“Outer Beauty Attracts, but Inner Beauty Captivates.” ~Kate Angell

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 meaningful unit in a language, and if that particular unit becomes smaller, it has no meaning.  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?

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 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!



“Start Where You Are. Use What You Have. Do What You Can.” ~ Arthur Ashe

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:

bios                         atmos                      cosmos
geos                         hydros                    thermos
lithos                                                        tropos

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:

~your word
~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
~a matrix

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          phototropism
otropism – 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




“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.



Come Right In, Have a Seat, and Let’s Talk!

I love parent/teacher conferences.  There.  I’ve said it.  Yes, there is a lot of preparation on my part.  Typically I spend 11 hours at school each day leading up to the big night .  Yes, it is one very long work day (14 hours).  But, the fact remains that I still love them.  And I look forward to them.

First off, I get to look into the faces of each child’s parents/guardians and let them know that I see in their child the sweet wonderful brilliance they were hoping I would see.   Years ago, a student of mine wrote out a Marva Collins quote on a sheet of construction paper.  “There is a brilliant child locked inside every student.”  I have kept it up on the wall in the front of the room ever since.  I love the fact that it is on construction paper, and I love the fact that it is in a child’s handwriting.  For many of the children who have sat in chairs before me, that lock has been fairly easy to pick.  But for some, their behaviors have presented quite a smoke screen, obscuring that brilliance!  Every child needs to know I see through to that brilliance.  Parents need to know it too.

Secondly, I get to explain what the students are learning about words!  I know it’s not the only subject I teach, but in my mind it is the one that illuminates all others.  I explain that in the first trimester, my main focus is to show the students that words have structure.  By that I mean that words are made up of bases and affixes.  To further explain, I share my own childhood experience of learning that a root word (commonly misused name – correct name is base) could have a prefix and/or a suffix.   I compare that with my recent discovery (since I began learning about Structured Word Inquiry), that in fact a word can have more than one suffix.  Wham!  The spelling of so many words makes so much more sense to me!

The seemingly complicated word <antidisestablishmentarianism> suddenly becomes a less complicated word with three prefixes, six suffixes and a rather short two letter base.  If I’ve peaked your interest, the base is <st> from the Latin root stare meaning to stand.  The three prefixes <anti->, <dis->, and <e->(a clip of <ex->) help us see the meaning of this word as to stand against, away from or out of the norm.  And once a person is familiar with all of the affixes used, spelling this word will be no problem.  The suffixes <-able>, <-ish>, <-ment>, <-ar>, <-ian>, and <-ism> can individually be found in a lot of familiar words.  The final suffix in the word tells us that this word is a noun.  I love talking about this word because it illustrates beautifully the reason for learning morphemes (the smallest unit in a word that still holds meaning) rather than the endless hours students spend learning syllables (no meaning and a no letter consistency from word to word) to help with spelling.

We also had a hallway of word work to share!  In the last few weeks, I have had the students each choose a word to research.  In doing so, they have become familiar with some great resources.  The first thing they discovered is that dictionaries are not all alike.   Finding a dictionary that you like, trust and can understand is important.  This project also gave the students great practice at reading the entries at Etymonline and understanding that words weren’t all created at the same moment nor in the same language.

Some really enjoyed noticing the journey their word experienced on its way to becoming a Present Day English word.




Some found fun facts about when their word began acquiring alternative meanings.

DSCN5890 DSCN5895 DSCN5897








Everyone enjoyed making word sums and creating fascinating looking matrices.

DSCN5889 DSCN5892 DSCN5899 DSCN5900 DSCN5901
















Once the word sums were typed in, there was this anticipation and glow of pride as the ‘update’ button was pressed and the matrix was revealed.  Absolutely everyone found out that words have stories!

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.”


“Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.” – Charlotte Whitton

Yesterday was one of those days when the orthographic sun was shining brightly.  I was bathed in the light, and that light warmed me from the inside out.

It all started when a teacher on our fifth grade team said she was talking about suffrage with her class, and one of the students wondered out loud if the word suffrage was related to suffer in any way since they had so many letters in common.
(Yes!  Trying to make sense of unfamiliar words by looking for relationships to known words.)

A bit later, another teacher who works with one of my students asked me to follow her to her room.  She had something to show me.  The student had read a story about someone who was a philanthropist, and when the teacher drew attention to that unfamiliar word, the student began writing a word sum.  The teacher wasn’t sure how to respond to the word sum and called me in.  Here is what the student wrote:  <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>.

(Yes!  My students are aware that words are made up of morphemes, and they carry clues about their language of origin.)

Later that same day, a student ran across the word aquatic while doing some science research.  She wondered aloud if the <quat> in <aquatic> was the same <quat> we see in <quaternary> (we’ve been studying primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary consumers in a food web).  She also wondered about the <a>, and if it was the same <a> that we saw in <asexual> when we discussed living things reproducing.

(Yes!  Words are made up of morphemes and those morphemes are categorized as bases and affixes.  Some bases and affixes show up in a large number of words.  Research is the only way to know for sure whether two words share a base or an affix.)

So today when class began, I shared my joy with my students.  I wanted them to know that what pleased me more than anything was the fact that they were wondering and asking questions.  They were looking for connections and recognizing previously used affixes and bases.

I wrote <suffrage> on the board.  Below it I wrote <suffer>.  Then someone called out <suffix>, so I wrote that down also.  Because we had talked about <suffer> and <suffix> earlier this year, it was remembered that <suf-> (sub-) was the prefix in each of these words.  But that didn’t necessarily mean it was a prefix in <suffrage>.  We needed to do some research.  I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard and we looked it up together.

We found that it was from the Latin suffragari “lend support, vote for someone”.  The next bit was quite interesting.  [Conjectured to be a compound of sub “under” and fragor “crash, din, shouts (as of approval), related to frangere “to break”.  On another theory the second element is frangere itself and the notion is “use a broken piece of tile as a ballot”.  The meaning “political right to vote” in English is first found in the U.S. Constitution, 1787.]

The words “conjectured to be” and “on another theory” brought interesting discussion in and of themselves.  Both possibilities broaden the sense of the word.  For now we are satisfied that the <suf-> in <suffrage> might be a prefix just as it is in <suffix> and <suffer> … and then again it might not be.

The conversation we had about <philanthropist> took us meandering through several words.  I wrote the student’s word sum for it:  <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>.   I said, ” Looks like this student is considering whether or not this word has an <o> connecting vowel.  What language would we associate with an <o> connecting vowel?”  Several students piped up with “Greek”.  Then I asked if there were any other clues in this word that it was in fact from Greek.  After a thoughtful pause several said <ph> at once.  Beautiful.  At this point I asked everyone to consider the word sum and whether or not they agreed that there was an <o> connecting vowel.

Right away someone pointed out that <ist> is a common suffix found in words like <scientist>, <artist> and <therapist>. So if the <ist> was indeed a suffix, then the <p> would not be by itself – that perhaps <throp> all go together.  At this point we went back to Etymonline.   We found evidence that <ist> was a suffix and that this word came from the Greek philanthropia “kindliness, humanity, benevolence, love to mankind” from phil- “loving” + anthropos “mankind”.  I shared with my students that when in college I had taken a course in anthropology.

With this information we created a new hypothesis:  <phil> + <anthrop> + <ist>.  We talked about what philanthropists do. I reminded them that a few years back our school was the recipient of a philanthropist’s generosity when someone purchased Smartboards for each of our classrooms!

But as we were finishing up that discussion, I wondered out loud if there were other words with <phil> as the base.  Immediately the word <philosophy> was mentioned.  We looked it up.  We found that it comes from the Greek philosophia “love of knowledge, pursuit of wisdom”.  How delightful!

Lastly we looked at <aquatic>.  When we looked at Etymonline, we could not find any evidence to support <a> being a prefix or <quat> having to do with fourth.  We only saw references to <aqua> meaning water.  Some students may have been able to guess that without having to look, but I want to develop the habit of looking.  There have been far too many unexpected connections (delightful surprises) when we have.

I leave you with a student/teacher exchange that happened later that day (inspired by our discussions):

“I’m thinking of the word <dinosaur> and thinking that if the <o> is a connecting vowel, then the word is probably from Greek.  What do you think?”

“I’m thinking that you know how to find out.” (said with a smile)

“Yup.” (said with an even bigger smile)

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!


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!

We’ve Got Your Number!

As I was grading the first math test of the year, I couldn’t help but notice some interesting variations in spelling.  The word fifteen for instance was spelled fiveteen, fiffytin, fifetyn, and fivtyn.  The word seventy was spelled sevend,  and sevendy.  The word million was spelled millean, and millioin.  The word sixty was spelled sixdy and sextie.

Now, these students have been using these words for a long time.  I’m certain that at some point they  showed up on a spelling list and were studied.  So why don’t the students remember how to spell them?  Hmmm.

Let’s see if we can try to look at these words with a different goal in mind.  Yes, you heard me right – a goal other than spelling the words correctly.  I’d like the goal to be understanding the meaning of the word.  I’d like the goal to be understanding how the word is built.  I’d like the goal to be understanding some of the history of the word.  I’d like the goal to be imagining the base of the word without its prefixes or suffixes — or with other prefixes or suffixes so that what blooms in front of the researching student is a family of related words with a common base.   This is where the real excitement is!  I had a student last year who said, ” I love orthography because you learn to peel off prefixes and suffixes and find the base.  While you’re doing this, you learn to spell the word, and you didn’t even know you were!”  Those words are golden to me.  So my goal is not correct spelling … but I never forget that it is almost always a wonderful side effect of the word inquiry we do.

Having said all that, the obvious course of action was to ask students to investigate!   In this first video, Abby and Landin are wondering about the word <million>.  Their word sum hypothesis is  <milli> + <on> –> <million>.  My favorite thing about listening to them is their enthusiasm.  The thinking that is going on is like fireworks going off.

By the end of our morning, the three groups who were looking at this word had decided its word sum is <mille/> + <ion>.  They built the following word matrix.

The group that was investigating <seventy> found that <ty> was a suffix that represents ten when there are multiples of ten.  That clears up why, when counting by tens, the suffix used is <ty> and never <dy>.  Examples:  twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, etc.

This next video is of Ezra and Austin who are investigating the word <fifteen>.  Again, I am so impressed that these students are driven to prove what they think.   It’s about finding evidence.  Whoot!