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”.
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!
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!
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.
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!



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!


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.


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”.


DSCN5975 DSCN5977

“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!


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!