Like many native English speakers, those who are learning English often express disappointment that words that have identical letter strings do not rhyme (bomb/tomb/comb, read/red, thought/though/through). It’s interesting to me that my own attitude about that has become one of fascinated interest. Where someone else might throw their hands up and cross their eyes, I smile and pause to consider what might be going on with those words. Then I head to a trusted etymological dictionary (usually Online Etymology Dictionary first) to investigate and check out my hypotheses. At times I search through a second or even third etymological resource. Maybe I end up in either my copy of Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary or Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. I might even be led to Richard Venezky’s book, The American Way of Spelling for further understanding. The point is that I will look because I expect there to be an explanation. Those who throw their hands up and cross their eyes have never been taught that an explanation is possible. What a shame. Because an explanation is not on the surface of the word, those people think it doesn’t exist. I guess they’ve never applied the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” to a word. What a difference that has made for my students and me!
This morning I was reading THIS ARTICLE in Huffpost called “35 Confusing Things About the English Language”. Nine out of the 35 comments listed were related to the expectation that things with similar spellings should be similar in their pronunciations. That’s 1/4 of the comments!
Since I don’t fluently speak another language, I’ve never stopped to wonder whether or not a letter or letter combination in another language is reliably pronounced one certain way. I’ve just always understood that in English it’s not that way. As my respected orthography teacher says, “English spelling represents the language we already speak. Its job is not to teach us how to speak our own language.” The job of English spelling is to represent meaning. You see, words are a combination of morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest functioning unit in the construction of a word’s meaning. As morphemes are joined, the word’s meaning emerges.
A morpheme, either alone or in combination with other morphemes, constructs meaning. Each morpheme on its own might not carry specific meaning, (I’m thinking of a connecting vowel here and perhaps some suffixes) but each has a function in connecting the morphemes that do. In a completed word, every morpheme can be identified, and its function (as it relates to the construction of the word’s meaning) explained. Morphemes are bases (free or bound) and affixes. The base carries the principle meaning in the word. Affixes are either derivational (alter the meaning of the word by building on the base) or inflectional (have a grammatical function). All prefixes are derivational whereas suffixes are either one or the other. Very few people have been taught to look at a word and automatically think about what its morphemes might be and what sense and meaning they bring to the total word. Instead, most people look at a word and think that the spelling of the word dictates its pronunciation. Then they get frustrated that sounding out the letters doesn’t always result in a recognizable pronunciation of the word in question.
I have to wonder if it isn’t our own fault that we have this unrealistic expectation that words spelled similarly must rhyme. After all, think about how we teach reading in our country. Imagine yourself looking in on a primary grade classroom where students are being taught that word families include words that 1) have a certain string of letters and 2) all rhyme. Here’s an example:
What is at the head of this “family”? It is a string of letters that carries absolutely no meaning. After completing worksheets and lessons focusing on many many “families” like this, a student might very well expect that whenever a string of letters seen in one word is also in another, the two words will rhyme. Why wouldn’t they after having it demonstrated to them over and over? Are they ever told that it doesn’t always work that way? Are they ever shown examples of words that share the same string of letters but that DON’T rhyme? Right from the start children are being told something that isn’t always true, only they aren’t told that it isn’t always true. In other words, we are setting them up with this unrealistic expectation. As they begin encountering words for which this is not true, they look to their teachers for explanations. Unfortunately many teachers were never given an explanation themselves, and so have no explanation to share. And boom! The English-spelling-is-crazy-and-makes-no-sense fallacy is born to yet another generation.
What if we used that idea of a word family to signal something more helpful to a child’s comprehension AND spelling of words. What if we taught children right from the start that a word family is a group of words that share a base, and that a base carries the main sense and meaning found in all words built from that base. And most importantly, that sometimes the base is pronounced the same among words within a family, and sometimes it isn’t. Here’s an example:
The base element here is <sign>, and it has a denotation of “mark”. Now look at all the words I’ve listed that are morphological relatives (that means that they all share the spelling of the base AND they share an ancestor. Their etymological root is Latin signum “identifying mark”. As you think about each of these words, think about their meaning and how it has something to do with making a mark, marking something, indicating something, a symbol, or a designation.
THIS is a word family. There is a meaning relationship and there is a spelling relationship among these words. The meaning relationship is verified by checking an etymological resource to find evidence that they all are from the same root. I found out that the root in this case is Latin signum by looking at Etymonline. I began by searching for <sign>. I know it is a free base (is a word without needing affixes) and found it as both a verb and a noun. Its use as a noun is just a bit older, but both uses were attested in the 13th century. Then I read both entries to find the origin of <sign>. According to Etymonline, other interesting facts about the various uses of this word over time include:
“Ousted native token. Meaning “a mark or device having some special importance” is recorded from late 13c.; that of “a miracle” is from c. 1300. Zodiacal sense in English is from mid-14c. Sense of “characteristic device attached to the front of an inn, shop, etc., to distinguish it from others” is first recorded mid-15c. Meaning “token or signal of some condition” (late 13c.) is behind sign of the times (1520s). In some uses, the word probably is a shortening of ensign. Sign language is recorded from 1847; earlier hand-language (1670s).”
Isn’t it interesting that <sign> became preferred over the use of <token>? When we teach children to check whether two words share a root and therefore a denotation, it is likely they will also learn something about a word’s story (find themselves delving into etymology). They will also have looked at the etymological evidence to see if there is anything that helps explain a word’s spelling. This particular base has had the spelling of <sign> right from the start, but there are other words whose spelling makes sense once we know the word’s origin or influence by languages along its diachronical journey ending in our modern day use.
Teaching children about a word family like this results in them understanding that words have structure. Every word has a base element. We build related words by adding other bases or affixes to the base. Look back at my word web to see how obvious the structure of most of these words is. When we teach children about a word’s structure, we are teaching them about a word’s morphology. Announcing word sums is a way to reinforce our understanding of word structure. Take <designate>. The word sum is <de + sign + ate –> designate>. It would be announced as “d e plus s i g n plus a t e is rewritten as de sign ate.” The elements are spelled out, the arrow is announced with “is rewritten as”, and when spelling the finished word there is a slight pause between the elements to show recognition of those boundaries.
The third major consideration in teaching children about a word family as I have described it is that pronunciation piece. Studying a word family teaches children the reality about whether a common string of letters will always rhyme. It won’t. And with this kind of word family representation, they won’t ever think it should or be surprised that it doesn’t. As an example, let’s look at the family for <sign>. When we pronounce <sign>, <signer>, <cosign>, and <assignment>, the base is pronounced [saɪn]. But what happens when we pronounce <design> and <resign>? The base is pronounced [zaɪn]. And when we pronounce <signal>, <signify>, and <signet>, the base is pronounced [sɪgn]. In these three words the <g> is pronounced. But it isn’t pronounced in eight of the family members I’ve included in this web!
Just think about that. If spelling were there so we knew how to pronounce a word, most of the words in that one family would have different spellings. But they don’t! They are spelled the way they are to represent the meaning that they all share! The meaning and the shared spelling is what binds these words together into a family. We don’t have to blame the English language because words that look like they might rhyme don’t. Instead we need to appreciate the fact that the unpronounced <g> in this family is a marker letter, and as such, it marks its meaning connection to members of this family in which it is pronounced. Pronunciation is not consistent enough to be the reason for a word’s spelling, but a word’s sense and meaning is!
You may be thinking that <sign> is a word that would not be studied in a primary classroom. But why not? Surely the children know some of its related words. They don’t need to be able to read the words to understand that they all have <sign> in their spelling. They can talk about what the words mean and the teacher can talk about the structure, meaning, and even point out the differences in pronunciations of the base. More of the students will understand this than you might think, and the rest will be gaining a foundation for a more accurate understanding of how our spelling system actually works. Any classroom should make it a point to look at words that interest the students no matter how many letters the word has! If the focus is always on the structure, the meaning, the word’s relatives, and the interesting things to note about the word’s grapheme/phoneme relationships, then the word is the vehicle for the understanding. Perhaps have an “I Pick – You Pick” philosophy for choosing words to look at. It will really drum up interest!
Look at this word web that is centered around <dog>. As you include more and more of these, you can start the discussion with, “What do you notice?”
It will not take long before students say things like, “I see the word <house> in <doghouse>”. Then you know it’s time to talk about compound words. This word web could also lead to a discussion about the final pluralizing <s>. Maybe your students could quickly help you make a list of plural words and you could write them in two columns: those in which the final grapheme <s> is represented by /s/, and those in which it is represented by /z/. It won’t be long after that before they will be pointing that very thing out in plural words they are reading! And then there is the doubled <g> in <doggy>. It is not too early to talk about the doubling convention that happens when we add a vowel suffix to a base. Explain it and talk about it as an interesting thing to notice. Say something like, “I think I’ve seen that in the word <scrubbing> as well. Keep your eyes open. If you see a word that you think has a doubled consonant because of a suffix being added, let me know, and we’ll look at it together!”
Here’s another great tip: Don’t put a word web like this away until you have given students a chance to think of other words that might belong to this family. It will give you the opportunity to see what kinds of connections they are making. What if they suggested ‘hot dog’? Instead of responding yourself, give the other students the opportunity to respond. “What do the rest of you think? Does it belong? Why or why not?”.
This kind of word family is the only kind of word family. You can still talk about rhyming words if you want, but don’t call them families. If you are using them to help a child read, begin incorporating true word families as I have suggested. Sometimes we decide what our students can and cannot handle. Sometimes we misjudge them. If you are hesitant to study word families, your students will be the ones to convince you otherwise. When they point out something as they are reading in class, when they bring in a word web they made on their own at home, when they explain a suffixing convention you have previously explained, or even when they ask a question about a suffix that you didn’t expect them to, you will know they are on their way to building an understanding about the reliability of our spelling system. And you can feel great knowing that the group leaving your classroom has been taught to see below the surface of the word. They’ve peeked beneath the cover and are now judging a word by its structure (morphology), story (etymology), and grapheme/phoneme correspondences (phonology). And they are captivated!
I encourage you to click on the comments. The link is just below the end of this post in small letters. Peter Bowers has written a great response and has included links to research that may be of interest. Like I said, check it out!