“Orthography Opens Your Curious Side!”

Another school year has come to an end.  The faces I have grown accustomed to will now grace someone else’s classroom.  I will be left with remembrances of the many times we learned together, stumbled together, and laughed together.

As we take some time to think of the ways this year has moved us all forward by increasing what we understand about our world, the topic of orthography comes to mind.  Back in September a few students lit up right away once we began talking about words and structure and reasons for spelling that had nothing to do with phonics.  The rest were quite sure that it seemed like a lot of work.

The students were used to having spelling and pronunciation be the most important thing to know about a word.  I flip flopped that thinking and asked them to consider the sense and meaning of the word before thinking about either of those.  It was really one of the toughest challenges I faced this year.

You see, when spelling and pronunciation are considered more important than a word’s meaning, then the word is an empty thing.  Learning its spelling becomes a memory task, much like memorizing digits of Pi.  The digits of Pi are random and there is no pattern to rely on.  The students had spent years memorizing words that were empty for them.  They did not see how knowing the meaning of a word would be helpful to understanding its spelling.  Long into the school year I would catch students who were trying to figure out the word sum for a word that they could not define.

Slowly but surely progress was made.  The students became more and more familiar with common prefixes and suffixes.  They began to understand that affixes affect the overall sense and meaning of the base.  They began to see words as having a structure that brings sense to the word’s spelling.  When the structure begins to be understood, then spelling doesn’t need to be memorized.  The student will be able to rely on their knowledge of that underlying word structure and suffixing conventions to spell words.

Today I asked students to think back on the orthography work we have done this year.  I asked them whether or not there is a benefit to studying it.  The following video says it all.  My students overwhelming wish other grade levels could experience it and learn some of what they have.

Over and over these comments mention that students felt a sense of depth when studying orthography that was lacking in their previous spelling programs.  Studying orthography required more writing, more thinking, more research, more discussion, more questioning and more project work than their spelling program had.  AND YET they liked it better!  There are so many great quotes I could use, but I’ll leave you with this one, “Orthography opens your curious side!”

The following video is a conglomeration of silly moments from our year together.  The students enjoyed making videos this year and were so patient with me when I was filming.  I put this one together just for them.



Enacting a Word Sum With Students and Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syllable Division and Word Sums – How Do They Compare?

Today we looked back among the words we have investigated.  I asked students to draw two columns in their notebooks.  They were to split those previously investigated words into syllables in one column and word sums in the second column so they could compare the two side by side.  After a bit of work time, I asked students to share aloud so I could record some of these words on the board.  Then we talked about what we noticed.

It was nice to revisit some of the words, and of course I enjoyed hearing what they thought of the two lists.  The first video clip is very brief and shows the master list we made on the board.  The second video clip is of students responding to the two lists.

As I reflect on our activity today, I think there is one more important thing to note.  Once we split a word into syllables, we can’t really do anything else with it.  But once we split a word into its word sum, we can build related words by pulling off or adding other affixes.  With some of the words we’ve investigated we’ve made long lists of related words in just this way!  By building word sums and identifying the base, we quite often discover dozens of words that share meaning because they share that particular base.  The fun part is that we are often surprised by our discoveries!

Syllables vs Word Sums – The Understanding Continues

Having spent so many years clapping out words and breaking them into syllables in order to memorize spellings, my students are slowly making the transition to writing word sums instead.  Today I asked them to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle.  One side was to be headed ‘Syllables’ and the other ‘Word Sum’.  Then they were to look back in their Orthography notebooks at all of the words we have investigated.  They were to choose a bunch of those words and write each two ways.  On one side they were to divide the word by syllables and on the other side to write a word sum.  Then I asked them to talk to a partner about what happens to the word parts that have meaning when we break words into syllables.

As I listened in on the conversations, I was pleased.  This was a necessary step in the letting go of old habits.  They had to prove to themselves that word sums left meaningful word parts (morphemes) intact, whereas breaking a word into syllables just left them with letter groupings that had little or no meaning.  Allison pointed out that when <congregation>, <condensation>, and <integration> were broken into syllables, they all appeared to have a <tion> final suffix.  If the <t> is left attached to the <ion>, then the base or any suffix preceding the final suffix is harder to spot.

After the chance to discuss data in small groups, we had a large group sharing of the discoveries.  Maia pointed out that when <abnormality> is split into syllables, <mal> becomes an obvious word part.  We know that <mal> means bad, and that has nothing to do with <abnormality>, so in this case, syllables confuse the reader with incorrect morphemes.  Kolby made a great point when he talked about the word <unknown>.  If we don’t learn to recognize the base element of this word, we might not realize that there is a <w> in the word.  We certainly don’t hear it when we say the word!

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.