“Traveler, there is no path, the path is made by walking.” ~ Antonio Machado

Last fall Daniel came into my classroom with writing that was almost indecipherable.  Even the most common words were misspelled.  When asked to read his writing, he stumbled, often saying, “I don’t know what that says.”  But he had a lot to say.  His head was full of humorous stories and his life was full of interesting moments.  This was fifth grade!  I wondered, “How did he get this far with such an obstacle?”

Knowing that whatever happened or didn’t happen in his previous years of schooling wouldn’t help me now, I put that on the back burner in my brain.  The only consideration given to those thoughts was the recognition that I had something to offer Daniel that hadn’t been offered to him before.  Orthography.  Perhaps this would be the year when misunderstandings about English would stop blocking his ability to express his ideas in written form.

All you need to do is read back through this blog to see the kinds of activities and explorations that happened in my class during the last year.  Beyond what I’ve posted about, we spoke ‘words’ every day.  Often I pulled misspelled words from student work, and we talked about them.  I wasn’t looking to spot out “wrong” spellers, but rather what the student might have been thinking about as he/she spelled the word.  What strategy was being used?  How might this misspelling benefit us?  What might we all learn from it?  Often times it was this activity that dictated the direction we needed to take next.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the suffixing conventions.  We started with knowing when to replace the final non-syllabic <e> and when not to.  I used a flow chart so that they could see the predictability of this convention.  It didn’t take long before the majority of the students were writing <making> instead of  *makeing.  We looked at the other suffixing conventions in the same way.  There was always an immediate effect in their writing.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the use of <k> and <ck> in words.  Students made a list of words whose spelling included <ck>.  They compared that to a list of words whose spelling included a <k>.  When comparing, they looked at the position of the phoneme within the base (initial, medial, final).   For instance, the <ck> in <picking> is not medial, it is final.  The base is <pick> and the <ck> is final in the base.  When they got the hang of keeping their focus on the base element, they found that <ck> is most often found in the final position of a base and is never initial.  The next thing to compare were the letters immediately preceding the <k> or <ck>.  They noticed that a single vowel always preceded the <ck>, and it was always short.  They also noticed that when <k> was final in the base, there were either two vowels preceding it or a consonant (usually <r> or <n>).  Students conducted research in the same way for <ge> and <dge>.  This particular research felt so scientific that I had the students calculate percentages to represent how often they found certain things (<r> before a final <k>, for example).

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the phonology of <c>.  Students made lists of words in which the grapheme <c> represented /s/ and /k/ in words.  We made lists for several days in a row, until students could confidently explain why the /s/ or /k/ pronunciation was used.  Knowing that there was a reliable way of knowing how to pronounce the grapheme <c> in a word was a light bulb moment for my students.  “Why didn’t we know this in second grade?  It would have been so helpful!”

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the phonology of <t>.  Students made lists of words in which the grapheme <t> represented /t/, /ʃ/, or /tʃ/.  Students who have already memorized the spelling of <motion> know that *moshun is wrong, but they don’t understand that the mistake is related to the phonology of the <t>.  In order to talk about these three phonemes, I needed to explain that the IPA symbol /ʃ/ represents the pronunciation of <t> in words like <lotion>, <action> and <edition>, and the IPA symbol /tʃ/ represents the pronunciation of <t> in words like <creature>, <actual>, and <question>.  This inquiry really made the students slow down and think about pronunciation.  It also made them aware of what is really going on in the spelling of the word – especially since they wrote the words in the lists as word sums.  They began to realize that pronunciation of a final <t> in a base element can change depending on the suffix that follows it.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at assimilated prefixes.  In groups of three, students were assigned a prefix group to explore.  For example, one group looked at <con->, <com->, <cor->, <col->, and <co->.  Another group looked at <in>, <il>, <ir>, and <im>.  Once they realized that many prefixes have variations in their spelling, the students slowed down and spent a moment considering when making hypotheses about a word sum.  I began seeing <immature> instead of *imature, <illegal> instead of *ilegal, and <corrode> instead of *corode.

Because of looking at misspellings, we looked at the role of the final non-syllabic <e> in various words.  It didn’t take the students long to be able to share with others at least 6 or 7 reasons for it to be there.  One way of sharing what was learned was to make a video called, “For <e>’s a Jolly Good Fellow“.  Knowing why the final non-syllabic <e> is in a word makes it easier to remember to include it when spelling!  I began seeing <change> instead of *chang and <breathe> instead of <breath> (when breathe was what was needed).

There was certainly much more we learned by looking at the words my students were using and misspelling, but I think you get the idea of how I turned “spelling mistakes” into something rich and useful.  Which takes us back to Daniel.  The orthography we were doing encompassed wonderful things he had never been asked to think about before.  But was it enough?  Will his next teacher wonder about his writing obstacle the way I had last fall?  The truthful answer is, “maybe.”

Daniel made a lot of progress.  He improved his writing in a lot of ways.  Besides looking at orthography, we studied grammar and writing.  There was a lot of practice at all of it.  But when I ran into Daniel’s mom a week after school was out,  I offered to tutor him for the summer.  Why had I done that?  What did I think I could accomplish in a few sessions that I wasn’t able to accomplish in a school year?

Some things that I learned about Daniel during the school year:   He is a dodger.  Anytime he is in a group, he counts on someone else to take the lead and he waits for their direction. He does what they tell him.  He writes what they tell him. It’s easier that way.  He pretends to be listening in class, but isn’t always.  He does not ask questions when he is confused.  His misspellings and poor writing have been pointed out so many times that he accepts failure as the norm.  He is not angry, just accepting.  He sees no point in trying to fix something that is part of the definition of who he is.  The strategy that he sticks to (that gets him into more spelling errors than not) is to “sound it out”.

I knew he “hid” in a larger class.  If I worked with him one-on-one, I felt he stood a better chance.

I started our first session by asking him to write a few sentences about his summer.  As usual, I was looking for mistakes he was making in his writing.  As it turned out, he wrote great sentences and there was only one word misspelled.  It was *calfes.  This led to a great investigation of pluralizing words such as <wolf>, <wife>, <half>, <knife>, and more.

After that I pictured a spelling error I had seen him make during the school year.  He had used the letter sequence ‘ints’ when he should have used the suffix <-ence>.  He was trying to sound out the word and spell it according to what he though he was hearing.  So he and I made two lists.  We made a list of words with the <-ence> suffix and a list of words that had a final ‘nts’ letter sequence.  The first list included words like <difference>, <reference>, <influence> and <evidence>.  The second list included words like <cents>, <quotients>, <agreements> and <payments>.  When asked to compare the two lists, Daniel recognized that the second list of words were all plural!  Then we went through each word, identifying its morphemes and talking about how it is used, and then spelling it out.  By that I mean he wrote it down, and then spelled each word aloud with a pause between each morpheme.  By doing this, he saw that <-ence> was consistently a suffix.

During the next session we reviewed the phonology of <t>.  We made lists and he spelled the words out.  We talked about the morphemes, their sense and meaning, and any related words.  We also reviewed <wolf> to <wolves>.

At the most recent session, we went back to the <-ence> suffix.  I wanted to fluctuate between <-ence> and <-ent>.  So I asked him to spell <evidence> and then <evident>, <influence> and then <influential>  (Reviewing the phonology of <t>).  We talked about them, and then I had him spell them out.  When we came to <dependence>, we paused to talk about the bound base <pend>.  We talked about a pendulum and a pendant and how they relate to being a dependent child.  Daniel spelled the word on paper and then out loud.  Thinking about another related word, I threw out the word <independence>.  Daniel quickly explained how the prefix <in-> brought a sense of “not” to the word before he proceeded to write the word on his paper.  When he spelled it out, I was surprised.  He had spelled <in – du – pend – ence>.

Interesting!  I asked him why the spelling of the prefix <de-> changed when we added the prefix <in-> to the word.  He said, ” I don’t know.  It just does?”  Interesting.  So even as I’m training him to spell out with morphemes, he’s still listening to the Queen of Hearts in his ear bellowing, “Sound it out!”

It was time to switch gears and talk about stress and the schwa.  When we pronounce the word <dependence>, the stress is on the second syllable.  Even though the first syllable is unstressed, the <e> is still pronounced clearly as a long <e>.  When we pronounce the word <independence>, there is stress on both the first and third syllables.  Some might consider the third syllable to be the primary stress in this word and the first to be secondary stress.  Either way, the second syllable becomes even more unstressed than it was in <dependence>, and the <e> in <de-> is pronounced as a schwa <ə>.  In this word, the schwa pronunciation is similar to the way we pronounce a short <u>.

To illustrate the point better, I brought up the word <chocolate>.  I asked him to say it.  We both noticed that when you say the word, there are two syllables, but when you go to write it, you think of three.  That <o> in the middle is a schwa with zero pronunciation when this word is spoken!  He played around with this idea for a bit and smiled as he spoke and the schwa syllable disappeared.

This discussion led us back to the first time Daniel spelled <dif-fer-ence> as *dif-r-ints.  I showed him both spellings and asked why he might have missed the <e> in the bound base <fer>.  The idea of written syllables versus spoken syllables was becoming slightly comfortable one.  The idea of a vowel having a schwa pronunciation was almost a relief!  When we meet again, we will pick up where this left off.  I’ll be ready with a list of words in which the schwa has altered the way the letter used might typically be pronounced.

*** Note to reader:  Daniel is a real student.  Daniel is not his real name.



Reviewing a Word’s Structure While Getting Better Acquainted with its Family

Almost all of the students have presented the Latin verb poster they put together.  We have had wonderful and rich discussions with each one.  And as we talked we noticed that not all Latin etymons became productive modern English bases.  Some of the bases we identified are found in a remarkable number of words while others are found in only a few.

For example, the twin bases <mote> and <move> are two that have become very productive in English.  My students can easily name words like remote, demote, promote, motion, emotion, motor, motel, movement, remove, moving, removal, movable and immovable.  That is certainly not a complete list, but it does demonstrate how common these two bases are.

Some of the Latin etymons became modern English bases that have not become very productive.  Take the Latin verb frango, frangere, frego, and fractus for example.  By removing the Latin suffixes on the infinitive and supine forms of this verb, we get the Latin etymons <frang> and <fract>.  The modern English bases that are derived from those etymons are spelled exactly the same!  You will no doubt recognize the following group of words with <fract> as the base: fraction, fracture, fractal, refractive, diffraction, and infraction.  But the only words my students found that share the <frang> base are frangible and refrangible.  See what I mean?  In English <frang> has not become a very productive base.

Since we have lined our hallway with Latin Verb posters, all we had to do was take a walk in order to identify those very productive modern bases!  We chose ten.  Some are twin bases and some are unitary.  We have decided to spend time looking at the words in these ten families and seeing what else we can notice.

We began with the bases <lege> and <lect>.  The denotation of these twin bases is “to gather, select, read”.  I asked the students to get out a piece of lined paper.  I read some words from this family and asked them to do two things. They were to write the word and they they were to write the word sum, keeping in mind that the base would either be <lege> or <lect>.  Some of the words they wrote down were lecture, select, lectern, collection, election, legion, legible and legibly.  The next step was for the students to come to the board and write the word and word sum up there so we could look at it and talk about it.

One of the first things I noticed was that someone wrote the word sum for <lectern> as <lect> + <urn>.  I wonder if that is a result of misguided practice in which students have been asked to search for a word within a word.  If this word was split into syllables, it might just be seen as ‘lec – turn’.  Anyway, I adjusted the suffix to read <ern>.  Then the students helped me list words with that suffix.  I got them started with lantern and cavern.  They added eastern, western, govern and modern.  Even though most knew that the suffix in <lecture> was <-ure>, we still brainstormed other words that use that suffix like treasure, pleasure, measure, nature and capture.

A third interesting thing to discuss was the way most students used an <-able> suffix in <legible> instead of an <-ible> suffix.  One certainly can’t choose which to use based on pronunciation!  I asked for  <-able>/<-ible> to be written on the Wonder Wall.  I have more information in a Smartboard presentation and will show it next week.

The most important thing of all, though, was how the students felt when they saw that they could spell these words when they concentrated on the morphemes.  They didn’t have to struggle with thinking about all the letters at once!  Instead they focused on each morpheme as it came and the spelling fell into place!


Yesterday when the students walked in the door, I had <scribe / script> on the board with its denotation “to write”.  I didn’t even have to ask them to get out paper.  They sat down and quickly pulled out paper and pencil.  I read words like describe, subscription, prescriptive, scribble, scripture, subscribe, and scriptorium.  More students volunteered to write their word sums on the board than had volunteered yesterday!  They were enjoying seeing what they could figure out.

With this collection, we had the opportunity to talk about the way the <t> (final in the base <script>) represented a different sound in <prescriptive>, <subscription>, and <scripture>.  I’m sure that in their minds (until yesterday) the letter <t> represented only one sound – /t/.   When I saw that a boy in the front row had spelled <subscription> as ‘subscripshen’, I said out loud, “Wouldn’t it make sense for someone who has been told to sound out words when spelling to use an <sh> in <subscription>?  But look what is really happening.  The pronunciation of the letter <t> can be altered by the first letter of the suffix.”  We all said the three words so that we could feel the difference in pronunciation.  We talked about how some people pronounce <scripture> as if there is a <ch> following the <p> and some people pronounce it as if there is a <sh> following the <p>.  Another great opportunity to prove to the students that spelling is not about pronunciation.  It is about meaning!

An additional highlight with these particular twin bases (besides the students smiling at their increased level of successful today!) was the word sum for <scriptorium> that someone had written on the board.  It was written as <scriptorium> –> <script> + <or> + <i> + <um>.  I wasn’t so sure about there being a connecting vowel between two suffixes, and when I mentioned that, the students thought that made sense.  But instead of leaving it at that, we scheduled a Zoom session with our favorite French friend, Old Grouch!


He helped us understand the Latin stem suffix <-i>, the Latin suffix <-um> and the present day English suffix <-ium>!  He showed us his own scriptorium and the students decided that a person who does the writing would be called a scriptor.  This recognition also lead to a discussion of agent suffixes (those that indicate the noun is a person).  That discussion led to a review of using the agent suffix <-or> instead of <-er> if the base can take an <-ion> suffix.  The examples Old Grouch used was profession/professor and action/actor.  Later, the students added animation/animator, instruction/instructor, and division/divisor!  My personal favorite is one that I noticed at an airport I visited in November.  The pair is recombulation/recombobulator!  If I was in the recombobulation area after going through security, and I was getting all of my things back in order, then I was a recombobulator!


We are so grateful to be able to ask Old Grouch questions.  We always walk away smiling, and with a head full of interesting information to ponder!  Knowing that we began our Zoom session at 8:20 a.m. and knowing that it was 3:20p.m. where Old Grouch lives, one of the students asked if he had a nice siesta.  When he was remarking that he had, he also asked if we knew the word <siesta>.  We did not.  He explained that it is from Spanish for six.  Siesta is held six hours after daybreak!  Like I said, we always walk away smiling, and with something interesting to ponder!

You Say Spelling Makes Sense? Show Me.

A new group of fifth graders.
A promise to prove that that spelling makes sense.
Skeptical looks.
An introduction to the matrix.
Smiles and head-nods.
The evidence begins stacking up.

Our mission today was to build a matrix using the base word <hope>.  I began by asking students to suggest words built from that base.  Here is the list we ended up with.


Next I moved to a clear area of the board and wrote the base word.  I spelled it out loud as I wrote it.  I told the students that when working with words on a matrix or in a word sum, we always spell out the base and the affixes.  The look on their faces told me they needed to know why.

I moved to the side and wrote the base <sign> on the board.  I said, “This is a free base.  It is a word by itself.  It does not need an affix to be a word.  If it is used all by itself, how is it pronounced?”  The students read it as you might expect – /saɪn/.  Then I wrote the following word sum:  <sign> + <al>  –> signal.   I said, “Look carefully at what I did.  I added a suffix to the base <sign> and the pronunciation of the base changed!  In the word <sign>, the <g> represents no sound at all.  In the word <signal>, the <g> represents /g/.  Now look what happens when I add the prefix <de> to the same base.”  I wrote the word sum <de> + <sign> and asked someone to tell me what word we just made.  The students now had a look of understanding on their faces when they read the word <design>.  The pronounced /s/ in <sign> was now a pronounced /z/.  Three words.  Three different pronunciations of the base.  No change to the spelling of the base.  We must spell out morphemes until our word is finished.  Then we can look at pronunciation.

Now I went back to building our matrix.  I asked for suffixes that could be added directly to our base.  Students suggested <-ed>, <-ing>, <-ful>, <-s>, and <-less>.  I arranged them in a column since they could all be added directly to the base.


On the matrix you can see that I drew a vertical line to separate <-ful> and <-less> from <-ness> and <-ly>.  That is to show that <-ness> and <-ly> would never be added to the base directly.  They would only be added to the suffixes <-ful> and <-less>.  In this way we can make the words <hopeful>, <hopefulness>, <hopefully>, <hopeless>, <hopelessness> and <hopelessly>.  The horizontal line is drawn separating <-ed>, <-s> and <-ing> from <-ful> and <-less> because the suffixes <-ness> and <-ly> cannot be added to the top three suffixes.

Next it was time to talk about writing word sums.  What you see below would be read as, “h – o – p – e   plus   e – d   is rewritten as   (check the joins) … [at this point the student pauses and checks the places where the two morphemes, in this case a base and a suffix, are being joined.  Because we are adding a vowel suffix, the <e> in <-ed> will replace the final <e> in the base.  The final <e> in the base then gets crossed out and the reading out loud continues.]  … h – o – p –  (no   e)  –  ed.”  It’s important to say “no <e>” because in doing so we are acknowledging that the final <e> on the base is being replaced. The student realizes it is part of the base, and when deconstructing the word <hoped>, that final <e> needs to resurface.


The plot thickens and so does the understanding.

Next I posed this question to the students.  “Why is there only one <l> in <hopefulness> and two in <hopefully>?


There was no hesitation.  Using the matrix, the students easily explained that there was one <l> in the suffix <-ful> and one <l> in the next suffix <-ly>.


I used this opportunity to ask if anyone ever had to ask themselves if a specific word had one <l> or two.  Many hands went up.  We talked about the difference between the free base word <full> and the suffix <-ful>.  I asked someone to tell me if <really> had one <l> or two.  I said, “This is how you will always know.  Simply ask yourself what the base is.  Then ask yourself what the suffix is.  As you get more and more familiar with suffixes, you will see how they are used over and over with many different bases.  And you will begin to realize that unfamiliar words are often made up of familiar parts.  So far, you’ve been taught to listen to what words sound like.  Now we’re going to add to that and learn to see what words are made of.”


As a final piece I wrote the word <doeing> on the board, pointing out that this was how one of the students had spelled this word yesterday.  I asked, “Why is it logical that this student inserted an <e> into this word?”  The students recognized that there is an <e> in the related word <does>.  I asked for the base of this word and together we built a matrix.  With this example I was again able to reiterate what I had said earlier.  “You don’t ever have to wonder how to spell <doing> again.  Think of what the base is and what the suffix you are adding is.  We don’t randomly add letters and we don’t randomly drop them.”


Twin Base Investigations Always Reveal So Much!

Working with Latin twin bases is a lot of fun. In the following video, Kyla and Aevri looked at Invado, Invadere, Invasi, and Invasus.  They began by practicing probable pronunciations of these four principal verb forms.  They looked at Latdict for a definition of this verb and then determined whether or not they were dealing with twin bases.

I liked the way Aevri and Kyla used color to indicate a word sum of sorts when listing their words.  The base was written in purple and the suffix(es) were written in green.  We talked about the fact that the <e> seen in the base <invade> gets replaced by the vowel suffixes <er>, <ing>, <ed> and <er> + <s>.  If the suffix(es) are removed, then the single nonsyllabic <e> makes its appearance once more.

When Cooper suggested that perhaps <evade> was related to these words, I was thrilled.  As soon as we were done filming, Aevri went to Etymonline and looked up the word.  Its structure is <e>(a clip of <ex>, meaning ‘out’) + <vadere> (from Latin, meaning ‘go, walk’).  On the very same page was the word <invasion>.  Its structure was listed as <in>(meaning ‘in’) + <vadere>(meaning ‘go, walk’).  Another word that could be added to a matrix with <vade> as a bound base would be pervade, meaning ‘to spread or go through’.


In this next video, Cooper and Haley looked at Frango, Frangere, Frangi and Fractus.

This investigation brought some interesting words to our attention.  Refractory and diffract were two of those.  It was interesting to find out that refractory prisoners in the late 1800’s were subject to a frog march.  This meant that they were carried face down by four people, each carrying a limb!  So if your behavior is refractory (stubborn, obstinate), you are breaking away from what is expected.

When we discussed <diffract>, we noted that the prefix <dif-> was an assimilated form of the <dis-> prefix and that they both mean ‘apart or away’.  Diffraction is a noun that is typically used in science when talking about what happens when an obstacle is placed in the path of a light or sound wave.

“Orthography Makes Spelling Less Complicated”

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

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

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

Focusing on Word Structure

As we were watching a video about the water cycle, I wrote the following words on the board:

condensation                  evaporation                         transpiration
infiltration                       percolation                          precipitation
interception                     evapotranspiration

What an orthographic opportunity!  The students were quick to recognize that everyone of these had an <ion> suffix.  Next I asked students to say and then spell the word that would remain if the <ion> suffix was removed.  The words listed were now:

condensate                     evaporate                            transpirate

infiltrate                         percolate                              precipitate

intercept                        evapotranspirate

With the exception of the word <intercept>, all the rest had something in common.  The students again pointed out an <ate> suffix.  I asked why the <e> on the end of <ate> didn’t show up once we added the <ion> suffix to the word?  Everyone knew that it was dropped when the vowel suffix <ion> was added.  At this point I recognized though, that some of the students thought the second suffix was <at> instead of <ate>.   In our recent “The Great Suffix Challenge” activity I learned that some of those same students have little understanding of suffixes, other than their position in the word.  We must keep writing out word sums and talking about each morpheme’s role in the word.

Next I asked if anyone recognized any proven prefixes.  Several recognized <inter>, meaning between and <pre>, meaning before.  Even though we had previously discussed <e> being a clip of <ex> (meaning out) and <con> (meaning together), no one recognized them offhand.    I grouped the students and had each group further investigate each word.

As the bases were identified, discussions took us in all sorts of fascinating directions.

The meaning of the word <evaporation> became something we could clearly picture once we knew that <e> was the prefix meaning out  and <vape> was the base meaning steam.  We pictured water evaporating from a tea kettle, a puddle, and a lake.  Our complete word sum hypothesis was <e> + <vape/> + <or> + <ate/> + <ion>.   When deciding whether the base was <vape> or <vapor>, we looked for other words sharing this meaning and found <vapid>.  This word was our evidence that <or> was a suffix.  We decided that without the final <e> on the base, the final consonant <p> would be forced to double when adding a vowel suffix.  Since we know that in words like vaporize and evaporate there is only a single <p>, then we also know there must be a final <e> on the base <vape>.  For those who were confused as to why the base might have a final <e>, I wrote <hoping> on the board and asked them to remove the <ing> suffix.  When they said the base was <hope>, I showed them that the final <e> in <hope> is doing the same job as the final <e> in the bound base <vape>.

Another intriguing discussion arose with the word <infiltration>.  The word sum hypothesis was <in> + <filtr> + <ate/> + <ion>.  As we typically do, we looked for other words that shared the base <filtr> and its meaning.  We found filtration, infiltrate, infiltrator, infiltrated, filter, filtering, filtered, and filters.  Much to my delight, someone asked how we could add an <er> suffix to the base <filtr> to get the word <filter>.  The student knew we wouldn’t just drop the final <r> in the base, but also knew that simply adding the <er> suffix wouldn’t get us the spelling of <filter> either.

The bound base <filtr> behaves similarly to <centr>, <metr>, and <theatr>.  Structurally it makes sense to spell these four with a final <re> rather than an <er>.  Let me give examples using word sums:

<filtr> + <ate/> + <ion> –> <filtration>
<centr> + <al> –> <central>     OR     <centr> + <i> + <fuge/> + <al>  –>  <centrifugal>
<metr> + <ic> –> <metric>       OR    <metr> + <o> + <nome>  –>  <metronome>
<theatr> + <ic> + <al>  –> <theatrical>

In other countries, these words are indeed spelled <filtre>, <centre>, <metre>, and <theatre>.  At some point in American history, the <re> ending was reversed so that these words resembled all of the other words in our language that have an <er> suffix.   Alas! In doing so, another road block to understanding word structure was set in place.  Center and central seemed to be two words that were related in meaning, but not in spelling or structure.  But, of course, that is not what scholarly research and evidence reveals!  My students are now as fascinated with this information as I am.

One final treasure was when we found the base of <transpiration> to be <spire> which means to breathe.  The students began collecting other words with that base and we talked about how each word shared that sense of breathing.  When we studied photosynthesis, we first used the word <transpiration>, and knew that it was that plant action of pulling water up from the roots, through the xylem, through the leaf into the cell and out the stomata.  In this way the plant is breathing.  When we came across the word <perspiration>, the light bulb of meaning connection went off in my own head and I said, “Transpiration.  Perspiration.  Anybody seeing any similarities in meaning?”  Eyes widened and hands shot up.   From there we talked about <respiration>, <inspiration> and <expiration>.  THIS is the stuff you don’t find in spelling workbooks!


Shedding Light on Plant Processes

Wow!  It’s been a very busy eight days since I first handed out the scripts for our Photosynthesis Follies.  Yesterday and today we performed for twelve different audiences!  They included almost all of the students in our building and lots of parents and family members.  Over and over again we explained the process of photosynthesis to all those who came to listen.

Back in our classroom, in the chunks of time between those performances, the students took a closer look at the words photosynthesis and transpiration.  They began with basic definitions and then created word sum hypotheses.  Watching the videos it is obvious there is more to discover.  In the first video, Jacob’s research took him in many directions!  He was one of three who rather excitedly asked if he could work on this at home too!  This was the first time the students were off on their own to explore.  The lists of words he found to prove the <ic> suffix and the <photo> prefix are impressive.  He had come across many examples of <syn> as a prefix as well, but didn’t have them all written down.



In this video Zoe is also looking at photosynthesis.  She has found evidence to support her word sum hypothesis  <photo> + <syn> + <thesis>.   Next up is understanding what each morpheme means and how they help us uncover a deeper sense of what photosynthesis is.



In the next video this team of girls came up with some interesting ideas.  It is so second nature for the students to begin with the notion of sounds in words.  I found it interesting that this was one of the few groups that recognized that there is an <e> that was dropped when the suffix <ion> was added.  More investigating will uncover the other morphemes in this word.

The boys in the second half of this clip made a great discovery minutes after my camera battery gave up.  They had found the word <expire> and were comparing it to <transpire>.  I can’t wait to see what comes of this!



What an exciting time.  The students are ready for the challenge of figuring things out on their own.   This is going to be a wonderful year!

Who You Gonna Call? Mythbusters!

After a delightful discussion today regarding our treasured Skype visit with Michel on Friday, our small group of orthographers decided that we are indeed mythbusters!  Early last week we busted the myth that <tion> is a suffix, and now we have busted the myth that <ial> is a suffix!  It feels great to bust through our old misunderstandings and see words clearly for what they are.

Last Friday, Michel explained about connecting vowels.  We didn’t have as much trouble identifying the connecting vowels in tutorial, aerial, and memorial, as we did with the words racial, facial, and residential.  The difference is what happens when the connecting vowel <i> follows the <c> or the <t> in those words.  The letters <c> and <t> represent different phonemes in those cases than they do in the base words race, face, and resident.  What we learned is that a connecting vowel doesn’t always have its own syllable.

In our search to figure out if <ial> was a suffix or not, we looked at word searcher for words we knew that ended with an <ial>.  Then we tried to find evidence by finding the base of each word.  Along the way we were mislead by an entry in Etymonline (residential + -ial) and a similar one in an online dictionary.  But after looking at the Toolkit and talking with Michel, we understand about connecting vowels.  At the workshop Pete Bowers led, he reminded us over and over that we can’t just rely on one resource because, after all, human beings made each and every resource, and as human beings are all subject to error!  Here is the list of words we researched and our evidence that they, in fact, have an <al> suffix.

We were wondering whether <ial> was a suffix.  After two days of research, these are some of our hypotheses.

We hypothesize that in the following words <i> is a connecting vowel and <al> is the suffix:
à <aer> + <i> + <al>
à <tutor> + <i> + <al>
à <memor> + <i> + <al
à <reside> + <ent> + <i> + <al>
à <differ> + <ent> + <i> + <al>
à <race> + <i> + <al>
à <face> + <i> + <al>
à <office> + <i> + <al
à <finance> + <i> + <al>

We hypothesize that in the following words, the <y> is changed to an <i> and an <al> suffix is added:
à <bury/i> + <al>
à <try/i> + <al>
à <artery/i> + <al>

 We hypothesize that in the following words, there is an <al> suffix:
à <imperi> + <al>
à <soci> + <al>
à <seri> + <al>

This led to a revised version of our matrix:


Today we spent our time looking at several matrices and noticing how pronunciation in a base sometimes shifts when a suffix is added to that base.  We looked at tempest and tempestuous, real and reality, and heal and health.  Looking at matrices also gave us opportunity to talk about “checking the joins” and what that means.

Syllable Use Helps With Spelling? Not Likely!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach It! Then You’ll Know If You Know It!

Our class was invited to teach the three second grade classrooms in our building about word sums!  With great enthusiasm and excitement, we accepted.   We chose the word <star> because we knew they were studying the solar system.  Next, the fifth grade students brainstormed a list of words with <star> as a base.  Once we had that list, we sorted out the compound words from the “base plus suffix” words.  Someone volunteered to create the matrix based on our brainstormed list, and we were ready to practice.

For three days, the students practiced explaining what they knew to a partner.  We talked about naming bases and suffixes.  We talked about adding vowel suffixes to <star>.  We talked about spelling out loud while writing the word sum.  We talked about the “is rewritten as” arrow.  We talked about having in mind a logical order in which to share all this. We talked about compound words.

I was fascinated by our first visit.  The second graders were eager to please.  A few of the  fifth graders weren’t as secure in their own understanding as I thought.  I heard the “is rewritten as” arrow referred to as “equal” and “combines”.  There weren’t enough second graders spelling out loud.  But there were also these lovely moments when the joy of teaching and the joy of learning lit up each pair of students.



After that first experience, my students were looking forward to visiting the second and third classrooms and doing it again, only better!  We talked more about the importance of repeating the spellings out loud and of having slight pauses between two bases (compound) or between a base and a suffix.  I also stressed the importance of teaching that the arrow be referred to as “is rewritten as”.

With experience grows confidence.  The fifth graders thoroughly enjoyed being the teachers.  I enjoyed seeing them cement the cracks in their own understanding.  One second grade boy was paired up with his fifth grade sister.  He asked if she would teach him more when they got home!  Another second grader asked why there wasn’t another matrix on the back side of the paper!  Both groups decided this was fun!