Lately, the use of the title ‘doctor’ has come into question. The wife of our newly elected President has the title of Dr. Biden, and yet she holds no medical license. She has been accused of using the title to give herself fake importance. Is it fake though? Where does this practice of granting people this title come from? What does it take to be a doctor? Can anyone be one? As usual, we need to look into the story of this word. How long has it been in use? Has it always indicated a person with medical knowledge? When did it refer to others with particular knowledge in their respective fields as well?
I started at Etymonline and found that the word doctor was first attested c. 1300 and spelled doctour. At the time it was used to mean “Church father.” Before that it was used in Old French where it came directly from Medieval Latin doctor meaning “religious teacher, advisor, scholar.” In Classical Latin it was used to mean “teacher.”
So far the only tie to a specific area of knowledge is that of religion. I went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and found examples of this word in use. In the late 1300’s saints were known as doctors. In one example, a saint was known as a doctor of truth. In an example from the mid-1500’s, Christ Jesus was referred to as the heavenly doctor. And in the mid-1600’s a person was referred to as a doctor of divinity, while another a doctor of theology.
Around this same time, the sense of this word broadened to include other areas beyond religion. Notice this definition listed at Etymonline.
Look at that! Since the late 14th century, we as a society have been referring to people who hold the highest degree in a university as doctor. I looked back at the OED to verify this with actual examples and found that in the late 1600’s there was a person given the title of “Doctor of Music.” An excerpt from roughly a hundred years later mentions someone being named a “Doctor of Laws.” But as I continue to scroll through the entry, I find that people were called doctors of law as early as 1377! The noun ‘doctorate’ as in the degree of learning earned is from the 1670’s. This is not new, and it is not a fake title!
In the same way that the title of ‘doctor’ was given to someone with extensive learning in law or music, it was also given to someone with extensive learning in the medical field, although according to Etymonline it did not become popular until the late 16th century. The term “medical professional” replaced the term “leech.” How about that! Here is the Etymonline entry.
It is interesting to look at the possible roots of this word and see that they include things like “enchanter, one who speaks magic words, healer, physician, charmer, exorcist, one who counsels, and conjurer.” This speaks to the attitudes and perceptions regarding medicine as the field grew, doesn’t it? It may be difficult to separate the idea of a leech being a physician from the idea of a leech being a bloodsucking aquatic worm, but according to Etymonline they were indeed two separate words with distinctive uses. One (worm) became assimilated to the other (physician) by way of folk etymology. (Folk etymology is a popular but mistaken account of the origin of a word or phrase.) Here are some interesting compound words I found at the OED.
Leech-fee … a physician’s fee
Leech-house … a hospital
Leechman … a physician
Leech-finger … what we typically refer to as our ring finger. Old English spelling was læcefinger. It was translated from Latin digitus medicus which was in turn transcribed from Greek δακτυλος ιατρικος. It was called that because it was believed that this finger had a vein that stretched to the heart.
Apparently this term narrowed in its use to refer only to veterinary practices until the 17th century when it slowly became archaic. What a great example of how the people who speak the language determining by their use of words which ones stay and which ones fall out of use! If you are wondering where the connection is between physicians and the use of leeches as a medicinal practice, that wasn’t attested until 1802. In my own mind, I thought it was earlier than that, but I’m probably thinking of the related practice of bloodletting which happened much earlier.
If we renew our focus on the word ‘doctor’, and note its root of docere “to know, teach, cause to know,” we’ll recognize the following related words.
doctor – a person who holds a doctorate.
doctorate – the highest degree awarded by a graduate school or other approved educational organization.
doctoral – relating to achieving a doctorate.
doctiloquent – this word is rare but one I enjoy. It describes one who speaks learnedly.
doctrine – beliefs held and taught by a church, political party or other group.
indoctrinate – teach someone to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.
doctrinaire – someone who seeks to impose a doctrine without regard to practical considerations.
doctress – female doctor. Becoming less common as woman-doctor becomes more common.
docile – ready to accept control or instruction; submissive.
docility – this word began as “readiness or aptness to learn”, but since the 1600’s has meant “submissiveness to management.”
docent – a person who acts as a guide in a museum, art gallery, or zoo.
document – written work that provides information or evidence that serves as an official record.
Back to where this started …
Dr. Biden holds two masters degrees and a doctorate in educational leadership. Since the late 14th century, that kind of commitment to learning has earned a person the title of ‘doctor’. Granted, it probably didn’t include women back then, but we’re past that part, aren’t we? It can take between four and six years to complete a doctorate. That is in addition to the time it takes to get a masters. Many countries require a masters before one can study for a doctorate. The U.S. has been changing that requirement in recent years, but you can see that Dr. Biden earned two masters degrees before earning her doctorate.
Instead of choosing one doctorate program (medical) as important and all others as fake or undeserving of the title that goes along with that level of time commitment to learning, I say we encourage more people to seek that title. Our society needs experts in all areas! Our society needs more people committed to learning which in turn will benefit all of us!
This week I will be observing a lesson in a high school science class. The lesson will focus on naming ionic compounds. In preparation for this observation I asked to look over the reading materials the students will use. Having very little background in chemistry beyond that of what fifth grade students are expected to understand, I found words being used that I didn’t clearly understand. And, of course, knowing that if I want to increase my understanding of the lesson, I’ll need to understand the specific terminology, I did some word investigation.
The information tells us that this word was first attested in 1834. That means that the first time we have written evidence of this word existing is in 1834. And if you read further, you will see that it was coined by Michael Faraday on the suggestion by Rev. William Whewell and derived from the Greek word ion (ἰόν) which was a form of Greek ienai (ἰέναι) “go.” It is common to find scientific names for things attested from 1500 to present. During that time and in some cases even earlier, the Latin language was revived for scholarly and scientific purposes. This time period and the idea of coining words using stems derived from Latin and Greek is called Modern Latin. These words were coined in Modern Latin.
It is helpful to understand that the denotation of ‘ion’ is “go” because as it says at Etymonline, “ions move toward the electrode of opposite charge.” To see if I could find some more etymology, I went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). The word ‘ion’ is defined as either a single atom, molecule, or a group that has a net electric charge. It doesn’t matter whether that charge is positive or negative, only that that charge is a result of either the loss or addition of an electron. Next I set out to find some related words.
ionic – <ion + ic> “relating to or composed of ions.” adjective
ionically – <ion + ic + al + ly> “relating to or composed of ions.” adverb
ionicity – <ion + ic + ity> “the degree to which something is ionic.”
ionizer – <ion + ize + er> “a device that helps an air purifier be more effective.”
ionogen – <ion + o + gen> “a substance able to produce ions.”
ionography – <ion + o + graph + y> “a form of printing in which a static electric charge draws toner particles from the drum to the paper.”
ionomer – <ion + o + mer> “a polymer that contains ions.”
ionosphere – <ion + o + sphere> “layer of the atmosphere that contains a high level of ions and reflects radio waves.”
ionopause – <ion + o + pause> “the boundary layer of the ionosphere where it meets either the mesosphere at one side or the exosphere on its other.”
ionosonde – <ion + o + sonde> “special radar used to examine the ionosphere.”
cation – <cat + ion> “positively charged ion.”
anion – <an + ion> “negatively charged ion.”
You will notice that the only two words on my matrix that form a compound word with ‘ion’ being the second base are ‘anion’ and ‘cation’. A closer look at these two words brings with it many interesting finds!
The Etymonline entry is interesting.
Notice that the word ‘anode’ is bolded. When I see that, I always follow such a word to find out more. In this case, I see that ‘anode’ is first attested in 1834. As is the case with ion, cation, anode, and cathode, the word was proposed by Rev. William Whewell and published by Michael Faraday. It’s pretty obvious that these two were needing to name components of what they were studying and finding! The first base is derived from Greek ana “up”, and the second base is derived from Greek hodos “way, path, track.”
According to Wikipedia, “An anode is an electrode through which the conventional current enters into a polarized electrical device. This contrasts with a cathode, an electrode through which conventional current leaves an electrical device.” This definition makes sense if we think about the literal translation of ‘anode’ as “up a path or way.” If ‘cathode’ is the electrode through which conventional current leaves an electrical device, then I’m guessing that the first base in ‘cathode’ must have a denotation of down. According to Etymonline, <cat> is indeed derived from Greek kata “down.” So in this case, as the current enters the device it is on its way up (anode), and when it leaves it is on its way down (cathode).
Back to ‘anion’. This word has a literal translation of “go up.” An anion has more electrons than protons, so it is negatively charged. You might say that the number of electrons is what “goes up” in an anion.
Here is the Etymonline entry.
Are you noting the same year of attestation once again? And the same scientists who coined this word? Another interesting thing to note is written right after the date of attestation (1834). It says that ‘cation’ is from a Latinized form of Greek kation “going down.” It is a Latinized form because the Roman scribes wrote the Greek letter kappa as a <c>. Since we now know that an ‘anion’ has more electrons than protons and has a literal sense of “go up”, it makes sense to think of a cation as having less electrons than protons (positive charge). The number of electrons is what “goes down” in an cation.
A word about the pronunciation of anion and cation.
It might be tempting to pronounce ‘anion’ similarly to ‘onion’ and ‘cation’ to what we hear in the portmanteau word ‘staycation’. But we would only be tempted to do that because of the commonly used suffix <-ion>! When the <-ion> suffix is added to a word like ‘one’, we end up with ‘onion’. The IPA for the American pronunciation of ‘onion’ is /ˈʌnjən/. The IPA representation for ‘anion’ is /ˈænaɪən/. Compare this pronunciation to that of ‘ion’, /ˈaɪən/. Do you see what is similar? The <ion> base is pronounced differently than the <-ion> suffix! Let’s see if it is the same with ‘cation’. If we think of the pronunciation of ‘staycation’, we would represent it with IPA like this /steɪˈkeɪʃən/. But the IPA for the American pronunciation of ‘cation’ is /ˈkædˌaɪən/. If you compare this with the pronunciation of ‘ion’, you will once again notice that the base <ion> is not pronounced the same as the <-ion> suffix!
Where else do we see this Hellenic base <cat>?
cataclysm – <cata + clysm> “wash down.” Originally a flood, now a large-scale or violent event.
catalog – <cata + log> “list down.” Also spelled <catalogue>.
cataplexy – <cata + plexy> “strike down.” An example is when an animal pretends it’s dead.
catarrh – <cata + rrh> “flowing down.” It is inflammation and discharge from a head cold.
catastrophe – <cata + strophe> “turning down.” It is the reverse of what is expected.
catatonic – <cata + tone + ic> “toned down.” A mental illness in which the person is immobile in both movement and behavior.
catabolic – <cata + bole + ic> “thrown down.” According to Wikipedia it is the breaking-down aspect of metabolism.
There are other words that also have this Helenic base, and its sense and meaning isn’t just limited to “down.” I just included a few words with that specific sense so we could easily connect it to what we see in ‘cation’.
Where else do we see this Hellenic base <ana>?
anadromous – <ana + drome + ous> “running upward.” An example is fish going upstream to spawn. (The <drome> base “run” is the same as in ‘dromedary’)
analeptic – <ana + lept + ic> “take up.” A drug that restores your health.
analysis – <ana + lysis> “loosen up.” A loosening of something complex into smaller segments.
anabolic – <ana + bole + ic> “thrown up.” According to Wikipedia it is the building-up aspect of metabolism.
Like <cata>, <ana> isn’t just limited to one sense and meaning. I chose words with this base and this sense so we could more easily see the connections to ‘anion’.
I always find it helpful to collect more information about words I’ve heard, but am not completely familiar with. When I saw similar words like anode and anion, and also cathode and cation, I knew that I would need to understand both bases in each of these compound words in order to keep their meanings straight. I’ve learned that the second base in ‘anode’ and ‘cathode’ has to do with a path or track. An anode is the electrode through which the electrical current enters a polarized electrical device, and a cathode is the electrode through which the current leaves. I’ve learned that the second base in ‘anion’ and ‘cation’ has to do with movement. An anion has more electrons than protons and is negatively charged. A cation has more protons than electrons and is positively charged.
Knowing that <ana> has a denotation of “up” helps me picture an arrow pointed up indicating that the number of electrons is higher than that of the protons in an anion. Knowing that <cata> has a denotation of “down” helps me picture an arrow pointed down, indicating that the number of electrons is lower than that of the protons in an cation.
Now I feel better prepared to learn about naming ionic compounds.
The more I bring up morphology with people (as it relates to teaching reading and spelling), the more I realize that it is not very well understood. Just a day or two ago a teacher asked how to help her 5th grade students who read quite well, but had significant problems with spelling. Man. Her students sounded like so many of the students I have known! So I responded with this. (It may seem like a long response, but I wanted to be clear about what I was saying.)
“I would be interested in knowing the types of spelling errors they are making. Does it have to do with an unawareness of morphology? It is common for me to see ‘barely’ spelled as ‘barley’ until I ask what the structure of this word is. In my first question to the student I ask if they think the word has a prefix or suffix. The student will say <ly>. Then I ask what the base is, and they tell me it is <bare>. I ask them to announce the word sum for the word. They will say <bare + ly>. Then I ask them if the <ly> will replace a single, final, non-syllabic <e>, and they respond with, “no.” Finally I’ll ask them to spell the word. They say, “bare ly.” (I teach them to leave an ever so slight pause between the morphemes to show they recognize those morpheme boundaries.)
My guess is that your students are spelling phonetically which is rarely the same as correctly by the time they are in fifth grade. You mentioned having checked the usual things, but you didn’t mention word structure. It can account for misspellings that indicate a lack of understanding about suffixing conventions, unfamiliarity with free and bound bases, and unfamiliarity with prefixes, suffixes and connecting vowels.
No matter what grade you are teaching, if you are teaching children to spell words based on sounds they hear as they pronounce the word, sooner or later that strategy will fail for them. Incorporating the influence of morphology and etymology on English spelling is a huge missing piece. It helps with reading AND writing.
If you’d be willing to share some of the students’ misspellings, I’d be interested in seeing them. I have taught spelling through morphology, etymology, and phonology in fifth grade for 8 years now. Students come in spelling phonetically, and I teach them to spell with word sums. The discussions we have, and how quickly they establish a broader understanding of English spelling is something to behold.”
The woman thanked me for my response but then said something very telling as far as her understanding about morphology. She said that she lives in a foreign country and the words in their language don’t have many Greek or Latin roots, so she doesn’t teach much morphology. Hmmm. It isn’t hard to imagine how this woman got the impression that teaching students about morphology means teaching Greek and Latin bases. Many teachers who don’t have the background knowledge to truly understand English spelling rely on materials put out by people who may be focused on vocabulary building rather than focusing on a word’s structure. So often the teaching of morphology gets reduced to teaching words that have common Greek or Latin bases as if that’s all there is to it.
Teaching students to understand and use morphology in order to understand English spelling will often involve looking at Greek or Latin bases. That’s a fact. But it may not! Looking to understand a word’s structure may lead students to Old English or Old French or any of a number of languages that are left out of the books that focus solely on Greek or Latin roots. And my biggest complaint about the materials I’ve seen that are currently available to teachers is that they don’t really address the morphemic structure of words at all!
For instance, let’s say they pick the Latin verb ducere “to lead,” and state that it might be spelled ‘duce’, ‘duc’, or ‘duct’. That is followed by a list of words that might include introduce, deduces, seduction, education, and reducing. The rest of the page is a fill-in-the-blank for the students, usually related to the meaning of the words. Is this terribly false information? Not really. But does it teach morphology? Not really.
Are the students asked to hypothesize a word sum for the words? Do they recognize for themselves the prefixes and suffixes in each of these words? Do they know the sense that each prefix used brings to the denotation of the base? Do they know whether the suffix is inflectional or derivational? Do they find out why the author says the spelling is sometimes ‘duce’ and sometimes ‘duc’? And what about ‘duct’? There’s no <t> in the Latin verb ducere, so where is that <t> coming from? Do they find out why the ‘duc’ in ‘education’ is pronounced differently than the ‘duc’ in ‘reducing’?
Some of you reading this may know enough to recognize that some of my proposed questions could be investigated by looking at the word’s etymology and at least one question needs to involve an understanding of grapheme/phoneme correspondences. It just goes to show you that if you want a full explanation of a word’s spelling, you need to look at the interrelationship between the morphology, the etymology, and the phonology. The etymology and the morphology inform the phonology. They provide the reasons for the grapheme/phoneme choices.
I found the following video on Youtube. I was searching for information on morphology that might broaden some of the narrow views some people have of it. Overall I like this video. It addresses content and function words which is a very helpful classification to know. Understanding the difference between these two groups of words has been helpful when teaching spelling and grammar! I also like the tree diagram that explains what is included under the heading of “Morphology.”
If I could change anything though, it would be to use the word ‘bases’ instead of ‘roots’. It makes sense to me to reserve the use of the word ‘roots’ to refer to the furthest back relative of a word. So, if the furthest back we can trace the <duce> in ‘reduce’ is Latin ducere, that Latin ducere is what I would call the ‘root’. For discussions of the main morpheme in a Modern English word (<duce> in ‘reduce’), I would call that main morpheme a ‘base’. I don’t see these two as interchangeable since they describe distinct situations.
The other thing I would change about this video is to have the host spell out all morphemes instead of pronouncing them as if they are words. I know that pronouncing morphemes is a very common practice, but just think of how the repetition of spelling out those morphemes would help them hold a place in a student’s memory. If the student is trained to remember a pronunciation, there is no guarantee two children with slightly different personal pronunciations of a morpheme will spell it the same!
But an even bigger reason for not pronouncing morphemes when announcing a word sum is because until the word is complete, we don’t know the pronunciation. One of my favorite examples of this is the bound base <dict>. If you try to pronounce it as you would a finished word, how would you do it? Would you pronounce it as you do in ‘diction’, ‘indictment’, or ‘predictable’? Have you noticed that the base is pronounced differently in each word I mentioned? If we model pronouncing it as we hear it in ‘predictable’, then a student is sure to mispronounce the word ‘indictment’. Or when hearing the pronunciation of ‘indictment’, the student probably won’t recognize that ‘indictment’ has the same base as ‘diction’, and therefore a meaning connection between them. After all, the vast majority of students are not taught that a specific spelling represents a specific meaning. They are taught instead that a specific spelling represents a pronunciation and that a word’s meaning is what you will find in a dictionary. What a loss for the student!
This video points out that morphemes can be free or bound. By definition all affixes are bound. The name ‘prefix’ and the name ‘suffix’ give that away, don’t they? Looking at each word’s morphemes we can understand how they both function in a word. ‘Prefix’ is composed of the morphemes <pre-> “before” and <fix> which derives from Latin figere “fasten.” Its literal meaning is “fasten before.” ‘Suffix’ is composed of the morphemes <suf>, an assimilated form of <sub> “up from under” and <fix> “fasten.” Its literal meaning is “fasten or place under.” So a prefix is fastened before the base and the suffix is fastened after the base. No matter how many suffixes a word has, they all follow the base. Similarly, all prefixes are found in front of a base.
Bases are the only morpheme that can be free. Most of us are familiar with free bases and recognize them easily. When asked to name compound words, a student might say, “chalkboard, playground, rainbow, hallway, and starfish.” They have been taught that compound words are the result of two words being combined and becoming a new word with a new meaning. So, for example, a star and a fish are different than a starfish. That is true information about a compound word, but it isn’t the whole picture.
If I was asked to name some compound words, I might name a familiar one like doghouse, but then I might also name emancipation, automatic, ice cream, and biography. Don’t recognize them as compounds? It’s probably because instead of including only free bases, they include one or more bound bases. And in just the same way that an affix must be fixed to another morpheme, so must a bound base. The reason that you might not recognize these as compound words is because you have most likely only been taught to recognize free bases. So when you look at one of the words I’ve mentioned, you’re not sure how to identify its structure because you haven’t been taught morphology.
Let’s take a closer look at the compound words I named. (The etymological information that is included in this post was found at Etymonline.)
‘Emancipation’ is composed of two bases along with one prefix and two suffixes. The prefix is <e->. It is a clip of the prefix <ex-> “out.” This prefix is fastened to the first bound base <man> from Latin manus “hand.” The next morpheme is another bound base <-cip>. It is a vowel shifted form of the Latin verb capere “take.” That bound base is followed by the suffix <ate> which would make this a verb if there wasn’t the final suffix <ion> (noun forming). The word sum is <e + man + cip + ate/ + ion>. The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “the act of taking out of one’s hands.”
‘Automatic’ is composed of two bound bases that are joined by a connecting vowel. It is a connected compound. The first base, <aut> from Greek autos “self,” is joined to the second base, <mate> from Greek matos “thinking, animated,” by the Helenic connecting vowel <o>. The <-ic> suffix signals that this word is an adjective. The word sum is <aut + o + mate/ + ic>. The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “self thinking or self animated.”
‘Ice Cream’ is composed of two bases that are not connected. It is an open compound. The first free base <ice> is from Old English is “ice, piece of ice.” The second free base <cream> is from Middle English creyme, creme, creem “the rich and buttery part of milk.” When we see this word, we recognize that it is a compound word. Some interesting etymological information is that in the 1680’s the word was ‘iced cream’. The word sum is <ice + cream>. The bases provide the sense of a dessert in which flavored cream is partially frozen through a process.
‘Biography’ is composed of two bound bases joined by a connecting vowel. It also contains a suffix. It is a connected compound. The first base is <bi> from Greek bios “life”. It is joined to the second base <graph> from Greek graphia “record, account” by the Hellenic connecting vowel <o>. The <-y> suffix in this word signals that it is a noun. The word sum is <bi + o + graph + y>. The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “a record of someone’s life.”
Now that we’ve looked at a few different kinds of compound words, let’s go back and update the definition of a compound word. Instead of stating that a compound word is the result of two words being combined, let’s say that it is the result of two or more bases being combined. In this way, the bases don’t have to be free bases (able to stand alone as a word). They can be free bases, bound bases, or a combination of the two!
At this point, you may be saying, “Is it really worth going into such detail about the structure of a word?” And I would argue that it definitely is. The true benefit of teaching students that words have structure and guiding them as they hypothesize what that structure might be is that the students will quickly realize that bases and affixes that they see in one word will appear in others as well! Let’s take another look at one of the compound words I mentioned.
‘Emancipation’. The word sum is <e + man + cip + ate/ + ion –> emancipation>.
Where else might we see the <e-> prefix?
erupt “break out”
educate “lead out”
erode “gnaw away”
evade “go or walk away”
Where else might we see the <man> bound base?
manufacture “something made by hand”
manicure “care for hands”
Where else might we see the <-cip> bound base?
participate “take part”
anticipate “take care of before”
principal “take first position; chief leader”
principle “take first; origin, source”
Where else might we see the <-ate> verbal suffix?
excavate “hollow out”
irrigate “bring water in”
decorate “embellish or beautify”
estimate “approximate judgement”
As we now look at the <-ion> noun-forming suffix, it is interesting to note that it is often paired with the <-ate> suffix!
excavation “action of hollowing out”
irrigation “action of bringing water in”
decoration “action of embellishing or beautifying”
estimation “action of approximately judging something”
Besides noting the suffix convention of replacing the single, final, non-syllabic <e> on the <-ate> suffix when adding the vowel suffix <-ion>, there is also the phonology of the <t> in the <-ate> suffix to notice. The list of words that have <ate> final are pronounced with a final /t/. But once the <-ion> suffix is added and the single, final, non-syllabic <e> has been replaced, the <t> now has a /ʃ/pronunciation. I have found that students make less spelling errors when they understand the structure. Let me explain what I mean. So with ‘excavation’, the word sum is <ex + cave/ + ate/ + ion>. From the first day of the school year, I tell my students that my goal for them is to spell words by spelling out the morphemes rather than spelling the words letter by letter. They can’t imagine spelling a word any other way than letter by letter, but by the end of the year many have indeed made that change. And they feel like their spelling is stronger for it. This word is a good example of how that can be possible. The student announces the word they are spelling. Then they parse it into morphemes. When they get as far as <ex + cave + ate>, they know that in adding the vowel suffix <-ion>, they will be replacing the single, final, non-syllabic <e>. Then they proceed to spell out the <-ion> suffix. At no point does the consideration of a ‘shun’ spelling cross their mind. Through our repeated writing of word sums, the students have come to know that even when pronunciation shifts in a word family, the spelling doesn’t. ‘Excavate’ wouldn’t become *’excavashun’ because they know the structure. They are no longer spelling by what they hear, but by what they know of the morphemic structure. And that structure is, of course, aided by etymological information.
You can see that in noting the morphological structure of one word (emancipation), my students have thought about the structures and meaning connections to at least 16 others! THIS is how we build vocabulary (which aides in comprehension) and strengthen spelling (which makes writing less laborious). When we seek connections in this way, students become aware of many more affixes which in turn helps them hypothesize logical and reasoned word sums. This isn’t to say we never get stumped in trying to fully analyze a word’s structure. We get stumped often. But we don’t give up or call English crazy. We look at our resources and based on the evidence we find, we write a word sum. That means that at times we are limited by our resources and sometimes our ability to understand the resources. That’s okay. The really important thing is not to analyze further than you have evidence for. Offer a word sum you can support with evidence. Once you parse a word by how it looks or how it sounds, you have abandoned the methodical scientific aspect of Structured Word Inquiry.
Now spotting a particular base or affix doesn’t guarantee the student will automatically know the word it is in. But it does mean that the student will pause and think about the word. They will wonder if the morpheme they recognize is indeed the same morpheme that we have looked at in class. If they have recognized a base element, they will pause and try to see if the denotation of the base element can give them a clue to the meaning of the word they have just found it in. It might also be that the word is very familiar, but the student never before recognized that it could be further analyzed. In this case they are often delighted to now see the structure they were previously unaware of. For me, I remember how I felt when I realized that ‘been’ was really <be + en> and that ‘happen’ was <hap + en>. Having a real understanding of how words are structured, where those morphemes come from, and what sense and/or meaning they bring to a word has brought me such joy! I wonder about words all the time. And researching their heritage to better determine the morphemes is a pursuit powered by fascination. I never know what I will find and that is so motivating!
The benefits of teaching morphology are many. Here are a few specific benefits that I have seen in my classroom.
~ Students are able to identify the structure of the words they use. They don’t have to wait to know about an <-ous> suffix because of some arbitrary suffix scope and sequence. If it is used in the words they use, and they routinely identify other suffixes, then they will already understand some things about suffixes in general and grow their understanding of word structure in general.
~ Students will recognize that frequently the words they read have more than one suffix or more than one prefix. There is so much information revealed when the structure is understood. Often the stress in the word shifts with the addition of a suffix (when adding that suffix adds another syllabic beat). Specifically pointing that out to children helps them see that ‘photograph’ and ‘photography’ or ‘interrogate’ and ‘interrogative’ are related words even though they are pronounced in a way that makes them feel like two totally different words.
~ Students will learn the difference between free and bound bases. They will recognize familiar bases when they encounter them in unfamiliar words and quite possible by able to figure out what the unfamiliar word means. My students have given me numerous examples of this happening to them.
~ Students will come to know the suffixing conventions well because they will encounter it often as they write and announce word sums. Not only will they understand what the suffixing convention is, but they will understand why it is needed or why it is not in a specific word. That means that they will be able to apply that understanding on their own to the vast number of words they will encounter for the rest of their lives!
~ Students will spell a word by thinking through its structure and by spelling it out morpheme by morpheme. They will write words sums and announce them, acknowledging any suffixing conventions that were applied.
~ Students will learn the functions of the single, final, non-syllabic <e>. My students have typically come into fifth grade with only a “sound it out” spelling strategy which doesn’t work at all for a non-syllabic <e>. Understanding why that <e> is there has helped many of my students who used to leave it off in words like continue, house, and breathe.
~ Students will understand that a prefix brings a sense to a word, but that the same prefix doesn’t always bring the same sense to every word it is a part of. This is when an etymological resource is important. An example of this is in the word ‘corrode’. The prefix <cor-> is an assimilated form of <con-> (which is generally thought to bring a sense of “together” to words it is part of). The base is <rode> and has a sense and meaning of “gnaw”. (If you are recognizing that it might also be a base in the word ‘rodent’, you are right!) In the word ‘corrode’, though, the prefix is an intensifier. It intensifies the action of the base. So if a battery corrodes, you can imagine it intensely gnawing at the components around it!
~ When a student is reading and comes to a word they don’t think they know, they can spell it out, looking for recognizable morphemes. It might just be that they haven’t yet encountered that base with an attached prefix before. This strategy works more often that you might think.
~ Students will become familiar with the idea that one grapheme can represent more than one phoneme. The example I will use is the grapheme <t> in <act> representing the phoneme /t/. When we add the <-ion> suffix, the grapheme <t> now represents the phoneme /ʃ/. In word families where the pronunciation shifts, it is crucial that the student understand that it is the spelling that is consistent. When they know the morphemes in ‘act’ and ‘action’, they won’t be tempted to use an <sh> in the spelling of ‘action’. They will understand the difference between a word divided into syllabic parts and a word analyzed into its morphemes. Students acquire word meaning and spelling by learning morphemes. Syllabic division is used as an aide to pronunciation.
~ Students will learn that words have a history and that even alphabet letters have a history. Often this history part, this etymology, helps us understand a modern spelling. As an example, my students understood the <ph> spelling in ‘sphere’ when we learned that the word is from Greek sphaira and I was able to show them the actual Greek spelling, σφαιρα. The second letter in the Greek spelling is phi. It was the Roman scribes who transcribed it as <ph> since they didn’t have the letter phi in their alphabet.
~ Students will encounter and build an understanding of connecting vowels. These vowels can connect two bases, a base to a suffix, or a suffix to another suffix. They are used when one or more of the bases in the word is from either Greek or Latin. The use of <o> as a connecting vowel is specific to Greek and the use of <i>, <u>, or <e> is specific to Latin.
~ Students will learn about bases that derived from Greek and Latin, many of which we notice when studying the sciences. They will also learn that the majority of the words we use every day are in fact from Old English. When identifying a morpheme such as the base element, finding out its language of origin helps us see the bigger picture of how our language has evolved. They will become aware of the influence of Old French and more.
~ Because we don’t deal in “right” or “wrong” answers and instead deal with “likely” or “less likely” based on the evidence, students are much more willing to hypothesize a word sum. They also discover that once you investigate a word, even though you learned a lot, there is always more to learn. Once the awareness is established, specific bases and affixes seem to appear left and right! My students have described it this way, “With spelling, once you know the word the door is shut. You don’t need to go back. With orthography, you can come back to the word as many times as you want. There will always be something else to notice.”
Morphology can’t be taught as a stand alone any more than phonology or etymology. You have probably noticed in the list above that in identifying a word’s structure, etymological information is often necessary. Once the etymology has been considered and the morphemes in the word sum identified (matching the understanding of the person writing the word sum), the grapheme/phoneme correspondences are noted and oftentimes better understood because of the etymological research involved. Deciding for a child that learning morphology, etymology AND phonology is just too much, and that they only need to focus on sounds in order to read, is denying them the opportunity to see the bigger picture of our language. It is setting them up to view English spelling as full of exceptions that have no explanations. And it’s not that there aren’t explanations, it’s that someone is keeping a full two-thirds of the story from the child, thinking that later on some other teacher will supply that. The problem is that when reading and spelling difficulties arise, no matter the grade level, the advice is to start back at step one. Many children are never offered the full picture, the complete story, the understanding they deserve. Teaching morphology can’t be taught in isolation. So making the commitment to teach morphology is making the commitment to teach the combination of morphology, etymology, and phonology. It is making the commitment to show students how all the parts work together to build an understanding of a word within a language. It is empowering the student with the ability to read a word, write that word, and to see meaning connections across words because of what they understand about morphemes.
“Prejudice feels like a white-hot wire being pressed to your heart.
Even when the sting goes away, a mark is left there.” (M.F.)
“Prejudice feels like you are the broom
being pushed against the floor.” (K.M.)
“You are separated by an imaginary wall from everyone else.
You just keep losing over and over again.” (C.L.)
Such powerful images. Illustrating feelings of being uncomfortable and not at all in control. It might surprise you to learn that these feelings are being described by ten-year-old White children in a predominately White school in a small, predominately White village. How could they possibly understand what being on the receiving end of prejudice might feel like? How does anyone begin to understand an experience that has never been their own?
I credit Jane Elliot. She is one of many people have inspired me to try new things throughout my teaching career. Even though I never personally met Jane Elliot, I couldn’t shake the impact she had (continues to have) on both adults and children. I first heard of her in 1998 when we were showing a video to our fifth grade students entitled ABC News: Prejudice – Answering Children’s Questions. The video was hosted by Peter Jennings, and Jane Elliot was a guest on the show. As part of the show, Jane Elliot conducted an experiment. She gave green collars to all of the children who had blue eyes. Then she proceeded to treat them as if the color of their eyes indicated that they were not as smart, not as able, not as trustworthy, and not as patient as the children with brown eyes. It was something to watch.
After seeing how she conducted this experiment and how the students reacted, I was fascinated and wanted to learn more about her. I found this video and watched it. It is a documentary of the full experiment she implemented in her all White classroom in the late 1960’s. The very first time she conducted this experiment was the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. She knew that something had to be done so that her White students could understand what Black people were experiencing in our society. Over the years she has continued to use this same approach to illustrate what discrimination feels like to people of all ages and in a multitude of situations.
Watching the shorter segment on the Prejudice: Answering Children’s Questions video, we saw how angry the students became who were told to wear green collars. Some wore expressions of confusion and hurt. Others became belligerent, which only made things worse for them. It was powerful because it was quite obvious those children hadn’t ever experienced such unfairness based on something they couldn’t control (eye color). My students said they could understand what those with green collars must have been feeling based on the demeaning language and harsh condescending tones coming from Jane Elliot. But was simply watching it enough to leave a lasting impression? I didn’t think so. So I asked my students if they wanted to do this same experiment in our classroom. They didn’t hesitate. This was something they wanted to try.
Before we actually carried out this experiment, the students had an idea of the role I would play and what might occur with them. But still, we needed to have a heart to heart. I warned them that we would all need to take this very seriously. I would still be their teacher, Mrs. Steven, but there would be things I said and did that would surprise them. And not in a good way. I would need to play the part of a teacher who truly thought some of the students were “less special” than the others. The fact that they were still excited to do this and thought it would be fun, told me just how necessary it was. I hoped I could pull it off. I told the students to go home and discuss with their families what we would be doing based on what they saw in the video. There were about three parents who contacted me to let me know they were strongly in favor of this.
In preparation, I brainstormed several things I could do that children would think of as unfair. That wasn’t a difficult task. I decided that dividing them by eye color was probably the best. I happened to have some pink felt, so as the students came in the next day, I looked into their eyes and handed the blue-eyed children a piece of felt and a safety pin. That way it was more obvious to all which students had blue eyes, and which didn’t.
I knew my students had gym first thing, so I contacted the gym teacher the day before to ask if she would be willing to participate. She thought it was a great idea, and thought of her own ways to discriminate. As the students came in, she told the students wearing pink felt that they had to jump rope for a warm up and that they had better get going. The rest of the students were given a choice of running laps or jumping rope. It was the first of many times that morning that feelings would be hurt and things would not feel fair.
After gym, it was normal to let the students get a drink at the bubbler, and then walk back to class. However on that day only some were allowed to get a drink at the bubbler outside the gym. The students wearing pink felt had to use the bubbler in the first grade hallway. When they arrived back in the classroom, they were scolded for having taken too long.
I had some desks arranged in a circle and the rest in rows toward the back of the room. My tone was sharp and impatient with students wearing the pink felt, whereas it was smooth and friendly with the rest. When there were questions about the work, I answered the questions asked by the brown-eyed students first and was very thorough in my response. If that group had no questions, I answered the questions asked by the blue-eyed students, but hinted that they should have learned the information last year. I suggested they work harder and pay better attention in class.
The students noted later that our room had never worked so quietly. But it wasn’t a comfortable quiet. The morning subjects were interrupted by one 15 minute recess, and the students came back grumbling about having had a rotten time. When it was time for lunch, I joked with some and sent them off with a smile. With others, I implied they were holding up the line and to hurry! When they returned from lunch and recess, they were visibly upset. Their emotions were so stoked that the littlest look or the smallest criticism was crushing. They hated this day and this experiment. It hadn’t been fun for anyone, including me. But did it hit its intended target? We would see.
I told them that the experiment was officially over and that those with the piece of pink felt could now remove it. There were cheers signaling relief. As I was collecting the felt pieces, I had everyone put their desks back into the normal arrangement and then get out a piece of paper. I told them how important it was for them to write down what they were thinking and feeling while it was still fresh in their minds. What follows is a sampling of those responses.
Today freaked me out. It was scary. So what if I have blue eyes. I heard tons of comments Mrs. Steven made about us and saw the things she did. I would almost be the saddest person on earth if this happened to me every day. This whole day I have been writing things down on my desk about what happened. For one, there were two milk counts. Eli, a “bluey,” had to go get the milk for his group in a cardboard box, and Sam got to use the regular milk crate for the rest of the students. The “blueys” even had to use the third grade bathroom which is all the way down the hall, when the fifth grade bathroom is right outside our door!
During science, she only let the “brownies” read aloud from the book. When she handed back papers, the people with blue eyes had to get up and get their papers while people with brown eyes got to stay seated and Mrs. Steven handed their papers to them. When we called the other students “brownies,” Mrs. Steven said, “Don’t call names!” When we said, “But they were calling us blueys.” She said, “Well, you are.”
I hated it soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much. I was treated so badly. I wanted to go home all day. I was wishing I had brown eyes. I felt like getting my stuff and walking home. I felt like almost hurting someone. I felt mad at some of my friends. I felt alone and stupid. I felt like if someone shot and killed me, nobody would care. It was a horrible/awful/hateful experience.
I felt like I was very special compared to the blue eyed people.
I wanted to tell her not to treat us like that just because we’re different. She wouldn’t let us go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. When Mrs. Steven did that to us, I felt like nothing … like a piece of dust in the wind … or an atom, because I was so tiny.
I liked it because Mrs. Steven trusted the “brownies.” I hated it because at lunch recess I was playing four square, and some people that were “blueys” said I couldn’t play because I had brown eyes. That right there cut me real deep. I don’t know if they were joking or serious. Either way it cut. I didn’t like how my friends separated from me.
The blue-eyed people asked for help on math, but all she said was, “You’re smart kids, aren’t you?” It would hurt my feelings if she said that to me. It hurt my feelings, and she didn’t say it to me.
Today Mrs. Steven was being prejudiced. Even though I wasn’t hurt by her words, I could tell other people were. I care about my friends, so that’s why I got mad when she was being mean to them.”
This was the worst day ever. It was awful. I didn’t know Mrs. Steven could be such a pain. She acted so serious. The only reason muddy eyed people got to go first at everything and get treated better is because Mrs. Steven doesn’t want to be second class. She wants to be “Little Miss Perfect.” Man, Mrs. Steven must really love being born with muddy eyes. I hope she is not offended, but I feel like I could punch her.
Prejudice is awful. It’s a problem. I liked it at first, but then it got serious. All this fighting about something stupid. My friends hating me. Me hating them. At one recess no one would play with me except the other “brownies.” I didn’t have any fun. When we came in, some of us were calling the other kids names. It got so out of hand.
This experiment began at roughly 8:15 am and ended at 12:45 pm. I stopped it when I did so that we would have the afternoon to reflect and process. What you’ve just read is really something, isn’t it? This half day experiment had a big impact. Some were hurt and took the pain inward. They felt defeated and wished they weren’t born with blue eyes. Others were angry at the unfairness. Some of that anger was directed at other children, and some of it was directed at me. You could sense that the anger was bubbling, and if this had continued much longer it might have turned into something physical. Those were some of the reactions to those with blue eyes, anyway. The reactions of the brown-eyed children were different. Some were angry, yes. They saw the unfairness and felt bad for the blue-eyed children, but they didn’t cross the line I had drawn. They didn’t get as angry and didn’t reach out to those for whom they felt sorry. In a very real sense, both groups displayed a kind of powerlessness regarding the situation. At any rate, I’m glad the feelings were real and that they were strong enough to become embedded in their memory.
Let me clearly state that even with their “powerful” feelings, I think these children had only an inkling of an understanding about prejudice and discrimination. How could it be more than that when they have not experienced it in the real world day after day after day? But an inkling may be enough for them to develop an empathy for people who do experience these things. It may be enough for these children to remember that everyone isn’t always treated equally in our society.
After the initial writing was finished and people said what they wanted to say about the experiment, I handed out big 12 x 18 inch pieces of construction paper and colored chalk. We spaced out our desks so that each person had a bit of privacy. It was to be a quiet time to explore feelings about prejudice and discrimination. I told them I wasn’t looking for recognizable images, but rather for them to choose a color to begin with and to let how they were feeling be the thing that moved that piece of chalk on the paper. They could change chalk colors as they wanted. After I felt students had had enough time to express what they maybe hadn’t yet put into words, I had them wash their desk, their hands, and then stand in a large circle with the desks displaying their drawings in the middle. I made it very clear that no one would be asked to defend or explain their drawing. We were going to look at the drawings and see what we noticed.
One of the things that stood out was that several drawings were full of dark colors that were kind of scribbled reminding us of a tornado or a knotted ball of string. Others had sharp angled lines or zigzags with marks that looked like tears falling. There were squares within squares drawn that were dark and smudged on the inside. These did not evoke feelings of happiness or cheeriness. More often the words offered by the students were trapped, confused, angry, sad, hurt, helpless, and furious. Now contrast those drawings with the few that had suns drawn on them and included lots of flowy bright colors. Happy, fearless, content.
The drawings were a meaningful way to share what other people were feeling without those people having to say a thing. And yet the drawings themselves speak loudly about what prejudice and discrimination do to the members of a society. The children with brown eyes felt bad momentarily for the other children, but in the end their own life was still represented by sunshine and cheery colors. They saw, they recognized the difference, but felt it wasn’t something they could change. There was at least one or two who drew images that evoked conflicted feelings. One side of the paper would have a light fluffy kind of feel, but the other would have an image that became swirled into a colorful mess. It wasn’t dark or smudgy or angry feeling like some of the images drawn by the blue-eyed children, but there was a feeling of unrest.
Can you see how these feelings reflect some of the real life tensions we see in our world today? Those who are on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination don’t all react to it in the same way. Some push and question the authority of those whose actions are discriminatory. Some are overwhelmed with feelings of anger and frustration at how unjust the system is, and they physically, sometimes violently, react to it. Some become withdrawn, powerless, and lose self-worth. And what about those watching the discrimination and prejudice? Some speak up about the unfairness, but many like being first and the privilege that comes with “having brown eyes.” They tend to look at things as fine the way they are, even though they wouldn’t want to trade places with the group being discriminated against.
The last part of the day was spent writing poetry. I asked them to try to put into words what they saw in their drawings. What follows is a sampling of those poems which were formatted and finished the next day.
Prejudice really stinks.
All the anger builds up and up.
I hate it.
It’s like a rainstorm on a party,
a bomb exploding in my head.
I want to run away from it. (J.B.)
Laughing was not allowed Eyes made us different From everybody else Today.
Out of the way, the brownies say U are not the best Today. (E.G.)
like I’m a squirrel trapped in a cage with bears,
like I have no power,
like everyone is an eye, and I am blind,
like I’m a rabbit in a wolf family,
like I’m being blamed for something I didn’t do. (D.P.)
Prejudice feels like getting trapped under
a dock in the middle of the sea.
It’s like the devil pulling you to the core of the earth. (K.S.)
Prejudice is like you’re in a glass cage trying to get out.
It’s like walking up an escalator that goes down. (N J.)
Prejudice makes you feel like a rain drop in a pit of flames,
like there’s a dark wall, or maybe a giant not wanting to move out of your way.
Don’t people know? It’s what’s inside that counts. (A.H.)
Prejudice is a storm, screaming and yelling,
laughing, not with me, but at me. (L.S.)
Prejudice feels like someone keeps hitting you
until you just fall down in pain.
It feels like the rage of a storm over only your head.
Prejudice feels like walking through a jungle of people
determined to make you feel hurt. (G.L.)
To me prejudice felt like no one cared about me.
It made me feel all alone. It’s hard to describe with words.
I felt hatred, anger, sadness, and confusion.
I wanted to scream. (M.M.)
I have many many more poems in my collection. Because from 1999 until 2014, I repeated this experiment with every new group of fifth grade students. We usually did it in January while we were reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s biography. That was when we were encountering those words, so it made sense to do it then. Later on, in March and April, we applied this deeper understanding of what Black people have been up against in our country when we were studying the American Civil War. We stepped away from the textbook and each were responsible for several researched reports that when pieced together gave us a broad picture of how the War affected people from all walks of life at that time. One of my preferred read-alouds during this study was Day of Tears by Julius Lester. It is a story of the largest auction of slaves in American history. Over 400 slaves were sold in two days. I felt as if my students were better equipped now to imagine what it would be like in someone else’s shoes.
Many times we also wrote poems to reflect on our study of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. Some wrote letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. instead. In 2012, we published a book of our poems called An Unequal Freedom. Each student (and the teacher) contributed a poem and a drawing. The students named the book and they each submitted art for the cover that we later selected by a vote.
Here are some samples from our book.
Even though this was an uncomfortable kind of experiment, I am glad I saw Jane Elliot when I did. I’ve been reminded of her recently. Because of the racial unrest in our country, she has been interviewed and many of her videos have resurfaced. If you haven’t heard of her, I suggest you read this NPR article about Jane Elliot, or search for her on Youtube and watch some of the other videos of her in action. Over the years she has continued to use this same approach to illustrate what discrimination feels like to people of all ages and in many situations. Every time I watch her in action I am reminded that it is the experience that helps you “get it.”
Every once in a while I will run into a former student who will mention that this experiment is something that has left a lasting impression. Below is a recent comment I received from just such a student.
“One lesson I will never forget was when our all White class was learning about the Civil Rights Movement, our all White class that lived in an all White community, and you divided us up by eye color to teach us about racial prejudice. It was a lesson for a lifetime. I remember that day so clearly, and I was in the 5th grade!”
As much as I love that comment, what I love even more is that this student was in my fifth grade classroom in 1999! That is 21 years ago! Talk about a classroom activity having a lasting impression! But did it change the way those children thought about Black people? I know it did at the time, but how many of my former students took this understanding into their adult lives? I think it is pretty obvious that the effectiveness of this experiment isn’t the kind of thing I can measure properly. So many experiences contribute to the shaping of who we are at any given moment. And I have no way of knowing what other experiences those students have had that may have either strengthened or weakened what they learned that day. But I believe it was important to do. Many students have mentioned it over the years as we have talked and reminisced. Much like the student I’ve quoted above, they didn’t really feel the full impact of it until they were adults navigating jobs and social situations in the real world. And I believe that it provided a glimpse of something they wouldn’t experience and understand in any other way.
“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.” Wayne Dyer
The above quote by Albert Einstein is one of my favorite. I have hung it in the hallway in anticipation of our Science Fair every year. But after a few years of replacing spelling instruction with Structured Word Inquiry, I began to realize how well it applied to what we were doing with words. I love that scientists aren’t expected to have answers ready at every turn. Science is methodical and takes the time it takes. Even when research is finished and conclusions are drawn, it is understood that those findings are temporary. They are the current understanding and are open to further questioning and research at any time. And when someone takes the time to research, test, and publish new findings, those findings are thoughtfully considered by fellow scientists who either accept or challenge them. In that respect, science is not static. It is always moving towards a deeper understanding. If you are using Structured Word Inquiry, you will recognize the parallels here.
When I think about the first part of the quote, “If we knew what we were doing,” I recognize that SWI can feel like that sometimes, especially at first. You want to just jump in and use it with students, but so many things nag at you. “What if they ask me a question and I don’t know the answer? What should I do first? What needs to be taught before I begin with SWI?” Personally, I ignored those kinds of questions when I started and asked instead, “How long before my students are asking the kinds of questions that Dan Allen’s students ask?”
(It was on the weekend before we returned from winter break in 2012 that I happened upon Dan Allen’s blog and found out about Structured Word Inquiry. What drew my attention were the questions the students were asking about words and spelling, AND the fascinating discussions that followed. I couldn’t wait to bring it to my students and see what we could learn! How could SWI deepen our understanding of words and help with the spelling struggles that are typically seen in a classroom? It was two days after reading and talking with Dan and Real Spelling that I began talking about words with my 5th graders. Our human resources were Dan Allen, Real Spelling, and Pete Bowers from WordWorks. What a team!)
One of the first words we investigated as a class was ‘prejudice.’ We first encountered it while reading a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.. It stood out as an interesting word, along with discrimination, segregation, emancipation, equality, separate, justice, integration, civil, and protest. Prior to January of 2013, we would have briefly talked about these words as they were used in the reading, and perhaps the students would have matched up the word to its definition on a worksheet. No doubt a few of my students would have probably requested that these words be added to their weekly spelling test as “challenge words.” But now I was looking forward to something different, something worthy, something that would change our understanding of English spelling. After we investigated this word together, I split the students into small groups so they could each investigate one of the other words and share their findings. So what did we learn with that very first investigation? And how did that investigation shape all the ones I’ve guided students through since then?
Let’s start with a screen shot from one of my earliest blog posts. It was published on January 23, 2013.
You will notice that all five hypotheses identify <pre> as a morpheme. More specifically, the students identified it as a prefix that they were familiar with. The first hypothesis feels like syllabic division, doesn’t it? The last hypothesis illustrates a knowledge of letters being “dropped” in spellings, but not a knowledge of when or why. This was a great first step.
It is necessary at this point, to remind you that when I began bringing SWI into my classroom, my own understanding of English spelling was on a par with that of my students. These were great hypotheses, but my own preferences over which one might be most likely were based on what “felt right” rather than what I could support with evidence. I was talking the talk, but was in the weeds as far as having a personal knowledge of the regularities of English spelling. But then again everything we do and want to understand begins with that first step, doesn’t it? I was more excited to see what we could all learn through SWI than I was scared to reveal my own lack of knowledge. My excitement overpowered my fear, and that turned out to be a good thing for all of us!
In the second step of our investigation, we read the entry for ‘prejudice’ at Etymonline. We learned that this word was first attested in the 13th century. At that time it meant “despite, contempt.” Earlier in the same century, this word was used in Old French with the same spelling we see today. Prior to it being in Old French, it was in Medieval Latin and spelled prejudicium. Earlier yet it was spelled praejudicium in Latin where it meant “prior judgment.” This earliest spelling could be analyzed as prae “before” and judicium “judge.” We talked about the fact that the sense and meaning of this word hadn’t changed much in all the years that it has existed. We use it today to denote a sense of prejudging a person and usually in a negative way. At that point we felt ready to collect some words that might be related. We were off to use Word Searcher by Neil Ramsden.
It was at this point that we missed an opportunity to have a better understanding of what we would be looking for at Word Searcher! We had boatloads of enthusiasm, but lacked experience in conducting word investigations. You see there was a hyperlink to the related word ‘judge’ in the entry at Etymonline that we ignored. There was pertinent information related to the spelling of ‘judge’ that would have made us look differently at the words we found. But we were eager and jumped a little too quickly to the next step.
We found a list of words that we knew to be related in meaning to both ‘prejudice’ and ‘judge.’ We thought about the spelling of each word and noticed which letters were exactly the same in each word. We wrote the word sums listed below and created the accompanying matrix. The following is another screen shot from that January, 2013 blog post.
At this point we were pretty pleased with ourselves. We had noticed that all of the words had <jud> in common. We made the leap that it was the base. Did I really think that <ge> was a suffix? I thought, “Maybe.” I mean, my head was just as full of “spelling is random” as my students’ heads were. Let me interject that at this point I had been teaching for 18 years, and none of the spelling curriculum I had been handed talked much about suffixes beyond <ing>, <ed>, <s>, and a few others. You added them to words, you removed them, and you learned rules like “Double, Drop, Change.” Our spelling books focused more on the “vowel pattern” (pronunciation) and word use. My college education didn’t include much information either. There was a Language Arts textbook that was focused on teaching children to read, but it didn’t really reveal much about spelling. Anything I knew about words and how they can be considered to be made up of parts, I deduced from my own K-12 schooling and by noticing words when I read. Obviously I was missing some pretty foundational pieces! Everything I was learning as I introduced Structured Word Inquiry to my students was as new to me as it was to them. And I must say we had a glorious time learning together!
What is it that I missed?
Had I followed that hyperlink at Etymonline to the entry for ‘judge’, I would have learned that as a noun, it was first attested in the mid 14th century. At that time it was used to mean “public officer appointed to administer the law.” Earlier it was from Old French juger, and further back in Latin it was spelled as iudex and meant “one who declares the law.” I might have been confused by the spelling in Latin. Why was an <i> the first letter in the Latin spelling? In Spellinars I have taken since (particularly Latin for Orthographers), I learned that in Latin, <i> and <j> were considered to be the same letter. It may sound confusing, but the people who spoke Latin understood its use well. Here is an excerpt from the book Letter Perfect by David Sacks which gives more information on this.
“… the shapes j and i were being used interchangeably to mean either a vowel sound or a consonant sound (which in English was “j”), and similarly, shapes U and V were used interchangeably for a vowel or a consonant, “u” or “v.” In the hands of printers of the 1500s and 1600s, shapes J and V gradually became assigned to the consonant sounds. Later J and V would officially joint the alphabet as our final two additions, letters 25 and 26.”
There are, of course, a number of books available that will provide a more complete understanding of these two letters, along with all the rest. As I reflect on finding out that letters, too, have stories, I am reminded of a particularly lovely moment from a year ago. We were looking at a sentence on the board and focusing on each of the words. We were noticing what language each word was from. A student raised her hand and asked a question that no student has ever thought to ask before. “If words have histories, and letters have histories, where do punctuation marks come from? Do they have histories too?” I still smile and can picture the student asking it. I think it stays with me because it reveals how curious this student had become about our language. I like to picture this student slowly opening a door and seeing more of what’s on the other side, bit by bit. The eyes widen in wonder. Back to Etymonline’s entry for ‘judge.’
A less hurried scholar wouldn’t have stopped with the entry for ‘judge’ either. I should have kept reading. The next entry as you scroll down is for <judge> as a verb. Its attestation date as a verb is 200 years earlier than as a noun! At that time it was spelled iugen and was used to mean “examine, appraise, make a diagnosis.” Moving forward to c 1300, it was used to mean “to form an opinion about; to inflict penalty upon, punish; try (someone) and pronounce sentence.” Now moving back in time prior to its attestation date, this word is from Anglo-French juger, Old French jugier. Further back it was from Latin iudicare meaning “to judge, to examine officially; form an opinion upon; pronounce judgment.” From there we learn it is from iudicem (nominative iudex) “a judge.” What comes next in the entry is very interesting. The Latin iudicem was a compound of ius “right, law” (see just (adj.)) + root of dicere “to say.” You can see that in the spelling of iudicem, right?
And then in the next paragraph there is this, “Spelling with -dg- emerged mid-15c.” If I look back at the spellings of this word as it moved from one language to the next, I see that in Latin the first three letters were <iud>. In Anglo-French and Old French, the first three letters were <jug>. Then in mid-15c. the spelling with <dg> emerged. Hmmm. A good place to get evidence to illustrate this is the Oxford English Dictionary. There are citings of the word being used over time. Below I have listed the year and how one of the ways it was spelled at that time. What is interesting is the inconsistency in spelling prior to 1500. Then from 1500 to 1600 we see a consistent spelling, but with <i> instead of <j>. As we learned earlier, it was with the use of the printing press that the <i> (when representing a consonant) came to be represented with a <j>. It is also when <j> became an official letter of our alphabet.
What this information tells me is that the <ge> can’t possibly be a suffix in the words judge, judgment, judgmental, misjudge, or in many of the other words that were included in my first matrix. What this information makes clear to me is that ‘prejudice’ and ‘judge’ do not share a base in modern English! The <ge> cannot be a separate morpheme from the <jud> in the word ‘judge.’ How do I know that? Because if I think about the graphemes in this word, I will note that there are three (j.u.dg) with the single final non-syllabic <e> functioning as a marker (marking the pronunciation of the <g>). If the <d> is part of the digraph <dg>, it cannot cross the boundaries of the morphemes to do that. Remember that a morpheme is made up of graphemes that represent phonemes. And letters in two different morphemes can never combine to become one grapheme.
That understanding is something I didn’t have when I made that first matrix. And that’s okay. I believe that a matrix is more like a snapshot of one person’s understanding at a given moment in time than it is like an answer key for anyone else. It is so tempting to see a matrix that someone else made and grab it to use in your own classroom. In fact earlier this summer I saw a teacher happily sharing a whole set of word matrices that she made in preparation for this fall. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But is there a good chance that many teachers will happily use those without looking carefully at them ahead of time? I think there is. If there is something on the matrix that they question, my hunch is that they will distrust their own thoughts and assume that someone else’s work must be right. It is so important to carefully look at a matrix and to question things that maybe you wouldn’t have put on there yourself. My first matrix is a good example of that. If other teachers use it without questioning that <ge> suffix I listed, they will spread their own misunderstanding. They won’t be spreading mine because I have moved on from what I understood then. From that one matrix, I made two that reflected our new understanding. This is a common and acceptable part of learning, isn’t it?
I’m so glad that this experience was one of my first. I’m glad I blogged about it then, and now I’m glad to be able to reassure others new to SWI that they can expect to learn along the way. Here are two valuable things I have kept in mind as I have continued to jump into word investigations with students in the years since.
Let go of the need to be right all the time in front of students. I used this opportunity to celebrate having learned something that probably felt quite obvious to others. It’s not my fault that I didn’t learn about graphemes, phonemes, and morphemes until that point in time. The students can relate to that feeling. How often have you seen that look on a student’s face – the one where you know they are feeling bad because they didn’t know something everyone else seemed to know. I make it a habit to share how delighted, even giddy I feel when I’ve learned something that I didn’t even know I didn’t know! Enthusiasm is catchy! And modeling this kind of response to having a misunderstanding gives students a healthy alternative to feeling bad. There should be joy at having learned something. And when a misunderstanding becomes an understanding, learning has occurred!
There is another side to this need to be right and to be ready. Often we feel obligated to anticipate the questions that the students are likely to ask and to be ready with an answer. If an unanticipated question is asked, we still feel the need to answer it as best we can. What if we didn’t feel the need to answer every question? Some of my absolute best classroom moments have happened when I put the question back on the student and listened to them think through their own question. Or let others respond which gave the original questioner a different perspective – one that they didn’t have to assume was correct (like they might if it came from the teacher). It is also a powerful thing to say in front of your students, “That is a brilliant question. I have no idea what the answer is. But I can tell you this. I will be thinking about your brilliant question all day!”
Don’t rush through the etymological story in order to get to the matrix. The teacher I mentioned previously that shared a whole set of matrices with other teachers did so thinking she was doing them a favor. They even thought that she was doing them a favor. But what none of them realize is that researching and gathering a list of related words in preparation for a matrix is a marvelous opportunity to walk through a word sum hypothesis yourself. Certainly there are words that may stump you (is that a prefix or a base?), but by figuring out where to look or perhaps who to ask, you get better at the process. And when you feel better at the process, you can exude a calm when faced with uncertainties in your classroom. Because of your experience, you will offer suggestions of where to look for the evidence to support the current thinking in regards to a specific word. Exactly what do those teachers using someone else’s matrix know about the story of the base on each of those matrices? What interesting tidbit can they share with their students (or find with their students) about that base’s history? Can any of the graphemes in the base’s spelling be explained by information found in the word’s ancestry? How old is the base and what language did it originate in? Of all the words that can be completed using the elements on the matrix, which is the oldest? The newest?
There are many reasons for using a matrix with students. A person definitely doesn’t need to know everything I’ve mentioned above in every instance. But there ARE interesting things to know, and quite often it is those interesting parts of the word’s story that are memorable to the students. And we want the students to remember the words, right? A matrix can be part of an activity, but if you present filled out matrices to your students week after week, what are your students learning about determining a word’s structure for themselves? Think of it this way. Is using someone else’s summary of a book a great way for you to completely understand the book yourself? Of course not. You would be missing many of the finer points. Make sure your use of matrices is part of a larger picture of a word. It should include the sense and meaning of the word, its etymology (which can reveal so many things), and a look at its grapheme/phoneme correspondences. The matrix celebrates a family of words. The other questions of SWI reveal the details of that family.
I guess my big message here is to mix up the way you use matrices. Sometimes you create them, and sometimes your students create them. Sometimes they are part of a full investigation, and sometimes they are used alone because there is something specific you want to highlight. ALWAYS carefully consider a matrix that someone else has made. If it jives with your understanding, great. If it doesn’t, don’t assume that questioning it is off limits. It doesn’t matter who created it! Be discriminating and teach your students to do the same. This is part of achieving a more solid understanding no matter what you are examining.
I have met many wonderful people while teaching my “Bringing Structured Word Inquiry into the Classroom” online class. At the first thought of using SWI, there is hesitancy. There is a feeling that there is so much to learn before they could ever start using SWI with children. It is true that there is much to learn. But there are resources, classes, workshops, and people to help. And there are the wise words of Aristotle.
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
Definitely take some classes and ask some questions. By all means purchase a subscription to Real Spelling’s Tool Box 2! And then begin doing, so you can learn.
When I realized the article was focused on the word ‘the’, I smiled. Putting aside whether or not it is in fact the most powerful word, we can all agree that it is certainly common. While it is not difficult to write a single sentence without this word in it, you’re not likely to find an entire paragraph without its use. In this article the author makes a great point, “While primary school children are taught to use ‘wow’ words, choosing ‘exclaimed’ rather than ‘said’, he doesn’t think any word has more or less ‘wow’ factor than any other; it all depends on how it’s used.” The ‘he’ referred to in this quote is Michael Rosen, poet and author.
I’m sharing this particular quote because I couldn’t agree more. While it feels right to bring to a student’s attention words like benevolent, pterodactyl, photographic, and emancipation, it is also right to bring to their attention words they already know how to spell, pronounce, and use. But that is less likely, isn’t it? There seems to be this driving task behind the teaching of reading: Teach all the words. Once the child “knows” a word, move on to the next. And how do we as teachers quickly judge whether a child “knows” a word or not? Speaking for myself, I used to question words that they couldn’t pronounce far more often than a word they could pronounce. I figured that if they couldn’t pronounce it, perhaps they were unfamiliar with it and then also didn’t know its meaning. And that might well be the case in many situations. It didn’t mean I shouldn’t question the words they pronounced smoothly, but since students at a fifth grade level can pronounce so many words, it is difficult to wonder which of those they don’t know the meaning of. (This is one of my personal struggles with frequent fluency tests and phonics teaching outside of the context of a word. I see where being fluent is needed, but because it is easy to test, we tend to do it a lot. And that sends the message to the students that speed is a sign of a great reader which we all know is not necessarily true.) When you pair fluency up with pronunciation before the sense and meaning of the word has been established and understood, we end up with students who read well, but comprehend poorly. My concern is that we pass along another unintended message about what is important to our students.
It’s probably impossible to rid oneself completely of teaching things you don’t intend. But if you are constantly aware of what you are teaching and the manner in which you are doing it, if you are constantly reflecting on whether or not that manner is the most effective way, and if you are constantly comparing what the students understand to what you intended them to understand, you stand a better chance of recognizing those unintended messages and doing something about them. It is another reason I wish we could do away with one-size-fits-all reading/writing/vocabulary programs and instead teach oureducators how the English language works. When a teacher comes to rely on a manual for “right and wrong,” too many stop seeking answers to questions that come up. The assumption is that if there were answers, they would be in the teacher manual. But they aren’t. Imagine having Structured Word Inquiry as a college requirement! We could then give students the opportunity to address the questions they have about English spelling, and teach them how to go about investigating their questions.
What specifically do most educators teach a child about a specific word? Well, I think it depends on the word. With the words ‘benevolent’, ‘pterodactyl’, ‘photographic’, and ’emancipation’, most would teach pronunciation, spelling, and meaning, either generally speaking or in the context of where the word was noticed. With the words ‘the’, ‘because’, ‘of’, and ‘their’, most would teach pronunciation, spelling, and point out their use in sentences (teaching meaning is not as clear-cut with function words).
The above paragraph describes teachers who are given a program to use and decide what is important for students to know about a word based on what they remember about their own learning of spelling. Teachers who incorporate the Four Questions of Structured Word Inquiry into their word study also bring in awareness of morphology and etymology to explain a word’s story and spelling. I’m not being judgy here, I just know how ill equipped I was before I found SWI. I believed I was giving them everything they needed. Wait. That’s not true. I knew I wasn’t helping them understand a word’s spelling, but I didn’t know how to fix that. I didn’t know where to learn more. When you’re handed a teacher manual, you assume it has everything you need to teach, explain, and understand spelling. Hardly.
Function and Content/Lexical Words The list of shorter words I’ve mentioned are called function words. Few students are taught about function words and lexical/content words. The more you know about why words are categorized this way, the more sense it makes to share that information with children. The following video gives you some basic information about these two categories. I would add that some words (adverbs for example) are less accurately placed specifically in one of these categories and more accurately placed on a spectrum that lists content words at one end and function words at the other. In other words, depending on context, a word might be functioning more as a content word or more as a function word. The other great point this video makes is that we reduce the stress on function words far more often than we reduce the stress on content words in speech. Explaining that to children would help them understand why they misspell those words when writing down sentences instead of words in isolation. It isn’t that the word is difficult, it’s what happens to the word when we speak as we do in our stress-timed language.
Another recognizable quality of content or lexical words is that they have at least three letters. That helps you understand the difference between ‘in’ (in the box) and ‘inn’ (a place to stay for the night). Think of the words ‘be’ and ‘bee.’ Which is easier to define in isolation? I bet you’ve answered ‘bee.’ That’s because it’s a content or lexical word. The function word ‘be’ is more difficult to define on its own because we don’t use it that way (on its own). It has a function in the sentence. Like the analogy the man used in the video, the function words kind of “hold up” the content words. In the sentence, “It’s going to be raining soon,” the word ‘be’ is reduced and is definitely “supporting” the content word ‘raining.’ If you can’t hear yourself put more stress (emphasis) on ‘raining’ than you do on ‘be,’ write down the sentence and ask someone else to read it. It might be easier to spot that way. Of course the fun of speaking a stress timed language is that you can move the stress in the sentence to emphasize different words and change the meaning of the sentence. That sentence could also have the stress on ‘soon’ (but it still wouldn’t be on ‘be.’
Every year, once my students have become familiar with using the Four Questions of Structured Word Inquiry, I ask them to choose any word to investigate. I’ve had students who chose a favorite food (bacon, cheese), a favorite animal (hippopotamus, octopus), a favorite object (amethyst, tractor), a random word from a book they were reading (perfidiousness, mission), and even their own name (Sawyer, Jade). But not until this year did I have a student who chose a function word! And guess which one he chose … you guessed it! The.
He was so surprised that there was this much information about such a short word! He and I discussed the Old English letter thorn (þ) that he saw in the Old English spellings in the entry at Etymonline. The chart in the entry is something this student recreated in his poster. He was a bit familiar with the earlier spellings of se (masculine), seo (feminine), þæt (neutral), and þa (plural) because we had watched the following video in which we learned the Old English names for common animals.
The first thing the author of this video does is explain why we will see different spellings for the early Old English spelling of ‘the.’ Here is a screen shot of that information as the author lays it out:
The spelling of <þe> replaced these forms in late Old English (after c.950). Old English had ten different words for ‘the’, but since there was no distinction between ‘the’ and ‘that’, both senses were embedded in those ten.
Reading further at Etymonline, I found out that ‘she’ probably evolved from the feminine form of ‘the’, sēo. The Old English word for ‘she’ was heo or hio, but there was a convergence of ‘he‘ and ‘heo‘ in pronunciation, and by 1530 ‘she’ and ‘he’ were separate words. We still see the original <h> in the word ‘her.’ (As I was checking out other resources for this post, I saw at the Oxford English Dictionary that there is another theory about how ‘she’ got its spelling. Check it out if you are able.)
Looking back at the boy’s poster, it is interesting to see the consistent <the> spelling of each related word with the exception of ‘thilk.’ This word is interesting because it was a contraction of the words ‘the’ and ‘same.’ So it was þe “the” plus ilce “same.” Several resources I looked at listed this word as archaic, so I went to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was first attested in 1225 and the most recent example they had of this word in use was in 1909. It had a sense of “this same one” or “the same.” I also googled the word to see if it would come up in any modern context. No such luck. In fact, Google assumed I was spelling the word incorrectly. That was more evidence that this word is not used much any more.
Because we study grammar in my classroom, the student knew that ‘the’ is an article, a definite article determiner. That definiteness is important in the comprehension of a thought. For instance, if I say, “Sing me the song,” you and I both know what song I am referring to. There is a definite song I want you to sing. If instead, I said, “Sing me a song,” I would be using the indefinite article ‘a’ and neither of us would have a specific song in mind. In fact, you might ask me what I’d like you to sing!
Last fall my students each wrote a sentence so we could investigate and identify the origin language of each word. We were trying to see if there was one ancestor more common to most of the words we use day to day. It was the second year I lead the students in this activity. If you are interested, you can read the blog post about it from January 2019: “History Is Who We Are And Why We Are The Way We Are” — David McCullough An interesting side piece of data that we collected showed how often we used certain words in common speech. The students wrote 49 sentences, and then we tallied how often we saw each word in those sentences. Here are the results for the most commonly used words:
As you can see, ‘the’ was used 22 times! And of the 16 words that were used more than once, 11 were function words. I didn’t count ‘like’ as a function word, but depending on its use, it certainly could be. Remember when I said earlier that function and content words work better on a continuum than on distinct lists? The word ‘like’ illustrates that beautifully. Depending on its use, it can be a preposition, conjunction, noun, adjective, or an adverb. If it is used as a preposition or conjunction, it will be placed on the function word side. If it is used as a noun or adjective, it will be placed on the content word side. Here’s another graph of the function words that are specifically determiners:
What we notice here is that the article determiners were more commonly used than the possessive determiners. That wasn’t surprising considering what we’ve noticed in our study of grammar. Article determiners are the most common type of determiners. In case you are not familiar with determiners, they announce nouns. They are generally found in front of the noun they are announcing, but not necessarily immediately in front of the noun. In the case of “my shoe,” the possessive determiner is ‘my,’ and is immediately in front of the noun it is modifying. In the case of “every small chance,” the quantifier determiner is ‘every.’ It determines or announces the noun ‘chance’ and is in front of the adjective that also modifies the noun ‘chance.’
I think the importance of this data collection was the recognition that function words are indeed the foundation in our sentences. They are there to point our attention to the content words. The other fascinating thing was what the students noticed about the spelling of the function words. Words like ‘in’, ‘to’, ‘we’, and ‘an’ have had the same spelling since they were used in Old English. In looking at so many other words whose spelling changed over the years, it was weird at first to see this. But then we realized that function words are used constantly and because of that, their spelling didn’t change like that of other words that were used less frequently! An analogy might be, “If you never get off the train, you never get the opportunity to grab a different jacket!”
I encourage you to read the article that inspired this blog post. There were other senses of ‘the’ discussed, and they were rather well explained. It certainly broadens one’s thinking about a word we’ve all known since we were perhaps three years old, and yet haven’t paid much attention to! Once the reading and spelling of the word was established, attention moved on to other words. Perhaps it’s time to take a second look at some of our function words and recognize their place in our lexicon, in our sentences, and what happens to them in normal speech. It’s certainly an important aspect of spelling that was missing from my own education (and perhaps yours too?) and also from any teaching manual out there. Let’s make sure our students have the advantage of this understanding!
If you are interested in hearing more about stress and how it affects function words in speech, I recommend videos by Rachel’s English. Here is one that I have found extremely helpful. This whole idea provides further proof that our language is a stress-timed language and NOT a syllable-timed language. What that means exactly is another understanding that isn’t found in teaching manuals. We spend so-o-o much time teaching children about syllables when our language isn’t syllable-timed. We spend almost no time teaching children about stress even though our language is stress-timed. We need to stop relying on those programs and those manuals, and start learning about our language for ourselves!
There was quite a hub-bub about the campaign rally scheduled recently in Oklahoma. Several current medical and social issues caused this rally to be questioned more than most political rallies in our past. And of course, the whole event got me thinking about the word ‘rally.’ A political rally is nothing new in this country. I believe the first political rally was held by George Washington when he was running for his second term! Prior to his political campaign and the rallies that took place to support that, he often had a need for rallies of a slightly different type. Accounts of the battles indicate that there were many times during the American Revolution when the soldiers needed to hear words of encouragement from their leader. They needed to be brought back together and reminded of what was at stake in that war. They needed a pep talk of sorts. Other times during the conflict, they needed to be rallied (brought back together) so that they were ready for the next advance.
Washington inspecting the colors after The Battle of Trenton by Edward Percy
Moran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The idea of pulling a group of people together to encourage them to think in a certain way was what the word ‘rally’ meant then, and it is what the word means now! You may be familiar with the phrase “Rally ‘Round The Flag.” That is a line from the Civil War era song, “Battle Cry of Freedom.” Here is a link to the story of this song. It was written days before it was played on July 24, 1862 at a huge war rally held by Abraham Lincoln, who was trying to recruit as many as 300,000 volunteers to fight for the Union. This article includes the words to the song and a version of the song.
Of course there are rallies that are not political in their intent. Most everyone who has attended a secondary school with a sports team has attended a pep rally! They are especially commonplace in the U.S. I’m not sure about other countries. The goal of a pep rally is to stir up some school spirit! There is music by the school’s pep band, there is chanting by the school’s cheerleaders, and there is lots of encouragement offered to the members of the particular sporting team being featured.
At Etymonline we see that this word was used as a verb (1600) before it was used as a noun (1650). The verb meant “bring together.” Before that it was from French rallier, and before that from Old French ralier “assemble, unite again.” As you can see the original sense and meaning of this word persists today! Looking closer at the etymology of this word, we see <re-> “again” and alier “unite.” At this point in the Etymonline entry we are directed to the related word ‘ally.’ That word is first attested in the late 13c. Notice that it is older by 300 years! At that time it meant “to join in marriage.” Further back it was from Old French alier “combine, unite.” Notice the spelling difference between Old French ralier and Old French alier! The only difference is the <r> which represents the <re-> prefix “again.”
Before I go further, I just want to mention how much I love the fact that ‘rally’ and ‘ally’ have a common ancestor! Think about the word ‘ally’ for a minute. We think of our allies as those who join us and work with us for the mutual benefit of both. According to Etymonline, ‘ally’ has had a sense of “form an alliance, join, associate” since the late 14th century. We saw certain nations become allies in both World War I against the Central Powers and then against Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II. It is not a stretch to think that once you form an alliance with someone or some group, the two people or groups are now allies. And who better to rally with than your allies!
The Oxford English Dictionary lists several variations of this first sense of this word. The first is “a rapid reassembling of forces for renewed effort or fighting.” That is certainly the same sense we see in accounts of war. While reading an account of the Battle of Trenton (American Revolution) at the History Channel site, I came across the following use of this word:
“Rall attempted to rally his troops but was never able to establish a defensive perimeter, and was shot from his horse and fatally wounded.”
A second variation is that of a “signal for rallying.” In order for the soldiers to know they are to rally, there must be some kind of signal. A commander might tell someone to sound the rally! It was no doubt a specific bugle or drum signal.
A third variation would be “a meeting of the supporters of a cause to demonstrate the strength of public feeling or to inspire or foster enthusiasm.” My New Oxford American Dictionary describes this sense as “assemble in a mass meeting.” I would venture to say that people the world over have seen or participated in such mass meetings in the last year. Recently there have been (and continue to be) protests/rallies for causes like Black Lives Matter. Earlier this year there were protests or rallies for Climate Change as well. I imagine you could name several rallies that you’ve seen in the news with other particular focuses. I remember participating in a rally myself back in 2011!
A fourth variation would be in the context of boxing. The word would be used to mean “a sustained exchange of blows.” I went to Google to find ‘rally’ used in this way in a recent headline or story. I found, “Boxers Rally to Defeat Willamette” from September, 2018. But on closer examination, this story is about a volleyball team who rallied (to come together to restore spirits and enthusiasm). As you no doubt noticed, instead of finding this word used with this sense as a noun, I found it with another sense as a verb. The next headline I found was, “Boxers Rally for Win in Home Opener.” Again, this had nothing to do with boxing. It was about baseball which you may have guessed from the phrase ‘home opener.’ The third headline I found was actually about boxing! “Boxing World Rallies Against Devin Haney for …” In this story, one boxer had made a blatantly racist remark against another and a large number of boxing enthusiasts rallied (came together to send a solid message). So I was unlucky in finding an example of this word used in this sense as a noun at all. I wonder if it is because there is a more commonly used word for this particular sense. I’m thinking of the word ‘volley.’ I could easily find reference to a boxer receiving “a volley of well-placed blows.”
Michael Gusnick, Torsten Schmitz by Thomas Lehmann
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-0325-010 / Lehmann, Thomas / CC-BY-SA 3.0 /
CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)
A fifth variation would be “a concerted effort by a team, player, or competitor, especially one made from a losing position to draw even or take the lead.” This sense applies to the sporting headlines I found in the previous paragraph! Many times a team or player rallies with the hopes of coming from behind to win. At the site The Bleacher Report, I found this list: The 20 Most Outstanding Sports Team Rally Songs. One of my favorites off that list is “New York, New York” which is a rally song for the New York Yankees. Do you know it? It became popularized by Frank Sinatra.
Now an obviously different sense of ‘rally’ has to do with car racing. A rally is “a race for motor vehicles, usually over a long distance on public roads or rough terrain and typically divided into several divisions.” The Sports Car Club of America describes a RoadRally this way: “Because events do not involve speed, teams do not need specialized equipment for their car. Although there are classes for vehicles with RoadRally-specific equipment on them, often teams will do the events with only pens, paper and a wristwatch. On the rare occasion the RoadRally is held at night, a small flashlight might be needed. Entry fees for the events are typically less than $40, and often events will even have classes for RoadRally novices.”
By oisa – https://www.flickr.com/photos/oisa/763487574/, CC BY 2.0,
London Maximillion Jaguar XJ220 leaving the start in London in 2007
In referring to a rally, but wanting to switch the word to a verb, one could say, “The driver rallied his car in Italy.”
There are just so many interesting words within our reach every single day. Even when you think you understand a word, there is always something new to discover. There is always a deeper understanding to gift to yourself! I also find that with every investigation I conduct on my own, I become more and more familiar with my resources and what the internet can make available to me. I prefer to use more than one resource simply because each is written by a different person, and in doing their own digging for the information, may have come across different resources themselves. More information is always clarifying! When there are discrepancies, it just means I need to look further and think about what information I need to know in order to reconcile the discrepancies I see. Sometimes the discrepancy is simply my misunderstanding of linguistics and language. So I ask questions of knowledgeable people and I reread trusted sources.
Don’t forget to conduct your own investigations. The more often you do it, the better equipped you are to teach others how to go about an investigation. I have found that the more discoveries I have made for myself, the less I want to “make things easy” for my students. If I enjoy the moments of discovery this much, why would I rob my students of the same joy? I guide them, I lead them, I help them understand the signposts along the way, but I let them see it for themselves! And everyday we rally around words!
Our school year has ended. Nobody is going to deny the unusual circumstances that we were all thrown into during the last ten weeks of our school year! In fact I can never remember a single situation affecting schooling worldwide like this pandemic has! Teachers and students the world over scrambled for weeks trying to see if any teaching style could match the face to face teaching/learning we are all so used to. But that burden is done for my school district. Our school year is over. Our rooms are ready for summer cleaning, and our fifth grade students are ready to move on to the middle school in the fall. In the midst of what has not at all felt normal, those simple acts of getting our rooms ready for cleaning and our students ready for the next grade have brought us back to the routine we expect at this time of year.
But there has been one more big change in my building. Six of my colleagues have retired. SIX! If you work in a large district, that probably seems like a pittance. You probably lose many more than that to retirement each year. But in my world, we don’t. I have worked in the same district and at the same grade level for 26 years. I know each of the six retirees personally. One of them I knew as a parent when both of our children were in second grade together. Another of them was our children’s second grade teacher. One is married to a former pastor of my church down the street from our school. One has been my 5th grade colleague for all of my 26 years. Only two of the six began working at our school after me. So you can see just how unique this retirement situation is, and how odd it will feel to begin a new school year without the personalities that have brought joy and camaraderie for so many years.
I often speak of the staff at our school as one of our strongest assets, and because these six people have been so special, I spent a lot of time thinking of what their retirement means to me. And then (if you know me at all, you know where this is going), I began to wonder what the word ‘retirement’ means to anyone. What is its story? As a kid I used to think it meant that someone was tired of doing their job, so they stopped doing it. Is it really as simple as that?
Starting at Etymonline with the word ‘retire,’ I found that this word was first attested in the 1530’s. At that time it was something armies did. It meant “to retreat.” It was borrowed from the earlier Middle French word retirer “to withdraw.” The <re-> had a sense of “back” and the <tirer> had a sense of “draw.” Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary, We get a better idea of how this word was used in French.
Middle French, French retirer to pull or draw (something) back (12th cent. in Old French),
to remove, withdraw (something from someone) (13th cent.),
to remove (someone from a particular place or position),
to free (someone from captivity),
to keep (something) in reserve,
to deter or turn (someone) aside (from a vice, etc.) (all 15th cent.),
also (reflexive) to withdraw, go away (end of the 14th cent.),
to go off to somewhere peaceful or secluded,
to withdraw somewhere for protection,
(in military context) to retreat (all 15th cent.),
(reflexive, of the sea) to ebb (c1500),
(reflexive with de ) to give up (a habit, etc.) (1508),
(reflexive with de ) to cease to perform or pursue (a specified activity, mode of employment, post, etc.) (1538),
(reflexive with de ) to cease to frequent (someone) (1553)
The OED goes on to say, “French retirer shows a number of senses not paralleled in English, especially senses related to the core meanings ‘to take back, take away, remove’. In modern French the meanings ‘to leave employment’ and ‘to withdraw (something) from service’ are usually expressed by constructions with retraite (retreat), rather than with retirer.” Isn’t that last bit interesting? What we in English speaking countries refer to as retiring, the French refer to as retreating. What is extra interesting is that both of those words come to us from French!
Checking with my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, I find that ‘retreat’ is first attested (in English) in about 1300 and was a signal for a military withdrawal. It was borrowed from Old French retret, retrait, and is from Latin retrahere “draw back.” Since it can be traced back to Latin, it is an older word than ‘retire.’ As I mentioned above, ‘retire’ was first attested in the 1530’s.
Heading back into Etymonline, I find that it wasn’t until the 1640’s that this word was applied to a person withdrawing from an occupation. Interesting. Retiring from a job simply meant to withdraw from that job. The sense and meaning hasn’t changed! But it has broadened. By the 1660’s, it was also used to mean “to leave company and go to bed.” Every once in a while I come across this use in a story. Perhaps you have too. Someone might say, “I’m feeling tired. I’m going to retire for the night.” As we’ve found out earlier, as this word was associated with the military, it meant “withdraw, lead back,” but by the 1680’s it also meant “to remove from active service”. That is a very similar sense to retire from one’s occupation, isn’t it? The final sense listed at Etymonline is from 1874, and it is the baseball sense of “to put out.” So to retire the runner, could mean you threw the runner out at the base.
Two words that I found while making this matrix fascinated me. The first is ‘retiracy.’ I’ve never heard of it that I can remember. Etymonline describes it as modeled on ‘piracy’ in 1824 American English. Sounds like humans playing around with their language again! I can’t wait to wish my friends fun in their retiracy!
The second fascinating word on this matrix, and the only word here that does not have anything to do with leaving a job, is ‘tirade.’ When I think of a tirade, I think of a long, often angry speech, or perhaps two people bickering back and forth. The interaction is drawn out, hence the base <tire>!
Have you noticed that so far there’s been no mention of being fatigued, exhausted, or tired? So if the base of ‘retire’ does not have the same base we see in ‘tired,’ then what’s the story of <tired>?
credit to marfis 75 on flicker
Combining what I found in Chambers and at Etymonline, I read that before 1460, this word was spelled tyren. It was developed from Old English tēorian at about 1000 and in Kentish tiorian before 800. It was used to mean “to fail, cease; become weary; make weary, exhaust.” The fact that the <tire> in ‘retirement’ and the <tire> in ‘tiresome’ come from completely different languages gives us evidence that they are not related etymologically, and most certainly won’t be related morphologically. They are two completely different words!
Even though most people wouldn’t consider the kind of tire we see on our cars to be confused with either of these other bases, I’d still like to address it. After all, it is another base that has this same spelling of <tire>. If you’ve never looked up this word, you are in for a treat!
This word dates back to 1485 and was used to mean a band around a wheel. At that time it was spelled <tyre> and meant the iron rim of a carriage wheel. What’s fascinating is that it is a shortened form of the word ‘attire.’ The prefix is an assimilated form of <ad-> “to” and the base is <tire> “equipment, dress, covering.” According to Etymonline, “The notion is of the tire as the dressing of the wheel.” My Chambers Dictionary gives further information indicating that the band of rubber on the rim of the wheel was first recorded in 1877. It was first used on bicycles before being used on cars. I’m sure the iron lengthened the life of a carriage wheel before then, but I can’t imagine what kind of a bumpy ride it provided! And it’s obvious that improvements have been made on the rubber tire ever since! Another fascinating thing about this word is its spelling. When it first appeared, it was spelled <tyre>. From the 1600’s through the 1700’s, the standard spelling was <tire>. But then at the beginning of the 1800’s, the British revived the spelling of <tyre> which still remains standard in Britain while in the United States, the spelling remains <tire>.
While we’re on the subject of tires (as in the covering on a wheel) I found an interesting bit on the word ‘tire-iron.’ Originally this was one of the iron plates off of the older fashioned wheels and was used to pry the tire off the wheel. The name ‘tire-iron’ caught on in 1909. We still call the tool we use to pry a wheel off of the rim a tire-iron, and now you know why.
Before I retire this topic …
Did you recognize the title of this post? It is a line from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In the passage, he has just had an exchange with his nephew and is reflecting on how silly it is to celebrate Christmas when you haven’t any money. It is the last line in the following excerpt:
“There’s another fellow,” muttered Scrooge, who overheard him: “my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I’ll retire to Bedlam.”
So now that you know more about the word ‘retire,’ you can understand that Scrooge means to withdraw from this conversation and head straight for the insane asylum in London, (St. Mary of Bethlehem Hospital, which was commonly referred to as Bedlam at the time). He can’t understand how people with very little money can be so full of joy, while he who has more than he needs, is miserable. He sees this disconnect as him being surrounded by insanity. His pursuit of wealth doesn’t just cloud his thinking, it blocks him from pursuing human relationships, where real happiness lies. I find it remarkable that a look at a word I kind of had a sense about, in a passage I’ve heard many times, suddenly creates a sharper focus on the meaning of that word. In turn, the deeper understanding of the word shines a brighter light on the overall meaning of the passage, as if being viewed from a wider lens.
Perhaps people associated retired with having something to do with being weary or fatigued, because generally the people who choose to retire are older. As of November 2019, the most common age for retirement in the U.S. was 62. Those people have worked at their jobs for many years and it is not a stretch to imagine they might be tired of it or tired because of it. And that may certainly be the case for some. But if we look at the words and understand what they mean, we can better understand how to use them! We can get an orthographical kick out of the fact that we have three bases, all spelled exactly the same (<tire>), but deriving from three different ancestors and with three distinct meanings! Some of those who are beginning to see the value in teaching children about morphology are still wagging about teaching them etymology. Yet here’s evidence that etymology can hold the key to an understanding that neither morphology nor pronunciation can provide on their own. That’s why we must teach students to look at all three.
As a farewell to my colleagues I wrote up a shortened form of this post and gave it to each. I closed with a quote from the Century Dictionary that I particularly love.
“Retirement is comparative solitude, produced by retiring, voluntarily or otherwise, from contact which one has had with others.”
I think of my colleagues, my friends, as withdrawing from employment at our school and enjoying comparative solitude. They will leave the “noise” of education behind and take with them every laugh between friends, every tender moment, and every triumphant teaching joy. They will immerse themselves in comparative solitude. I couldn’t wish for anything better than that! Congratulations, my dear friends!
When school was abruptly closed this year, we were in the middle of many great projects. The biggest of those focused on assimilated prefixes. The students had spent time either individually or in small groups looking at a particular prefix and its assimilated forms. What ended up being a good thing is that not everybody started this project at the same time. It was one of those classroom situations that happens when certain students finish what they are working on sooner than other students and ask about something new to do. The first few students ended up working alone. I had them take a look at a specific assimilated prefix.
For instance, I assigned the first student looking for something new to do the prefix <ad->. I asked him to find words that clearly had an <ad-> prefix. That meant that he couldn’t just go to word searcher or a dictionary and write down words that begin “ad…” He had to check their etymology to make sure they had the <ad-> prefix joined to a base. When he brought a list to my desk, I asked him what sense the prefix often brought to the words he had listed. We looked over the list together and talked about what the words meant.
This step is important to me. If you look at the student posters below, you will notice that the students tend to add words to their list that are not words that a fifth grade student might typically use. It is as if they open the dictionary and copy the first bunch of words they see, not even entertaining the thought that there might be words that fit the search that they already know. Of course I encourage them to first look for words they know, but looking at words without considering what the word means is something that they’ve been doing a lot of prior to fifth grade. It’s a habit, unfortunately. So I counter that habit with continually asking what the words they choose mean. Then when these posters are presented to the class, we go over the unfamiliar words again. Having said that, I have no intention of testing them on any of these words. I am well aware that in a week they may not remember what some of these words mean, and that’s okay. They will remember some of them and really, the point here is to notice and become familiar with the prefix. When they see a word in the future that begins with an “ad…” I want them to be able to consider if that is a prefix in that word or not. If they think it is, based on what else they recognize in the spelling, then they will know that it brings a sense of “to” to the base. It is a valuable consideration when thinking about a word sum hypothesis.
Besides possibly noticing this prefix on some word in their future, there is another underlying foundational concept that we are reinforcing when we talk about what the words we are collecting mean in relation to the base and in relation to the prefix. That underlying concept is the fact that words that share bases or share affixes, also share something in their sense and meaning. When the students really understand that, they will begin to look for that shared sense or that shared meaning. The fact that students have not been taught that words like design and signature share a base and therefore a meaning is such a lost opportunity! They don’t expect two words to be related or connected in meaning unless they are exactly the same, except for maybe a switch-out of suffixes. So, for instance, a student would expect signature and signatures to be connected in meaning, but not signature and signal.
After the student had collected words with an <ad-> prefix, he asked what to do next. So I told him that the <ad-> prefix has some assimilated forms. I told him that sometimes the <ad-> form doesn’t work so well as it gets paired up with certain bases. As an example, we looked at the word “assign.” The prefix on this word is an assimilated form of <ad->. It is <as->. It’s really the same prefix as <ad-> and brings the same sense of “to” to the denotation of the base. He looked puzzled, so I asked the question for him, “Why don’t we just use <ad->?” Well, look what happens when we try. Pronounce the base with an <ad-> prefix instead of the <as-> form. We both said *adsign. Then we kept repeating it until we could feel the /d/ assimilating to an /s/. I explained that what happened was that the /d/ assimilated to better match the articulation of the /s/ which is the next element in the word. Then I wrote out the word “assimilate” for him. I said, “Guess what the prefix is in this word?” He guessed the <as>. “Right. It is an assimilated form of <ad>! Do you recognize a familiar suffix at the other end of this word?” He recognized <ate>. That left <simil>. I told him the denotation of this base is “resembling, of the same kind, to make similar.” So what is happening here is that the /d/ in the prefix is assimilating to be more similar to the initial pronunciation in the next element. In this word, it assimilates to /s/! It was time to send him on his way to find words with an <as> prefix that had assimilated from an <ad> prefix. I asked him to grab one of the Collins Gage Canadian Dictionaries off our shelf. I wanted to show him exactly what he would be looking for in order to know if the initial <as> in any word he found was actually an assimilated form of the <ad> prefix.
I had him look for the word “assign” since we had just talked about it. The very last line of this entry had the information were looking for, Latin <ad-> “to, for.” That is the evidence I want all the students to look for when they find a word and are looking to see if it has an assimilated prefix. In this case, <ad-> is what I like to frame as “the head of this prefix family” or the default form of this prefix.
So now this same student was off to collect words with an <as-> prefix. Each time he came back, we looked over his list and I gave him another assimilated form for <ad->. He was quite surprised at how many there were!
The same conversation took place with other students in the other classes. Eventually I had all students looking at either <sub->, <con->, <ex->, <ad->, <in-> “not, without”, <in-> “in”, or <ob-> and the assimilated forms for each. Once their initial task of collecting some words with each of the assimilated forms of a specific prefix was completed, then I talked once more with them about this idea of assimilation. I wanted to make sure they understood how recognizing an assimilated prefix would be helpful to them. I also wanted them to have a sense that when an assimilated prefix is used, there is often the appearance of a doubled consonant near the beginning of the word. When they notice that, they will want to see if what they are really looking as is an assimilated prefix (one that has adjusted to match the beginning of the base). Next they made a poster of their findings. These were shared with the rest of the class so that students would be aware of prefix families other than the one they investigated. After the presentations and discussions, the posters went out into the hall. Here are a few of the posters.
When you look at these posters, you’ll notice the one main prefix with all of its assimilated forms. You may also be wondering again what makes these assimilated. You heard an explanation with the <ad-> prefix, but here’s a similar explanation using the <sub-> prefix.
Assimilation is what happens when the articulation of a sound is modified to better match the articulation of an adjacent sound. Assimilation can happen in other situations as well, but for now I am focusing on prefixes and bases. When looking at prefixes, I’m focused on the neighboring elements and what has happened over time as they were articulated. For example, let’s look at the word “supply.” If you look in an etymological resource such as Etymonline, you will notice that <sup-> is an assimilated form of <sub-> “up from below”. The base is <ply> and is from Latin plere “to fill”. The word “supply” means “fill up.” If I supply pencils, I fill up that need. But why did the prefix assimilate to <sup->? Why isn’t it <sub->? Well, let’s just pair up <sub-> and <ply>. Our word would be *subply. Now say that word several times in a row. What did you notice? Did you start out saying *subply and ending up saying supply? Of course you did. That is assimilation in action! The /b/ assimilated to a /p/ to better match the /p/ in the base <ply>.
Now because these investigations weren’t all started at the same time, they didn’t get finished at the same time. Truth be told, I like it that way. We present posters and discuss as they are finished. We rarely have a stockpile of posters to present at any one time. I don’t like to rush these presentations because I want the sharing and discussing to feel leisurely. Thinking about what you are seeing and being told deserves time for contemplation. For many it is the think time that allows pieces of understanding to fall into place.
The boy who was first started on this project was one of the first to finish. He took his time and was impressed with what he found. Look at how many assimilated forms of <ad-> he found!
After he had shared with the class, he was back at my desk. “What should I do now?”
I replied, “Wouldn’t it be fun to make a game show and while people are participating, they are learning about assimilated prefixes?”
He glanced at me with a not-so-sure look. I reminded him of the video some fifth graders made a few years ago called Assimilated Prefix Family Feud! (You can find it HERE if you are curious.) I told him (and every other student/group who began to find themselves at my desk wondering where to go from here) to give this idea some thought. I asked them to think of games that they have played or game shows that they have watched that they could turn into a teaching opportunity. As you might guess, a few knew exactly what they wanted to do and others spent a day or two playing with ideas in their minds.
Once they had decided, I asked them to write a script. What a perfect opportunity to blend writing skills and orthography knowledge! At first they didn’t really get it. They thought they would set up a game show, I would set up the camera, and then we would see what happens. I had to explain to them that only the audience would think that this was happening live. The host, the participants, the studio audience, and the camera person (me) would know it was a script we were all following. It had to be. Otherwise, how could we be sure we would be including enough information to teach the audience about assimilated prefixes. We had to blend the humor and entertainment with solid information and teaching about assimilated prefixes. They were excited and couldn’t wait to get to the writing. Here is the first game show that was ready to be videotaped. It is the one about the <ad-> prefix.
The host is the student who wrote the script. When he first turned it in to me for revising, I suggested he give more than one example for each of the assimilated forms he chose to include. By doing that, he illustrated over and over what this process of assimilation with prefixes is! As I was filming, I couldn’t stop smiling. The atmosphere was one of my favorites. There was laughing; there was learning. There was camaraderie, helpfulness, and fairness. The learning will be memorable; I have no doubt!
The next script to be ready featured the assimilated prefix <sub->. Again this was written by a single student. She was so excited to model her game show after The Bachelorette! I asked her what she had in mind. When she said that each assimilated form of the prefix <sub-> would be hoping to find its perfect match, I chuckled. I couldn’t wait to see how she pulled this one off!
Here is her poster.
And here is The Bachelorette – The Assimilated Prefix version.
The scriptwriter is the one handing out the roses. The students had so much fun with this one. The outtakes were hilarious! This is one of those topics (love) that both intrigues ten and eleven year olds and embarrasses them all at the same time. A great combination of learning about the <sub-> prefix family and laughing!
The next show ready for the big screen was called What’s My Prefix? This focused on the <con-> prefix and its assimilated forms. Here is the poster this group created.
Here is their game show. It was interesting that this group chose to list the prefix choices on the board, and then to plant some incorrect prefixes in that list. They wanted the contestant to think about the spelling of the whole word. The host spelled out the base and then the contestants thought about what word they could form and which assimilated form of <con-> would be appropiate. The rest of the class enjoyed being our studio audience!
When the host offers up the base <rode> with a denotation of <gnaw>, each of the contestants takes a guess. One guesses <co->, the next guesses *<corr>, and the third one guesses <cor->. If you were to show this to students, a great follow up discussion might include why the structure of “corrode” makes sense if we identify an <cor-> prefix. Another follow up question might be, “Why isn’t <con-> used?” Using this same example, a third point to bring up could be the role of this <cor-> assimilated form of <con->. We usually think of this prefix as having a sense of “with,” but in the word “corrode,” this prefix is actually an intensifier. It is intensifying the action of the base. When something corrodes, it is intensely gnawing or wearing away. The students knew of this prefix function in this word by carefully reading the entry for this word at Etymonline.
The next group ready to film had an interesting take on the game show format. They took the family feud idea and wanted two assimilated prefix families to “duke it out”. So two groups combined and wrote a script in which the <ob-> assimilated prefix family competed against the <sub-> assimilated prefix family. They called it Family Fortune! Here is the <ob-> poster showing what they had to pull from as they wrote their script. I did not get a picture of their <sub-> poster.
What I especially loved about this game show is that they found bases that could take either an <sub-> prefix or <ob-> prefix. At first they thought this would be an easy script to write. But they soon realized it would be tough to find bases that would work for both prefix families. I loved watching their persistence in looking!
As the show started, the hosts named a base. Then each prefix family decided whether or not they had a member that could indeed pair up with that base! Cool challenge!
The first base they named was <fer>. The assimilated prefix <suf-> stepped forward to created the word “suffer.” At the same time the <suf-> prefix stepped forward, I wondered why the <of-> prefix from the other team didn’t also step forward. It might have changed the feeling of the game a bit. It would also have highlighted how the sense of each prefix affected the overall sense and meaning of the base! I hope that as you are watching these videos, that you see ways to strengthen the important information in them. Use them as discussion starters. Ask your students to contemplate what my students presented and then think about what else could have been said or added.
The last game show to be filmed was called Flip That Base! It featured the <con-> assimilated prefix family. As you watch, you will notice that the scriptwriters included ten stems and asked the contestants to bring up the prefix that matched best. Once the prefix and base or stem were paired up, the hosts briefly explained why a specific prefix was a good match. Here is their game show.
The two hosts of this show were the scriptwriters. They were especially excited when I told them that I had never assigned a project like this before. I have made a lot of classroom videos, but often I am the scriptwriter. They loved bringing their creativity, writing skills, and orthographical knowledge to the big screen. I loved watching them enjoy this project so much!
Even though we were far from done with this project, I am happy that at least five of the groups had their work filmed. All students had an opportunity to see these shows. And that means that all students got familiar with the idea that the assimilated forms of a prefix assimilated to better match the articulation of the neighboring element in the word.
Prior to fifth grade, students were taught that <con-> and <com-> were prefixes. They were not, however, taught that they were two forms of the same prefix. They were also not taught that <con-> had other assimilated forms. The problem with having such a limited understanding of this prefix is that the students don’t even consider that the <col-> in “collapse” or the <cor-> in “correct” could be a prefix. Don’t forget this: To understand a word’s structure is key to understanding its spelling. If students can learn about <con-> and <com->, they can learn about the rest. This doesn’t mean memorizing a list and taking a test. This means encountering words and having someone guide them to this understanding. The more of it they see, the more of it they will recognize for themselves down the road. Understanding the structure of a word will help them when reading and when writing. It is the biggest missing piece in modern reading instruction in my opinion. Yes, teachers will tell you that they include it. But what happens when the word has a structure that the teacher doesn’t understand for themself? They certainly can’t teach what they don’t know they don’t know, now can they?
Back to our big project that was halted mid-stream.
So what great game show ideas did we miss out on once school was cancelled? Well, my camera has footage of a partial game of PREFIX (a version of BINGO). Each column had one of the assimilated forms of <ob->. The hosts read off words and participants marked the squares with that word. While the participants were marking their boards, the hosts shared more information about the various pairings between the base and the prefix. We’ll just have to imagine someone shouting out “PREFIX!”
And while I was filming other groups, two boys finished a board game they made. The goal of the game was to collect one word with each assimilated form of <ex->. If you followed the path, got to the end of the board, and didn’t have at least one of each, you had to keep going around the board until you had them all. You had the opportunity to collect and lose cards along the way. Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of the board game. Those two boys played it enthusiastically for three days during our video shoots of other scripts!
Here are pictures of the backdrops for two more groups that didn’t get to finish their project. Creating the backdrop was the last step before filming. That means their scripts were finished because there had to be a script before any props were to be made (unless there were group members available to do this). I can only imagine how exciting these shows would have been! Encouraging the students to unleash their creativity was just what they needed. This project involved investigation, discussion, writing, revision, reading, memorizing, creative prop making, performance, and learning more than what was expected. Oh, and there was a huge helping of laughter!
When people ask if I use a scope and sequence, my first response is that I don’t. But that’s not completely true. I do have a scope in mind. I do have a list of concepts and skills that I feel are important and that I must teach in a given school year. It isn’t etched in stone or anything because it depends on my audience, of course. I start where they are in their understanding of English spelling. I also have a rough sequence for some of those concepts that I generally follow. It also isn’t etched in stone or anything. It is simply an order that I generally follow so I know that I can build on some basic understanding before adding layers of new information. For example, I don’t teach my students about assimilated prefixes until they have experience with prefixes in general. I don’t teach about Latin verbs and the resulting bases in modern English until they have an understanding of Latin’s place in the history of our language. But other than that, the rest of the concepts are applied when the opportunity arises. And it arises a lot because we look at so many many words in the course of a school year.
I have used a scope and sequence with other programs in the past. I understand why teachers want them. There is always the fear that you’ll miss teaching something important or that there will be inconsistency between one teacher and another regarding the skills taught. As you go along, you can check off that you have covered a certain skill, and by the end of the year, all of your students have heard all of the required information. But we all know that following a strict scope and sequence doesn’t guarantee anything. Students can still end up with “gaps” in a specific subject. Sometimes there isn’t enough practice before the sequence timeline moves on. I’m not blaming the teacher here. I’m just saying that students who kinda-almost-get it, don’t always get it solidified before the teacher moves on to the next piece in the scope. And that is only one example of how a gap can form.
I’m not saying you have to scrap the idea of a scope and sequence. Many districts require them. But I want you to think of one in a less restrictive way. A less regimented way. If you’ve been teaching for any length of time, I bet you already know where you will start each year with the subjects you teach. You know what concepts you will start with and what comes next. It is the same for me. The difference is that once we get into word investigations, I can’t predict which concepts will need a closer look. Instead of writing down a specific order in which these concepts must be addressed, I take the opportunity to discuss them as they come up in the context of a word. In this way, we talk throughout the year about concepts that come up over and over. Before you know it, some students are able to explain these concepts to other students. When that happens, I know that the understanding will continue to spread throughout the class. More and more students will have the opportunity to explain a concept to other students and in doing so, demonstrate that they know it for themselves.
The following is a list of big topics I consider to be “must haves” for my students. I will not get into all of the particular bits included with each of these larger topics, but I em endeavoring to explain each to give you an idea of what each entails. I have other posts in this blog that address many of these things.
Words hold meaning.
This is a perfect spot for one of my favorite quotes from Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick, “Every word is part of a picture. Every sentence IS a picture. All you do, is let your imagination connect them together.” Yes, every word has a sense and meaning. And that sense and meaning is embedded in the word. It isn’t a case of, “Here’s the word. Go look in a dictionary to find out what it means.” Instead, we learn to spot the bases in a word that carry a common denotation that has existed since the birth of that lexical stem in the English language. It is a literal meaning of the word, and is comprised of the denotation of the base and the sense that is added to it by any affixes. Yes, sometimes a word’s sense and meaning changes over time, but there are a surprising number of words that can be clearly understood once one knows the denotation of the base.
Words have structure.
A word’s structure is expressed by writing its word sum. We begin with a hypothesis. Familiarity with affixes is a must, but I don’t recommend memorizing them in isolation. I find it helpful to look at prefixes and suffixes by having small groups collect words with a specific suffix or prefix. Then we come together to talk about what these affixes are and how they steer the denotation of the base. After a day or two of that, I continue those discussions about affixes as they come up in word investigations. If I see some confusion about the role of affixes, the sense they carry, or what happens when two or more are joined, I will choose a specific word family for examination that will help solidify this familiarity.
About half way through the school year, when I feel that my students are comfortably familiar with several common prefixes, I specifically have everyone learn about assimilated prefixes. Many students know that <con-> and <com-> are prefixes. But they don’t know that they are in fact forms of the same prefix. And they don’t imagine that <col->, <cor->, and <co-> are even prefixes at all! This is something I have students focus on in small groups. They collect words that have one or another form of that prefix so we can share and talk as a class. We all benefit from each group’s research, and they become better equipped to make hypotheses about word sums!
Connecting vowels are something we discuss when they appear. The first time we spot them, I spend time explaining how I know that the letter in question is, in fact, a connecting vowel. I demonstrate the questions I ask myself and the resources I use. I also point out that you can’t tell if a letter is a connecting vowel by just looking at the word. You can have a suspicion, but it isn’t until we have asked ourselves some questions and used our resources that we can provide evidence to back our suspicion or hypothesis.
This brings us to identifying bases and whether or not a word is a compound. They know about free bases except they call them roots. We clear up that distinction. The idea of a bound base is completely new to my students. They have been told about adding suffixes and prefixes, but with that being said, they do not know that a word like <corrode> is made up of a prefix and a bound base (a bound base simply being a base that needs an affix). By the end of the year, they are delighted to be able to say that technology, manufacture, geography, and hallway are all compound words!
Besides learning about free bases and bound bases, they learn that some bases that derived from Latin verbs have alternate spellings. They come from the same Latin verb and have the same denotation, but have two or more spellings. An example of this would be the bases <duce> and <duct> that we see in <produce> and <product>. The bases derived from Latin verbs are so commonly seen in modern words that this is definitely a worthwhile focus for my students. By the end of the year they have gained so much in the way of understanding about the types of morphemes a word can have, that hypothesizing word sums is one of their favorite activities!
Words come from somewhere.
Some words have been around for hundreds of years. Others are newer. Words are being added to our English lexicon all the time. Our language is always changing, and those changes are brought about by the people who speak the language. In other words, words have a history and that history becomes their story. This is the facet of structured word inquiry that always draws my students in. They love knowing that words were, in effect, born at some point in time. In some cases the spelling of a particular base was influenced by other languages and changed along the way. In other cases the meaning of the word as it was used by people over time changed rather drastically! It could be that the word now means the opposite of what it once did! And, of course, there are many words that have retained their spelling and their sense and meaning.
In the course of conducting word investigations, students find out that words may have come from a number of different languages. Generally, they find that the majority of the words they look up come from either Old English, Latin, or Greek. At first I just let them get used to the idea that the words we use came from languages such as these. But by late in the first half of the year, I think it’s time to put those languages in perspective. What I mean is to look at a timeline and think about how long ago Old English was being spoken! Is Greek older than Latin, or is Latin older than Greek? In small bits, I present some of the history of our language. I talk about Proto Indo European. It makes sense to do so since it is referenced so often at Etymonline!
While we are looking at the language of origin, we take note of certain signals in the spelling of a word that might point us in that direction. For example, when we see a medial <y>, we see that as a clue that this word is no doubt from Greek! Or when we see the spelling <ch> and the pronunciation of /ʃ/, we see that as a clue that this word is from French. There is just so much understanding to be gained by knowing more about the ancestors of our modern words!
Words are not used in isolation, so they should not be studied in isolation.
So much of Structured Word Inquiry involves a scientific “compare and contrast” model of thinking. If we look at a word all by itself and try to understand its spelling, we are lost. But if we look at a word among its family of relatives (meaning other words that share its base and etymological ancestor), we can learn so much more. When we are studying and analyzing the grammar in a sentence, we look to the affixes on the words to give us clues about how the word is functioning within the sentence. We notice that some suffixes are unique to specific parts of speech while others need to be seen in the context of a sentence. For example, when we see <-ion> added to <animate>, we think of the new word as a noun instead of a verb. But a base with an <-ly> suffix needs the context of the sentence to reveal its part of speech. Two possibilities are that it can be fixed to a noun to become an adjective (as is the case with <elderly>) or to an adjective to become an adverb (as is the case with awkwardly).
Graphemes are another aspect of English spelling that needs to be understood in context of the word they are part of. So many of the graphemes in English have the potential to represent several phonemes. When we investigate the word as a whole, the etymological origins or journey can give us an understanding of why certain graphemes are used over others or why the grapheme we see represents a specific phoneme. An example I am thinking of is the <ch> digraph which might represent the /ʃ/ phoneme in words like <chef> or <ricochet> that came from French, yet represent the /tʃ/phoneme in words like <chair> and <search> that came from Old French and further back, Latin.
Words are ours to enjoy!
Words should be appreciated because they are a reflection of the people who use them. The dictionary isn’t a collection of the words we should be using. It is a collection of the words we are using. Every year we hear about words that are removed from the dictionary because no one uses them, and also, new words popping up and being used often enough to need to be added to the dictionary. You see, dictionaries are a reflection of the words we use. Each edition is a snapshot of use in that year. Luckily, most words hang around a long time and so we don’t notice the age of a dictionary unless we are looking for a recently added word.
Students are so used to dry vocabulary lessons and spelling tests, that they lack curiosity and/or enjoyment of words. I feel it is important to reinstate that idea. To that end we look at things like portmanteau words, phonesthemes, extremely long words, and oxymorons. The children discover that words can be playful and even make us laugh. They enjoy discovering that motorcycle is a portmanteau word that blends the words motorized and bicycle into one! They find satisfaction in knowing that email is a blending of electronic and mail.
Phonesthemes are so intriguing! They are not a spelling, but rather a common pronunciation found in a group of words that also share an aspect of their meaning. The words are not necessarily related etymologically, but there is a common “sense” among them. An example would be /sn/ which is part of snore, snout, sniff, snot, snarl, snort, and sneer. Have you already guessed what “sense” they share? Right. They all have something to do with the nose.
Oxymorons are simply two words with an opposite meaning paired together. A few examples would be seriously funny, jumbo shrimp, and awfully good. By giving students the opportunity to see words in this way, we make them inviting. Words become something to share and talk about enthusiastically!
I hope you can see that I have a master plan. I definitely have a master plan. There are certain parts of this plan that need to be addressed right up front. For instance, I always start with showing students that words have structure and can be written as word sums. That is an idea that is never checked off as having been “covered.” It is a part of every investigation and every inquiry we do all year. And we spend a lot of time throughout the year conducting word investigations. We do them as a whole class, we do them individually, and we do them in small groups.
The rest of the concepts I’ve listed overlap each other all the time throughout the school year. I don’t feel there is one order that is more correct or makes more sense than another. If I see something in a word investigation that I can illuminate, I do. If I notice a misspelling in a writing sample that I think needs attention, I will do just that. I will write a similarly misspelled word on the board so we can talk about the concept that needs to be applied in that given situation. I am not teaching my students to spell one word at a time, but rather to learn the consistent and predictable conventions that English has, so they can apply them to the words they encounter every day.
I watch their reactions to what they are hearing. I vary what I do day to day to keep them engaged. If I think the current activity is losing momentum, I will take a break from it and show some kind of orthography-related video. Often, doing a bit of sharing about current projects gets everyone back on track. I always let them work in small groups so they can talk through what they are doing. You are encouraged to keep an eye on the groups to make sure all are involved in the talking, the researching, and the writing. We always do a large group sharing of small group projects. It is this time spent sharing projects that leads to the understanding of words, their meanings, their structure, and their stories. It is when everything settles in and over time, with repeated presentations and discussions, becomes permanent information.
I mentioned earlier that there are certain inquiries that I hold off on until the students have a more solid understanding of a word’s structure, and of how to use Etymonline, our dictionaries, Word Searcher and toPhonetics. That makes sense to me since another goal is to consistently increase their level of independent investigation. My students know that I welcome questions, but they also learn that I will turn the question back on them if I think they can answer it themselves. I don’t investigate for them or hand them everything they need to make anything easy. And they appreciate that. It is one of the comments I have been hearing every year since 2012 when I first incorporated Structured Word Inquiry into my teaching. This is fun because they get to find out things for themselves. And that’s the way learning should be!