It is interesting to note that the final <e> is non-syllabic and is preventing this word from ending in a <v>  (no complete English word ends in a <v>).

 

 

until  (*untill)

meaning:
This word means “up to (either an event or a point in time)”.  If you say, “I will wait until you call,”  it is functioning as a subordinating conjunction. If you say, “We swam until 5:00,” it is functioning as a preposition.

morphology:
This word is a free base in Modern English.  It has no affixes.  It might be tempting to identify the <un> as a prefix, but all you have to do is compare the etymology of the <un> in this word to that of the <un-> in words like unhappy and unzip.  They do not share ancestors, nor do they share denotations.

etymology:
This word, as most, has an interesting story.  The verb ’till’  meaning “to cultivate the soil” was first attested in the 13th century.  It is from Old English tilian “cultivate, tend, work at”.  There is a thought that the idea of cultivating and having a purpose and goal may have passed into Old English with the word ’till’ meaning “fixed point”.  It was then converted into a preposition meaning “up to a particular point”.  ‘Until’ was first attested in the 13th century.  The first element <un> is from Old Norse *und “as far as, up to”.  (The asterisk next to the Old Norse spelling means it is reconstructed.)  So when we put the two parts of this word together, we get <un + til –>  until>  “up to a particular point”.  The use of ’til’ is short for ‘until’.

It isn’t about “one ‘l’ or two”.  It’s about the word’s story.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ənˈtɪl/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<until>
/ənˈtɪl/

 

occurred  (*occured)

meaning:
If something has occurred, it has happened.  It could be an event or even a thought.

morphology:
Someone who is misspelling this word, doesn’t understand its morphology.  That would include how suffixing conventions are applied.  The structure of this word is <oc + cur + ed –> occurred>.  Notice that the final <r> on the base was forced to double when the vowel suffix <-ed> was added.  This happened because of the position of the stress in this word.  The stress is on the second syllable – the one closest to the suffix.

etymology:
This word was borrowed from Latin occurrere “run towards, run to meet”.  The prefix <oc-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <ob-> bringing a sense of  “towards”.  The base is <cur> “run “.   This base is seen in present day words including curriculum, current, recur and concur.

phonology:
This word is pronounced /əˈkɜɹd/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<occurred>
/əˈkɜɹd/

It is interesting to note that the initial <o> is unstressed and that affects its pronunciation.

 

 

separate   (*seperate)

meaning:
This word generally means to divide or cause to be apart.  I might separate old coins from new coins.

morphology:
Growing up I remember this word being one that I could never get right.  The reason I misspelled it time after time is because all I had was its pronunciation to work with.  Had I known its morphology and etymology, I would have had a better chance of remembering its spelling.  First, let’s look at its morphology.  The structure of this word is <se + pare/ + ate –> separate>.

etymology:
The prefix <se-> has a sense of “apart”.  The base element <pare> is from Latin parare with a denotation of “make ready, prepare”.  The suffix <-ate> is a verbal suffix in this word.  The base element in this word, <pare>, is also seen in words like:

~apparatus (The prefix <ap-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <ad-> and brings a sense of “to”.  Apparatus helps to make things ready or be prepared.)
~preparation (The prefix <pre-> brings a sense of “before”.  When you prepare, you make things read before you need them.)
~pare (This is a free base that means to “trim or cut close”.  Again we see the denotation of “make ready” in the image of this word’s action.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ˈsɛpɹət/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<separate>
sɛpɹət /
It is interesting to note that the <a> is not typically pronounced in this word.  The final <e>, which is the final letter in the <ate> suffix, is non-syllabic.  That means it is not pronounced either.

  

government  (*goverment)

meaning:
A government is a way to regulate or control members or citizens  of a particular region (state or country) or of an organization.  In the United States, we have a federal government with different branches that creates laws for the entire country, and we also have state governments making decisions for each of the fifty states.

morphology:
Why does this word get misspelled?  Again, it is because of the way it is pronounced.  So let’s look at this word’s morphology and phonology as we have with every other word so far.  The structure of this word is <govern + ment –> government>.  People who leave out the <n> in this word, don’t think about the word’s structure.  The base shares its spelling with all words in its word family.  See the matrix below.

etymology:
The base element <govern> was first attested in the late 13th century, and at that time it meant “rule with authority”.  It is from Old French governer which meant “steer, be at the helm of, rule, command”.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ˈgʌvəɹmənt/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<government>
gʌvəɹmənt/

It is interesting to note that the <n> is not typically pronounced.  This is evidence that it is important to have knowledge of a word’s morphology and etymology when trying to understand its spelling!

 

 

definitely  (*definately)

meaning:
When used, this word is intended to remove all doubt.  I will definitely watch your dog this weekend.

morphology:
The structure of this word is <de + fine/ + ite + ly –> definitely>.  The single final non-syllabic <e> is replaced by the <-ite> suffix in the final spelling.  The suffix <ite> is adjectival, but the addition of the suffix <ly> makes this word adverbial.

etymology:
This word is from Old French definir, defenir  “to finish, conclude, come to an end, determine with precision”.  Before that it came directly from Latin definire “to limit, determine, explain”.  The prefix <de-> brings a sense of “completely” and the base <fine> has a denotation of “to bound, limit”.

phonology:
This word is pronounced /ˈdɛfənətli/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<definitely>
/ˈdɛfənətli/

It is interesting to note that both <i>’s are unstressed which affects their pronunciation.  The final <e> on the suffix <-ite> is predictably unpronounced.  The final <y> on the <ly> suffix also has a predictable pronunciation.

 

 

pharaoh  (*pharoah)

meaning:
A pharaoh is an ancient Egyptian ruler.

morphology:
This is a free base with no affixes.

etymology:
This word has an interesting trail to follow.  It was first attested in Old English as Pharon.  Earlier it was from Latin  Pharaonem.  Earlier yet it was from Greek Pharao. Even earlier it was from Hebrew Par’oh.  But its origins are in understandably Egyptian Pero’ where it meant “great house”.  Note that the spelling sequence of ‘pharao’ was present in Greek and in Latin.  That is the spelling sequence we currently see.  Once again the spelling represents where the word came from and what it means, not how it is pronounced!

phonology:
This word is pronounced
/ˈfɛɹoʊ/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<pharaoh>
fɛɹ/

It is interesting to note that the <ph> represents /f/.  This is a signal that this word has a Greek heritage.

 

publicly   (*publically)

meaning:
When something is done publicly, it is done for all to see.

morphology:
The structure of this word is simply <public + ly>.  The <ly> suffix can be an adverbial one.  The misspelling listed shows a misidentification of structure.  There are many words that actually HAVE that structure, including basically, magically, comically, and tropically.  This brings us to an important point!  Just because two things are pronounced the same, it doesn’t mean they are spelled the same.  It doesn’t take much time or effort to check with a reference book!

etymology:
The word ‘public’ was first attested in the last 14th century.  Earlier it was used in Old French public.  It comes directly from Latin publicus “of the people, of the state, common, general”.  The meaning of “open to all in the community” is from 1540’s English.

phonology:
This word is pronounced /ˈpʌblɪkli/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<publicly>
/ˈpʌblɪkli/

It is interesting to note the predictable pronunciation of the final <y> of the <-ly> suffix.

 

 

Reflection

Think about the words on this misspelled list.  Everyone of them has a spelling that can be explained by looking at the word’s morphology, etymology , and its phonology.  I’ll say it again … by looking at the word’s morphology, etymology, and its phonology.  Teaching all three is so powerful.

It’s time for schools to change the way they teach children about words and spelling!  Phonology is just ONE ASPECT of a word.  When it is seen as THE ONLY THING (as it is in most every classroom), students are cheated out of the opportunity to understand a word’s story.  And understanding a word’s story is often the thing that connects a word’s meaning to its spelling.  Understanding a word’s meaning leads to understanding the word in context, which in turn increases reading comprehension.  How could it not?

Teaching spelling and reading via phonology alone makes spelling a giant guessing game.  For example, there are a number of graphemes that can represent the phoneme /iː/.  I can think of <ea>, <ee>, <y>, and <ei> off hand.  There are no doubt more.  A student faced with memorizing which grapheme to use in which word based on pronunciation alone is clueless – literally!  That student NEEDS the clues that morphology and etymology provide.  Why not teach a student where to find the information needed in order to make informed decisions about a word’s spelling?

Another huge disadvantage of teaching as if spelling represented only pronunciation is that our students never see for themselves how words are connected to one another.  They miss realizing that each word is a member of a larger family.  The family is full of words that all share a common base with a common ancestry and a common denotation.  Why are words like busy, business, and businesses found on different spelling lists?  Why not present them together so a student can see they are part of the same word family?   Or present them together so the students can internalize an understanding of the suffixing conventions that can happen within a family of words.  The matrices I have created above do just that.  They help us see connections among words that we have not been taught to see before now.

Let’s go back to the list of commonly misspelled words.  Oxford Dictionaries only gave us their top ten, but I’m willing to bet there are hundreds and hundreds of such words in their Oxford English Corpus.  I say, let’s raise the bar for our students.  Let’s give them engaging word work that supplies them with resources for all the clues they need in order to understand a word’s spelling.  What schools have been teaching students during reading and spelling instruction  — phonology alone  —  has not worked for the vast majority of students.  If it had, we would not see the spelling errors we do.  We would not hear adults blaming the English language when they misspell a word or misunderstand a paragraph.  We would not hear parents claim, “I was a terrible speller too” at parent-teacher conferences, as if not having been taught to understand our language is a trait one inherits much like height or hair color.

 

What Does It Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Presenting … Our Orthographic Caboodle!

Ever have a student finish an assignment before everyone else and ask, “What should I do now?”  Recently I asked everyone to write an editorial.  We all started at the same point, but once the writing started, everyone was in their own lane and working at their own pace.  When the first few were done, they asked that question.  “What should we do now?”   I gave them things to investigate.  Some finished their first investigation and asked for a second.  All the while, other students were still working on their writing.  And it was all good.  No one felt rushed in their task.

We have moved on from editorial writing, but in the meantime, I assigned three more projects.  One involved partner work in which students investigated Latin verbs. They removed Latin suffixes to see whether their particular Latin verb became a modern English unitary base or a set of twin bases.   (They will be featured in a future blog post.)  Then a poem was assigned in which the students were to use the digits of Pi to determine how many words would be on each line.  (They will be featured in a future blog post.)   The third project involved creating a pseudosaur.  Inspired by the work of Skot Caldwell’s Grade 5 students (use this link) in Canada, we wanted to create our own.  Most of the students are still working on those.  But that also means that plenty of students have finished all major projects and continue to ask for things to work on.  I’m loving it.  Students are investigating all sorts of things!

The unplanned investigations have been of benefit to all of us because the investigator presents his or her findings with the class.  This gives us the opportunity to talk about lots and lots of things we might not have talked about otherwise.  I am thrilled.  Here are some examples of the types of investigations going on:

Looking at specific letters and noticing that that letter can represent several pronunciations, depending on the word it’s in.

 

This type of investigation gave us the opportunity to talk about the investigated letter being initial, medial, or final in the word.  We also had the opportunity to begin learning about IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet).  The IPA is a standardized representation of the sounds of spoken language.  In looking at each of these symbols, we have paused to feel where in our mouths we vocalize these letter representations.  In doing so we have better understood the symbols.  For example, when pronouncing the <t> in <tap>, we felt our tongue tips touch the ridge right behind our teeth just before air pushed it off.  When pronouncing the <t> in <partial>, we noticed that our tongues came close to that ridge, but never actually touched it.  When we pronounced the <t> in <question>, our tongues once again touched the ridge, but in a different way than with <tap>.  It was more the sides of our tongues.  What we heard reminded us of the pronunciation of <ch>.

One other interesting thing that was observed is that when the <t> is represented with a /tʃ/ pronunciation as it is in question, the <t> is usually followed by either an <ion> suffix or an <ure> suffix.  We compared that to the suffixes on the words in which the <t> is represented with a /ʃ/ as it is in imagination.  Most of the words on this list had an <ion> suffix.  That raised the question of why the <t> is pronounced as /tʃ/ in question, but /ʃ/ in imagination?  The thought was that there was an <s> in front of the <t> in question, and that wasn’t the case in any of the words in which the <t> was pronounced as /ʃ/.  So our hypothesis was that the <s> affected the pronunciation of the <t> in the word question.  It was agreed that we needed to gather more evidence.

The look at <c> was interesting too.  After Alexis finished collecting words in which the <c> was pronounced /s/ and in which the <c> was pronounced /k/, I asked her to look at the letters following the <c>.  She came back and reported that when the <c> was pronounced /s/, it was followed by either an <e>, <i>, or <y>.  If the <c> was pronounced /k/, it was followed by either an <a>, <o>, <u> or a consonant.  We practiced reading the words out loud and took turns explaining the phonology of the <c> in each word.  Then we looked at words with two <c>’s, explaining the pronunciation of each one.  In the end, one student suggested we create an activity to take to the second grade classroom so they could learn this too!

Another letter we looked at was <d>.  I asked Oliver to investigate three pronunciations of <d>.  He collected words in which the <d> was pronounced /d/, in which it was pronounced as /ɾ/, and in which it was pronounced /dʒ/.  When sharing this with the class, we all talked about the way we pronounce <d> as /ɾ/.  Even though we see two <d>’s, we hardly pronounce a clear /d/ at all.  With a word like <glad>, we feel our tongue touch the ridge behind our teeth.  With a word like <wedding>, our tongue barely touches the ridge!  We quickly pronounce the two <d>’s as barely one!  When Oliver read off the list of words in which the <d> is pronounced /dʒ/, we talked about why these words might sometimes be misspelled.   Someone pointed out that in every word, the <d> was followed by a <u>.  We wondered if that is always the case ( we realized this was a very short list and wasn’t a big enough collection from which to draw conclusions).

Looking at specific digraphs and noticing that that digraph can represent several pronunciations, depending on the word it’s in.

In looking at the <ch> digraph, we recognized the IPA symbols /tʃ/ and /ʃ/ again.  We were now becoming familiar with the pronunciation represented by those IPA symbols.  We practiced feeling where those pronunciations were made in our mouths again.  We noticed that when the <ch> is represented by /tʃ/, the <ch> can be initial or final in the word.  We recognized that many of the words in which the <ch> is represented by /k/ are from Greek.  We agreed that we couldn’t assume all of them were since we hadn’t looked them up.  (I put “checking out the origin of these <ch> word with a pronunciation of /k/” on the list of possible future investigations for some curious student.)  When we read the list of words in which the <ch> is represented by the pronunciation /ʃ/, I asked if anyone knew if many of these originated in a specific language.  They guessed it was Spanish, so I added this list of words to my “list of possible investigations for some curious student” as well.  It will be interesting to find out the language origin of these words.  When the presenter hesitated to pronounce <chalet>, but did not hesitate with <crochet> and <ricochet>, I asked him what all three had in common.  I pointed out that they were from the same language and would be pronounced the same.  He pronounced it, but was totally unfamiliar with the word, so we talked about what it meant.

Comparing <ge> to <dge>, <ch> to <tch>, and <k> to <ck>.  If they represent the same pronunciation, when is each used?

 

The investigation comparing <k> to <ck> was completed by Ana and was presented on Google Slides, so I am sharing screen shots. We noticed  interesting things here!   We noticed  that <dge>, <tch>, and <ck> were final in the words looked at by the students and were always preceded by a short vowel.  Ana noticed that when <k> was final in a word, it was preceded by either a vowel digraph or a consonant.  Brayden noticed that when <ge> was final in a word, it was preceded by either a long vowel or a consonant.  When the <ge> was preceded by a short <a>, that <a> was part of the <age> suffix.

Comparing British English spelling to American English spelling

I asked Jada and Natasha to find differences between British English spelling and American English spelling.  Most were familiar with the difference between words like favourite and favorite, but were surprised at organise and organize.  You can’t see in these pictures, but lower on Natasha’s poster she compared words like centre and center.  We have talked about that list of words and how it makes better sense to spell the base with an <re> finally instead of <er>.  Think of this word sum using the British English spelling of the base: <centre> + <al> –> <central>.  Now think of this word sum using the American English spelling of the base:  <center> [<cent(e)r(e)] + <al> –> <central>.  We have to think of the base as having a potential <e> both in front of and behind the <r>.  Wouldn’t you agree that the word sum using the British English spelling of the base is more elegant and straightforward?  Now ask yourself why we have different spellings for British English and for American.  The answer is Noah Webster.

In 1807 Noah Webster, who was a very educated man, set out to write a comprehensive dictionary.  It was completed in 1828 and called The American Dictionary of the English Language.  It was his belief that English spellings were too complex, so he made some changes to certain words and created American English spellings.  He preferred color to colour, meter to metre, license to licence among others.  He also added American words (skunk and squash) which had not been listed in British dictionaries.  He set out to make things easier, but in some ways mucked things up!  This is a great reminder that dictionaries are written by real people!

<f> and <ve> have a very special relationship

This was Saveea’s investigation.  She started by collecting words that had an <f> when singular but the <f> was replaced with a <ve> when the word was written as a plural.  In her search she came across some other words that had one form with an <f> and another form with <ve>.  We couldn’t think of others to add to the list at that moment, but we are keeping it in mind and hope to find more examples!

Words whose meaning has changed drastically over time

Petra enjoyed investigating <terrific> and <nice>.   She decided that a timeline for each would best tell the story of how the meaning changed over time.  If we begin by looking at terrific, we see that in 1660, it meant “frightening”.  In 1809 the meaning was more of “very great or severe” as in a terrific headache.  By 1888 it meant “excellent” as in a terrific idea!   Now when we look at nice, we see that in the 12th century it meant “careless, clumsy, poor and weak”.  By the 13th century it meant “foolish, stupid, senseless”.  How about that?  In the 1300’s it meant “fussy, fastidious”.  In the 1400’s it meant “dainty and delicate”.  In the 1500’s it meant “agreeable or delightful”.  By 1769 it was being used to mean “kind and thoughtful”.  Isn’t that a turn around in meaning?  Since learning this information, when someone uses the word nice in class,  someone else always asks, “Do you mean 12th century nice or present day nice?”  We are definitely having fun with these!

Oliver investigated the word <fabulous>.  He found out that in the early 15th century it meant “mythical and legendary”.  In the 1550’s it meant “pertaining to fable”.  In the 1600’s it took on a meaning of “incredible or enormous, immense, and amazing.”  Ever since the 1950’s it has been trivialized to merely “marvelous or terrific”.  We had a great discussion about the fact that it was trivialized in it’s meaning between the 1600’s and present day.  In the 1600’s, there must have been a feeling of awe surrounding its use that has been lost.

On the left side of Oliver’s poster, he began in the middle with the uniliteral base <f> with the denotation “say, speak, talk” (from Latin fari).  Follow the orange line to <fable> which is built from the base <f> and suffix <able>, and then to <fabulous> “that which is celebrated in fable”.  Fabulous, fabulously, and fabulousness all share the base <fabul>.  At this point, Oliver’s orange lines take you in two directions.  The line to the left takes you to the portmanteau <fantabulous>.  Oliver enjoyed looking at portmanteau words earlier this year and recognized this one right away.  The other orange line takes you to <fab> and let’s you know it is a clip of <fabulous>.  If you follow the line to the top, you’ll see the the word <fab> was popularized by reference to the Beatles!   From the discussions I had with Oliver during his research, I could easily follow his visual on the left.  I hope I’ve helped it be clear to you as well!

We put these investigations on pause when we need to.  Earlier this week I asked the students to write their own graduation speech.  But within two or three days,as students finish that, they eagerly get back to these.  Currently, there are other investigations going on as well.  I have students looking at assimilated prefixes, frequentative suffixes, and diminutive suffixes.  As you can imagine, each investigation broadens the understanding of how amazing, fascinating, and alive the English language is!  These students love investigating because they love learning! 

“Traveler, there is no path, the path is made by walking.” ~ Antonio Machado

Last fall Daniel came into my classroom with writing that was almost indecipherable.  Even the most common words were misspelled.  When asked to read his writing, he stumbled, often saying, “I don’t know what that says.”  But he had a lot to say.  His head was full of humorous stories and his life was full of interesting moments.  This was fifth grade!  I wondered, “How did he get this far with such an obstacle?”

Knowing that whatever happened or didn’t happen in his previous years of schooling wouldn’t help me now, I put that on the back burner in my brain.  The only consideration given to those thoughts was the recognition that I had something to offer Daniel that hadn’t been offered to him before.  Orthography.  Perhaps this would be the year when misunderstandings about English would stop blocking his ability to express his ideas in written form.

All you need to do is read back through this blog to see the kinds of activities and explorations that happened in my class during the last year.  Beyond what I’ve posted about, we spoke ‘words’ every day.  Often I pulled misspelled words from student work, and we talked about them.  I wasn’t looking to spot out “wrong” spellers, but rather what the student might have been thinking about as he/she spelled the word.  What strategy was being used?  How might this misspelling benefit us?  What might we all learn from it?  Often times it was this activity that dictated the direction we needed to take next.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the suffixing conventions.  We started with knowing when to replace the final non-syllabic <e> and when not to.  I used a flow chart so that they could see the predictability of this convention.  It didn’t take long before the majority of the students were writing <making> instead of  *makeing.  We looked at the other suffixing conventions in the same way.  There was always an immediate effect in their writing.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the use of <k> and <ck> in words.  Students made a list of words whose spelling included <ck>.  They compared that to a list of words whose spelling included a <k>.  When comparing, they looked at the position of the phoneme within the base (initial, medial, final).   For instance, the <ck> in <picking> is not medial, it is final.  The base is <pick> and the <ck> is final in the base.  When they got the hang of keeping their focus on the base element, they found that <ck> is most often found in the final position of a base and is never initial.  The next thing to compare were the letters immediately preceding the <k> or <ck>.  They noticed that a single vowel always preceded the <ck>, and it was always short.  They also noticed that when <k> was final in the base, there were either two vowels preceding it or a consonant (usually <r> or <n>).  Students conducted research in the same way for <ge> and <dge>.  This particular research felt so scientific that I had the students calculate percentages to represent how often they found certain things (<r> before a final <k>, for example).

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the phonology of <c>.  Students made lists of words in which the grapheme <c> represented /s/ and /k/ in words.  We made lists for several days in a row, until students could confidently explain why the /s/ or /k/ pronunciation was used.  Knowing that there was a reliable way of knowing how to pronounce the grapheme <c> in a word was a light bulb moment for my students.  “Why didn’t we know this in second grade?  It would have been so helpful!”

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the phonology of <t>.  Students made lists of words in which the grapheme <t> represented /t/, /ʃ/, or /tʃ/.  Students who have already memorized the spelling of <motion> know that *moshun is wrong, but they don’t understand that the mistake is related to the phonology of the <t>.  In order to talk about these three phonemes, I needed to explain that the IPA symbol /ʃ/ represents the pronunciation of <t> in words like <lotion>, <action> and <edition>, and the IPA symbol /tʃ/ represents the pronunciation of <t> in words like <creature>, <actual>, and <question>.  This inquiry really made the students slow down and think about pronunciation.  It also made them aware of what is really going on in the spelling of the word – especially since they wrote the words in the lists as word sums.  They began to realize that pronunciation of a final <t> in a base element can change depending on the suffix that follows it.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at assimilated prefixes.  In groups of three, students were assigned a prefix group to explore.  For example, one group looked at <con->, <com->, <cor->, <col->, and <co->.  Another group looked at <in>, <il>, <ir>, and <im>.  Once they realized that many prefixes have variations in their spelling, the students slowed down and spent a moment considering when making hypotheses about a word sum.  I began seeing <immature> instead of *imature, <illegal> instead of *ilegal, and <corrode> instead of *corode.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the role of the final non-syllabic <e> in various words.  It didn’t take the students long to be able to share with others at least 6 or 7 reasons for it to be there.  One way of sharing what was learned was to make a video called, “For <e>’s a Jolly Good Fellow“.  Knowing why the final non-syllabic <e> is in a word makes it easier to remember to include it when spelling!  I began seeing <change> instead of *chang and <breathe> instead of <breath> (when breathe was what was needed).

There was certainly much more we learned by looking at the words my students were using and misspelling, but I think you get the idea of how I turned “spelling mistakes” into something rich and useful.  Which takes us back to Daniel.  The orthography we were doing encompassed wonderful things he had never been asked to think about before.  But was it enough?  Will his next teacher wonder about his writing obstacle the way I had last fall?  The truthful answer is, “maybe.”

Daniel made a lot of progress.  He improved his writing in a lot of ways.  Besides looking at orthography, we studied grammar and writing.  There was a lot of practice at all of it.  But when I ran into Daniel’s mom a week after school was out,  I offered to tutor him for the summer.  Why had I done that?  What did I think I could accomplish in a few sessions that I wasn’t able to accomplish in a school year?

Some things that I learned about Daniel during the school year:   He is a dodger.  Anytime he is in a group, he counts on someone else to take the lead and he waits for their direction. He does what they tell him.  He writes what they tell him. It’s easier that way.  He pretends to be listening in class, but isn’t always.  He does not ask questions when he is confused.  His misspellings and poor writing have been pointed out so many times that he accepts failure as the norm.  He is not angry, just accepting.  He sees no point in trying to fix something that is part of the definition of who he is.  The strategy that he sticks to (that gets him into more spelling errors than not) is to “sound it out”.

I knew he “hid” in a larger class.  If I worked with him one-on-one, I felt he stood a better chance.

I started our first session by asking him to write a few sentences about his summer.  As usual, I was looking for mistakes he was making in his writing.  As it turned out, he wrote great sentences and there was only one word misspelled.  It was *calfes.  This led to a great investigation of pluralizing words such as <wolf>, <wife>, <half>, <knife>, and more.

After that I pictured a spelling error I had seen him make during the school year.  He had used the letter sequence ‘ints’ when he should have used the suffix <-ence>.  He was trying to sound out the word and spell it according to what he though he was hearing.  So he and I made two lists.  We made a list of words with the <-ence> suffix and a list of words that had a final ‘nts’ letter sequence.  The first list included words like <difference>, <reference>, <influence> and <evidence>.  The second list included words like <cents>, <quotients>, <agreements> and <payments>.  When asked to compare the two lists, Daniel recognized that the second list of words were all plural!  Then we went through each word, identifying its morphemes and talking about how it is used, and then spelling it out.  By that I mean he wrote it down, and then spelled each word aloud with a pause between each morpheme.  By doing this, he saw that <-ence> was consistently a suffix.

During the next session we reviewed the phonology of <t>.  We made lists and he spelled the words out.  We talked about the morphemes, their sense and meaning, and any related words.  We also reviewed <wolf> to <wolves>.

At the most recent session, we went back to the <-ence> suffix.  I wanted to fluctuate between <-ence> and <-ent>.  So I asked him to spell <evidence> and then <evident>, <influence> and then <influential>  (Reviewing the phonology of <t>).  We talked about them, and then I had him spell them out.  When we came to <dependence>, we paused to talk about the bound base <pend>.  We talked about a pendulum and a pendant and how they relate to being a dependent child.  Daniel spelled the word on paper and then out loud.  Thinking about another related word, I threw out the word <independence>.  Daniel quickly explained how the prefix <in-> brought a sense of “not” to the word before he proceeded to write the word on his paper.  When he spelled it out, I was surprised.  He had spelled <in – du – pend – ence>.

Interesting!  I asked him why the spelling of the prefix <de-> changed when we added the prefix <in-> to the word.  He said, ” I don’t know.  It just does?”  Interesting.  So even as I’m training him to spell out with morphemes, he’s still listening to the Queen of Hearts in his ear bellowing, “Sound it out!”

It was time to switch gears and talk about stress and the schwa.  When we pronounce the word <dependence>, the stress is on the second syllable.  Even though the first syllable is unstressed, the <e> is still pronounced clearly as a long <e>.  When we pronounce the word <independence>, there is stress on both the first and third syllables.  Some might consider the third syllable to be the primary stress in this word and the first to be secondary stress.  Either way, the second syllable becomes even more unstressed than it was in <dependence>, and the <e> in <de-> is pronounced as a schwa <ə>.  In this word, the schwa pronunciation is similar to the way we pronounce a short <u>.

To illustrate the point better, I brought up the word <chocolate>.  I asked him to say it.  We both noticed that when you say the word, there are two syllables, but when you go to write it, you think of three.  That <o> in the middle is a schwa with zero pronunciation when this word is spoken!  He played around with this idea for a bit and smiled as he spoke and the schwa syllable disappeared.

This discussion led us back to the first time Daniel spelled <dif-fer-ence> as *dif-r-ints.  I showed him both spellings and asked why he might have missed the <e> in the bound base <fer>.  The idea of written syllables versus spoken syllables was becoming slightly comfortable one.  The idea of a vowel having a schwa pronunciation was almost a relief!  When we meet again, we will pick up where this left off.  I’ll be ready with a list of words in which the schwa has altered the way the letter used might typically be pronounced.

*** Note to reader:  Daniel is a real student.  Daniel is not his real name.