Conferences: An Opportunity to Get the Word Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orthography Builds Understanding … Say Good Bye to Memorizing Definitions!

Oftentimes people ask me how I choose words to investigate with the class.  The answer to that is that sometimes the words choose us.  You see, I am constantly watching to see who is understanding our discussions (no matter the topic) and who seems confused.  If the furrowed-brow look seems attached to any particular word, that’s the word we need to attend to.  In the last two weeks we looked at collaborating and transpiration.

First there’s collaborating…

As part of our science standards, I am incorporating engineering practice.  One of my favorite activities is to have the students work with a partner and build shelving for their lockers.  The challenge is to build the shelving out of recycled materials.  As we started the project, I told the students that collaborating with their partner would be very important.  By the end of the day, several students had asked what the word collaborating meant.

On Thursday I wrote the word ‘collaborating” on the board and asked students to give me a hypothesis of what the word sum might be. I got a variety of hypotheses such as:

collab + orat + ing
collabor + ating
coll + abor + at + ing
co + lab + orat + ing

I pointed out that three of the hypotheses had <ing> as a suffix.  “Can <ing> be a suffix”, I asked?  They named  words like jumping, walking, and talking.

Next I asked how we would spell the word if we removed the <ing> suffix. Many knew it would be ‘collaborate’. Realizing that collaborate is spelled with a final non-syllabic <e>, we knew we had evidence that there would be an <e> in our word sum after the <at>. I confirmed that the <ate> and the <ing> were suffixes. We thought of celebrate /celebrating, educate / educating, elevate / elevating.

Since no one recognized a prefix, I told them that there was one in this word. It is an assimilated form of the <com> prefix having a sense of “with, together”. They spotted <col>. We talked about the assimilation of the <m> to an <l> in this word and how much easier the word was to pronounce this way. (We had previously talked about the <suf> in suffix being an assimilated prefix from <sub>. When you say ‘subfix’ five times, you automatically smooth it out and say ‘suffix’. The <b> assimilates to an <f>. The same is happening with <com> to <col>.)

Then we thought of words with a <col> prefix like collect, collide, and collision. We noticed that the element following the <col> prefix began with an <l> in each word.

Finally, looking at the word sum we now had, <col + labor + ate/ + ing>, the students recognized that the base element of this word is <labor>. They knew that meant work. Now they knew this word meant ‘working together or with someone’. We consulted an etymological dictionary to see whether we could find evidence to further analyze <labor>, but we could not.  This free base was first attested in the 13th century as a noun meaning “a task, a project”.  It is from Latin labor “toil, exertion; hardship, pain, fatigue; a work, a product of labor”.  That is indeed our base element. We marked the points of primary and secondary stress in the word, and pronounced it as /kəˈlæbəˌɹeɪtɪŋ/.

Related words we spotted while reading through the etymological entry of labor are:

labor, laboring, labored, laboratory, laborious, laboriously, laborer, belabor, elaborate, elaboration, elaborately, collaborate, collaborative, collaboratively, collaborator, collaboration

We found out something quite interesting about the related word collaborate.  It was first attested in 1871 and is a back-formation from collaborator.  Calling it a back-formation just means that the word collaborator was around first (1802).  When the agent suffix <-or> was removed, the word collaborate was formed. At Etymonline, it states that the words collaborator and collaboration were given a bad sense in World War II (1940) when they were used to mean “traitorious cooperation with an occupying enemy”.  People who sympathized with the Nazis were considered collaborators.

We also talked about elaborate.  The <e> is a clip of the prifix <ex> and has a sense of “out”.  So if something is elaborate, it has been worked out in great detail.  Cool, huh?

Here are a few pictures of the students collaborating on a design and the construction of their shelves.


And now this…

Last week, as we were rehearsing our Photosynthesis Follies (performed this week for the students in our school), I noticed that the students were saying the word transportation instead of transpiration.  It was at that point in the play in which the chloroplast was explaining to the sunlight how it is that water travels up in a plant.  Sunlight questioned the very idea that water could travel upward.  After all, gravity doesn’t work that way!  The chloroplast explained that in a plant or even in a tree, the water is kind of sucked up, the way soda is sucked up through a straw.  The movement of the water from the roots up through the xylem to the cells and then out through the stomata (openings on the underside of the leaf) is known as transpiration.

So I wrote the word transpiration on the board, and asked for some hypotheses about its word sum.

transpir + ation
trans + pirat + ion
tran + spi +rat + ion

Again, we started with the <ion> because two people pointed out it was a suffix.  In the case of collaboration, we knew that if we removed the <ion> suffix, we would have collaborate.  But here we were not so sure that transpirate was a word.  Someone offered to look in a dictionary.  They reported back that transpirate and transpirated were there, listed with transpire.  They all had a sense of giving off water vapor through the stomata.

Next we looked at the beginning of the word.  Could <tran> or <trans> be a prefix?  Can we think of other words that begin that way?  The students thought of transportation (the word that was getting confused with transpiration), transformer, and transition ( I use this word throughout the day when we switch from one subject to another).  We looked at Etymonline for more information about whether or not the <s> was part of this, and also to determine whether this was a prefix or a base.

We found out that <trans> is the full form of the prefix.  It was once a Latin preposition with a sense of “across, beyond, over”.  Many Latin prepositions became Modern English prefixes.  When looking up the word transpire, we saw that its Modern English base comes from the Latin infinitive spirare meaning “breathe”.  So our word sum started to look like this:

<trans + spire/ + ate + ion –>  transpiration

The next question that arose was about the final <s> of our prefix joining with the initial <s> of our base.  We KNOW there aren’t two <s>’s in this word.  What’s up with that?  We went back to find other words with the <trans> prefix that had a base element with an initial <s>.

We found transcribe (<tran(s) + scribe –> transcribe>) and transect (<tran(s) + sect –> transect>).  We noticed that the final <s> in <trans> didn’t seem to be needed  when the base element began with an <s>.  We also noticed that it was needed in words like transportation (<trans + port + ate/ + ion –> transportation>) and transfer (<trans + fer –> transfer>).

Now that we were feeling good about our word sum for transpiration, we thought of other words with the Latinate base <spire> “breathe”.

I wrote respiration on the board and asked for a word sum.  Someone easily announced it.  We spent the final few moments of class talking about how these words related to each other in meaning.  We already had talked about transpiration and how it was the movement of water through a plant.  I compared it to perspiration.  My students did not know the word, but they knew its synonym, sweat!

Image result          Image result for perspiration


Then we compared respiration in a human or animal to a spiracle in a caterpillar or in some sharks (breathing hole).

Image result for spiracle  Image result for spiracle

Next we talked about the structure of <expire> and its prefix <ex>, which has a sense of “out”.  So when something expires, it breathes out its last breathe.  That led to a discussion of the expiration dates we see on foods.  The foods aren’t breathing the way living things are, but they are definitely done as far as being safely eaten is concerned!  The next question that needed to be asked about this word was, “What happened to the <s> in the base element <spire>?

Right away someone said that when we pronounce the <x>, it kind of ends with a /s/!  Brilliant noticing!  Then we tried to pronounce this word with both an <x> and an <s> side by side.  Because we pronounce the <x> as /ks/, the <s> in <spire>has been deleted to make the word easier to pronounce.  This is called elision.  We pronounce this word as /ɛkˈspaɪɹ/.

We didn’t have much time to talk about inspiration and spirit.  I put them on our Wonder Wall so we wouldn’t forget about them.  I don’t want to rush through that discussion!

Here are a few pictures of the students in The Photosynthesis Follies!  A total of 66 students divided into 9 different casts, each performing twice over the course of two days.  We KNOW Photosynthesis now!

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Light Energy, Water, Carbon Dioxide … and Action!

I have been teaching 5th graders about photosynthesis for a long time.  When I first began, I taught from the science text book.  When the students weren’t very successful understanding the process, I began to offer an oral test at my desk using a diagram.  More were successful with this method, but they still stressed about it and I felt like I was pulling the answers out of them rather than the students feeling comfortable with what they knew.  I still wasn’t satisfied with their level of understanding.

Then I wrote a script and a rap (to open the show).  The very next year I added some fact cards to be read at the end of the play to lend understanding to the true importance of photosynthesis to human beings.  Recently I added a section between the rap and the play which kind of explains to the audience how tiny a place a chloroplast is and how many there are in each cell and how all the chloroplasts in all the cells are housing the miracle of photosynthesis all the time.

The other clever thing I’ve done is to have three different casts.  Instead of six students (speaking parts and a director) memorizing the process of photosynthesis, there are now 18!  And the rest participate in watching the show in rehearsals and performances (of which there are 12 – each cast performs 4 times).  The students are very excited about performing so many times … until we are at the 9th and 10th show and they are getting a bit bored with it.  That’s when we talk about digging deeper.  Each audience deserves the best show a cast can give.  We refer back to this moment often during the year because having to dig deeper happens lots in life.

Cast Three

Cast Two

Cast One

The final thoughts have to be … so how well do the students understand photosynthesis now?  Well, I gave them a written test today.  Here are the results:
52% earned a score of 100
22% earned a score of 94
17% earned a score of 88
4% earned a score of 81
4% earned a score of 75

Shedding Light on Plant Processes

Wow!  It’s been a very busy eight days since I first handed out the scripts for our Photosynthesis Follies.  Yesterday and today we performed for twelve different audiences!  They included almost all of the students in our building and lots of parents and family members.  Over and over again we explained the process of photosynthesis to all those who came to listen.

Back in our classroom, in the chunks of time between those performances, the students took a closer look at the words photosynthesis and transpiration.  They began with basic definitions and then created word sum hypotheses.  Watching the videos it is obvious there is more to discover.  In the first video, Jacob’s research took him in many directions!  He was one of three who rather excitedly asked if he could work on this at home too!  This was the first time the students were off on their own to explore.  The lists of words he found to prove the <ic> suffix and the <photo> prefix are impressive.  He had come across many examples of <syn> as a prefix as well, but didn’t have them all written down.



In this video Zoe is also looking at photosynthesis.  She has found evidence to support her word sum hypothesis  <photo> + <syn> + <thesis>.   Next up is understanding what each morpheme means and how they help us uncover a deeper sense of what photosynthesis is.



In the next video this team of girls came up with some interesting ideas.  It is so second nature for the students to begin with the notion of sounds in words.  I found it interesting that this was one of the few groups that recognized that there is an <e> that was dropped when the suffix <ion> was added.  More investigating will uncover the other morphemes in this word.

The boys in the second half of this clip made a great discovery minutes after my camera battery gave up.  They had found the word <expire> and were comparing it to <transpire>.  I can’t wait to see what comes of this!



What an exciting time.  The students are ready for the challenge of figuring things out on their own.   This is going to be a wonderful year!