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:

suspenders
suspend
dependent
independent
independence
perpendicular
depending
impending

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.