# 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!

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!

# Shedding Light on Plant Processes

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

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

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

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

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

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

# What Have We Learned So Far?

I was talking with a teacher the other day about orthography.  She expressed an interest in trying some things but wasn’t sure where to begin.  My students and I have only been investigating words for three months.  We’ve learned so much that I had to pause before I answered her question.  And then I answered it like this … “Let me ask my students.”

So yesterday I asked them to brainstorm a list of things that they had learned and felt were important to know when investigating words.

It is obvious to me that my students enjoy orthography.  As we have investigated words and talked about morphemes, etymology, and phonemes, the students have gained confidence in themselves as word scientists, but also in a language they once had no hope of understanding.

The students have become so comfortable talking about free and bound bases.  Recognizing that bound bases are there, buried in words is so interesting!  They’ve always been there, but before this, we weren’t trained to look for them. My favorite line is at the end of the third video, when Maia admits that it is fun discovering a word’s history and word sum for yourself.  The teacher doesn’t have to know all the answers.  In fact they enjoy knowing that I don’t know ahead of time what they will find!

In this last video I specifically asked the students to describe how orthography has helped them.    As usual I love their candid responses.  For most, they feel that they are better spellers.  And in some respects they are.  Spelling errors have not disappeared from their work, but the approach we take when discussing the errors is completely different.  It is this awareness and learning to trust that spelling needs to follow rules, show relationships,  and make sense that will help spelling skills strengthen.

I love the fact that my students are learning spelling based on meaning and making sense, and not merely as a memorization task.  A few mentioned that they feel like they understand words and spellings without having had to work so hard at it.  The memorizing of spelling lists was daunting for some – a week of gimmicks, silly songs, and practice tests.  As you can hear in their voices, with orthography the joy and intrigue multiplies every day.

# Stepping into a Deeper Understanding of Words.

Students have begun research on the American Civil War.  They are all researching Abraham Lincoln, and they are each researching both a particular person who was alive at the time and a specific battle or Civil War term (uniforms, artillery, medicine, etc.).  This week, we began talking about the research.  I also began lecturing, and they began taking notes.  Our discoveries are being shared, and the adventure of investigating a significant event in the history of our country has begun!

A new topic of study always lends itself well to word investigations.  The students practice their investigation skills and broaden their understanding of the topic at the same time.  This week the class was split into five groups.  The words investigated were <civil>, <slavery>, <abolish>, <immigration>, and <emancipation>.  The video clips below feature the words <civil>, <slavery>, and <abolish>.

<Civil> …

<Slavery> …

<Abolish> …

One of our last orthography investigations was that of comparing a word as it is split into word sums and into syllables.  The general consensus was that if we want to understand a word’s meaning, syllables  confuse the issue, whereas word sums help us isolate the base element.  The base element, of course, is the central kernal of meaning in a word.

When the students approached the task of investigating these words, they spent much less time creating word sum hypotheses.  They have internalized the difference between dividing a word into syllables and dividing a word into word sums.  When I went around asking about their word sums, their hypotheses was based on known prefixes and suffixes!  I smiled a big inward smile.

# Syllables vs Word Sums – The Understanding Continues

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

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

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

# Syllable Use Helps With Spelling? Not Likely!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# Evaporation; Condensation – Don’t Get All Misty-Eyed!

I decided to give a quiz of sorts on Monday of this week.  I asked the students to write the word <prejudice> on one side of the paper, and <segregation> on the other.  These are words that we have investigated in the last two weeks.  For each I wanted:

1)  the definition
2)  a word sum
3)  two other word sums showing the base with other affixes
4)  two words with related meanings

I learned much!   The vast majority of the students spelled both words correctly, but the vast majority did not write an accurate word sum for that spelling.  For some of my students the tendency is to divide words by syllables rather than bases and affixes.  This makes for some random word sums as their hypothesis!  Even though they have knowledge about certain prefixes and suffixes, they aren’t applying that yet on an automatic basis.  I’m confident that as the investigations continue, and they talk about why they are making the choices they are making, that this will all come together.

Today we split into four groups.  Two groups investigated <evaporation> ,and two groups investigated <condensation>.  Rather quickly, both groups looking at <evaporation> found the base element to be <vapor>.  We all found out that <e> is from the prefix <ex> which means out.  That really helped with picturing evaporation!  Students used their hands to describe the vapor moving in an outwards direction.

The suffixes <ise> and <ize> in the matrix for the base <vapor> reminded us of the books we read by Roald Dahl earlier in the year.  As we read we collected spellings that were slightly different than what we were used to.  We remembered the word <realise>, which we knew was a British English spelling rather than what we are used to – American English spelling.

The two groups investigating the word <condensation> approached it quite differently.  The first group began with a pretty accurate word sum hypothesis.  Then they looked up <condensation> and <dense> to find out more.  With prompting they added the meaning of the prefix to their understanding of the base.

The second group was trying all sorts of random letter combinations as part of their word sum hypotheses.  At first it didn’t seem as if they had a plan, meaning a logical order for how to proceed with their investigation.  When I asked if they had looked on their list of proven prefixes to see if anything matched what they were seeing in the word, things began to click.