“Stop Learning and Start Thinking”

I shared this video with my students the other day.  It is about 7 years old, but its message is timeless and crucial if we are to teach our students how to be in charge of understanding their world.  The boy speaking is Jacob Barnett.  At the time this video was made he was 11 years old.  At present he is 19.  If you have not seen this, please watch it now.  It is 18 minutes long, but well worth your time.  If you have seen it before, watch it again.  Having Jacob’s voice in your head as you continue to read this post will give strength to what you read.

When it was over, I said, “Well, What do you think about what he said?”  One student mentioned how smart Jacob is.  Another said it was weird that Jacob wore sandals.  Another commented that he could tell Jacob was “different”.  Yet another noticed that he had the Greek letter phi (φ ) on his shirt.  (We’ve been learning the Greek alphabet). It got kind of quiet after that.  So I said, “What do you think Jacob means when he says you have to stop learning and start thinking?”  Now it was completely silent.  And the silence was paired with facial expressions that said, “I don’t have any idea what that could mean!”

At that point I shared my own thoughts:  When Jacob says to stop learning, I think he is talking about learning as it is typically done in schools.  You know how it goes – the teacher tells the students what he/she wants them to know.  They learn it. (This might include reading about it, writing about it, watching videos, etc.) Then the students take an assessment to see how well they learned it.

THAT is what Jacob wasn’t able to do when he was young – because of his learning differences.  THAT is what Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t able to do when attending the University of Cambridge – because the school was shut down with the outbreak of the plague.  And THAT is what Albert Einstein wasn’t able to do – because he was Jewish and turned away from the local university, so he ended up taking a job working in a patent office instead.

Each was prevented from following this model of learning, and in doing so, had time to think.  Jacob believes it was this time to think and question and seek understanding that lead each person to their discoveries.  Now, does this mean Jacob didn’t learn things by reading books?  Of course not.  When he had posed questions that he wished to explore and knew more information was necessary to move forward in his thinking, he read the books he needed to read!  In other words, he read books and focused on understanding what he was reading.  He was a motivated reader.  The information he learned while reading helped him formulate new questions and better understand whether or not his past questions were on the right track.  In this manner he was always motivated to deeply understand a specific topic in order to weigh whatever questions he was currently posing.

So did he in fact  “stop learning”?  I don’t think so.  I think he stopped being a passive participant in learning, and became an active one.  And he found his inner voice – that unique perspective that he has – that each of us has with which to do our thinking.  Jacob explored the questions he had in a way that came natural to him.  Unfortunately, the way schools are set up, students often lose sight of their own unique perspective as they get older.  They get used to waiting for an adult to tell them what to do next, what information to search for, what answer to find.  They become passive learners.  And as passive learners, they rarely go beyond what has been laid out as the expectations for a particular assignment.  If doing “a, b, and c” is what is required, very few will ask about “d”.  Sometimes teachers will comment that there are students who are capable of doing more, but lack motivation.  Do they really lack motivation, or have they become passive?  Are YOU sometimes a passive learner?

At this point Ella raised her hand.  “When we study words, we’re not passive.  It’s like how Jacob learns.  We do a lot of thinking about what the word means, and then we come up with a hypothesis for our word sum. We read whatever dictionary we need to while collecting our evidence and the word’s story.  But WE do it ourselves.”

I answered, “Yes!  You work independently and are actively involved in your learning!  You look at resource books when you need to.  You search for evidence to support or disprove your word sum hypothesis. You discuss with others what you are thinking about as you are finding information and hypothesizing.  And oftentimes another person’s unique perspective helps you stretch your own thinking.  You research and investigate and gather your evidence until you’re satisfied you understand as much as there is to understand at this time!  The best part is that you recognize that you have not found an answer.  You have found a temporary understanding that may in fact deepen should other evidence come to light!”

Ella continued rather proudly, “When we were taking the Forward Exam a few weeks ago, I was trying to think of what the word sum would be for <conversation>.  I knew about the two possible suffixes <ate> and <ion> on this word which left <convers(e)>.  I also recognized the prefix <con>, although I couldn’t remember what it meant just then.  That left <vers(e)>.  When I thought about that, I thought of how a verse is something I read, write, or talk about.  A conversation is talking between at least two people, so I knew I was on the right track.  I couldn’t look it up during the exam, but later I checked it out to see if what I thought made sense.”

I was not expecting Ella to point out this correlation between what Jacob was describing and what we do in class, but I was delighted she did!  The students can FEEL the difference between passive and active learning.  They recognize their own level of engagement, and how using a scientific lens to look at words has drawn them in and increased their level of interest.  The fact that Ella shared her thinking about the word <conversation> and how being able to do that helped her in a situation outside of class, proves that  Structured Word Inquiry has become the way she thinks about words!  Ella KNOWS that a word’s spelling is not random.  She KNOWS to expect its structure to make sense and to help her understand the meaning of that word.

I remember what a former student said at the end of her fifth grade year, “In fourth grade we had a list of words.  We wrote them on our white board over and over again until we could spell them without looking.  It got very boring very quickly.  In fifth grade it’s different.  We investigate a word to find out where it comes from, and what it’s word sum might look like.  We find out its history and how it’s been used.  Then we write about what we found, and after we’ve collected words with the same base we make a matrix.  It’s a lot more work, but it is also a lot more fun!”

Did you hear that?  It was a lot more work, but it was also a lot more fun!  We have to stop deciding what is too much work or what is too hard for our students.  We have to stop simplifying tasks to the point of rendering them uninteresting and requiring too little thought.


Structured Word Inquiry versus the Scientific Method

What my students do with spelling is not much different than what they do in preparation for our Science Fair.  The first step is to choose a topic or a word.  Next they do a bit of research.  For both spelling and science, they need to know enough about their topic to create a thoughtful hypothesis.  Let’s say a student is curious about the effects of music on a person’s heart rate.  Before writing a hypothesis, that student would benefit from finding out what a typical resting heart rate is.  It might even be helpful to find out what is considered to be an elevated heart rate.  The student might also want to know how many beats per minute specific music has. The student’s hypothesis can include those pieces of information, and later on, the data collected can be compared to that hypothesis.   The student investigating a word will want to brainstorm a few other words related to the targeted word.  Which structural pieces are the same?  Which structural pieces are different?  I am speaking of morphemes.  Does the student recognize affixes that could be removed in order to identify the base or bases?  A hypothesis in this situation means a possible word sum.  Oftentimes a student will consider two or three different word sum hypotheses.

The next step in either scenario is to research deeply.  The person preparing a science experiment will want to find out more about music types, heart rates, the effects music has on people, and maybe even music therapy.  The person investigating a word will want to find out when his/her word was first attested and what it meant at that time.  The person may consult several etymological references to find out the word’s language of origin and its spelling in that language.  What was the lexical stem in that language of origin that became today’s base element?  In the process, the word’s story is revealed.  It may have meant different things at different times in history.  It may have had its spelling changed (for a variety of reasons) by the different groups of people who used it over time.

Now it is time for the scientist to set up the experiment, run it, and collect the data.  This will take some time.  The person running the science experiment will select a group of people to participate.  Resting heart rates will be taken, and then music will be played.  Then heart rates will be taken again.  There will be tests for different kinds of music, and the group of participants will be tested several times for each type of music.  The student investigating a word will now focus on collecting words that share the word’s root (ancestor) which was found during research.  Words found that share both the word’s ancestor AND the base’s spelling are listed as morphological relatives.  Words found that share the word’s ancestor but NOT the base’s spelling are listed as etymological relatives.  In both cases it is important to keep a journal detailing this collection process in case the experiment gets repeated at a future time.

The data is collected.  What’s next?  The student who is preparing for the Science Fair will begin making graphs and/or charts of the data so this person can make observations.  After careful consideration of what the data shows, the student draws some conclusions. Does the data support the initial hypothesis or does it falsify it?  At this point, either outcome is valid.  The student learns about the effects of different types of music on a person’s heart rate regardless of whether or not their hypothesis was “right”.  Proving the hypothesis is what drives the experiment, but if the hypothesis isn’t proven, the experiment has not failed.  It has only moved the student in a different direction with their questions and thinking.  In so many respects it is the same for the student investigating a word.  This student looks at the morphological relatives found (the words that share a common ancestor AND the base element’s spelling) and writes those words as word sums.  As the student does this, special attention is paid to the the morpheme boundaries.  This is where the student’s understanding of the single final non-syllabic <e> as well as suffixing conventions come into play.  For example, let’s say the student was writing a word sum for <describing>.  If the student wrote the word sum as <de + scribe + ing –> describing>, I would know that the student understands the importance of the single final non-syllabic <e>.  The <e> is part of the base element in this word.  If it wasn’t, then adding the vowel suffix (<-ing>) would force the (then) final <b> on the base to double.  The student includes the <e> on the base element to prevent doubling!  When the words are all written as word sums, a matrix is created.  (Just as there are several kinds of graphs on which to display science data, there are other ways to present word collections as well.  A matrix is the one to use when looking at all the elements – affixes and other bases – that can be used with a common base.)

Once the graphs/matrices are made and the students have made a list of observations, it is time to share their findings with a larger group.  The student who is presenting at the Science Fair will pull out the journal with the detailed notes and type up a list of procedures, some of the research findings, the hypothesis, the observations and more.  Those will be displayed along with the graphs or charts and any pictures on a display board.  The student doing the word investigation will decide whether to create a poster, a booklet, a skit type presentation, a video, or some type of digital presentation (perhaps similar to Powerpoint).  This person will also go back to their journal with the detailed notes and share the word’s meaning, the attestation date, the language of origin, and other interesting things that were found out about the word’s history.  They will also share the matrix they created, the related words, and any observations they have made as they reflected on their investigation.  For instance, they may have noticed interesting things about the phonology in this word’s family.  Perhaps this word is Hellenic and has a <ph> grapheme that represents a /f/ phoneme.  Perhaps there are pronunciation differences in the base of the word family as there is in the family that includes predict, diction, and indictment.  The students usually include the word in IPA so they can specifically talk about the grapheme/phoneme relationships.

As each student presents, they walk us through their exploration.  They share the most surprising things they found out and ask for questions.  Their explorations, whether the kind shared at a Science Fair or the kind shared with fellow word enthusiasts in a classroom, always get great interaction from the audience.  The work investigated with this scientific lens is so worthy that audience members can’t help but become engaged themselves and think of their own questions.


It sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it?  I bet some of you are even thinking, “My students can’t do all that.”  But given the chance, your students will prove to you that they can.  My students begin fifth grade with very little true understanding about our written language.  But amazingly, within two to three months of school they are eager to investigate words on their own and in much this way!  They are so hungry to be actively involved in their learning!  As we continue through the year, they become more and more independent in their pursuit.  THIS is what Ella was pointing at when she said that our word work was a lot like what Jacob Barnett was describing.  When we investigate words (and conduct science experiments), we  “STOP LEARNING AND START THINKING!



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:


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:


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?


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:


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:


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?

We’ve enlarged our understanding this day – that’s for sure!

On Friday I chose the word ‘large’.  I wrote it on the board with a denotation of “big” underneath.  I read seven words, using each in a sentence so the student wouldn’t have to rely on my isolated  pronunciation alone.  They heard it in context and that helped with understanding its meaning and grammatical use.

I asked the students to write either a synthetic word sum or an analytic word sum on their paper for each word.

After I collected the papers, the students volunteered to write their word sum on the board.  If there was a question about any of them, it was asked and explained by fellow students before we went on to announce the word sums.

The following video is an example of the way students announce and explain word sums.  It was taken on a different day with a different base, but gives you the idea of what I mean by “announcing the word sum.”

When I looked at the collected papers over the weekend, I noticed that very few recognized an <en-> prefix.  Most assumed it was an <in-> prefix.  But why wasn’t it an <in-> prefix?  That is something I never thought about before!

So today I started class with the word ‘enlarged’ on the board.  My first question to the students was, “Why is there a final non-syllabic <e> here?  What is its job in this word?”  My second question was, “Why is the prefix an <en-> and not an <in->?  What followed was so delightful that I just had to share by writing this post!

Why is there a final non-syllabic <e> in <enlarge>?

I called on Tyler, and he said, “Well, I have two ideas.  It might be there so we know how to say the <a>, or else it might be there so we say /dʒ/ at the end.”
“Interesting.”  I spoke to the rest of the class.  “What do you think about what Tyler just said?”
“I agree that the <g> is pronounced /dʒ/ if the <e> is there.”

So I asked for some words that have a final <g>.  I wanted them to compare the pronunciation of a final <g> in a word to a final <ge>.  Some of the suggested words were flag, frog, dog, and drag.  The difference in pronunciation (/g/ in flag and /dʒ/ in large) was quite noticeable.

Next I had them pull out their orthography notebooks and turn to the page where we are keeping track of the different jobs a final non-syllabic <e> might have.  We added that a final non-syllabic <e> can affect the pronunciation of the preceding letter <g>.

Then we went back to address Tyler’s other idea.  “Is it possible that this <e> is also affecting the pronunciation of the <a> in this word?”
A student responded with, “I don’t think so.”
I asked, “Can you name a word where the final non-syllabic <e>is clearly affecting the pronunciation of the previous vowel?”
The student replied with “Cake.  The <a> in enlarge is not being pronounced like the <a> in cake.”

Excellent.  Time to move on to my second question to the class.


Why is the prefix an <en-> and not an <in->?

First off I stopped and thanked everyone.  “If so many of you hadn’t used <in-> instead of <en->, I wouldn’t have questioned it.  I knew this prefix was <en-> because I knew the word and its spelling.  Until this weekend, I never thought to stop and wonder why it isn’t <in->.  Don’t ever forget.  You aren’t the only ones learning about words in this classroom.  I am learning with you.  I constantly learn interesting stories that I wouldn’t have found without the questions being asked, the analysis being wondered about, or without the mistakes being made!  We are in this together!”

Then we went to Etymonline and looked at ‘enlarge’.  Fascinating.  This word was first attested in the mid-14th century.  At that time it meant “grow fat, increase”.  We stopped and noted that we still use it to mean that.  Then we kept reading.  It was borrowed from Old French enlargier, enlargir “make large”  (en- make + large large).  How interesting that the word itself meant (and still does) “make large”!  I noticed that in the entry, the <en-> was bolded, so I clicked on it to learn more about the <en-> prefix.

It means “in; into” and is from French and Old French <en->.  (We recognized that ‘enlarge’ had been from Old French.  We knew we were looking at the same <en->.)  Before that it was borrowed from Latin <in-> “in, into”!  What do you know?  Reading further we found out that Latin <in-> became <en-> in French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  It remained <in-> in Italian.

“I wonder if Sarah knows the Italian word for ‘enlarge’ and if it begins with an <in-> prefix,”  a few asked all at once.  (We are fortunate to have a student who moved from Italy to the United States just before school started.  She knew a little English, but not very much).  Sarah has been loving our word studies and when I saw her in the next class, I asked her about the Italian word similar to the English word ‘enlarge’.  She wrote on the board:

I asked, “Who understands how this word is similar to enlarge?”

Right away a bunch of hands went up.  “I see ‘grand’ in there.  Something that is grand (like a grand prize) is big!”  How cool!  Three months ago, they would not have seen that.  They are looking at words in a new way.  They are looking, expecting to see something that will make sense!  I love it!

At the bottom of the page there was a tab that said, “See all related words (126)”.  How common is the <en-> prefix we wondered?

What a treasure trove!  Students read out the words that were familiar — words like enact, embrace, and empower.  The fact that in some words the <en-> has assimilated to <em-> was not earthshaking.  We continually run into assimilated prefixes and talk about them.  We moved on to page two.  On this page they spotted encourage, enjoy, endanger, engage, and yes, enlarge!  A few had questions about what some of the words meant.

Then Ella asked about energy.  “What would the word sum for energy be?”  she wondered.
“Thank you for that brilliant question,” I responded.  “You are thinking like an orthographer!”

Because the word was on this list, we wrote the following word sum hypothesis with <en-> as a prefix:
<en + erg + y>

Then I had a student look it up in my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.  We found that it was borrowed from Middle French énergie.  Before that it was borrowed directly from Late Latin energia, and before that it was from Greek enérgeia “activity, orperation”  (en-  “in”  +  érgon “work”).

Rylee asked what other words have this <erg> base.  At Etymonline I found ergonomics – “the study of the efficiency of people in the work place” as well as ergophobia – “the fear of work”!

Ella’s hand went up again.  “What would the word sum for environment be?”  I smiled big.
“Great question!  What do you think it would be?  Do you see a prefix you recognize?  Do you see a suffix you recognize?”
Ella offered this:  <en- + viron + ment>.  We looked it up.  We found out that the noun ‘environment’ is not as old as the verb ‘environ’, which was first attested in the late 14th century.   The base is <viron> and has a denotation of “circle”.  So an environment is a surrounding area, an area that is encircled.

I threw in that I had learned over the weekend (Scholarship Sunday) that many words with an <-ment> suffix are abstract nouns.  The word ‘environment’ certainly fit that.  There was an interesting discussion about this word.  Couldn’t you go out into the environment and touch it?  Wouldn’t that make it a concrete noun?  Hmmm.  Could you really touch the environment, or could you touch only a component of the environment?  In the end it was decided that environment was indeed an abstract noun.  Other words with an <-ment> suffix were suggested such as argument, comment, and government.  These were certainly abstract nouns.  What an interesting thing to keep in mind as we continue investigating and thinking about words!

We continued looking through the list of words related to <en-> at Etymonline.  The best was the last word listed – ‘ink’.  The immediate question was, “Would the word sum be <in- + k>?”
“Let’s revisit your question after we read a bit.”

I was able to introduce Samuel Johnson as the entry began with his definition of ink as, “The black liquor with which men write.”  I wondered if liquor had a different sense then, so I looked in his dictionary and found that he defined liquor as “anything liquid”. He was quite an interesting dictionary writer!  In case you are unfamiliar with Samuel Johnson, he published his dictionary in 1755.  It took him 7 years to complete.  Other dictionaries that existed at the time tended to include words considered to be hard and/or hardly used.  His dictionary focused on the words in use at the time and on the way they were used.  It was considered THE dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary was published.

Besides that, we noticed that where the rest of these related words began with an <in> that later became <en>, this word began with the <en> spelling and in PDE has an <in>!  It began as  Old French enche, encre.  Prior to that it was from Late Latin encaustum, and prior to that it was borrowed from Greek enkauston.  What was so interesting was the denotation of the Hellenic etymon kaiein “burn”.  We’re talking about ink, right?  What does an etymon meaning “burn” have to do with it?

Well, it seems that this is referring to a purple-red ink used by the Greek and Roman emperors for their signatures that was prepared with heat.  Etymonline states, “It was the name of the purple-red ink, the sacrum encaustum, used by the Roman emperors to sign their documents; this was said to have been obtained from the ground remains of certain shellfish, formed into writing fluid by the application of fire or heat, which explained the name. In the Code of Justinian, the making of it for common uses, or by common persons, was prohibited under penalty of death and confiscation of goods.”

Wow.  We tried to imagine how a liquid could be obtained in this manner!  Or why people would even try to make it if the punishment was so severe!

It was time to revisit the question, “Would the word sum for ink be <in- + k>?”  After having read and discussed the entry, the student didn’t think so.  There wasn’t any evidence of a <k> base.  But boy, oh, boy! What an interesting story!


This is how learning about our language can go.  One day you plan something to do, and because of what gets noticed during the course of your plan, several other learning opportunities appear.  It is all good, of course, but the unplanned discoveries are the best!  We all (teacher included) leave the room smiling.



Phonology is something … but it isn’t EVERYTHING!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

accommodate   (*accomodate)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


which   (*wich)

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

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

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

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

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

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



receive  (*recieve)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



until  (*untill)

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

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

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

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

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



occurred  (*occured)

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

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

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

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


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



separate   (*seperate)

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

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

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

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

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

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


government  (*goverment)

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

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

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

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


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



definitely  (*definately)

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

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

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

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


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



pharaoh  (*pharoah)

A pharaoh is an ancient Egyptian ruler.

This is a free base with no affixes.

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

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


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


publicly   (*publically)

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

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

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

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


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




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

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

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

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

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


Doing the Right Thing Because it is the Right Thing to Do

When you begin to learn what is real about English spelling, you begin also to swim upstream in an educational world that has been led to believe that reading begins with phonics. Those in the front lines (tutors and teachers of kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade) who have received intense training in this phonics-first model, seem to struggle the most in imagining a world that begins with meaning and then considers morphology, etymology, and phonology as interrelated in explaining a word’s spelling.

When first hearing about Structured Word Inquiry, educators who have seen the gamut of “spelling programs extraordinaire” wonder if SWI is just the latest thing that doesn’t fulfill what it promises.  And often when they realize it is NOT a program and doesn’t have a teacher manual with all the answers in it, many feel like they don’t have the time to be interested.  Such a shame. The fact that it is NOT a program is its strength.  The fact that there is no teacher manual with answers, drives home the point that with Structured Word Inquiry, answers are not what is being sought.  Ponder that a moment.

With Structured Word Inquiry, answers are not what is being sought.

“So if my students and I investigate the <o> in <people>, and find out that it is an etymological marker indicating a relationship to <population>, isn’t that the same as finding an answer?”  Fair question.  In the last bunch of years, I have been trying to clear my classroom of the word answer and substitute it instead with the word understanding.  You see, there are distinct implications with the use of these two.  When a question is asked and an answer is stated, the discussion is often done.  Everyone moves on to something else.  When a question is asked and an understanding is reached, there is that same moment of satisfaction, but there is something more.  There is also the mindset that if, at some point, we uncover further evidence, we will reach a deeper understanding.  We are open to it.  We are not done.  We are seeking to understand our language in much the same way a scientist seeks to understand our world.

Image result for jacques cousteau what is a scientist after all?

Until I began investigating words with students, I didn’t even realize the “must-have-all-the-answers” burden I was carrying.  Once I set that burden down outside the door of my classroom, I was able to move forward as wide-eyed and curious as my students.  We learned together.  More words to ponder.

We learn together. 

Think of what it is like for students to move from classroom to classroom in which there is one expert and the students are all thought of as buckets to fill.  With Structured Word Inquiry, the students are taught to find out for themselves the truths about our language.  When they are given the structure and resources to figure things out for themselves, it can be exhilarating!  They are tasting scholarship for the first time.  So empowering!

So what happens when I talk to my students about scientifically investigating words?  Or when I tell them we will be studying spelling like a scientist would?

~~We propose a hypothesis about the word’s structure, trying to figure out the word’s base element.
~~We research the word, finding more about it’s history and the implications its story might have on its spelling.
~~We collect data (words related either morphologically or etymologically).
~~We pay attention to the phonological aspects of this word and what that means for its pronunciation.

And when we have come to an understanding, when we have collected enough evidence to either prove or disprove our initial hypothesis, we share our findings with each other.  We talk about what we found and engage one another in dialogue about the research or the related words.

“Could such-and-such a word be added to this matrix?  Do you think they share the same base?”
“Where did you find this information?”
“That’s an interesting related word.  What does it mean?”
“What does that word have to do with the denotation of the base?”
“Why are those two words with that same base pronounced so differently?”

Amazing discussions happen all the time in my room.  Since giving my students this scientific framework, they have become truly curious and persistent in their research.  They no longer worry about being right or wrong.  It has become all about the evidence.  “Do I have enough? Do I need to dig for more?”

Swimming upstream in today’s educational current is challenging.  But when you see the faces of your students as a spelling all of a sudden makes sense, when they come to your room before school starts to ask if pediatrician and pedestrian share the same base element, when they can’t wait to get started on an independent investigation, or when they begin to see morphemes in words where before they only saw letters, THAT is when you know the challenging swim is the right thing to do.  And you do what you do and you share what you do, and you hope that one day the tide will change.  Pun intended.

Image result for swimming against the current


The school year ends, but the scholarship never does

During the last week of our school year, I asked my students to tell me about orthography.  After all, back in August it was a new word.  They had never studied orthography or Structured Word Inquiry before this year.  I had them choose a partner, look through the orthography notebooks they wrote in all year, and think about all they had done and all they had learned.  Then they were to write down some specific things they enjoyed about learning orthography.  I then filmed students telling me the types of things they wrote down.

Hearing what they have to say is always interesting.  And real.  They brought up the things that stood out to them.  The things that made them stop and think.  The word stories that they will remember always.  Didn’t you love the moment in the video when one student mentions the word ‘gymnasium’ and the rest of the students react by laughing?  That is the power of knowing something that lots of other people don’t know.  Look it up sometime at Etymonline.   It is from the Greek gymnos.  We could not find many words with this base (besides gymnast, gymnastic,etc.), but just yesterday a student found the word ‘gymnophobia’.  And it is NOT a fear of exercise!  We laughed!  It was like having a shared joke among friends.

And then, of course, there was the boy who laughed gleefully at the prospect of a word having a two letter base!  One of the words I show my students early in the year is ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’.  The boy is right.  It is quite delightful to know that this great big word has such a tiny base.  I like to point to this word as proof that a word can have more than one prefix and more than one suffix.  How many prefixes can you spot?  How many suffixes?  Which two letters do you suppose make up the bound base that is central to this word’s meaning?

Another student comment pointed to one of my favorite things about Structured Word Inquiry.  We learn a list of words that share a base instead of a list of unrelated words.  For example,  we looked at the free base <pend> from Latin pendere “to hang”.  We collected a list of words and checked resources to make sure they were descendants of pendere.  Here are words we had on our list:


We talked about what each of these words meant and what they had to do with the denotation of the base.  Our understanding of what each of these words meant and how they can be used deepened.  Then weeks later, after we had moved on and were studying something else, someone came bopping into the room wondering about the word ‘pendant’, and  if the <pend> in ‘pendant’ is the same base as in ‘suspend’.  Wonderful!  Isn’t that wonderful?  Long after we have investigated a single base and several of its relatives, students continue to make connections!  They became more observant with words.  They began to analyze words without even realizing they were doing it.

The boy in the video who compared past methods of learning words to what we did this year, said it well.  “With a lot of spelling tests, you usually, like, remember it super hard.  You take the test, and then you forget all of it to make room for the next test.  With what we’re doing, it’s different because you, like, remember it in a way that you actually remember it, like, in a different way that you can remember it for life.”  So true!  With rote memorization, there is no hook.  There’s nothing to connect the word too.  Students, teachers, and parents end up making up stories or songs just to make the letter order memorable.  But by looking at a word’s meaning, it’s structure, and it’s history, a student makes all kinds of connections.  A word’s birth can be connected to an event in time.  A word might have changed it’s spelling over time and there’s an interesting story about that.  Students start appreciating words!

And speaking about the history of a word, several of the students mentioned how interesting it was to dig for just that.  The further along in the school year, the better the students got at understanding the wealth of knowledge presented at Etymonline.  One student talked about how the meaning of ‘awesome’ has changed.  About a month ago a student investigated the words ‘terrific’ and ‘nice’.  She was blown away to discover that at different times in history, those words meant very different things than they do now.  She ended up making a timeline for each to show how the word’s meaning slowly evolved to be what it is today.  Another example of this very thing is what happened today in class.  A girl came in complaining that a boy in her grade was calling her 6 year old brother gay because he was playing around with a friend.  I said, “We’ll have to talk to this boy.”  But then I mentioned that this was another word that meant something else before it had to do with homosexuality.  So we looked it up.  I thought I would find that it once meant light-hearted and joyful.  Well, I did.  But that’s not all.  I was surprised to find out that in Middle English it meant “excellent person, gallant knight, noble lady”.  What a great opportunity to talk about the difference between a word’s denotation and its connotations.

What a year of meaningful learning.  Every year of this is exciting and surprising.  This kind of scholarship just can’t be boxed and repeated exactly the same way each year.  And this kind of scholarship doesn’t just disappear because the students go back to less scientific ways to study words as they move in to 6th grade.   Students come back.  They sign up for orthography as a summer school class.  They stop me in the street to tell me about words they have come across.  They talk to me about words or Greek letters when I see them at local theater productions or even in the local grocery store.

One of my all time favorite insights on the study of orthography came two years ago.  A student said, “Last year in 4th grade we’d get a list of about 15-20 words, and you just memorized them.  During word work or whatever you’d write down the words, erase them off your white board, rewrite them, and do that about 20 times.  And it got really boring really quickly.  But with this, you kind of, like, look up on the computer what the base is and what the prefixes are, what it means, all the words that are related to it, and there’s just multiple steps.  Making it more exciting.”  Did you catch that?  Structured Word Inquiry has multiple steps.  It takes longer.  It is ultimately more work.  But that is what makes it more exciting!  There is an element of discovery and surprise.  It is not repetitious.  It is not mindless.  It is engaging.  It is meaningful.  And the students prefer to be mentally engaged – to be active learners!


If You Could Choose Any Word to Investigate ….

The other day we read Skot Caldwell’s blog.  His 4th and 5th grade students had been on an investigation similar to one we had been on  —  that of collecting evidence to prove whether or not <tion> and/or <sion> were suffixes.  His students worked in partners, each investigating a word that had either <tion> or <sion> as the last four letters.

Neither of our classes could find a word in which <tion> or <sion> was the suffix.  Until we do, we must rely on the data we have collected.  And the data that Mr. Caldwell’s class and our class has gathered suggests that <tion> and <sion> are syllables and NOT suffixes.  In every case investigated we found the suffix to be <ion>.

We decided to create the following video to share with others what we have learned about the <tion> and <sion> suffixes.  It is presented as a game show.  Prepare to be entertained and educated!

In presenting their findings, Mr. Caldwell’s students created some colorful and interesting posters.  My students enjoyed them and are looking to create similar ones with the investigations we started today.  One might consider what we did today similar to a “free day” in art.  Students could work alone or in pairs and could choose any word they wanted to investigate!  It was a charged environment!  Several students ran over to the “Wonder Wall” (where students list words they wonder about but don’t have time to investigate) to choose a word.  Others had words in mind.  I don’t remember all of the words investigated today, but a few of them were platypus, hallelujah, containment, yesterday, forensic, and sycophant.  We’re hoping to conclude these investigations tomorrow and to begin posters similar to those in Mr. Caldwell’s class.