Instead of Being Submerged in a Sea of “Sound It Out”, We Suggest Spelling Success with Structured Word Inquiry!

My students have been working on several things lately.  Some have been looking at specific graphemes/digraphs and the phonemes that they can represent.  Others have been looking at prefixes and the assimilated forms they often have.  Still others have begun to explore Latin verbs and the unitary/twin bases that come from them.   So with all of these different  investigations going on at once, how do I make sure that all the students are learning all these things?  It happens on a day like today.  It happens when I plan a simple review that turns into a simply rich inquiry.  I can’t imagine that any other review set up in the same way would yield anything less.  You see this wasn’t a fluke.  It didn’t just happen once today.  It happened three times … in each of my three classes.  Fortunately I set up my camera during one of the classes and am able to invite you in.  If I tried to tell you all about it without letting you see for yourself, you might think I was exaggerating.

Setting the scene …

Here are a few of the posters my students have presented lately.  When I say they presented the poster, I mean they told the class what their investigation was all about.  They read any words they found that were related to the investigation, and then they shared the definitions of some of the words that were new to them as they investigated.  After that, the students listening asked questions and discussions ensued.

With other investigations still in process, I thought it was a good time to pause and reflect on what we have been learning.  Every once in a while I see the students sliding back into the comfortable yet unproductive habit of robotic research.  I define that as collecting what has been asked for without thinking about what the words mean or whether or not they fit the focus of the investigation.  Their whole spelling lives they have been asked to mindlessly focus on letters and letter strings.  They have not been asked to see those letter strings as anything in particular.  I am asking them to think critically about whether those letter strings constitute a morpheme in a word.  This is a new skill for most.

Before the students walked in, I wrote the prefix <sub-> on the board along with the most common sense it brings to a base, “up, under.”  Then once the students were seated, I asked them to think of words with a <sub-> prefix.  It could actually be <sub>, but it could also be one of this prefix’s assimilated forms (<suf>, <sug>, <sup>, <suc>, <sur>).  Here is what the board looked like:

At this point I asked the students to look at the board and let me know what they thought.  Did all of these words indeed have an <sub-> prefix or one of its assimilated forms?  Is there anything you question or wonder about?

I turned on my camera and the students were engaged in discussion for 50 minutes.  Fifty minutes! Take a listen and see where their questions and observations took the discussion.  (Don’t worry.  I edited so that the first video is 12 minutes and the second is 7 minutes.  I must say it was hard to find parts of the discussion to cut.  It was all as great and interesting as what you are about to see!)

As you can see, the questions just kept coming and the students exhibited a comfort level in using the resources (on this day it was Etymonline and the Collins Gage Canadian Paperback dictionary).  They were connecting dots all over the place!  They were understanding familiar words in a new way and understanding unfamiliar words enough to connect them to other words by their structure.  Structured Word Inquiry is never about memorizing a word’s spelling.  It is about understanding it.  But becoming a better speller is a pretty reliable side effect of the work my students do each day.  We talk about words every day whether we are focused on SWI or not.

When my third group of fifth grade students brainstormed their own list of words with the <sub-> prefix or one of its assimilated forms, this is what the board looked like.  I did not take video, but you can imagine by what you see that it was every bit as rich a discussion as with my middle class.  You’ll notice that some of the same words were thought of by students in each class, but then there were words that didn’t appear in the last group’s discussion.  Is that important?  I don’t think so.  We focused on the meaning and structure of the words.  And when we needed it, we went to a resource to find out which language the word originated in and perhaps what other languages had an effect on its spelling.

You will notice that we crossed off the words <sucking> and <super>.  It was in a quick discussion that a student explained why the <suc> in <sucking> couldn’t be a prefix like we see in <success>.  In the word <sucking>, the students recognized that the base was <suck> and that the <ck> was representing one phoneme, /k/.  The students decided that if <super> had an <sup> prefix, that would leave <er> which is a pretty common suffix.  But then there wouldn’t be a base!  As I did with the other class, I had someone look up the word <super> to verify that the <sup> was indeed  part of the base and NOT a prefix.  As it turns out, this word is from Latin super “above, over, beyond.”  This word is a free base and it’s spelling hasn’t changed at all!  We talked about superheros and supervisors and how that denotation of “above, over, beyond” made sense.

That brought us to the word <supper>.  Everyone was familiar with supper being a meal eaten in the evening.  One hypothesis was that the prefix was <sup> and the base was <per>.  Another was that the prefix was <sup>, the base was <p>, and that the suffix was <er>.  I had someone go get a dictionary.  That person reported that the base was <sup> with a denotation of “dine.”  That meant that the <er> was a suffix and the second <p> was the doubled <p> from when the vowel suffix was added.  They were not familiar with the base <sup>, so I reminded them of the base <hap> that we see in <happy>.  A very similar thing happens in that word.  So even though the <sup> in <supper> is followed by a <p>, that doesn’t mean it is a prefix.  In this word, the <sup> is the base!  It’s a third word we could have crossed off.

Since we had just found a word in which the <sup> was a base and the <p> that followed it was the doubled <p>, someone wondered if the same thing was happening with <supply>.  They asked if <sup> was the base and there was an <ly> suffix.  But then someone else pointed out that <ly> is a consonant suffix and wouldn’t cause doubling.  (It is so amazing and wonderful to watch one student’s understanding broaden another student’s understanding!)  So then the student who had raised the question went to get a dictionary to find out whether or not the base was <ply>. The student found out that in this word, the prefix <sub> has a sense of “up” and that <ply> is from Latin plere “to fill.”  Someone immediately thought of buying school supplies.  Someone else thought of the way the school supplies desks and chairs for the students.  Both are example of items that fill a need.

From <supply> we went directly to <supplement>.  I wondered aloud what a supplement was?  Someone was familiar with a supplement being extra sheets of ads that comes with their newspaper.  I mentioned that I sometimes take a supplement.  I sometimes take a vitamin C tablet.  Several students nodded and shared that they sometimes do too, like when they have a cold.  So we came to the understanding that a supplement is something added to something else.  When a student looked in the dictionary, the student found out that <supplement> is from Latin supplere “to fill up.”  Then the entry said, “See supply.”  Aha!  This is the same Latin base we saw in <supply>!

Another interesting word was <submarine>.  The students were pretty confident that <sub> was the prefix here because they knew that a submarine was a vessel that went under the water.  So I asked if they thought <marine> would be the base or whether it could be further analyzed.  It was quiet for a bit while everyone gave it some thought.  Then someone said, “Could the <ine> be a suffix like in <saltine>?”   I added, “And <routine>.”  Hmmm.  A student once again offered to look up <marine> to see what evidence there was to help us with identifying the base.  The student found out that it was from Latin mare “the sea”, which really made sense to everyone seeing as a submarine goes under the sea!  Could we think of any other words with <mare> as its base?  I thought of <maritime> which I explained as having to do with the sea.  I could say that a dolphin is a maritime mammal, meaning it lives in the sea.  Then, when I was just about to move on, someone suggested a student’s name.  Marissa.  I had no idea if that would share the base or not.  It shares spelling, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they share meaning.  So I told Marissa to get a Chromebook and find out what her name meant.  Sure enough!  It comes from the Latin maris “of the sea!”  How about that?

Reflections …

In each of my three classes we started the same way, but then followed the path led by their questions.  Over and over we talked about the prefix <sub> and the sense it brought to each of the words it was part of.  We made great discoveries about some unfamiliar bases, both bound and free.  We even talked about twin bases when the opportunity arose.  They eagerly jumped up to get a dictionary when we were ready to understand a word’s structure better.  We connected the literal meanings of the base and prefix to what we understood the words to mean in our daily lives.  We stretched that understanding to other words with the same base when we could.  Most importantly, the students looked critically at the words and determined for themselves whether or not there was an <sub-> or other assimilated form of an <sub-> prefix.  When the letters at the beginning of the word were found not to be a prefix, the students could explain why that was.

This kind of critical thinking, this kind of scientific inquiry comes without judgement.  Students offer suggestions without the fear of being wrong and the embarrassment that goes along with that.  Everyone has the same pursuit, which is to make sense of a word’s spelling.  And everyone participates in that common pursuit.  Some think to themselves.  Some think out loud.  Some ask questions.  Some jump at the chance to look something up in one of our dictionaries or at Etymonline.  The engagement is high and the delight in discovering something about a word or a connection being made is often audible.  (And usually accompanied by a sweet smile!)  This is what I have always imagined learning to be like!  As Malina said at the end of the second video, “Every single time that someone comes up with an idea, we should put a little light bulb above their head.”  Man would there ever be a glow coming from our room!

 

“Button up your overcoat when the wind is free….” Ruth Etting

It’s all well and good that we can put on an extra layer when the wind gets chilly and the temperatures drop, but what do the wild animals do?  How do they cope with the heavy snow and freezing temperatures?  That is the focus of the article I read recently.  It’s called “Do Wild Animals Hate Being Cold in Winter?”  It was published in Popular Science, written by Bridgette B. Baker.  You can read it at THIS LINK.

As I read it, I couldn’t help but notice a number of words that share the base <therm>.

“In fact, wildlife can succumb to frostbite and hypothermia, just like people and pets.”

“One winter challenge for warm-blooded animals, or endotherms, as they’re scientifically known, is to maintain their internal body temperature in cold conditions. Interestingly though, temperature-sensing thresholds can vary depending on physiology. For instance, a cold-blooded—that is, ectothermic—frog will sense cold starting at a lower temperature compared to a mouse. Recent research shows that hibernating mammals, like the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, don’t sense the cold until lower temperatures than endotherms that don’t hibernate.”

“Many cold-climate endotherms exhibit torpor: a state of decreased activity. They look like they are sleeping. Because animals capable of torpor alternate between internally regulating their body temperature and allowing the environment to influence it, scientists consider them heterotherms.”

Most people will acknowledge these are interesting words.  But when summarizing the information, they will skip using them and go back to using simpler, more familiar language.  Often the thought is that these words are too tough for children to remember (especially if the adult doesn’t really understand what they mean).  What if instead of skipping using them, we investigated them further?  What if we looked closer at the sense, the meaning and the function of the morphemes in each of these words?  We have here an opportunity to understand scientific terminology AND word families better!

hypothermia

Let’s begin by looking at <hypothermia>.  It was first attested in 1877 and is from Modern Latin.  When something is noted as being Modern Latin, that means that the word was created by scientists who needed a name for something. They didn’t just make up a name, but rather they looked back to Latin and Greek for what to call it.  The word <hypothermia> did not exist in Greek, but the stems <hypo> “under” and <therm> “heat” did.  The <-ia> suffix indicates that this word is an abstract noun.  If you look at the denotation of the base <therm> “heat” and the denotation that the base <hypo> “under” has, you can see that the word itself tells you that hypothermia is when something is under it’s normal level of heat.  If a person has hypothermia, their body temperature is lower than it should be.  The base <therm> is from Greek θερμός (transcribed as thermos).

What about this base <hypo>?  It is from Greek ύπό (transcribed as hypo) and has a denotation of “under.”  Have we seen this in other familiar words?  What about a hypothesis, which is the groundwork for an investigation.  Do you recognize the denotation of “under” in hypothesis, as in an underlying position?  It is also in hypodermic, which is the area just under the skin.  That gives you a better sense of where a hypodermic needle is used, doesn’t it?  And what about hypotenuse, which is the side of a triangle that is opposite the right angle.  It has a sense of being stretched under the right angle.

endotherms

When I looked for <endotherms>,  I was lead to <endothermic>.  Etymonline notes that this word was first attested in 1866 and was formed by adding <endo-> and <thermal>.  The suffix <-ic> indicates that the word is an adjective.  The suffix <-al> can indicate the same thing.  When I look at the entry for <thermal>, I learned that the first time it was used to mean “a sense of heat” was in 1837.  So using <-al> is older than the use of <-ic> with this base.

So what about the base <endo->?  It is from Greek ένδον (transcribed as endon) and has a sense of “inside, internal”.  When you pair up <endo> “internal” and <therm> “heat”, you can see that the word itself tells you that endotherms are organisms that regulate their heat from inside themselves.

We see this base in endoscopy which is when a doctor uses a camera and light attached to a flexible tube to examine your esophagus, stomach, and/or intestines.  In other words, the doctor is looking at your internal organs.

This base is also in endoskeleton which is the internal skeleton structure that all vertebrates have.

My dogs are endotherms.  So am I.

ectotherms

There was not a specific entry for  <ectotherms> at Etymonline, but there was an entry for <ecto->.  It is from Greek έκτός (transcribed as ecktos) and has a denotation of “outside, external.”  It is related to the prefix <ex-> “out”, but they are not the same.  When you pair up <ect> “outside” with <therm> “heat”, you can see that the word itself tells you that ectotherms are organisms whose body heat is regulated by their environment (outside themselves).

I went to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to find related words.  This base is found in science words like ectotrophic.  An example of that is when tissues form on the outside of a root and are being nourished by that root.  Interestingly enough, the opposite of ectotropic is endotrophic!  That is when one organism is getting nourishment from within another organism.

We also see this base in ectocrine which is described as an organic substance that is released from the outer layer of an organism that will effect other organisms in the environment in either a good or bad way.  It will come as no surprise to you that this word is the opposite of endocrine, which is a gland having an internal secretion.  So in one case the secretion is external, and in the other it is internal.

Turtles and snakes are ectotherms.  They bask in the sun to get heat.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Basking_turtles.JPG

heterotherms

There wasn’t a specific entry for <heterotherms> at Etymonline, but there was an entry for <hetero->.  It comes from Greek ’έτερος (transcribed as heteros) with a denotation of “one of two”.  When you pair up <heter> “one of two” with <therm> “heat”, you can see that the word itself tells you that heterotherms are animals that can regulate their own heat AND also have their heat regulated by their environment.  Here’s something interesting that I found at Wikipedia:

“Regional heterothermy describes organisms that are able to maintain different temperature “zones” in different regions of the body. This usually occurs in the limbs, and is made possible through the use of counter-current heat exchangers, such as the rete mirabile found in tuna and certain birds. These exchangers equalize the temperature between hot arterial blood going out to the extremities and cold venous blood coming back, thus reducing heat loss. Penguins and many arctic birds use these exchangers to keep their feet at roughly the same temperature as the surrounding ice. This keeps the birds from getting stuck on an ice sheet.”

Chinstrap Penguin with snow in its mouth

“Chinstrap Penguin with snow in its mouth” by Liam Quinn is licensed under CC by-sa 2.0

Here is a matrix of the words we have looked at:

You will notice that all the base elements are bolded.  The connecting vowel <o> and the suffixes are not.  That means that there are four compound words represented on this matrix:

<hypothermia –> hypo + therm + ia>
(or variations such as hypothermic or hypothermal)
<ectothermal –> ect + o + therm + ic>
(or variations such as ectotherm or ectotherms)
<endotherms –> end + o + therm + s>
(or variations such as endotherm or endothermic)
<heterotherm –> heter + o + therm>
(or variations such as heterotherms or heterothermal)

You may not be familiar with a connecting vowel, so let me explain a bit about them.  They are used to connect two bases (as they are doing in three of the four words above), but they can also connect a base to a suffix or a suffix to another suffix.

My favorite example of a compound word with an obvious connecting vowel is <speedometer>.  We instantly recognize the two bases here because they are both free bases.  We also recognize that the <o> doesn’t belong to either one!  It is simply connecting them.  The <o> can be used because the second base <meter> is from Greek μέτρον (transcribed as metron) “measure”.  The first base is not from Greek. It is from Old English sped.  The sense and meaning “rate of motion or progress” is from c.1200.  The fact that one of the bases is from Greek and one is from Old English makes this word a Germanic hybrid!

Have you noticed that in the above matrix not all of the words have an <o> connecting vowel?  How do I know that the <o> at the end of <hypo> is not a connecting vowel?  I start by doing some research.  If you skim back through the paragraphs in this post, you will find that the origins of the bases are as follows:

<therm> – Greek θερμός (transcribed as thermos)
<hypo> – Greek ύπό (transcribed as hypo)
<end> – Greek ένδον (transcribed as endon)
<ect> – Greek έκτός (transcribed as ecktos)
<heter> – Greek ’έτερος (transcribed as heteros)

Notice that three of the four have the same Greek suffix.  That <os> suffix is called the nominative suffix.  If I remove it, I see the stem that then came into English as a base.  There is one word that has a Greek <on> genitive suffix.  If I remove it, I see the stem that then came into English as a base.  Those four bases entered English without the <o>.  We can also notice that the words we’re looking at today were coined by scientists who needed a word to describe something they were working on.  Oftentimes they joined the Greek (or Latin) bases (that fit best in the context of what they were doing) with a connecting vowel.

I know that <hypo> does not have a connecting vowel because it does not have a Greek suffix that could be removed.  This present day base was a preposition in Greek.  If you look in the OED, you can find several entries for <hypo> as a free base noun.

The bottom line

As you read through this post, I hope your sense of these bases deepened.  When I do this with children, it’s not that I want them to remember every word we talk about.  It’s more that I want them to take an invisible thread and connect each base or morpheme that we focus on to the words in which it is used.  I want them to see that every word is not completely new and unique.  Words belong to families, and the key to understanding an unfamiliar word is by recognizing one or more of its morphemes and being able to recall some related words to help with remembering the sense and meaning that the words share.

The matrix I created above focuses on the words from the article that had the base <therm> in common.  The joy of matrices is that they can be used for what you need them to be used for.  They don’t need to contain every possible word that shares the base (probably impossible anyway).  I love when one of my students presents a matrix they made to the rest of the class and another student asks, “Could such and such a word be added to that matrix?”  The person who created the matrix doesn’t have to feel embarrassed because they missed something.  There is no expectation that a great matrix has x number of words!  A word matrix is a starting point.  It is a thought provoker and a discussion starter.  When another student suggests a word that could be added, it proves that the students in the audience are engaged and thinking about this particular family.  That is a thing to celebrate!

That being said, a fuller matrix is really fun to look at once in a while.  Once you start thinking about this base <therm>, you start wondering what other words you know that share the base.  Have fun thinking about the words represented below.  Do you recognize the bases we just studied?  Do you recognize the others?  Are you familiar with the suffixes? Are you noticing that a connecting vowel is used to connect bases  where <therm> is the second base?  Are you noticing that a connecting vowel is used to connect bases where <therm> is the first base?  Are you aware that any word that contains two or more bases is a compound word?  Do you know the denotations of the bases I haven’t talked about?

I encourage you to use Etymonline as a starting point.  Find out what the bases mean independently, and then find out how we currently use the word by looking in a modern dictionary.  Sometimes I like to search for an image as well to further deepen my understanding.  Notice how the connecting vowel is pronounced in thermographic, thermoluminescence, thermostat, and thermosphere.  Then notice how there is a shift in stress, which changes the way we pronounce that connecting vowel in thermography and thermometer.  Interesting, right?  The pronunciation changes, but the spelling and the meaning does not.  An orthographic truth you can count on!

A warm send off

Well, this here endotherm is going to put on thermal underwear so she doesn’t have to turn up the thermostat.  I wish we had geothermal energy, but we don’t.  Staying warm might prevent the need for a thermometer should she take a chill.  Once she’s dressed in layers, she can gaze out the window and imagine that she can see all the way to the thermosphere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

When Something Unexpected Turns into Something Spectacular!

This morning a student eagerly approached my desk.  “Mrs. Steven?  I have a question.  This weekend I was reading a book and came across the words <respect> and <suspect>.  I started wondering about them.  I’m pretty sure that <sus> is a prefix.  I remember seeing it during one of my word investigations.  So that left me thinking that maybe the base in that word would be <pect>.  But then, if these two words share a base, and I think they do, that would mean that the prefix in <respect> would be <res>, and I’m not so sure about that.” As you can imagine, I can think of no better way to start a day!  I thanked her for sharing her thinking about this situation, and promised that we would get the class to help us think further about this after they returned from the gym.  We began by writing the two words on the board.  Then I let Lauren explain her thinking about these words, and where she was stuck.

***When a question like this is raised, the air seems to change in our room.  The looks on faces indicate that thinking is going on.  No one is doodling or even futzing with desk things! Heads are lifted and are facing the board.  This is the look of engagement.  Each brain buzzing, considering what has been proposed. A hand went up.  “I agree that <sus-> is a prefix.  Our group was looking at <sub-> and that was a variation.” Another student jumped in, “Oh, right!  An assimilated prefix!” I asked, “What words can we think of that have an <sus-> prefix?”  In addition to suspect, the students thought of suspend, suspension, and suspicion.  We noted that the element following the <sus-> prefix began with a <p> in each of these examples.  That is not always the case.  If we had used Word Searcher to find more, we would also have found sustain, susceptible, and resuscitate. We thought about this word and the idea that <sus-> was assimilated from <sub->.  We tried to pair up the <sub-> with the <pect> that followed.   We talked about how <b> and <p> are formed using our lips and how difficult it is to pronounce them both in this context.  We all agreed that THAT didn’t work.  It makes sense that the <sub-> takes on an <sus-> form when the next element in a word begins with <p>. So now we had established that <sus-> was a proven prefix.  We turned our attention back to the two words on the board.  What next? Someone asked, “Maybe <res>is a prefix.  I’m thinking of the word <residue>. ” I wrote it on the board, and almost instantly someone said, “But couldn’t the word sum for that be <re + sid(e) + ue>?”

At this point I shared that a few years ago I had a student who investigated the word <president>.  He found out that the word sum was <pre + sid(e) + ent>.  The base <side> had a denotation of “sitting”.  A president is someone who sits before the people being represented.  (I wish you could have heard the swoosh of “Ohhh” ‘s that slid across the room!)  The student who had offered the word sum for <residue> then said, “And residue is something that just sits there!  It gets left behind and just sits there!”  There were smiles and nods all around. Now I posed the question, “What do you think is going on in the word <respect>?” The first student to respond said, “I think there is an <re-> prefix and an <spect> base.  After all, I can think of speculate and inspection.” Someone else called out, “Expect.”  (Perfect.  I wrote it below suspect and hoped it would inspire some thinking.  If not, I would point it out myself. But I was in no rush. ) “Great next step I said.  Can anyone else think of words that might be sharing this base?” “What about spectacles?  In Peter Pan, Smee wore spectacles!”  (We are 16 pages away from finishing this book.  Look for a future post about the rich conversations we have had about the many words we have encountered and thoroughly enjoyed!) A voice from the back of the room said, “Doesn’t <spect> have something to do with looking?  If you inspect something, you are looking at it.  If you wear spectacles, they help you see better.  When you respect someone, it is like you are looking at them, really looking at them, and seeing something cool that you didn’t see before.” “Yes!  Yes, it does.” I replied.  Think also of a spectator.  That is a person who has come to watch something.” The next thing I did was to underline the <spect> base we saw in the list we had accumulated.  The only two words that didn’t seem to fit that were suspect and expect. “Hmmm.  Who has
some thoughts about these two?”

Then from the back row someone said, “When we say the word <expect> there is already a /s/ as part of the pronunciation of <x>.” “You’re right!  Everyone say the word <expect> and feel the /s/ that is part of the pronunciation of <x>.  That’s some great thinking, Amelia!  Perhaps the initial <s> on the base <spect> elided with the /ks/ when this prefix and base joined.   So one hypothesis that might explain why the base element in <expect> does not include the initial <s>  would be that when the prefix <ex-> joined with the base <spect>, the initial <s> on the base was elided.  That means that the /s/ that was part of the /ks/ phoneme and the /s/ that was part of the <spect> base element became one.  They were not both needed.” I continued, “Would this same hypothesis work for what is happening with <suspect>? What do you think?” “Well, yes.  The /s/ at the end of <sus-> is pretty much like the /s/ in the /ks/.” ***Can you imagine how glorious it is to be able to have a discussion like this with 11 year old students?  Eight months of learning about our English language has brought us to this point.  I yearn for more time.  They know enough to think like scholars and ask questions like scholars.  They notice things about words that help them understand its origins, its structure, and its phonology. Now that we have a hypothesis, we need to do some research.  We checked at Etymonline.

expect (v.)

1550s, “wait, defer action,” from Latin expectare/exspectare “await, look out for; desire, hope, long for, anticipate; look for with anticipation,” from ex- “thoroughly” (see ex-) + spectare “to look,” frequentative of specere “to look at” (from PIE root *spek- “to observe”).
      
           
We talked briefly about the fact that this word hasn’t changed its sense and meaning very much since it was first attested in the 1550’s.  That’s pretty interesting!  We still use it to mean “wait, look out for, hope, long for, anticipate.”
 
In the middle of that discussion, a hand went up.  As soon as I called on the student, he said, “look at those two spellings in Latin!  The <s> was in one of them.  Does that mean that it was spelled both ways then?”
      
“It sure does!  Does anyone spot the Latin ancestor of this word?”
      
“Yes.  It’s spectare, and it’s an infinitive.”  At this point another student voice joins in and they say almost in unison, “There’s an <-are> infinitive suffix.  It’s a Latin verb!”
      
“What is its denotation?”
      
“To look.”
      
“Does that jive with what we thought when looking at inspect, spectacles, and speculate?”
      
Several answered, “Yes!”
      
“Has anyone noticed the sense given for the prefix <ex->?  It says “thoroughly”.  Hmmm.  What do we usually expect the <ex-> prefix to have a sense of?”
      
“Doesn’t it usually mean “out?”
      
“Yes, it does.  This just goes to show us that a prefix can bring more than one sense to a word.  In the word <exit>, the prefix <ex-> DOES have a sense of “out.”  The base element there is <it> “go.”  When you head for the exit, you head for the place you will go out.  But here the prefix has a sense of “thoroughly.”  When we expect something to happen, we are thoroughly looking ahead and watching for it.  We are focused on looking.  In your future, you may come across information that tells you that <ex-> means out.  You now know that it doesn’t always, and it doesn’t only mean that.  That is valuable information because understanding the sense a prefix adds to a word’s denotation effects the way you think about the definition of a word.”
      
When I asked if we found any evidence to support our hypothesis, I helped point out that the Latin stem was <spect> and that had the <s>.  I also repeated what was previously noted about the two spellings in Latin – one with the <s> following the <x> and one without.  What we DO know is that we don’t see it in this word today.  Next it was time to look at <suspect> to see if we could find any evidence there.

suspect (adj.)

early 14c., “suspected of wrongdoing, under suspicion;” mid-14c., “regarded with mistrust, liable to arouse suspicion,” from Old French suspect (14c.), from Latin suspectus “suspected, regarded with suspicion or mistrust,” past participle of suspicere “look up at, look upward,” figuratively “look up to, admire, respect;” also “look at secretly, look askance at,” hence, figuratively, “mistrust, regard with suspicion,” from assimilated form of sub “up to” (see sub-) + specere “to look at” (from PIE root *spek- “to observe”). The notion behind the word is “look at secretly,” hence, “look at distrustfully.”   Again we noted that the sense and meaning of this word hasn’t changed much since the 14th century.  We noticed that this word was used in Old French, but that didn’t affect its spelling.  (We have come across situations in which it did.)  Continuing on in the entry we saw that this word is from Latin suspectus which was the past participle of suspicere.  Once again the students noticed that both of these had Latin verb suffixes.  It made sense that suspicere would be the infinitive and suspectus would be the past participle.  That would mean that those two principle parts of this same Latin verb would come into English as the twin bases <suspic(e)> and <suspect>!

Someone said, “If we add an <-ion> suffix to the base <suspic(e)>, we’ll have the word <suspicion>!” “Right.  I am so impressed with how you recognize what to do with the information you are finding!” As we kept reading, we thought it interesting that the infinitive form <suspicere> was used to mean “look up to, admire, respect”, yet also “look at secretly, mistrust.”  Those are opposite meanings!  Even though it had those two senses at one time, today <suspic(e)> is used solely (I couldn’t find evidence to prove otherwise) to express a sense of mistrust or suspicion.  Over time, the sense of “admire, respect” became less and less associated with this word. The next thing we noticed was the identification of the prefix <sus-> as an assimilated form of <sub->.  It’s always great to find evidence to support what we were thinking earlier!

As we finished reading this entry, I again asked, “Did we find any evidence to support our hypothesis?” Well, yes and no.  We just found out that <suspect> is one of a pair of twin bases.  That means we can look at it as a base element that needs no further analyzing.  On the other hand, the entry at Etymonline does confirm that <sus-> is the assimilated form of <sub-> and that the modern base element is derived from Latin specere.  That is great information, but might leave a person with more questions than clarity. We saw that <expect> had a spelling in Latin that included the <s> after the <x> (exspectare).  We found out a lot of interesting things, but nothing that verified whether that initial <s> on the modern base had elided when the prefix and base were joined. ***The only time this becomes a question is when we think about the words synchronically and are trying to write a word sum or create a word matrix.  One thing we can say for certain is that we wouldn’t include expect or suspect on the same matrix as respect, spectator, inspect, or speculate.  I am not even sure I would create a matrix to represent the elements in <expect>.  I would prefer to write a word sum like this:  <ex- + (s)pect –> expect> and then explain why I included the (s).  Others might represent this differently, but the most important thing I want my students to understand here is that respect, suspect, and expect all come from the same Latin verb. There is another base element <pect> from Latin pectus with a denotation that is quite different.  We see it in pectorals and expectorate.  It has to do with the breast.  Pectorals were originally the breastplates men wore.  Now they refer to the chest muscles.  To expectorate is to spit or to expel from the chest.  This base element might look like the one we see in <expect>, but it obviously isn’t.  Let’s not get them confused. Here is one idea for representing these words in
a single visual:

All the words within the circle derive from the same Latin verb.  The fact that expect and suspect do not share the same spelling as the base of respect means they would not be on the same matrix as respect.  This matrix does not include all the possible elements it could, nor do the lists outside the matrix but within the circle.  I just wanted to illustrate one possible way to represent words in a situation like this. Just so you know, I’m still thinking about all this.  I’m thinking about what’s happening with inspire and expire, with exist, and exert.  I don’t feel like I have to have a ready answer for my students.  We just owe it to ourselves to investigate as we can and then think about what our current understanding is.  From there we identify what it is we still have questions about.  And then we move forward keeping our ears open for some piece of evidence or some bit of research that reveals a bit more and deepens our understanding. So our hypothesis still stands and awaits evidence.  My students have no problem with not finding  a clear and defining answer to Lauren’s question.  All an answer does is end that line of questioning, and what fun is that?

Guess What? They’re ALL Silent Letters!

I found an article the other day that made me kind of sad.  The article was posted online by the Oxford Dictionaries and was called, “Why English is so hard to learn:  silent letters.”  Here is a link to the article.  The first thing that struck me was the term “silent letters”.  I am aware that letters that are unpronounced in a word are commonly referred to as silent letters, but that doesn’t make it accurate.  I also admit that in the not too distant past I called them that as well … because that was what I was told they were.  In a world where children are taught that letters routinely “say” sounds, as in the letter f says /f/, it might indeed seem to make sense to call the <g> in <sign> silent since it isn’t “saying” anything.

But I’ve come to realize how misleading that way of thinking is.  And it is.  Very misleading.

Letters produce sound?

Let’s begin with the underlying assumption here that letters do make sounds.  Obviously they do not.  Can not.  They’re just symbols printed on paper.  Yet we ask children to believe that they do.  In fact we begin a child’s reading instruction by teaching them that the consonants each “make” one sound and the vowels each “make” two.   What we really mean here, and what we should really be saying to children is that letters represent pronunciation.  So for example, we can say that the letter <s> represents /s/.  But don’t stop there.  If you don’t want to get into all of the pronunciations that the letter <s> CAN represent, then just say, “The letter <s> CAN represent /s/.  It can also represent other pronunciations, but right now we’ll focus on /s/.”   Using this wording leaves the door open to other pronunciations of the letter <s> as they will, without any doubt, notice in words.  The students won’t be gobsmacked when it happens.  They will have been waiting for it and looking forward to understanding why and when <s> has other pronunciations.

With this slight change in OUR explanation, we are switching from having children think something is possible (that even THEY can recognize is not) to simply stating the truth to children.  Changing your wording may seem trivial to you as you are reading this, but within a year or two of learning to read and write, children are already beginning to see our language as one that makes no sense.  And the fact that the adults don’t understand our language as well as they could, doesn’t help.  Many just repeat what they were taught or what some teacher manual says to repeat.  They don’t question what they don’t understand because their own education regarding our language has unintentionally taught them to believe that our language makes no sense.  I imagine that you have seen the same kinds of “proof” that I have where someone asks about house and mouse, and that if the plural of mouse is mice, why isn’t the plural of house hice?  There are lots of those kinds of questions offered up as proof that English spelling cannot be understood.  And perhaps, if the only aspect of English spelling that has been presented is that of the “sounds” of letters and words, then of course it might feel impossible to understand.

Learning letter, digraph, and trigraph pronunciations in isolation?

Can you imagine teaching children to read music by holding up a card with a musical note drawn on it and expecting them to sing it?  Of course that wouldn’t work because until they see the note on the proper line of the musical staff, or hear it in comparison to the note in front of it or behind it within a song, they won’t know the right note to sing.  Expecting children to recognize and accurately sing all of the notes before they see any of them on a staff or in a measure of music is ludicrous.  Before children learn to read music, they have sung hundreds of songs.  They have sung the notes in hundreds of combinations. But not in isolation.  Each note makes sense in its setting, in the context of its song.

Is it so different with children who are learning to read?  Why don’t we teach them letters, digraphs, and trigraphs in the context of a word or even a sentence?  Because THAT’S where those pronunciations become clear and predictable.  Perhaps begin with a word that is used in a story you are reading.  The child can get a feel for how the word is used and what it means by pulling it out of context for a closer look.  Maybe you’ll want to think of other words related to this one.  For example, if you are focusing on the word ‘dog’, maybe you want to talk about a dog house or dog food or dogs.  You can both count how many letters are in the word.  Then point out that each letter in this word represents a grapheme, and that each of those graphemes represents a phoneme.  Then pronounce each.  You might point out that in any word that has a final <g>, that <g> will be pronounced /g/.  Then you can brainstorm some other words with a final /g/.  Then again, maybe the student wants to pick out a word to look at.  Maybe it could be routine that every time you read a story together, you each pick out a word to look at and think about.  Review the names of the letters and compare the way letters are pronounced in words.  For example, compare the <s> in small to the <s> in dogs.  Find some other words with a final <s> and practice reading the words together and feeling whether the final <s> in those words is pronounced /z/ or /s/.  This might even be that opportunity to find letters in words that are unpronounced!

It is common practice to teach graphemes and digraphs in isolation.  I remember back a bunch of years.  Our spelling list included words in which the main vowel was called “long e” and pronounced as /i/.  The students would brainstorm different letter strings we could use to represent that pronunciation.  We came up with <ee> as in reel, <ea> as in read, <ei> as in received, <ie> as in chief, <e> as in be, <y> as the final letter in baby, and <e_e> as in these.  Every week we would brainstorm these patterns and then think of words that used those spellings for that pronunciation.  What busy work!  The students would ask, “How do you know which of those spellings is in a particular word?”  I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know.  After a while they stopped asking and they resigned themselves to empty memorization.  What I was doing didn’t make them better spellers unless they were already great at memorizing.  You see, looking at the vowel pronunciation and all the letter strings that might represent it just made matching them up feel very random.  To the students, it was like playing “take a guess.”

It makes much more sense to start with a word that a student has come across and that they are interested in.

So why are some letters in some words unpronounced?

Let’s focus on some of the letters identified as “silent” in the article.  We’ll look through a few at a time so I can explain some possible reasons for that letter not being pronounced in that word.

Let’s begin with read, as in “She read that book yesterday.”  The <a> cannot be considered unpronounced because it is not functioning independently in this word.  It is part of the digraph <ea>.  That means that the two letters are representing one grapheme which is representing one phoneme.  In this word, the digraph <ea> is representing /ɛ/ as it does in bread, feather, and breath.  This digraph can also represent /i/ as it does in team, eat, and bean.  The fact that this one digraph can be representing two different phonemes makes it perfect for this word.  If you look at other words in this family, you’ll see that both of these pronunciations are present: <ea> as /i/ – read, reading, readable, reader, readability, readership, misread, and <ea> as /ɛ/ well-read, read, misread.  The meaning of this base is constant, but the pronunciation of the base is dependent on the context in which we find it, as well as the affixes attached to it.

The next word on the list is crumb.  The <b> in this word is considered a marker letter.  It is marking its connection to other members in its family in which the <b> IS pronounced.  That would include words like crumble, crumbling, and crumbled.  If the <b> were removed from <crumb> just because it is no longer pronounced, we would not recognize this word as belonging to this word family and sharing its meaning.

Since dumb and lamb have a similar placement of <b>, let’s look at them together.  These two have a similar story.  The final <b> in both of these words marks their etymological origins.  The word dumb is from the Old English word dumb.  At that time it meant “silent, unable to speak”.  Even though it has come to mean other things as well, its spelling has not changed.  The word lamb has a story that is not very different.  It is from the Old English word which was spelled either as lamb, lomb, or lemb depending on where one lived.  In both dumb and lamb, the final <b> has been there from the beginning.  And even though we don’t pronounce it, it is part of this word’s identity.  When we see words like lambskin, lambkin, and lambswool, we instantly know these are related to the animal we know as a lamb.

In Modern English spelling, the consonant cluster <mb>, when found final in a word, is considered to be unpronounceable.  In that case, the last letter in the word is unpronounced.  This explains why we don’t pronounce the final <b> in crumb, dumb, lamb, tomb, bomb, and thumb, yet we DO pronounce that <b> in related words like thimble, crumble, bombard, and rhombus.

The word debt has a very interesting story to tell.  It’s etymological journey begins in Latin with debitum “thing owed.”  Its spelling changed for a while because of a French influence (dette, dete).  Sometime after c.1400, the <b> was restored.  So once again, this unpronounced letter marks a connection to this word’s root.  It is interesting to note that the <b> IS pronounced in the related word debit where we see the two letters separated by a vowel.

Next up is ascend.  This word is from Latin ascendere “to climb up, mount.”  The <c> would have been pronounced /k/ in Latin.  When we compare it to descend, we can hypothesize that the base element is <scend>.  The prefix is an assimilated form of <ad-> “to, near, at”.  The Etymonline entry for this prefix states that the <ad-> is simplified to <a-> before an <sc>.  That gives us information about the word’s structure, but not the pronunciation (or lack thereof) of the <c>.

In thinking about the <c> here, I wondered whether or not it IS pronounced in words in which it appears to be paired up with the <s>.  I went to Word Searcher and found a long list of words with an <sc> letter string.  Here are a few of them:  scone, scope, scoot, scrub, screw, scab, scale, scarf, scream, and rescue.  I also noticed other words in which the <c> seemed to be unpronounced.  Here are a few of them:  descent, scion, scenic, scent, obscene, scepter, scissor, and scythe.  In looking at the lists it became obvious to me that this is just a case of knowing the pronunciations that can be represented by the grapheme <c> and what governs that.  When followed by an <e>, <i>, or <y>, it will be /s/.  When followed by anything else, it will be /k/.  When the <s> AND <c> in a word would both be representing /s/, they function instead as a digraph representing a single /s/.

Two other words in this list have the <sc> pronounced as /s/.  The first is scene.  This word originated in Greek as σκηνικός “of the stage, scenic, theatrical.”  It is transcribed as skenikos.  When the Greek suffixal construction <-ikos> was removed and this word was transcribed into Latin, the <k>’s were written as <c> (scene), but the pronunciation of the <c> remained /k/.  As had happened in many many instances, this word was influenced by Middle French speakers (scéne) and the <c> lost its hard pronunciation.  Today we can recognize the <sc> as a digraph representing /s/.

The last word in this group is science.  This word is from Latin scientia “what is known, acquired by study.”  If we further analyze this word, we find the base element of <sci> “know, be able to separate one thing from another.”  It’s the same base we see in conscience, unconscious, and conscientious.  Do you see the meaning connections there?  Isn’t that fascinating?  A tangent, I know, but sometimes I can’t help it!  Back to the phonology of the <c> in science.  In Latin, the <c> would have been pronounced as /k/, but like scene, as this word journeyed through time, it was influenced by French speakers – (Old French science).  The <c> took on a /s/ pronunciation which persists today.

It’s time to look at Wednesday.  This day of the week was originally named for the Roman god that corresponded to the planet Mercury.  That is why the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) spell this day as Mercredi, Mercoledi, and Miércoles respectively.  When the Germanic people adopted this naming of the days, they switched out the Roman gods for their own gods who had similar characteristics.  The day known as Dies Mercurii to the Romans became known as Woden’s Day to the Germanic people.  Can you see now how Woden’s Day became Wednesday?  There is a slight difference with the letters which no doubt prompted the <d> to lose its pronunciation.  Once the <en> in Woden was reversed and the <o> changed to an <e>, the <dn> letter string became less pronounceable.  If you say the word ‘Wednesday’ several times, you can feel the elision happening and the <d> becoming unpronounced.

Next up is reign.  The Etymonline entry shows that the verb form of this word is from Latin regnare “be king, rule.”  Moving forward through time, this word was adopted and adapted in Old French where it was spelled regner.  In its noun form it gained the <i> and was spelled reigne.  Seeing that the <gn> has always been part of this word’s spelling, I looked for relatives of this word to see if is pronounced in any of those.  I found the words regnant “reigning, exercising authority” and regnal “pertaining to a reign.”  So it seems that in Modern English the <g> is pronounced when the base is <regn>, but not pronounced when the base is <reign>.

Next on the list is anchor and what an entertaining story awaits!  The Etymonline entry lists this word as beginning in Latin as ancora “an anchor.”  The information there also points to the Greek ankyra “an anchor, a hook” as being either an earlier ancestor or perhaps a cognate (emerging at the same time).  This information is especially interesting because of the Greek letter kappa being transcribed to the Latin <c>.  A modern English <ch> spelling that is pronounced as /k/ usually originates from the Greek letter χ (chi) which was transcribed into Latin as <ch>.  That did not happen here.  So why is the <ch> representing /k/ in this word?

Reading on at Etymonline, the story is revealed.  The <ch> is NOT etymological and was inserted in the late 16th century, “a pedantic imitation of a corrupt spelling of the Latin word.”  So even though the <ch> in this word is NOT derived from the Greek letter chi, it now looks like and behaves like it was, including being pronounced /k/.  The <h> is part of the <ch> digraph.  It is not operating as an independent grapheme.

So what about architect, character, and chord?  They each have <ch> representing /k/.  Do they share a Hellenic ancestry?  Well, architect is from the Greek αρχι-τέκτων “chief builder.”  That would have been transcribed by the Romans as archi-tecton.  As you will notice, the third Greek letter was χ (chi).  When that letter was transcribed by the Romans, they transcribed it as <ch> and pronounced it /k/.

Digging into the etymology of character we find that it is from the Greek χαρακτήρ “engraved mark”.  As you can see, the initial letter in Greek was again χ (chi).  This word was transcribed by the Romans as character .  The initial <ch> was pronounced /k/.  This word lost that <ch> spelling for a while.  At one point it was adopted and adapted by Old French and its spelling changed to caratere “feature, character”.  It was sometime in the 1500’s that the <ch> spelling was restored.

So what about chord?  Will we see that it too has a <ch> that derived from the Greek letter χ?  Prepare for another interesting word story!  This word has two entries. The first is as a noun meaning “two or more musical notes sounded together”, and is from 1608.  It is an alteration of Middle English cord, a shortened form of accord.  The second is as a noun meaning “a structure of the body, emotions figuratively considered as a string on a musical instrument, straight line connecting two points on a circumference”, and is from 1543.  The note of interest is this statement in the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology:  “English chord(2) and Latin chorda, both meaning a string of a musical instrument have influenced this word by association of form and meaning.”  If the Latin word was chorda, that initial <ch> is like the others we encountered in character and architect.  It was originally a χ (chi) in Greek.  The Greek word was χορδή “a string of gut, the string or chord of a lyre or harp.”

So what about the claim that in the words anchor, architect, character, and chord the <h> is silent (unpronounced)?  It is not.  The <h> is part of the digraph <ch> that represents /k/ in these words.  When you see this particular digraph representing /k/ in a word, it is usually marking a Hellenic heritage.

The words autumn and column have a final <n> that is not pronounced.  Why?  When we look at autumn we see it is from Latin autumnus.  Minus the Latin suffix, the spelling is a direct derivation.  Interesting side note:  This season was called Harvest by the English until Autumn displaced it in the 16th century.

The word column is from Latin columna “pillar.”  Again, the Modern English spelling is a direct derivation.  The final <n>’s in these words may not be pronounced, but they are pronounced in other members of these word families.  Think of autumnal, autumnally, columnist, columnar, columniation.  We can think of the final <n> marking a connection to its relatives!

The word psychology takes us back to Greek.  How do I know?  Check out the <ch> grapheme representing the phoneme /k/!  But with this word we are to focus on the initial <ps> cluster in this word.  This word was coined in the 1650’s from a Latinized form of ψυχικός “breath, spirit, soul.”  You see and recognize the third letter in, right?  It’s χ (chi).  It was transcribed by the Romans as <ch> since they didn’t have a letter that was its equal.  Well, look at the first Greek letter in the same Greek word.  It is the letter ψ (psi).  When it was transcribed into Latin, the Romans had no equivalent letter, and so transcribed it as <ps>.  In Modern English, this cluster is considered unpronounceable when it is initial in a word.  Both the <p> and the <s> are pronounced though, in words like biopsy, autopsy, and epilepsy.

Next on the list is pneumonia, and the focus is on the initial unpronounced <p>.  This word comes from the Greek word πνεύμων transcribed as pneumon “lung.”  The reason we no longer pronounce the inital <p> is because of its placement.  Richard Venezky (The American Way of Spelling) describes this cluster as unpronounceable when it is initial.  When we see this cluster in another position, that is not the case.  Look at apnea and tachypnea.

Now let’s look at receipt.  The focus here is also the unpronounced <p>.  This word is from Old French recete and before that from Latin recepta “received.”  According to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “The English spelling with p (in imitation of the Latin form) is first recorded in the late 1300’s,  but did not  become the established form until the 1700’s.”  So the <p> was in the spelling of the Latin word recepta, but disappeared as this word was adopted and adapted in Old French.  It reappeared sometime in the late 1300’s, and became part of the established form of the word in the 1700’s.  That explains its place in the word, but what about it not being pronounced?  Well, according to Richard Venezky, there are a small group of “borrowings and scribal tamperings” in which the <p> is unpronounced.  Besides receipt, examples include corps and coup.

With mortgage we’ll be looking at the unpronounced <t>.  According to Etymonline, this word was first attested in the late 14th century as Old French morgage “conveyance of property as security for a loan or agreement.” This Old French word is from mort “dead” and gage “pledge”.  This name is fitting because “the deal dies either when the debt is paid or when the payment fails.”  Old French mort is from Latin mortuus.  The <t> was not evident in the Old French word, but was restored in English based on the Latin.  This word is considered a French borrowing with the <t> restored to mark an etymological connection to its Latin root mortuus.  As such, the <t> is not pronounced.

The next three words have unpronounced <u>’s.  The first is build.  It is from Middle English bilden and earlier (probably 1200) it was bulden “dwelling.”  According to Chambers, “It was not until the late 1500’s that our spelling begins to appear with frequency.  Even so, the spelling is not accounted for, unless it is simply a composite of the two earlier spellings bilden and bulden.”  The sense and meaning of putting something together came about in 1667.  Although <u> is found in words like guild, guilt, guitar, and circuit, and therefore might appear to be a <ui> vowel digraph, it is not.  The <u> has a specific function in those words that it is not performing in build.  I will explain further in the next paragraph as we look at the words guess and guide.  In the word build, the <u> is unpronounced.

The word guess is from Old English gessen “infer, perceive, find out.”  According to Etymonline, the <gu> was late 16th century.  This sometimes happened in Middle English to signal a “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.   In this word, the unpronounced <u> is considered a marker letter.  It marks the pronunciation of the <g>.

The last word in this group is guide.  This word is from Old French guider “to lead, conduct.”  The <u> has always been part of the spelling of this word.  Here, the unpronounced <u> is considered a marker letter as it was in guess.  It is marking the “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.

This last group of words are all listed as have a silent w.  Let’s find out what we can about them.

First up is playwright.   According to Wikipedia, “It appears to have been first used in a pejorative sense by Ben Jonson in 1853 to suggest a mere tradesman fashioning works for the theatre.  Jonson described himself as a poet, not a playwright, since plays during that time were written in meter and so were regarded as the province of poets.”  You see, at the time, the word wright was Old English wryhta, wrihta “worker.”  Ben Jonson saw what he did as above the rank of a worker.  He referred to himself as a poet and not a playwright.

As far as the <wr> spelling, Etymonline notes that it was a common Germanic consonantal combination (and that we can see for ourselves when we look at the Old English spelling).  It is especially interesting to note that the <wr> combination often starts words that imply twisting or distortion.  A worker or crafter might indeed need to twist in order to craft something!  Etymonline goes on to note that the <w> ceased to be pronounced sometime c. 1450-1700.

The next word on the list is sword.  This word is from Old English sweord, swyrd, sword “cutting weapon.”  As you can see, the <w> has been part of its spelling since its beginning and was no doubt pronounced at that time.  Even though that <w> is generally unpronounced in this word, we can consider the <w> as marking its language of origin.

Now let’s look at wrap.  This word was first attested in the 14 c. as Old English wrappen “to wind something around something else.”  This is the same common Germanic consonantal combination we saw in wright that starts words that imply twisting or distortion.  To wind something is certainly to twist it!

Wreck was first attested in the early 13th century, “goods cast ashore after a shipwreck.”  Before that it was from Anglo-French wrec and before that from a Scandinavian source.  A note of interest here from Etymonline is that “wrack, wreck, rack, and wretch were utterly tangled in spelling and somewhat in sense in Middle and early modern English.”  And, again we see that same Germanic consonant pair <wr> that can imply twisting or distortion when initial in a word!

I bet you already see the Germanic consonantal combination in wrestle and can see the implication of twisting and distortion in this word’s meaning.  This word has a frequentative suffix <-le>, which means the action happens over and over.  The base wrest is from Old English wræstan “to twist, wrench.”  Once again, the <w> may no longer be pronounced, but it is marking that etymological connection to Old English and the <wr> combination here implies twisting and distortion.

Next up is wrist.  I bet YOU could tell ME about that <w> this time!  Yes, it IS from Old English.  It was spelled wrist and the notion was “the turning joint.”  In other words, the <w> is unpronounced and marks the etymological connection to its Old English roots and the <wr> combination here implies twisting and distortion.

Now let’s look at write.  It is from Old English writan “to score, outline, draw the figure of.”  Once again we have the <w> marking its connection to its language of origin, Old English, and that <wr> implying twisting and distortion.

The very last word on the list is wrong.  Surely this word will have a different story to tell.  Let’s see.  It’s from late Old English “twisted, crooked, wry.”  According to Etymonline, “the sense of not right, bad, immoral, or unjust was developed by c. 1300. Wrong thus is etymologically a negative of right, which is from Latin rectus, literally straight.”  You will recognize the Latinate base <rect> in the word correct!  As for the <w>?  It functions just like the <w> in playwright, wrap, wreck, wrestle, wrist, and write.  It marks the connection to the Old English heritage each word has.  And when paired with <r> in words of Germanic heritage, an initial <wr> often implies a twisting and distortion of some sort.

Here’s a list of the words once more with an explanation for the unpronounced letter in each:

read … the <a> is part of the digraph <ea> and as such is not an independent letter in this word.
crumb … the <b> marks a connection to other members of the word family in which it is pronounced, such as crumble and crumbling.
debt … the <b> marks a connection to the word’s root and related words in which the <b> is pronounced, such as debit.
lamb, dumb … in Modern English, the <mb> is considered an unpronounceable cluster and as such the final letter is unpronounced.
ascend, scene, science … the <sc> represents /s/, so the <c> is part of a digraph.
Wednesday … the <d> followed by an <n> caused the <d> to be elided (unpronounced).
reign … the <g> is unpronounced but marks a meaning connection to a related base <regn>.
anchor, architect, character, chord … the <h> is part of the <ch> digraph representing /k/ which signals a Hellenic heritage.
autumn, column … the <n> marks a connection to other members of the word’s family in which it is pronounced, such as autumnal and columnist.
psychology … the <ps> marks a Hellenic heritage.  When the <ps> is initial, the <p> is unpronounced.
pneumonia … when the <pn> cluster is initial, the <p> is unpronounced.
receipt … the <p> is unpronounced in this word as well as in corps.  It is part of a small group of “borrowings and scribal tamperings” that have unpronounced letters.
mortgage … the <t> marks the historical language of origin (Latin) of <mort>.
build … the <u> is unpronounced and although there are ideas about the historical phonology, I could not find an agreed-upon explanation.
guess, guide … the <u> marks the “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.
sword … the <w> marks the language of origin (Old English) and a time when the <w> was pronounced.
playwright, wrap, wreck, wrestle, wrist, write, wrong … the <w> is part of the Germanic <wr> consonant cluster that implies twisting and distortion.

Labeling letters as silent is a problem.

The problem with calling a letter silent is that feels like an explanation to someone who is learning to read.  “Oh.  Don’t worry about the <g> in sign.  It’s a silent letter.  Just skip over it.”  That learner will probably become as complacent as the adults around him and not even look for an understanding as to WHY it is not pronounced in that word.  And, of course, by just moving on, thinking there is no reason for it to be there, they will miss out on understanding a whole lot about digraphs, markers, etymology, word families, and phonology.

Just imagine what it would be like if letters COULD talk.  What if they could each tell you their history or how pairing them up with other letters matters!  What if they could tell you that their coming together in a spelling is like music and the melody each word creates is in their sense and meaning!

Until then, let’s speak on their behalf.  Let’s not lump all unpronounced letters into one mislabeled group.  Unpronounced does not mean uninteresting or without purpose.  Let’s celebrate the history and individual awesomeness of each!

So what is the truth here?  Are these letters silent?  Sure they are.  But then again, so is every other letter in the alphabet.  A better attitude to instill in our young learners would be, “That letter isn’t pronounced?  Well, it MUST be there for a reason.  I wonder what it is?  Do you want to help me find out?”

 

 

 

Phonology is something … but it isn’t EVERYTHING!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

accommodate   (*accomodate)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<accommodate>
/əˈkɑməˌdt/

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

  

which   (*wich)

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

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

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

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

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

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

<which>
/wɪ/

 

receive  (*recieve)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<receive>
/ɹəˈsɪv/

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

 

 

until  (*untill)

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

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

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

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

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

<until>
/ənˈtɪl/

 

occurred  (*occured)

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

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

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

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

<occurred>
/əˈkɜɹd/

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

 

 

separate   (*seperate)

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

government  (*goverment)

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

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

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

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

<government>
gʌvəɹmənt/

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

 

 

definitely  (*definately)

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

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

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

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

<definitely>
/ˈdɛfənətli/

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

 

 

pharaoh  (*pharoah)

meaning:
A pharaoh is an ancient Egyptian ruler.

morphology:
This is a free base with no affixes.

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

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

<pharaoh>
fɛɹ/

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

 

publicly   (*publically)

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

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

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

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

<publicly>
/ˈpʌblɪkli/

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

 

 

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.