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?

Renovating the Weekly Spelling Test

Why is it that in a traditional spelling program, students are not taught that a word’s spelling represents its meaning, or that all words have a structure?  In most every program, they are taught only, and might I add falsely, that a word’s spelling correlates to its pronunciation.  And because the reality of that doesn’t pan out, students learn to spell words as a rote activity.  Students spend lots of time looking at words that share similar strings of letters.  Ultimately, the expectation is that the student will have seen the word so many times that they will have memorized its spelling. In this model, the students know strings of letters.  They do not understand whether those letters form an affix, a base, a combination of more than one of those, or have a sense and meaning on their own.  See?  The way we teach spelling is not about understanding.  The expectation by the teacher and by the student (and by the administration for that matter) is that there is nothing to understand.  English spelling is something you just have to memorize.

What a shame.  Math would never be taught like this.  Who in their right mind would have students memorize one 2-digit by 3-digit multiplication problem at a time with a goal of twenty a week?  No one.  Instead, we teach the students how to multiply and then expect them to apply the skill to any numbers and situation out there.  We expect students to understand the operations and ask questions.  We want them to provide step by step explanations for solving problems.  But not so with spelling.

The people teaching it right now, are doing the very best job they can.  I believe that.  They are teaching what they understand to be the truth about English spelling.  Ah.  But there’s the rub.  Their own understanding of our language is lacking.  Hugely and completely lacking.  At some point in our history (several generations back), it was decided that English was much too hard to learn, and so needed to be simplified.  Latin would no longer be taught in schools.  If you are fortunate enough to know someone who learned Latin in their early schooling, my guess is that they will tell you how very valuable it still is for them in deciphering what words mean.  The very fact that at one point Latin was part of a school curriculum tells you that there was once an awareness that spelling represented a word’s meaning.  But when Latin left the curriculum, so did the idea that spelling and meaning were related.  It was decided instead that very young children must learn letters and sounds outside of the context of a word, and then apply that knowledge of, say,”S is for snake – s-s-s-s-” when being told to sound out words.  But <s> isn’t always representing /s/.  Sometimes it represents /z/ as it does in dogs.  Sometimes it represents /ʃ/ as it does in sugar.  Sometimes it represent /ʒ/ as it does in usual.  And <s> isn’t the only consonant like that.  Yet we start by teaching young children that it only represents /s/.

I’m not suggesting that children don’t need to know the alphabet.  They do.  Absolutely, they do.  But what if we taught them to look at letters as we see them in words? What if we taught children about graphemes and phonemes as they live and breathe inside of words?  What if we picked a word the student uses – better yet, what if we let the child pick the word they are interested in, and we looked at it together.  The adult guides by speaking about spelling features, structure, and a word’s story in straight forward terms.  The adult does not talk down to the child or invent silly rules or names for things.  The adult explains and lets the child  ask questions that will help them make sense of English spelling.

One great way to introduce structure to a child is to have them look at a family of words that share a single base.  Believe me, structure won’t be the only thing that gets talked about, but it is the big topic starting point.  Teaching specific base elements will familiarize children with how we can add and remove affixes to build a family of words.  It will also familiarize them with the fact that many of the words in our language are related to one another by their history and their meaning.  It opens them up to exploring that not only are we merely forming additional words that share the base, but that some specific suffixes will build word relatives that are nouns whereas others might form adjectives.  Students will learn the suffixing conventions in a more meaningful way – with a more intrinsic understanding than they do currently.  As is, they come into fifth grade knowing how to spell a bunch of words, but not understanding the structure of any of them.  They know that some have similar spellings toward the end of the word or at the beginning, but they have no understanding of why or if it means anything as far as how we use the words in our writing or reading.

When children are starting out learning about a word’s structure, it’s important to help them recognize the affixes they see often in their reading.  Even if their reading is not fluent yet, they can compare the words on a list and recognize that letters have been added to the base.  They will most certainly recognize these words once read aloud and be able to talk about them.  Let’s look at <water>.  I found it on a first grade sight word list.

The first question should be, “What is water?”  Let the child explain what they understand about water.  Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it.  Here is the IPA for water:  /ˈwɔtər/.  Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the child live.  That might make a difference to the pronunciation. If we make a list of words with <water> as a base, it might look like this:

water
watered
watering
waterfall
bathwater
rainwater
dishwater
watercolors
watermelon
underwater

Perhaps these could be written on cards (separate cards for each base and suffix) that the child can match up and spell out.  As each base is matched with either another base and/or suffix, have a discussion with the child about how that word might be used.  The words might also be written in color as I have done to point out bases and affixes.  You might begin to introduce to the child the idea that when added to this word, some suffixes will indicate the word is an action.  An example of this is ‘watered’.  I watered my flowers today.  See how watered is an action?  But water by itself is a thing.  I might drink a glass of water.  Draw pictures next to the words to represent either a thing (noun) or an action (verb).

There are some truly great descriptions of activities to do with younger learners at Beyond the Word, Lyn Anderson’s blog, and also at Rebecca Loveless’ blog.  I encourage you to check both of them out to read some step by step directives as well as to see how students react.

Another thing to notice about these words in particular is that the parts of the words that are in green are bases.  When two bases are joined, they form a compound word.  How is rainwater different from bathwater or dishwater?  Why are some paints called watercolors?  What do you know about watermelon that makes you think of water?  What is something that lives underwater?

Before my own children knew how to read, they loved making books.  They would tell me a story and I would write it down.  Then we would fold paper and they would sew the pages together with a large dull needle.  I would write a sentence or two of their story on each page, and they would add the pictures.  Every day we would read one of their books together.  Bookmaking could be a fun activity using a particular family of words such as water.

If I could design spelling tests, this is certainly how I would do it.  After a week of discussing the meanings and uses of these related words, asking the students to spell them seems reasonable.  If each week there were words related in this manner, over time students would recognize many prefixes, suffixes, and bases.  They would begin to internalize that often words are related to one another; not because they rhyme, but because they have meaning and spelling in common.

Students are ready to understand the suffixing conventions much earlier than most educators think they are.  When focusing on one of those conventions, the spelling list could include a base that is likely to use one.  Here is a list with <make> as its base.  Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it.  Here is the IPA for <make>:  /meɪk/.  Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the children live.  That might make a difference to the pronunciation. Here is a possible spelling list:

make
maker
making
makeup
shoemaker
noisemaker
peacemaking
toymaker
remake
makeover

Here are some points that come to mind:

~What does it mean when we make something?
~How do we construct ‘maker’?  Is there an <-r> suffix or an <-er> suffix?
~What kind of a sense does the <-er> suffix add to the word <shoemaker>?
~How many of these words are compound words?
~What is a peacemaker?
~Do you notice how the <c> in <peacemaker> has an /s/ pronunciation?  Why is that?
~Why don’t we replace the final non-syllabic <e> when constructing the word <makeup>?
~What is the suffixing convention in which we replace the final non-syllabic <e>?
~Many teachers have learned that the final <e> is dropped.  That is also what they teach their students.  Why is ‘replaced’ a better word to use?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.

Equally as important as discussing these concepts as a class, is the ability for each student to read aloud a word sum, explaining as they go, why they are or aren’t replacing the final non-syllabic <e> on the base!  Until your student can explain this, keep the following flow chart handy:

 

If you want to focus on the suffixing convention in which the final consonant of the base is sometimes doubled, perhaps you could use this list.  Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it.  Here is the IPA for <stop>:  /stɑp/.  Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the children live.  That might make a difference to the pronunciation. If we make a list of words with stop as a base, it might look like this.  As you read it, can you spot some great things to focus on during a week of working with these words?

stop
stops
stopped
stopping
stoplight
stopwatch
stopper
nonstop
stoppable
unstoppable

Here’s what I see when I look at these words:

~What does it mean when something stops?
~Which words on this list are compound words?
~Use ‘stoppable’ and ‘unstoppable’ in sentences.  What is the difference in meaning?  Which morpheme in those words is responsible for that difference in meaning?
~What is a stopwatch?  How does it relate in meaning to stop?
~Look at the <igh> trigraph in <stoplight> that is representing the phoneme /aɪ/.  What other words can we think of that have the same <igh> trigraph?
~Now notice the <tch> trigraph in <stopwatch>.  I wonder about that <tch>.  I can think of beach, pinch, coach, and bench.  The last grapheme in these words is <ch> and it represents the phoneme /tʃ/.  Let’s start collecting two lists of words.  One list will have words with a final <tch>.  One list will have words with a final <ch>.  Then we will see what we can notice about the two lists.  There must be a reason that we use <tch> in the word ‘stopwatch’ and not <ch>.
~What is that spelling convention in which we sometimes double the final consonant of the base or stem?  When do we double it?  When don’t we?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.

Just in the nick of time, here is the Affix Squad, ready to explain the doubling convention!

Equally as important as discussing these concepts as a class, is the ability for each student to read aloud a word sum, explaining as they go why they are or aren’t doubling the final consonant on the base!  Until your student can explain this, keep the following flow chart handy:

The word ‘business’ has always been a sticky word for fifth graders to spell.  But that is because they haven’t been taught to see it as anything but a complete word.  They haven’t been taught to see it as < b-u-s – toggle the y to i – ness>.  From the time our students are little, we teach them that spelling is about memorizing a letter sequence without understanding the order or structure in that sequence.  Or we do them a bigger disservice and tell them to sound out words to help with spelling.  All that does is reinforce to the child the false notion that English spelling is ridiculous and unpredictable.  BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY!

Here is a list with <busy> as its base.  Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it.  Here is the IPA for <busy>:  /ˈbɪzi/.  Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the child live.  That might make a difference to the pronunciation. Here is a possible spelling list:

busy
busier
busiest
business
busying
busybody
busywork
businesses

This list provides the opportunity to discuss and solidify so many great consistencies of spelling!

~What does it mean to be busy?
~To begin with, <y> is sometimes a suffix.  Is it a suffix in the base <busy>?
~Which words on this list are compound words? What is a compound word?
~Why do we use the <-es> suffix rather than the <-s> suffix to make <business> plural?
~If you want your reader to know there is more than one busybody, what spelling changes will you make to the word?
~What is the suffixing convention for bases that sometimes toggle the final <y> to an <i>?  How do you know when to toggle and why?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.

Here’s a video of my students explaining just that!

After talking about when to toggle a base or stem’s final <y> to an <i>,  then there is the extremely important step of having the students read aloud the word sums.  Here is an example of what I have my students do when they read word sums and need to explain their choices regarding this suffixing convention.

Until your students understand what they are doing and why, keep this flow chart handy:

Can you see how several spelling lists of related words in which the base has a final <y> will gradually help the student understand these conventions?  And not just a surface understanding, but a deep understanding with (for many) an automatic application of these conventions?  After focusing on several word families that need specific suffixing conventions, it is time to include a word family like <hap>, that has several family members that use more than one convention.

Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it.  Here is the IPA for <hap>:  /hæp/.  Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the child live.  That might make a difference to the pronunciation. Here is a possible spelling list:

hap
happy
happen
perhaps
happiness
happier
happily
mishap
haphazard

This is an especially interesting family of words to discuss.  Many students are surprised to find out that the word <happy> can be further analyzed.  But that comes from rote memorization without talk of structure.  They are even more surprised to find out its denotation is “chance, a person’s luck”.  I love to look at this list with the students and let them point out the connection between each word and this base’s denotation.

~Which words in this family use more than one suffixing convention?
~When the suffix <-ness> is added to the stem <happy>, an adjective becomes a noun.  What other nouns can we think of that have an <-ness> suffix?  Are these concrete or abstract nouns?
~Which suffix could be used to modify a verb?
~Thinking of mishap, mismatch, miscount, and misinformation, what sense does the prefix <mis-> add to a word’s meaning?  Can we think of other words with a <mis-> prefix that carries that same sense?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.

Structuring spelling tests in this way strengthens what we understand a word to mean.  It helps students see the connectedness between words that share a base that they have not been taught to see before.  This will help when encountering words from a family that perhaps they had not looked at during the focused list, but because of that list and the understanding they acquired, are recognizing it in a new word in their reading.  A student will gain flexibility in their use of words in writing because they will have a deeper sense of a word’s meaning.  Just as we have a deeper sense of who a person is when we’ve met their whole family, we can have a deeper sense of a word too.

Structuring spelling tests in this way will require students to apply the suffixing conventions over and over and to make sense of when to use them.  Currently, students memorize the spelling of many words without knowing which letters even ARE part of the base or affix.  Learning that words have structure is such an eye opener for children.  They begin to look at words differently.  They begin inspecting words and thinking about what their structure might be and what meaning might be revealed in that structure.  They notice the suffixes and recognize which suffixes cue that a word is a noun, adjective, adverb, or other.

And finally, structuring spelling tests in this way will give students the opportunity to expect spelling to make sense.  Imagine that!  Spelling makes sense!  Students will be empowered to ask questions.  They will challenge their teachers with the questions they ask.  How refreshing!  The class will become a learning community instead of a teacher with the answers and students who are afraid of giving wrong ones.  It will become a place where learning is celebrated!

Of course, this is just a jumping off place.  It’s an idea for spelling tests so the teacher can assess individual understanding.  These will not feel like spelling tests to the students because they are writing word sums that they can make sense of.  But I guarantee you that the word inquiries will pop up in every subject and at all hours.  I was once stopped on the bridge downtown in the middle of summer by a former student who wondered about the structure of a word he noticed at his house.  What could be better than that?

A Simple Base Element That Has a Lot to Say

Today everyone grabbed a piece of paper. I asked them to put their name at the top and then to copy down the four words I had written on the board.  Once that was done, the students were to look carefully at the four words and identify the base that they all had in common.  Some spotted it right away.  That usually happens.  Hands went up right away, but I didn’t call on anyone.  I wanted each student (those who usually offer an answer and those who usually don’t) to think through what the base might be.
 
 
Once they had identified the base, they were asked to write word sums for each of the words.  One of the students said, “We’ve already got the words written down, so it will make sense to write analytic word sums.”  I just smiled and nodded.
 
Now I was ready to ask someone what they thought the base was, and how they came to that decision.  A student told me the base was <dict>.  He figured that out when comparing dictionary and dictator. They both had <dict> in common, but nothing beyond that.
 
I wrote the base <dict> on the board and next to it I wrote its denotation “say, tell”.  Right away the students started thinking about how each word was related to that meaning.  The hands shot up!  I said, “Pick any of the four words and tell me what it has to do with “say, tell”.
Dictionary
Kyla said, “A dictionary tells you what a word means.” I pointed to our rack of dictionaries and agreed that a certain kind of dictionary will do that.  What a great opportunity to talk about different kinds of dictionaries!  We know that the dictionaries we often refer to give us definitions of words.  We have a large collection of dictionaries in case what we are looking for is not listed in the first one we grab.  I even have a dictionary that has only words related to science!
But we also use the Online Etymological Dictionary almost daily, and that has a different purpose.  That dictionary gives us information about a word’s history.  We use it to find a word’s ancestors, and to learn its story.  We read about the ways a word has been used in its life.  We learn about spelling and/or meaning changes that have come about over time.  We also discover related words.  Sometimes it is valuable to cross reference words in our other etymological dictionaries as well.  I have copies of the Chambers Etymological Dictionary,  Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the Dictionary of English Down The Ages, and a Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms.
I showed them my Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short.  It is an old copy and well loved.  It is used when we want to find out more information about a Latin word.   I keep it on the shelf next to my Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott.  In both of these dictionaries, the words are listed in alphabetical order according to their respective alphabets!  These are valuable resources once one knows a bit about Latin and Greek.
Another kind of dictionary is one that one of our students carries – her Italian/English dictionary.  She speaks Italian and is learning English.  Just yesterday she was writing a poem.  Since she has only been in the U.S. since September, it is easier for her to think and write in Italian.  So she asked if she could write the poem in Italian and then translate it into English.  That system works well for her.  When she finishes, we look at it together, and I help with further editing.
I also have a few Rhyming Dictionaries on my shelf.   Students use these when they are writing rhyming poetry. By using this kind of dictionary, a student can often find a word that not only rhymes, but is a perfect fit!
Once we finished talking about dictionaries, we realized that we might want to revise our definition of a dictionary.  Katya said, “A dictionary lists words and gives us more information about them.”  Perfect.  And the type of information it tells us depends on the type of dictionary it is!
Prediction
Megan said, “Isn’t that like saying what will happen, but you don’t really know for sure?”  Then Clayton added, “Like our Science Fair Projects.  We are making predictions, but we haven’t run the experiments yet.”  I extended  the sense of this word by including those times when we predict how a movie will end, when we’ve only just begun to watch it.
I asked if anyone was familiar with the prefix <pre>.  A few hands in each class went up, and the students said it had to do with “before”.  Then I asked, “Isn’t that cool?  The word itself is revealing its own meaning!  The base has a denotation of “say, tell” and the prefix has a sense of “before”.  We use this word when someone is telling about something before the something has happened!
Dictator
There were very few fifth graders who clearly understood what a dictator was.  One or two mentioned that is was a person who told other people what to do.  I stepped in and explained that a dictator was a person who ruled a country and had absolute power over that country.  The most famous dictators in history were often cruel to the people they ruled.  They were more interested in having power.  Amelia asked, “So Hitler was a dictator?”  I told her that he was one of the worst dictators in history.  I told them that in the next few years they would also be hearing about Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Mao Tse-tung and others.
Next we talked about the <or> suffix on this word.  I told them it was signaling that this word is referring to a person.  An <or> suffix can do that in a number of words.  So a dictator is a person who dictates  orders to the people he rules.  An actor is a person who acts.  A governor is a person who governs.  A donor is a person who donates something.
Then I pointed out that the <er> suffix can sometimes behave in the same way.  A teacher is one who teaches.  A baker is one who bakes food.  A joker is one who makes jokes.  I could tell this was an idea they hadn’t thought about before.  They were intrigued.
Contradict
When I asked about this word, only one person offered a guess.  Hyja said, “Doesn’t it have something to do with arguing?”  That was a great place to start!  When someone contradicts something someone else says, it can be thought of as a counter argument.  A contradiction is often saying the opposite or something very different than what has already been said.  For example, if I said that our science journals were due on Tuesday, and Aiden said they were in fact due on Saturday, I could ask him why he was contradicting me.  We both can’t be correct.
Now I pointed out the base <contra> “against”.  I compared the word contradict to contraband.  With the use of contradict, a person is saying something against or with an opposite feel of what has already been said.  With the use of contraband, there is a feeling of smuggling something.  When you bring an object into an area and you know that object has been forbidden to be in that area, you are going against the rule or the command.  That object is contraband.
Word sums
At this point, I asked students to come up to the board, choose one of the four words and write a word sum.
You’ll notice a space in the word sum where a plus sign was.  I erased it and shared that the first base in this compound word was <contra>.  Then I mentioned that given our discussions recently about the prefixes <con> and <com> and their assimilated forms, I could understand how the students might spot the <con> here and think it was a prefix.
The interesting follow up discussion we had here was with the first word sum.  Someone asked, “Is <a> even a connecting vowel?”  What a great question!  We were able to review that the Greek connecting vowel was <o>, and the Latin connecting vowels were <i>, <u>, and <e>.  We were also able to review the suffixing convention of replacing a final non-syllabic <e>.  I asked if we could remove the <or> suffix and still have a recognizable word.  Everyone agreed that we would be left with dictate.  So I asked how we would spell that.  Immediately students recognized the final non-syllabic <e> on the suffix <ate> that would be replaced with the <or> suffix in this word.
It is important to keep pointing out that a final non-syllabic <e> may not always show up in a final word, but that doesn’t mean it is not part of a word’s construction or word sum.
This activity was well received.  Students who have been hanging back, not expecting to understand this are starting to volunteer to write word sums at the board.  Students who are thoroughly enjoying this way of looking at words are asking amazing questions.  As we were discussing how the words were related in meaning to the base <dict>, Kayden raised his hand and asked, “How does the word addiction fit in to all this?”  He recognized that <ad> would be a prefix, <dict> would be a base, and <ion> would be a suffix.  I told him that the prefix <ad> brought a sense of “to” to the word.  And that a person with an addiction is a person who has declared a specific habit to be controlling in their life.
We didn’t delve all the way into this base today.  We didn’t make a matrix full of <dict> possibilities.  But we did practice using a list of words as evidence for proving a base element.  And we did practice taking the time to understand the meaning connections between members of a word family.  And we did review a suffixing convention as well as learn about two agent suffixes.  Today was about building our knowledge base.  It was about learning things to take with us as we move forward in studying other words and their families.

Stepping Beyond Pronunciation and Definition…

Many people think that if you can pronounce a word and understand what it means, that there is nothing more that matters.  What a mistake!  What about cultivating an enjoyment and fascination of words?

If my students learn enough about words, they are going to see them as connected to other words with the invisible threads of familial relatives.  They will learn about a word’s roots and the fascinating journey it has taken on its way to being a modern English word.  They will learn that from historical events new words emerge, and that even without a major event, new words are entering our language all the time.  They are going to understand a structure they never noticed before by studying word sums.  They’re going to be a bit choosier about words when writing.

In my last post, I shared some of the “word posters” that my students have been working on.  They are on display in the hallway we use most often.  Heads are turning constantly as people walk this hallway.  It is a glorious sight!  But more than that it is an opportunity for my students to look deeper into a word.  Deeper than just its modern day definition and spelling.  It’s been an opportunity for my students to connect a present day spelling to a word’s roots, relatives and past spellings.  They’ve found out that not all words were born at the same time, nor in the same language!

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Some of the words chosen were free bases, and some were not.  In order to collect words for a matrix, this had to be determined right away.  Kaeleb had a rather enjoyable journey finding out about the base of <computer>!  Before he went to any resources, he hypothesized that <er> was a suffix.  His reasoning was that he could easily use the word <compute> in a sentence.  As he began his research at Etymonline, he found that <com> was a prefix meaning “with” and the base was from the Latin root putare meaning “to reckon”, originally “to prune”.  I shared with Kaeleb what I knew about the Latin infinitive suffix -are.  That helped him identify the modern base to be <pute>.

I mentioned to Kaeleb that if he typed the Latin root putare in the search bar at Etymonline, he would get a list of words that share that root.  Now that he knew the bound base,  he could get busy collecting words and figuring out word sums, so he could create a matrix!

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As you can see, he enjoyed identifying a great many members of this word family!  As I was looking over his matrix, my eyes hesitated at the words <amputation> and <deputy>.  This is what I love about pausing to look past the spelling and definition.  Wow!  A connection between computer, amputation and deputy?  Even though Kaeleb explained his understanding of the meaning they shared, I needed to look at the resources for myself.   With the word <amputate>, the prefix <am-> is a clip of the prefix <ambi-> and means “about” and the base <pute> takes on its original meaning “to prune, to trim”.  With the word <deputy>, the prefix is <de-> and means “away” and the bound base is again <pute> meaning “to count, to consider”, literally “to cut, to prune”.  So the deputy is considered as having the full power of an officer, but is one position away from being the sheriff.

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When Elizabeth chose the word <illusion> neither she nor I expected such an interesting study!   She hypothesized that this word had an <-ion> suffix, but didn’t recognize either <illus> or <illuse> as a word.  It was time to look at Etymonline.  We found out that the prefix <il-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <in-> meaning “at or upon”, and that the base comes from the Latin root ludere meaning “to play, to mock, to tease”.  This part was a bit confusing for Elizabeth since the root ludere didn’t share the <lus> that we see in <illusion>.  I immediately recognized the Latin infinitive suffix <-ere> and took Elizabeth to Latdict to see if we weren’t looking at twin bases.  (I haven’t talked about twin bases with my students yet, but when opportunity knocks, I say, “Go for it!”)

At Latdict we found the four principal parts of this Latin verb.  They are ludo, ludere, lusi, lusus.  In order to find out if we have twin bases here, orthographers look at the second and fourth parts.  The second verb part is ludere, and when we remove the infinitive suffix, we have <lud(e)>.  The fourth verb part is lusus, and when we remove the supine suffix, we have <lus(e)>.  These two verb parts are not the same, so we have determined them to be twin bases!  Embracing the idea that there could be such a thing as twin bases, Elizabeth wondered if bases could be triplets!  That led us to asking questions and getting clarification from our favorite Old Grouch in France.   (“He’s not grouchy at all,”  my students quickly discovered.)

After that, Elizabeth went to Etymonline and typed ludere, the Latin root, in the search bar.  That took her to a list of modern words that share that root and have either <lud(e)> or <lus(e)> as their modern base element.  Once she determined the word sums for her collected words (some from Etymonline, some from Word Searcher, some from the dictionaries in our classroom), she created her matrix and recounted her discoveries about the word <illusion>!

Here are a few of the other posters on display in our “Hallway of Word Histories”.

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

Yesterday was one of those days when the orthographic sun was shining brightly.  I was bathed in the light, and that light warmed me from the inside out.

It all started when a teacher on our fifth grade team said she was talking about suffrage with her class, and one of the students wondered out loud if the word suffrage was related to suffer in any way since they had so many letters in common.
(Yes!  Trying to make sense of unfamiliar words by looking for relationships to known words.)

A bit later, another teacher who works with one of my students asked me to follow her to her room.  She had something to show me.  The student had read a story about someone who was a philanthropist, and when the teacher drew attention to that unfamiliar word, the student began writing a word sum.  The teacher wasn’t sure how to respond to the word sum and called me in.  Here is what the student wrote:  <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>.

(Yes!  My students are aware that words are made up of morphemes, and they carry clues about their language of origin.)

Later that same day, a student ran across the word aquatic while doing some science research.  She wondered aloud if the <quat> in <aquatic> was the same <quat> we see in <quaternary> (we’ve been studying primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary consumers in a food web).  She also wondered about the <a>, and if it was the same <a> that we saw in <asexual> when we discussed living things reproducing.

(Yes!  Words are made up of morphemes and those morphemes are categorized as bases and affixes.  Some bases and affixes show up in a large number of words.  Research is the only way to know for sure whether two words share a base or an affix.)

So today when class began, I shared my joy with my students.  I wanted them to know that what pleased me more than anything was the fact that they were wondering and asking questions.  They were looking for connections and recognizing previously used affixes and bases.

I wrote <suffrage> on the board.  Below it I wrote <suffer>.  Then someone called out <suffix>, so I wrote that down also.  Because we had talked about <suffer> and <suffix> earlier this year, it was remembered that <suf-> (sub-) was the prefix in each of these words.  But that didn’t necessarily mean it was a prefix in <suffrage>.  We needed to do some research.  I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard and we looked it up together.

We found that it was from the Latin suffragari “lend support, vote for someone”.  The next bit was quite interesting.  [Conjectured to be a compound of sub “under” and fragor “crash, din, shouts (as of approval), related to frangere “to break”.  On another theory the second element is frangere itself and the notion is “use a broken piece of tile as a ballot”.  The meaning “political right to vote” in English is first found in the U.S. Constitution, 1787.]

The words “conjectured to be” and “on another theory” brought interesting discussion in and of themselves.  Both possibilities broaden the sense of the word.  For now we are satisfied that the <suf-> in <suffrage> might be a prefix just as it is in <suffix> and <suffer> … and then again it might not be.

The conversation we had about <philanthropist> took us meandering through several words.  I wrote the student’s word sum for it:  <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>.   I said, ” Looks like this student is considering whether or not this word has an <o> connecting vowel.  What language would we associate with an <o> connecting vowel?”  Several students piped up with “Greek”.  Then I asked if there were any other clues in this word that it was in fact from Greek.  After a thoughtful pause several said <ph> at once.  Beautiful.  At this point I asked everyone to consider the word sum and whether or not they agreed that there was an <o> connecting vowel.

Right away someone pointed out that <ist> is a common suffix found in words like <scientist>, <artist> and <therapist>. So if the <ist> was indeed a suffix, then the <p> would not be by itself – that perhaps <throp> all go together.  At this point we went back to Etymonline.   We found evidence that <ist> was a suffix and that this word came from the Greek philanthropia “kindliness, humanity, benevolence, love to mankind” from phil- “loving” + anthropos “mankind”.  I shared with my students that when in college I had taken a course in anthropology.

With this information we created a new hypothesis:  <phil> + <anthrop> + <ist>.  We talked about what philanthropists do. I reminded them that a few years back our school was the recipient of a philanthropist’s generosity when someone purchased Smartboards for each of our classrooms!

But as we were finishing up that discussion, I wondered out loud if there were other words with <phil> as the base.  Immediately the word <philosophy> was mentioned.  We looked it up.  We found that it comes from the Greek philosophia “love of knowledge, pursuit of wisdom”.  How delightful!

Lastly we looked at <aquatic>.  When we looked at Etymonline, we could not find any evidence to support <a> being a prefix or <quat> having to do with fourth.  We only saw references to <aqua> meaning water.  Some students may have been able to guess that without having to look, but I want to develop the habit of looking.  There have been far too many unexpected connections (delightful surprises) when we have.

I leave you with a student/teacher exchange that happened later that day (inspired by our discussions):

“I’m thinking of the word <dinosaur> and thinking that if the <o> is a connecting vowel, then the word is probably from Greek.  What do you think?”

“I’m thinking that you know how to find out.” (said with a smile)

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

Why We Love Orthography!

Today I asked my students to brainstorm things they have learned this year while investigating words.  When it was time to share, I was impressed with their honest responses and their sincere smiles.  Just listen to the first boy as he shares his favorite word from the year … a word he will understand and appreciate all his life.  His proud smile as he finishes sharing the word sum says it all.  When he was done, someone mentioned that the base <phot> is probably <phote>.   Yes, I thought.  But did you see the confidence and pride as he mentioned the connecting vowel <o>?

Further into the video, a girl mentions that she was interested in the prefix <cide> which means kill.  As she finished her comments, a wonderful conversation sprouted.  Someone recognized that <cide> is really a base.  Someone else asked about the word <suicide> and wondered if the prefix was <sui>.  Then other words were thrown out like herbicide, pesticide and homocide.  With each word, students offered definitions as the word related to ‘kill’.  As word scientists, it is never a big deal to make a mistake.  Mistakes are like springboards for fascinating discussions!  They are an opportunity to clarify thinking.  My classroom has become a safe place to question each other without seeming critical.

My favorite comment is the last one.  I think it is beautifully put!

 

Great Questions Are Especially Fun To Answer!

Well, I’m back from an intense, yet exhilarating 3 day workshop on Structured Word Inquiry. In the serene setting of Wolfe Island, Canada, Pete Bowers enthusiastically convinced the participants by use of evidence that the language we have been taught to think of as quirky, nonsensical, irregular and incomprehensible, is in fact a well ordered writing system that adheres to rules.  Now, these are not rules with exceptions (one thing many of us have been erroneously taught), but rules that do not allow exceptions.   It turns out that the English language has structure that we can count on and spellings that we can explain by means of scientific inquiry.  How refreshing!

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I left the workshop with a better understanding of how to turn word inquiries into focused lessons, as well as how to more effectively use the resources available to me.  In other words, my curiosity is super charged!  I’m looking forward to the question I can’t answer straight away.  I’m looking forward to being part of the search  and to listen to students draw conclusions based on evidence gathered.  I’m looking forward to my classroom being a place where we celebrate words, their meanings, and our new understandings of their spellings.

With all of that super charged enthusiasm surrounding me, imagine my delight when checking my email upon my return and finding a message from a student.  It seems Hailee was writing a story.  While writing, she began wondering about the word <especially>.  She wondered why the <l> was doubled.  She knew that in monosyllable words that have a single vowel in front of a final consonant, the final consonant is doubled.  But she also knew that that was not the case in <especially>.

So … in response to Hailee’s excellent question …

The first thing I did  was to think of a word sum hypothesis.  I recognize the word <special>, so I can guess that <e> is a clip of <ex> and is a prefix.  Besides, that would make sense that if something is referred to as <especially>, it is being pulled “out” as being extra special or being set aside as being extra special.

And because I recognized <special>, I suspect that <ly> might be a suffix.  So far my hypothesis is  <e> + <special> + <ly>.  But then I wondered about <special>.  Is that the base, or can I peel off another affix.

At this point I went to etymonline and looked up <especially>.  This is what I found:

There’s my proof that <ly> is a suffix.  (And that is also a big clue to the answer to Hailee’s question – but I’ll explain better at the end.)
From there I clicked on <especial>.

That gave me an idea that perhaps <special> might not be the base.  So then I clicked on <species>.

If you notice, <species> comes from the Latin word <species> and is related to <specere> meaning to look at, to see, behold. (Which also fits with what we think of when we think of something as special!  Now, if you remember that Old Grouch taught us that <ere> is a latin suffix, that means the base of <species> and <special> and <especially> is <spec>!

Back to my hypothesis about it’s word sum.  I’m going to change it to <e> + <spec> + <ial> + <ly>.

Just to make sure that <ial> is indeed a suffix, I went to Word Searcher and put in <ial$>.  Three words I found that have <ial> as a suffix are burial (<bury> + <ial>), facial (<face> + <ial>), and partial ( <part> + <ial>).  Since this post, my students and I have done further research and discovered that <ial> is NOT a suffix.  The suffix is <al>.  The <i> in some words is a connecting vowel.  In other words it was once a <y> and has been changed to an <i> before adding an <es> suffix.  In other words the <i> is part of the base.

Phrew!  Now to answer Hailee’s question about the double <l>.  As you can see, there is an <l> in the final position of the suffix <al> and an <l> in the initial position of the suffix <ly>, so the <l> has not been doubled.  NOW in a word like stopping, the base is <stop> and the suffix is <ing>, and when we add that suffix, we do indeed double the consonant<p> because of the reason Hailee brilliantly stated in her question.  When I sent a reply to Hailee, I also asked her to write word sums and then to create a matrix for the base <spec>.  Below is her matrix.

 

The next wonderful thing that came from all this was that I presented this matrix to my summer school orthography students and asked them to write word sums.  Then we had a great discussion about “checking the joins”.  That means that when adding suffixes, we may need to apply some suffixing rules and make some spelling adjustments.  The students became familiar with the structure of a matrix and how the suffixes are arranged in a particular order to accommodate the spelling of many words.

Thanks Hailee!  And keep the questions coming!

Exploring Orthography … and Loving It!

Today we pulled a word from our study of the Civil Rights Movement and took a closer look.  We chose the word prejudice.  I asked students to hypothesize what its word sum might look like.  We had some thoughtful ideas.

It seems that everyone remembered that pre is a prefix!  Earlier this year we made a list of words that included preschool, predict, pretest, prepare, pretend, and preview. With each of these words the students could explain how the meaning of the word had something to do with before (which is what pre means).  But, no one knew for a fact what the base was.  We went to Etymonline to look up the word prejudice.

prejudice (n.) Look up prejudice at Dictionary.com
late 13c., “despite, contempt,” from Old French prejudice (13c.), from Medieval Latin prejudicium “injustice,” from Latin praejudicium “prior judgment,” from prae- “before” (see pre-) + judicium “judgment,” from judex (genitive judicis) “judge.” Meaning “injury, physical harm” is mid-14c., as is legal sense “detriment or damage caused by the violation of a legal right.” Meaning “preconceived opinion” (especially but not necessarily unfavorable) is from late 14c.

 We noticed that we were correct in regards to pre meaning before.  Looking at judicium “judgment” and judicis “judge”, we decided to go to Word Searcher to look for words.  Would the root be jud, judi, judic or even judici?  What we found there was an extensive list of words.  Most of them had jud in them.  Few had the other letter combinations we had wondered about.  We came to the conclusion that jud must by our base.  Then we wondered if ice was a suffix.  We tried to think of words we knew that had an ice suffix.  We easily thought of justice, practice, service, and, of course, prejudice!  Based on that list, we decided that ice is a suffix.  Then we were reading to think of word sums built around the base jud.  Below are some of the word sums we found.

un + jud + ge + ment + al –> unjudgemental
un + jud + ge + ed –> unjudged
un + jud + ge + able –> unjudgeable
pre + jud + ice –> prejudice
pre + jud + ice + i + al –> prejudicial
pre + jud + ice + i + ous –> prejudicious
pre + jud + ice + i + ous + ly –> prejudiciously
jud + ge –> judge
jud + ge + s –> judges
jud + ge + ed –> judged
jud + ge + ing –> judging
mis + jud + ge + ed –> misjudged
mis + jud + ge + ing –> misjudging
mis + jud + ge + s –> misjudges
jud + ge + ment + al –> judgemental
jud + ge + ment –> judgement
jud + ge + ment + s –> judgements

Then we created a matrix featuring the base jud.

The students suggested we use a notebook to keep together all these valuable investigations!  Tomorrow we’ll discuss how to organize it …. a section for matrices, word sums, and related words … a section for prefixes … a section for suffixes … a section for bound bases … a section for free bases … and a suffix checker on the inside cover.  Sounds like an awesome idea!