I had them start in the top left space. I told them they had 60 seconds to:
Write the base as a compound word with <sphere> as its second base.
Quickly draw something that came to mind when thinking of the base’s denotation.
Write at least one other word that shared the base.
They panicked about the 60 seconds at first, but when the 60 seconds were over, they realized it was plenty of time to do what was asked. I chose 60 seconds so that they would draw the first thing that popped into their head. I did not want them to think too hard about the perfect thing to draw. I had them draw because many students will be able to remember the image of the denotation more quickly than the denotation by itself.
After we finished the tenth base, it was time to review and share. Volunteers read aloud each compound word, pausing slightly between morphemes. It was so obvious that they understood that all of these words shared a structure. Students who would have balked at spelling these words several weeks ago, now confidently spelled them. Their understanding of morphemes and the meanings they contribute to a finished word has been growing!
When I asked for the words they thought of that shared the first base, things got interesting! The white board quickly filled up. I had to start making a list of words that I wasn’t familiar with. “After all,” I said to my students, “just because I haven’t heard the word doesn’t mean it isn’t in use somewhere!” The thing is, all of the words they suggested looked and sounded convincing. In other words, structurally they all worked!
I am thrilled that these students could put together such an interesting collection so quickly! I am also thrilled that they are playing with what they understand about the structure of words! But I also know that structure is only half of it. A word’s meaning is always echoing, even if faintly, the denotation of the base. If the word is structurally sound and if the denotation of the base/bases is represented in the definition, then we have to see how the word is used by people. Ultimately, that will decide how productive the word is.
For example, one of the words suggested by a student was <lithotrope>. Structurally it is sound. Its word sum or algorithm is <lith> + <o> + <trope>. But what does it mean? The student who offered it quite confidently said it was a turning rock. “You know, the earth!”
I replied, “I love it! I have no idea whether that is a word we’ll find anywhere else or not, but I will look for it!” I put it on my list to verify. I was pretty sure my student invented it, but I was open to whatever I would find. Some other words I had on my list were mesographic, mesothermal, geolithic, and geotherapy.
At this point it would be good to mention the TED video I showed my students last week. Erin McKean is a lexicographer. She writes dictionaries. In this video she encourages her viewers to make up new words and she suggests several ways to do just that. As you might guess, my students were ready to invent new words, and between yesterday and today they did just that without really planning to! They were delighted!
Today I was prepared to talk about the words on my list plus quite a few of the other words that had been on the board yesterday.
When I first heard it, I wondered if it wasn’t some sort of mud bath for humans. Well, I did find it used in that way, but I also found that it could refer to humans correcting a situation within an environment. Geotherapy is the process of remineralizing the soil in an ecosystem that has suffered a loss. It is definitely an established word.
While this one sounds impressive as a science word, I could find no evidence of it being currently used, and when different groups of students were asked what it might mean, there was only a shrugging of shoulders and the words, “Earth rock?” We decided it was not currently in use, and we weren’t sure that it had a place in our science conversations.
Mesothermal refers to the climate in temperate zones where it is moderately hot and not cold enough for snow to stick to the ground. We all smiled as we recognized how the denotation of each base gave us a clue to what this word meant!
Another impressive sounding word with an understandable structure, but without a recognized use according to our dictionaries and Google! The students couldn’t decide precisely how this word would be used, so we appreciated it, and moved on.
Although we could not find this word in use anywhere, it was one of our favorites. When I asked students in my other classes if they thought we could refer to the earth as a lithotrope, they paused to think about it, smiled and said, “Sure! Cool!”
When we googled images of the hydrangea, students recognized this flower. It can be white, blue, pink, or even purple. But what is its connection to water? Why the <hydr> spelling? At Etymonline we see that the word <hydrangea> means “water vessel” or “water capsule”. It is so named because the seed pod is cup-shaped! Such an interesting detail!
We had been talking about this word on and off for a week, but I still wasn’t sure the students understood how it involved water. We watched the following video which really helped. We imagined the syringes with the colored water as they would look on a large machine, covered in metal and moving specific parts.
Such is a classroom where learning orthography is a way of learning about the world. What I thought would be a quick 15 minute review of the Greek bases we have been looking at, turned into something more, something fascinating, something satisfying!
We are learning about orthography by jumping right in. I know, I know. Some will wonder how I can do that when my students don’t really solidly understand about morphemes, about bases being bound or free, about word sums or even suffixing conventions. But it is still what we are doing. Because while we are treading orthographical water, the students will look around and begin noticing things. Yes, there is a lot of splashing at first.
“Mrs. Steven, it doesn’t really say anything at Etymonline.”
“Let me look with you. Read it to me and we’ll find the word’s history together.”
In the first two days of letting the students jump into some research, I explained ‘denotation’ and ‘word sum’ twenty times. But it needed to happen that way. They needed to be writing word sums to understand word sums. They needed to be writing the denotations of the bases to understand what a denotation is.
So here’s what we did. This is actually the third year I have started the year with a look at these particular compound words. As the science teacher, the topics we will begin studying are biosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and atmosphere. As the orthography teacher who was looking to highlight the fact that these words have similar structures, I added a layer of the geosphere (lithosphere) and four layers of the atmosphere (troposphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and cosmosphere). Now I had enough words that shared this structure to accommodate students working in groups of two.
To begin with I wrote all of the words on the board and invited the students to notice things such as similarities or differences in how the words were built. Right away someone noticed that they all had <sphere> in the word. Great opportunity to review the difference between a free and bound base, and also to talk about the <ph> representing /f/ – a definite signal that the word is likely from Greek. Then someone noticed that there was an <o> in front of <sphere> in every word. Great noticing! Sometimes an <o> in that position can be a connecting vowel signaling a word from Greek. Since the <ph> in <sphere> already gave us the same clue, the fact that the <o> could be a connecting vowel was something worth keeping in mind as we researched to find out the structure of the rest of each word.
As we looked once more at each word, I reminded the students of their goal: “So the group investigating <biosphere> will be looking to see if the first element is <bi> or <bio>. And the group investigating <lithosphere> will be looking to see if the first element is <lith> or <litho>.”
Once they had a definition for their word, I sent them to Etymonline to see how old the word was, and if there was any evidence to help them determine that first element. I then circulated to help them see how the information is laid out at that site. The word <cosmosphere> was not included at Etymonline, so I had the students look in our collection of dictionaries to find a word with the same beginning spelling and meaning that we could find at Etymonline. It was a great opportunity to demonstrate that we don’t find everything we’re looking for in one source!
As the students and I found the first base in each word, I had them complete the word sum we had started on the board underneath each word.
We also added next to each word the Greek word it came from:
Having the completed list of word sums on the board helped the students realize that all of the words were from Greek and each Greek word had the same <-os> suffix. I explained that we can remove that Greek suffix to find the etymon or root that has become our modern English base. It was an opportunity to talk about a word’s ancestors as opposed to a word’s modern relatives. Our evidence clearly shows that the bound base in this word is <bi> and the <o> is a connecting vowel. Here was another great opportunity to point out that if we just look at the word <biosphere> and recognize the free base <sphere>, it would be easy to assume that the first base is what’s left: <bio>. But we are learning to be word scientists, and what scientists do is search for evidence to support whether or not their hypothesize is true. Without evidence, we make no assumptions. It is better to leave a word unanalyzed than it is to make our best guess at its structure when we have no evidence to back us up. We can, however, voice our ideas and keep searching for the evidence that will one day support it.
Another great way to provide evidence that the bound base is <bi> and not <bio> is to find a word that has the <bi> but no <o> and comes from the same Greek word bios. The word the students found was <amphibian>. The simple fact that the <bi> is not followed by an <o> means that <o> is not part of the base! What is an amphibian? It is that which lives two kinds of lives – both on the land and in the water!
So far we have proven that <o> is a connecting vowel in each word on our list, and that like the <ph> representing /f/, it is signaling a word from Greek. We have also proven that all of these words are compound words and share a structure. In all but one situation the first base is bound and the second base is free. Each base has its own denotation.
The next task was to further explore the first base in these words – the base that was less familiar (and in most cases completely unfamiliar). I asked the students to find a list of words that share that first base. They found these words by again looking at Etymonline, by looking in hardcover dictionaries, and by looking at Word Searcher online. I asked them to first choose the words they were familiar with, and then to choose some unfamiliar words, including definitions. It is so important for my students to understand that they are no longer being asked to make lists of words they don’t understand and can’t use in context. It isn’t about creating the longest list, but about choosing words for your list that demonstrate a family relationship to each other based on the denotation of the base. The fun is in finding words that share the base but highlight a connection never noticed before. An example of this is finding that <dehydrate> and <hydrosphere> share a base and a denotation and belong on the same matrix!
The last thing I asked them to do in their notebook was to write word sums for their list of words, and to then draw a matrix. I had drawn a few matrices on the board to model this for them a few days earlier, but I knew that now, while they were making their first matrix, is when the understanding of the matrix structure would begin to make sense. So I circulated, explaining the layout and why certain morphemes would be placed in certain places.
I told them that if we had affixes that we could easily identify, we would pull them off in the matrix, but that we might not fully analyze all words represented on these first matrices. Then I pointed out a few words such as <biochemistry>. It was represented in the matrix as <bi> + <o> + <chemistry>. We agreed that we could probably find out more about the structure of <chemistry>, but that for now we would leave it, focusing instead on the many words that share the bound base <bi>. If we hadn’t been able to understand what <chemistry> was, then it would have been important to find out more.
Once all these things were in their notebooks and I had glanced at their work, each group fetched a big piece of paper and began a poster. I wrote this list on the board to remind them of what I expected to see on the poster:
~the word sum for your word
~the denotation of each base in your word sum
~the year this word was first attested
~a list of words that share the first base in your word
~word sums for your list of words
For the next three days, everyone was busy!
On Thursday we started to share the posters. The students have been surprisingly eager to share! Explaining their research. This is where the students begin to feel comfortable, treading in the orthographical water. It doesn’t take long before the idea that words have structure begins to be an understanding. Especially as they read the word sums for the words on their list. Base plus suffix. Or base plus connecting vowel plus base plus suffix. Or prefix plus base. There is structure, and it is consistent.
We talked about the structure of the matrix and identifying suffixes. How do we prove that certain letters at the end of a word are indeed a suffix? What other words can we think of that have that same string of letters in that position? How many suffixes can a word have? Even with many other things to mention, we kept the overall focus on the relationship between a base and all the other words that share it, and we made mental notes of what we would do different on our next posters as our understanding of all this grew.
This poster sharing is also where I stress that being in the audience is not a passive role. Everyone brings their chair up to the front of the room. I expect audience members to relate the base to other words they can think of, to ask questions if anything said is confusing, and to notice things that may not have been noticed or pointed out by the presenters. Audience participation is where the best, unexpected yet delightful learning takes place for all of us!
So far we have discovered that the difference between a macrocosm and a microcosm is size. The macrocosm is the bigger universe that encompasses everything, and a microcosm is a smaller world, perhaps it could be life inside a snow globe or a drop of water or an ephemeral pond. We discovered that a megalith is a very huge rock, and that a megaphone makes a sound bigger. We already knew about a thermometer and that it measures body heat, but were able to now understand that an atmometer would measure steam or vapor. We discussed tropisms and acted out the difference between phototropism, geotropism and thigmotropism. And the students thought it was cool that one of our new bound bases <ge> was in a word with another of our new bases <trope>. They delighted to find out that the name George shares the base <ge> and that the first George was probably a farmer. Further delight came when I told them the first name of a retired teacher who comes to our school everyday to take children for walks through the woods out back. She is the driving force for environmental projects and activities at our school, and her first name is Georgia! We wondered how her parents knew that it would be the perfect name for her!
With only a third of the posters presented, the learning is already rich and the fascination is ignited.
Thigmotropism – turning and Phototropism – The plant turns toward touching, growing upward the source of light
Geotropism – the roots turn toward the earth and the
stem and leaves turn away from earth
I thought carefully for most of the summer about the best way to introduce the spelling truths (which I like to think of as the fabric of orthography) to my new fifth graders. Hmmmm. Where to begin? What to start with? What is the ground level understanding they will need in order to pursue independent inquiries?
It was obvious to me that they needed to understand some linguistic terminology, the fact that words have structure, and the fact that it is more important to understand the meaning and sense of what a word brings to the context in which it is found than it is to be able to pronounce it. Beyond that, further orthographical discoveries will be more like delightful and savory surprises.
Even with the determination of what I deemed an essential foundation, I continued to ponder what to start with. The students before me would not only be new to fifth grade, they would also be new to the idea of “spelling makes perfect sense”. There is very little they understand about “why” when it comes to spelling. They have spent their time sorting, grouping, using in sentences, copying and over-pronouncing words with the hope that the exposure alone will help the student memorize each word’s spelling. So, one word at a time, the students have been asked to memorize spellings. How deadening to the student who needs to understand in order to make a spelling stick! How unprofitable to the student who can easily memorize those spellings, but is never shown the relationships words have with one another.
So it isn’t just that the students are coming to me with a lack of understanding, they are also coming to me with little interest and low expectations that studying spelling can be anything but dry and dull. I thought some more. What will ignite their eagerness to know more? As I thought, I thought back to what ignited my own eagerness only three and a half years ago. What were those word examples that made me believe that I was indeed staring spelling truths straight in the face? Which matrices made convincing evidence obvious to me when I wasn’t even looking for it? Which orthographic nuggets made me lift my eyebrows and smile?
Here’s what I did. On day one I wrote three words on the board: <to> <too> <two>. The students were aware that these were homophones. They understood that homophones share a pronunciation but not a spelling. Next I asked them to give me a definition of each word. They found it easier to use the words in sentences than to define them, especially with <to>. At this point, I brought up the idea that words can be categorized as either function words or content words. Function words tend to have less letters than their homophone partners, and are less easy to define in isolation. The list of function words is closed as opposed to the list of content words. We identified <to> as a function word that is commonly used as a preposition.
Then we talked about the spelling of these three words, and noticed that the first had one <o>, the second had two <o>’s and that the third couldn’t have three <o>’s. That is something we don’t see in a complete English word. So why is there a <w>? A third <o> couldn’t be used so the next best thing was a <w>? Hmmmm. Interesting. Perhaps there is an explanation to be found if we look at words related to <two>? I asked if anyone could think of a word that had a <tw> letter combination and also had something to do with the number two. Almost immediately someone thought of <twelve>. As that person was explaining the connection to the number two, other hands shot up. We ended up with a list on the board that included twenty, twice, twilight, twist, twin and between. Suddenly the spelling of the number two was less weird, less random. The <w> was there to mark a connection between the number two and other words with <tw> that also have something to do with two.
On day two I began by showing Gina Cooke’s video Making Sense of Spelling.
It reaffirmed what they had realized yesterday about the <w> in <two> and led them to other interesting things. At its end we discussed things like free and bound bases, prefixes and suffixes, and the terms ‘word sums’ and ‘word structure’. We also addressed the appearance of a single non-syllabic <e> in the word sum <one> + <ion>, but not in its final form <onion>. Every student in the room knew that there would be a final non-syllabic <e> in the word <hope> and that the <e> was not in the word <hoping>, but because they do not know WHY it is in one and not the other, they don’t expect that same convention to happen in other words!
I followed our discussion by having the students brainstorm a list of words with <hope> as the free base. After the list was completed, I drew a matrix on the board to share a way to organize the morphemes that are part of completed words that share a base. When the hand drawn matrix reflected the words we listed, I quickly typed in the same list at Mini-Matrix Maker and created a computer drawn matrix. We compared the two and reviewed why some affixes seem to be in compartments and some seem to be part of a list. Then we practiced recognizing words by choosing morphemes in a specific order. Here is the matrix we made:
I patiently listened as the students pronounced the suffixes as if they were words, knowing that on day three I needed to show them why morphemes need to be spelled out and not pronounced.
On day three I wrote the word <sign> on the board and asked if it was free or bound. It was identified as free because it could be used without adding any affixes. Then I went to my desk and pulled Etymonline up on the SmartBoard. We looked together at the entry for <sign>. I talked a bit about the “early 13c.” that began the entry. I explained that that is when the word was first attested. Doug Harper, the author of Etymonline, looks at written documents to find the earliest date he can in which the word in question was in use. If he finds a written document with the word, he notes the date and looks at written documents from before that date. He stops when he cannot find the word in any earlier written documents that he has access to. Does that mean the word couldn’t have existed before that? No. It means we do not have evidence of it existing before that. I wanted to make sure that my students know that scholars rely on evidence, and if we are going to be scholars, we will need to rely on it too. We went on to read the rest of the entry and found out how recent the term sign language really is (1847).
Next I walked over to the white board again and began a matrix for the free base <sign>. After having read the full entry for <sign> at Etymonline, it was decided that “to mark” would be a denotation we could use. The students brainstormed words that belonged to this family, and I filled in the matrix. It didn’t take long before someone suggested the word <design>. “Say that again,” I asked. “Are you pronouncing the base in <design> the same way you would if the <de> prefix were not there?” The students noticed that the <s> was pronounced as /z/ in <design> and /s/ in <sign>. This is a reason to spell out our morphemes instead of pronouncing them as if they are words. Until a word is complete, we don’t know how to pronounce it.
After students suggested <signer>, <designs>, and <signing> there was a pause. “Can you think of any others?” I asked. A hand went up and a boy quietly and uncertainly asked if <signature> might be one. “Well, does a signature have anything to do with making a mark?”, I asked. While the students were agreeing that it did, someone else blurted out excitedly, “And this word is evidence for having the <g> in the base!” That was like music to my ears! More quickly than I expected, they are connecting dots! The final word added to our matrix was <signal>, to which someone blurted, “…more evidence for why there’s a <g>!” But it was also evidence to support the practice of spelling out morphemes until a word is complete and ready to be pronounced.
On day four I shared with the students my understanding of how the days of the week were named. None of the students really knew anything about this, although they had some pretty imaginative guesses. I began by sharing the names given by the Romans:
One boy quickly raised his hand and said that they looked like planet names. I smiled, commented “Nicely done,” and pointed up to the new poster on our wall:
I told them that the Latin word dies (day) has the bound base <di> that we see in our modern word <diary>. That made sense since a diary is where we do daily writing. They knew that solis had to do with the sun because they thought of <solar>. They knew that lunae had to do with the moon because they thought of <lunar>. As for the rest of the days, they named every planet except Jupiter (lovi).
The Romans, like the Greeks, paired up the planets with their Gods and the characteristics attributed to their Gods. When the Germanic tribes decided to use this idea of naming the days of the week after the planets and their associated Gods, they used their own Gods that matched in characteristics to the Roman Gods. Here is how the Germanic people who spoke Old English named the days:
sunnandæg Sun’s day
monandæg Moon’s day
tiwesdæg Tiw’s day
wodnesdæg Woden’s day
thurresdæg Thunor’s day
frigedæg Freya’s day
sæternesdæg Saturn’s day
At this point, we could definitely see that the names were becoming familiar! We especially enjoyed learning that <Friday> and <friend> share a base, and therefore a denotation! Friday was named for Venus which was associated with the characteristics of love and affection. Isn’t a friend someone for whom you have a level of love and affection?
Telling the story of the days of the week gave us an opportunity to understand how people can shape the spelling of words. The Germanic people liked the idea of naming the days after the sun, the moon and the planets. They even liked the idea of associating those planets with Gods. But they had their own Gods, and they adopted and adapted the weekday names to reflect their own Gods. Perhaps this has happened with other words in other places as well. Telling the story of the days of the week also gave us an opportunity to talk about letters that don’t exist anymore, as with the letter ash <æ> that has since become a single <a>. Perhaps there are other letters that were once common, but no longer exist as part of our alphabet
As we were finishing up our discussion of how the days of the week were named, one boy turned to the student next to him, put his hands to his head, and made a gesture as if his mind had just been blown! It was just the reaction I had hoped for! The eagerness is settling in. I can feel it.
On day five, I shared a video of two 6 year old boys who were investigating <carnivore> in Jim and Lyn Anderson’s classroom.
When it was finished, I asked if anyone thought that <carnivore> was a pretty big word for first graders. Lots of students raised their hands. Then I asked if anyone in the class had ever been fascinated with dinosaurs at the same age. Only a few hands went up, but the children those hands belonged to were ready to relive that enthusiasm and tell about their favorites! I was making the point that 6 year old children are not intimidated by large words. It is the adults and the writing programs they use who decide what length of word is appropriate at what age. How confining and insulting!
Secondly, look at the comfort these boys have in using the online resource Etymonline. They do not stop and embarrassingly try to pronounce a word in Late Latin. Instead they spell it and learn from it what they need to know – how its spelling compares to the word they are investigating. And they aren’t just blindly copying things down in their notebook. They are talking about what they are discovering and can easily explain their understanding without having to read it out of their notebook.
I wrote <carnivore> and <herbivore> on the board. We reviewed that the boys had said the base of <carnivore> was <carn> and meant “meat”. I reminded them that the teacher had mentioned a second base which was <vore> and that the boys had defined it as “eat or only eat”. I wrote a word sum: <carn> + <i> + <vore>. I didn’t say anything about the <i> just yet. Then we looked at <herbivore>. I began a word sum, bracketing the known base <vore>. Someone spotted the familiar base <herb> and could even tell me it was a free base. I finished the word sum: <herb> + <i> + <vore>. I wondered if anyone recognized what these two word sums had in common. That is when we turned our attention to the <i> in both words. I explained that it is a connecting vowel, and that because it is an <i>, we know that it is from Latin. Someone asked if it is like a conjunction. In a way it is. It is an affix that connects two morphemes in a word. Then I shared the word that first convinced me that a connecting vowel was a real thing: <speedometer>. This is a compound word with two free bases. It is obvious that the <o> is not part of either base, but is there to connect the two. And because the connecting vowel is an <o>, I know this word is from Greek.
We talked about the fact that these are both compound words because there are two bases in each. I pointed out that they have the same structure: a base + a connecting vowel + a base. All words have a structure. I demonstrated this by bringing back the examples we saw in our <hope> matrix and our <sign> matrix.
So that is how the first week went. I feel good about the choices I made in regards to what I shared and what was introduced. I’ve seen the eyebrows go up and the smiles cross their lips. At the end of day five, a girl told the class that every night her mom asks her what she learned that day. She hasn’t always had something to tell her mom. But this year it’s different. Every day this week she taught her mom some orthography!
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!
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
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:
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!
I live in a small village where it’s not at all unusual to run into my students outside of school. In fact, I like when it happens! It was just this past Monday that I walked downtown to run an errand. On my way back home I stopped on the bridge to watch the creek. A boy on a bike stopped alongside me. I caught the big smile of recognition on his face just before he spoke. Sam was as happy to run into me as I was to run into him!
Sam stood with me looking at the water and the exposed roots of a rather large old tree on the bank of the creek. After a bit he said, “Logan and I came over to your house about a week ago and knocked on your door, but you weren’t home.”
Of course I was very curious. “I’m sorry I wasn’t home. Was there something you wanted?”
“Well, we both had questions about some words we’ve been thinking about.”
I couldn’t keep the smile from forming. Sam proceeded to share his curiosities about the product known as ‘Orajel’. Since it is primarily used in and around the mouth, he thought <ora> might mean teeth. I was impressed that he was obviously looking at the word’s structure and thinking about meaning! We talked a bit about how companies, when naming new products, sometimes create product names by combining two or more words. In this case, perhaps the two words are <oral> and <gel>. The word <oral> has to do with the mouth, so this hypothesis makes sense.
After a bit more discussing, I couldn’t help but wonder what Logan was going to ask about. It seems that Logan has been thinking about <able>. He knows it can be a free base, but he has also noticed it used as a suffix. Sam and I talked as we walked in the direction of his house. At the end of the next block, he got on his bike and zipped off so he wouldn’t be late getting home.
And the beat goes on…. THIS is what studying orthography does to a person! My students and I now possess a curiosity about words that enriches what we read, what we write, and what we spend our time thinking about! Imagine how wonderful it feels to have these impromptu word discussions outside of the school year. The great news is that this is the fourth such discussion I’ve had this summer with various students! In the 19 years I’ve been teaching and living here, I never once had a student stop me in the middle of summer to talk to me about <i> before <e>, syllables, or even phonics. Wonder why? Blech! That’s why!
I want to savor what’s left of my summer, but I have to say that I’m starting to look forward to the new school year and a new group of fifth graders. And the beat goes on….