Making Sure Our Misspellings Are Not Missed Opportunities!

Following our recent performances of The Photosynthesis Follies, I gave a test.  After all, the students had been living and breathing their photosynthesis script for two and a half weeks.  I was confident that if they participated and thought about what was happening in our play, they would understand this incredibly important process.  They did remarkably well!  But that is not the point of this post.

As I always do, while I was correcting the tests,  I was taking notes about sentence structures that needed attention and common spelling errors that needed to be addressed.  I began to notice how many different spellings were used for the word <xylem>.  But within a short amount of time, the number of different spellings for <xylem> was surpassed by the number of different spellings for <oxygen>.  As I looked over the spellings, it struck me that my students actually know quite a bit about graphemes and the phonemes they can represent.  I thought it might be interesting to specifically look at these two lists.

At the top of each list the word is represented by IPA and the symbols are surrounded by slash marks.  The slash marks indicate that this is a pronunciation and NOT a spelling.  I wanted the students to think about each word’s pronunciation and how each phoneme in the pronunciation is represented by a grapheme in the word’s spelling.  To that end, I underlined each phoneme in the IPA representation of the word <xylem>.

Right away someone asked about the spelling in which there was an <e> in front of the <x>.  I put that question out to the students.  “Can anyone think of why someone might have put that <e> there?”

“Perhaps it’s because of the way we pronounce the letter <x> when it’s by itself.”  That made a lot of sense to me.  After all, during play rehearsals, we had a few students that kept  pronouncing xylem as /ɛgzˈɑɪləm/.  Since the word began with <x>, those students wanted to pronounce it like we do in /ˈɛksɹeɪ/  (x ray).

At this point I pointed to what I had written on the board as pertains to the grapheme <x>:

We looked at the various pronunciations that are represented by the letter <x>.  We pronounced them aloud and felt the difference between the /ks/ of box, the /gz/ of exact, and the /kʃ/ of anxious.  Taking the time to pronounce and feel these pronunciations in our mouths was an eye opener for my students.  When all you remember being told is that “x is for x ray”, you’re at a disadvantage when trying to read and spell words with an <x>!

When we looked at the fourth phoneme that could be represented by the grapheme <x>, /z/, we recognized that not only was that the way we pronounced <x> in xylophone, but also in xylem!  We turned our attention back to the list.

We looked specifically at the unstressed vowel known as the schwa in IPA.  I reminded the students that some of them had this schwa as part of the pronunciation of their name.  They offered that the schwa, /ə/, is sometimes represented by the grapheme <i> as in Jaydin, by the grapheme <a> as in Amelia, by the grapheme <e> as in Kayden, and the <o> as in Jackson.

So with that in mind, we looked at the choices students had made in choosing a vowel to precede the final <m>.  Students chose either an <a>, an <e>, or a <u>.  This was in keeping with what we understand about the schwa.  I also reminded everyone that the schwa represents an unstressed vowel.  That meant that the other vowel in this word, represented by /ɑɪ/, would be carrying the stress.  And sure enough,  when we announced the word over and over, the stress was on the /ɑɪ/.

Looking back at the list, there were only two graphemes chosen to represent the /ɑɪ/.  It was either an <i> or a <y>.  I wondered aloud if it was possible for a <y> to represent /ɑɪ/.  Students named words like sky, xylophone, and cry to provide the evidence that it could.

So when we now looked at our list, we realized that only three of the spellings made sense and were possible — the first (*xilam), the second (*xilem), and the last (xylem).  The third, fourth, and sixth were missing the grapheme that paired up with the phoneme /ɑɪ/.

So now what?  Now it was time to check into this word’s etymology.  Looking at Etymonline, we see that it was first attested in 1875, meaning “woody tissue in higher plants”.  It was from German xylem, coined from Greek ξύλον, transcribed as xylon “wood”.  This was particularly interesting to us because we were focusing on the water that is transported in the xylem.  Now we knew that the xylem itself was made of woody tissue and helped physically support the plant or tree!  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, only the outer xylem (sapwood) is active in transporting water from the roots to the leaves.  The inner part of the tree (heartwood) is made up of dead xylem that no longer carries water, yet is strong and gives the tree that physical support.  The next time you count the rings on a cross cut piece of a tree, know that you are counting rings of xylem!

Image result for xylem

Here’s an easy way to see the xylem tubes in a piece of celery.

Image result for xylem

And just in case you are interested, the word xylophone was also coined from xylon “wood”.  The xylophone consists of wooden bars struck by mallets.



Related image


Getting back to the spelling of xylem, we also noticed that the vowel following the <x> has been a <y> all the way back to Greek!  As a matter of fact, seeing a <y> medially in a word is an indicator that the word is from Greek!

The only grapheme yet to check was whether the unstressed vowel preceding the final <m> was an <e> or an <a>.  At  I found out that xylem was from <xyl> “wood” + <ēma >. The entry also said to “see phloem”.  Interesting!  So the second part of this word is the same as the second part of the word phloem.  Still at, I found out that the second part of the word phloem is <-ēma >, a deverbal noun ending.  A deverbal noun is a noun that was derived from a verb.  Etymonline also listed <-ema> as the suffix in the word phloem.

So we now have evidence to support that <xylem> is the way to spell this word.  We also have an understanding of so much more!

It was time to look at the IPA for <oxygen> and see what we could learn.

I again underlined the phonemes in the IPA that would represent a grapheme in the spelling of the word.  We noticed that everyone chose <o> to represent /ɑ/.  The next phoneme was /ks/.  There were only two spellings that had something other than an <x> to represent this.  I asked if choosing a <c> or a <cs> made sense.  The students recognized that a <c> can sometimes be pronounced /k/, so we could understand someone choosing <cs>.  The <c> by itself, however, could not represent the phoneme /ks/.  We could rule that spelling (*ocegeon) out.  We also noticed that two of the spellings had <xs> as representing /ks/.  This brought us back to our discussion of expire from the other day.  We knew the <ex-> was a prefix with a sense of “out” and the base is from <spire> meaning “breathe”, but that when joined together, the <s> on the base was omitted or elided to make the word easier to pronounce.  Now we could also rule out the spellings *oxsigen and *oxsigin.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  A friend emailed me regarding this post and in particular, the above paragraph.  We are now both curious about instances in which the prefix <ex->is followed by <s>.  There are a few older words (very few) like exsanguine (bloodless) and exscind (cut off or out) where we see this letter combination.  Perhaps it was more common a while back and moving forward in time, the <s> in many of the words was elided.  I’m not sure.  My take away is that I don’t have to have the precise answer right now.  It is something I will keep in mind as I encounter other words.  In the meantime, I am also contemplating words in which the <ex-> prefix is followed by a base with an initial <c> as in <exciting>.  We know that the <c> (when followed by <e>, <i>, or <y>) is pronounced /s/.  So why is it that very few words follow the prefix <ex-> with an element that has an initial <s> for pronunciation’s sake, yet many words follow an <ex-> prefix with an element that has an initial <c> that is pronounced as /s/?  Interesting questions, right?  Well, as a very good friend says quite often, “There are no coincidences!”  That very question was asked in a scholarly group I was part of today!  Just because the <c> (when followed by <e>, <i>, or <y>) is pronounced /s/ in Modern English spellings, doesn’t mean it follows that convention in other languages, or that it did in Latin.  So the <ex-> prefix followed by an element with an initial <c> didn’t (and in many languages still doesn’t) present the same pronunciation situation that <ex-> followed by an element with an initial <s>. What an elegant explanation!

Back to the post:

The next phoneme in the pronunciation was a schwa – an unstressed vowel.  We knew from our look at xylem that several letters could represent /ə/.  There was one spelling that was missing the representation of this vowel.  We could take that spelling off the list of possibilities (*oxgen).  The rest of the letters used to represent /ə/ could be used, so we kept going.

The next phoneme in the pronunciation was /dʒ/.  The students pronounced it and noticed that every spelling left represented /dʒ/ with the grapheme <g>, even though it could also be represented with <j>.

It was time to look at the second /ə/ and again recognize that this pronunciation can be represented with many vowel letters.  It was interesting to note that almost all of the spellings used an <e>.  Only two spellings used an <o>.  I asked if anyone could think of words with a <gon> at the end.  Students thought of polygon, dragon, and wagon.  We wondered if following a <g> with an <o> and a <n> would always result in the <g> being pronounced as /g/ instead of /dʒ/.  If that was the case, the grapheme <o> wouldn’t work in this position in this word.

When looking at the final phoneme /n/, we noticed everyone chose the grapheme <n>to represent it.  That is, all except for the spelling with the final <t>.  Students offered theories about why someone might think there was a /t/ pronounced finally, but in the end we decided that was not the spelling we were after, and we could eliminate it as a reasonable choice.

It all boiled down to the first /ə/.  If we could find out which grapheme represents it and why, we will have found the logical spelling choice for this word.  Here were our final choices:


It was time to search our etymology resources!  There must be information in this word’s history that will lead us to the current spelling.

At Etymonline we found out that this word was attested in 1790, referring to “a gaseous chemical element”.  It was from French oxygène, coined in 1777 by the French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier.  It was from Greek oxys “sharp, acid” and French <-gène> “something that produces”.  The French <-gène> was from Greek <-genes> “formation, creation”.  The denotation of the <oxy> part of this word doesn’t seem to make sense until you know this word’s story.  At the time this word was coined, it was thought that oxygen was essential in the formation of acid (hence it’s name meaning something that produces acid).  We now know that isn’t the case.  Isn’t that interesting?  

Antoine-Laurent deLavoisier

As usual, the etymology added a lot as far as understanding the spelling of this word.  We found out that the <x> is the letter to represent /ks/ and the <y> will represent the /ə/.  That eliminates all spellings except <oxygen>.  Pretty cool, huh?

When all was said and done, we noticed one more thing.  In the word <xylem>, the <y> was stressed and pronounced /ɑɪ/.  In the word <oxygen>, the <y> was unstressed and pronounced /ə/.

There are many reasons I chose to take a closer look at these misspellings.  One of the biggest was that of letting my students know that they know a lot about graphemes and the phonemes that they represent.  So often a student will feel bad when they misspell a word.  Well, today I wanted to celebrate the logical thinking they do when they are thinking of how to spell a word.  But I also wanted to point out that without etymology, we can only go so far.  After that it becomes a guessing game.

I filmed this lesson with my first class.  It is similar to what I have described here, although what I have written here is an overall impression from my experiences talking about this with three classes.

Looks Aren’t Everything!

I am always surprised when students new to fifth grade misspell words like makeing, comeing, and lazey.  I’m surprised because they’ve been writing these words for many years.  Obviously, they never understood whether to keep the <e> or  to replace it when adding the suffix!  I may be surprised, but I’m not particularly concerned. These are spelling errors I can help eliminate!

The following Suffix Flow Chart is borrowed with permission from Pete Bower’s book “Teaching How the Written Word Works”.

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I made copies and had each student glue it in their Orthography notebook for future reference.  To begin with, we read through the flow chart together.  Someone read the first diamond.  We imagined the answer was NO, and decided where we should go next.  Then we went back and imagined the answer was YES, and followed the arrow to the next diamond.  We kept reading and following arrows until we had read all the boxes in the flow chart.  Now we were ready to practice using it.

I wrote the following word sum on the board:

smile  +  ing  –>

Then I asked someone to read aloud the first question we must consider.  Before that question was answered, we reviewed which morpheme was the base or stem and which was the suffix.  They also wrote the vowel letters above the flow chart in their notebooks.

Now the question was read again and answered.  “The suffix <-ing> begins with the vowel letter <i>, so the answer to the first question is YES.”  We followed the arrow to the next diamond shape and read the question:  Does the base or stem have a final, non-syllabic <e>?  We looked at <smile> and agreed that the final <e> was indeed non-syllabic.

Then we followed the YES arrow to the final box where it said to remove the single, non-syllabic <e> before adding the suffix.  At this point we crossed out the <e> at the end of <smile> and were ready to write the final spelling of the word.

Here is how the final word sum looked:

smile/ + ing –>  smiling

Here is how the students practiced reading it:

“s-m-i-l-e   plus   i-n-g   is rewritten as   s-m-i-l   NO e   i-n-g”

When reading it aloud, the morphemes are spelled out.  Always.  The students recognize the absence of the letter <e> in the final spelling of the word by saying “NO e”, so that they are always cognizant of its place on the base or stem.

We went through a few more examples including the word sums “grate + ful” and “create + or”.  Then I gave them each a list of word sums, had them glue it in their notebooks and let them practice using the Suffix Flow Chart independently.

Everyone got right to it.  I would say that it took maybe three minutes before the questions began.

“I’m not sure about this one.”
“What is the first question to ask yourself on the flow chart?”
“Does the suffix begin with a vowel?”
“Well, does it?”
“So where does the flow chart direct you to next?”
“Does the base or stem have a final non-syllabic <e>?”
“Does it?”
“Yes.  But if I remove the <e>, the word doesn’t look right!”

Student after student said the same thing.  And while I directed each one to a dictionary to check the spelling, I couldn’t help but notice a big problem.  These students had been taught to judge whether a word was spelled correctly or not by whether or not it looked correct.

So I stopped the class and asked if my observation was accurate.  In each of my three classes, 98% of the students said that they often wrote a word two or three different ways and then chose the spelling that looked correct.

So today I feel great.  I gave them a more reliable option.  Why not just rely on the simple rule beautifully laid out in the Suffix Flow Chart?  No more guessing games.  No more taking chances.  A few less words to edit when getting ready to publish one’s writing.  Who wouldn’t love it?


Righting the Wrongs in Spelling

The headline, “Retractions:  Righting the wrongs of science”, caught my eye the other day.  But it was the byline, “False findings must be acknowledged and ‘corrected’ to keep science credible”, that made me stop and want to read more.  I was looking at a digital publication of Science News for Students that I receive once a week.  The article was written by Stephen Ornes.  The article focused on scientific research findings that had been published, but then needed to be retracted because they were found to be false.  I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the science of spelling.

How many of us as young students were convinced through our own personal frustrations that spelling doesn’t make sense?  Letters seemed to be dropped, doubled or added without rhyme or reason.  Teachers labeled frequently misspelled words as oddball, tricky or difficult and posted them on a wall.  Many teachers still do.  When did we lose the desire to truly understand why words are spelled the way they are?  When did we give up hope that we ever could?  When did we stop questioning gimmicky things told to us that weren’t logical?

For a few generations now, the idea that spelling is all about the sounds that words make has persisted.  But where is the research to back that up?  Any of us could make a huge collection of words that would disprove that idea.  The list would no doubt include words like does, come, goes, really, science, accent, piano, group, again and cell.  And yet we have become complacent and have accepted that illogical idea.  What if it’s time to teach our students to conduct research regarding words instead of asking them to memorize a word’s spelling.  What if it’s time to say, “What I mean when I say that a word has a tricky spelling is that I don’t personally understand that spelling.”  There should be no shame in that.  There should only be a challenge.  But have we been prepared for such a challenge?

Another persistent notion that I would like to question is the idea that spelling plays a minor role in reading and a major role in writing.  Obviously many people can read words that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to spell in isolation, but delving into the a word’s history and meaning over time brings such a huge sense of that word to light.  And when we identify a word with images and feelings we bring a richness to the context of the thing we are reading.  If students had a solid understanding of word structure and a journal type record of previously proven affixes and bases, they would be able to make sense of some of the morphemes and use that knowledge in conjunction with the context in which the word is used to figure out its meaning.

In his article, Ornes says, “Acknowledging mistakes helps science move forward,” and “They (retractions) remove false findings that pollute the pool of scientific knowledge.”  The more I find out about words – their etymology, morphology, and phonology, the more I am convinced that it is time to make a major retraction!  False claims about spelling are wide spread and deeply embedded in the instruction students receive and even the newest materials they work with.

But can spelling be treated as a science?  Why not?  Why not propose the spelling of a word in much the same way a scientist would propose a hypothesis.  At first it is an educated guess based on what the speller understands about morphemes and the meaning of the word.  The speller then looks at related words and digs into the history of the word.  The speller finds out all he can about the word in order to better formulate remaining questions.  Finally, the speller shares his findings which are based on his research.  He gives his initial hypothesis a second look and decides whether or not to make changes.

I believe that false claims in spelling have indeed polluted the pool of spelling knowledge.  For example, students that come into my fifth grade classroom have a very shallow idea of what affixes are.  When asked to find words with an <-ing> suffix, they list bring and ring.  When asked for a word with an <-ly> suffix, the words golly and dolly come up.  When asked for the suffix in the word <action>, they struggle between choosing <-tion> and <-ion>.  They struggle because they have had such an overabundance of instruction on breaking words into syllables and such an underabundance of instruction on dividing words into morphemes.  With words like luckier, happier, and jumpier, the same students identify the suffix as <-ier>, clearly not understanding that a word can have more than one suffix.  Clearly not understanding a word’s structure.

Why spend valuable time on the old “I before E” rule when we all know there are a ton of exceptions.  Or “the first vowel does the talking, the second one does the walking”  rule when, if you really picture that, you’ll find it can be very confusing.  Why such a primary focus on pronunciation when it has never been the logical reason for a specific spelling?  Why have we given children lists of words and asked them to memorize the spellings while giving little attention to the word’s meaning?

Recently I contacted a company that creates word workbooks for schools.  I told them that I was concerned about some of the activities required of the students.  I sent them a link to a video that my students made which provides evidence that <-tion> and <-sion> are not suffixes, but rather syllables.  They were very polite, but also very uninterested.  They said they were following the Common Core, and until the Common Core changed, they would not change.  It was then I realized it will be hard to retract false spelling ideas when some very popular and respected publishers don’t recognize the falseness.  As an educator, I hear often that the companies putting out the basal reading programs are research based.  But I have to wonder.  If my fifth graders can disprove some of what the publisher has included in the workbooks, what exactly has been researched?  It simply can’t be the word work/spelling content.  Certainly spelling is not the “main event” in a reading basal, but if that spelling component has not been researched, I wonder what has?  Perhaps the research concerns the overall success of the program and not the specific truth of the components.

So do we really need to retract the spelling ideas that have been clung to for so long?  Absolutely!  We cannot wait for the textbook and workbook publishers to lead the way.  Fanelli, a scientist mentioned in the article that stirred this reaction in me, states, “They (retractions) allow the truth to emerge”.  It is time.  In practically every other subject, a student can expect to be asked to explain how they know what they know or why they think what they think.  It’s time to add spelling to that list.  Let’s demonstrate to students our desire to be researchers, not answer seekers.  Let’s show them we are not afraid to say I don’t know.  Let’s train ourselves and our students to follow the principles of science as we seek to understand spelling.  All of the falseness will fall away on its own, and the truth will indeed emerge!

“Orthography Makes Spelling Less Complicated”

This year I had a high school student who came to my classroom every day to help out.  The other day while she was here, two 5th graders shared their poster about the digraph <wr>.   They were listing words that began with <wr> and had something to do with twisting and turning.  (Wringing, wrench, wrinkle, wrist, …)  After the bell rang and the 5th graders left, she turned to me.  “Every time I’m in here and these students present like this, I am blown away.  This stuff is so cool and interesting!  Do they have any idea just how lucky they are to be learning this stuff?”  I had to admit that I’m not sure my students realize how unique their situation is.

So today I gave them the opportunity to reflect on our study of orthography.  Each student spent 5 or so minutes writing down some of the things they learned.  Then I asked them to share.  Some were comfortable letting me record their thoughts.  Others preferred to give me their thoughts on paper.  Here is what some of the students had to say:

~Orthography makes spelling less complicated.
~I used to just write the word.  I didn’t know nothing about the word or the base of the word.  Not even the prefixes or suffixes.  Some words are hard to understand, but this way helped me.
~I learned that the <carn> in carnival has the same meaning as the <carn> in carnivore.
~Syllables are not word sums.
~Orthography is not just learning the meaning of a word.
~Instead of learning how to spell words we learned their history and how they were made, allowing us to sort of understand what they mean.
~Word sums are not found in a dictionary.
~Yes!  There were no spelling tests!  We worked on something new almost every day!  I now know new and harder words.
~I don’t like spelling, but I like orthography.
~Words have connections to other words that we don’t always recognize.  Example:  lavendar and lava.
~It helps me because I can remember the morphemes, and they help me remember how to spell the word.
~Lots of words have histories and were spelled different back then.
~Words have not just one meaning but multiple meanings.
~Back when some words were spelled a little different, they also had meanings that were a little different than their meaning today.
~Orthography helps you find bases so you know if the words have something in common like in sign and signal.
~I liked this more than spelling because it had more thought in it rather than just memorizing the spelling of a word.
~There is actually a reason words are spelled the way they are.
~I always used songs to remember how to spell words.  Now I just need to break them down into morphemes and I can spell the words I don’t know.
~In the past we’d just get words and the teacher would be like, “Make sure to study!”  But none of us did.  Now we don’t have to study.  It just kind of sticks.  I can spell much better.

“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!


Enacting a Word Sum With Students and Staff

Spelling out words and building word sums is central to students really understanding about a word’s structure and its relationship to other words in its family. Last week I had the opportunity to enact a word sum with our K-5 staff at a staff meeting. For the first 30 minutes we were very fortunate to Zoom (like Skype) with Peter Bowers from WordWorks. He introduced activities to use with children of any age. These activities put the focus on recognizing when words belong to the same word family (share a base). Pete also talked about the importance of having students spell out words. By this he means that students announce each grapheme that represents a phoneme. As you watch the video below, listen to how the students do this.

The brilliant and valuable idea of having students enact building a word sum is Lyn Anderson’s. Her blog, Beyond the Word, is rich with activities that help students make sense of words and spellings.

Before I asked our staff to walk through building a word sum, I videotaped my 5th graders doing the same activity.

Once students understand the idea of building word sums, and how we can find other word family members by using different prefixes or adding different or sometimes additional suffixes, it’s time to encourage them to hypothesize about word structures.

The first step in any word investigation is to agree on the meaning of the word. Throughout our investigation, we will always be comparing our thoughts and hypotheses to our base word’s meaning. This is what we are referring to when we say that our hypothesized word sum must pass the meaning test.

The second step is to ask ourselves, “What are its relatives?” Now we think of words related in meaning and spelling. In this case we can think of pleasing, pleases, pleased, displeased, displease, displeases, pleasant, pleasantly, unpleasant, unpleasantly, pleasure, and pleasurable.

Let’s look at the word ‘pleasurable’. When building the word sum for this, we talked in the video about “Checking the Joins” and needing to replace the single silent ‘e’ on the base ‘please’ when adding the vowel suffix ‘ure’. Then we talked about replacing the single silent ‘e’ on the suffix ‘ure’ when adding the vowel suffix ‘able’.

The next step is to write the word ‘pleasurable’ on the board and ask, “How is it built?” I want students to suggest a word sum hypothesis for it. At the beginning of the year, students think this means to break the word into syllables. As the year goes on, they begin to let go of that automatic response and to look for recognizable affixes instead. If your students are new to this kind of thinking, they might hypothesize that the word sum for ‘pleasurable’ is:
pleas + ur + able
ple + sur + a + ble (notice they are thinking syllables, not meaning)
pleas + urable
pleasur + able

I accept all hypotheses offered. Then I suggest that we look for evidence to prove that one hypothesis is more likely than any of the others.

First piece of evidence: Let’s look at the other words in this word family. We see ‘please’ and ‘displease’. Here is our first piece of evidence that there is a final single silent ‘e’ in ‘please’. It is also evidence that ‘ple’ and ‘pleasur’ will not be the base. (‘ple’ does not have a meaning and does not pass the meaning test.)

Second piece of evidence: Looking at ‘pleas’, one notices that it looks like the plural of the word ‘plea’. This is a great opportunity to revisit the role of a single silent ‘e’ in the final position of a word. Students know that a single silent ‘e’ can force the medial vowel to be long, as in ‘bike’. Here we can introduce another reason for the final single silent ‘e’ — so that a word doesn’t look plural when it isn’t. My students learned this when we investigated ‘condensation’ during a science chapter earlier this year. The word sum we agreed on is con + dense/ + ate/ + ion –> condensation. Without the ‘e’ on the base, ‘dens’ looks like the plural of ‘den’.

With that evidence, we conclude that the base of ‘pleasurable’ is ‘please’. Now we look at the rest of the word. Is ‘able’ a suffix? Our task is to find at least three words in which it is clearly the suffix. The three words could be bendable, taxable, and payable. Our next question is whether or not ‘ure’ is a suffix. Again we try to think of at least three words in which it is a clear suffix. Three words could be moisture, failure, and closure.

Putting all of that evidence together, the students are ready to alter their word sum hypothesis to read:
pleasurable –> please + ure + able.

There are several ways to organize and display a family of words. The following picture shows a word web and a word matrix.
By thinking of word families in this way, students have had the opportunity to think about suffixing rules and about logically collecting evidence to support their spelling choices. Students are actively involved as they build knowledge and understanding of English spelling.

Syllable Use Helps With Spelling? Not Likely!

I walked into a classroom last week and had an opportunity to really and truly understand how breaking words into syllables does not help students learn spelling.  Let me explain.

The lesson was focused on the base word <male/mal>.  There were 10 words written on the board and they were all divided into syllables to aid in pronunciation.  I asked if pronunciation or meaning was the most important thing this teacher wanted her students to know about these words.  She said meaning.  I tried then to point out that by breaking the words into syllables, she had disguised the word parts (morphemes) that HAD meaning.

Here’s an example using the word <malevolent>.  The syllable breakdown on the board was <ma + lev + o+ lent>.  So how hard have we as teachers just made it for the students to recognize that one of the base words here is <mal> which means bad … or that the other one is <vol> which means will?

Instead of a syllabic breakdown I would suggest an orthographic word sum that looks like this:  <mal> + <e> + <vol> + <ent>.  In an orthographic word sum, the word is separated into morphemes (a word part with meaning that cannot be made smaller).

With this kind of examination, the students will learn several things.  First, once they have researched this word, they will find the meaning of it — not just the general meaning, but the meanings of the morphemes <mal> and <vol>.  While researching (using Etymonline), they will also learn the history of the word and these bases.

With teacher guidance they will learn about the connecting vowel <e>.  They learn that with two bases in one word, this word is a connected compound (meaning it is a compound word with a connecting vowel between the bases).

Lastly the student will recognize that <ent> is a commonly used suffix (based on previously investigated words with that suffix  and also a list of words compiled by students in which <ent> is clearly the suffix).  By separating a word into syllables, the suffix <ent> is not recognizable because it is visually paired with an <l>, forming a familiar word <lent>.

None of the syllables in the word <malevolent> have meaning.  They do not enhance a student’s understanding of what the word means.  What if … instead of having students break words into meaningless parts that may or may not make the rote memorization of the word easier, we have them break words into meaningful parts that the student can then relate to what they know of other words and other spellings?  Gina Cooke referred to this process as peeling back the layers of a word in her video called “Making sense of spelling“.  What a beautiful way to think about a word and its affixes.

Initially, the teacher said that she wanted her students to be able to pronounce the words.  Teaching the students IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) would be better suited to this end than syllables anyway.