Math Operations: understanding the words will help with understanding the concept.

I originally put this information together for a fourth grade teacher that I was mentoring at the time.  I thought that if she understood these words beyond a dictionary definition, she could find ways to incorporate that understanding into her teaching.  I went beyond the basics with this information so the teacher could make a professional decision about what to include in her teaching.


Addition – 

We have evidence of this word existing in English as far back as the late 14th century.  At this time it meant “action of adding numbers.”  Prior to that it was in Old French (early 1400) spelled as adition and meant “increase, augmentation.” Even earlier than that (1300) it was in Latin and spelled as additionem and meant “add to, join, attach.”

Before the printing press was invented, spelling was similar place to place, but certainly not consistent.  For example, in Middle English, this word was spelled as addissyoun and also as addycyoun!  Those are only two of many variations.

A deeper dive that you may or may not wish to share with students …

Ultimately it comes from the Latin verb dare meaning “give.”  This is not the modern word ‘dare’ as in I dare you to do something.  This would have been pronounced as ‘dar’ (as in darling) +’ey’ (as in they).  The thing about this is that the <are> on the Latin word dare is a Latin suffix and can be removed!  That means that what came into English is the single letter base <d>!  We never see a single letter base on its own.  It is always attached to a prefix or suffix.  That’s why it’s called a bound base.  So what that means is that the structure of the word ‘addition’ is <ad + d + ite + ion>!  The prefix <ad-> is seen on many words like adverb, adjective, advocate, adjacent.  It carries the sense of “to.”  In this word, the base means “give,” so the word means “give to.”  That makes sense when we think of what addition is.  The suffixes <-ite> and <-ion> are often used together and the final <-ion> indicates this is a noun.

If you’re wondering where else we see this single letter base <d>, one word that your students will know is the word ‘condiment.’  The structure of this word is <con + d + i + ment>.  The prefix <con-> has a sense of “together,” the <d> means “give,” the <i> is a connecting vowel, and the <-ment> is a suffix indicating this is a noun.  Condiments are a variety of things we put together with our food (ketchup, mustard, relish, etc.).

Another word is ‘mandate.’  The structure of this word is <man + d + ate>.  The first base <mane> means “hand” (think manicure “professional care of the hand”, manuscript “written by hand,” and manual “done or used by hand”).  The second base <d> means “give” and the suffix <-ate> indicates this can function as either a noun or a verb.  This word means a judicial or legal order but we can think of it literally meaning “give into one’s hands.”

Yet another word is ‘tradition.’  The structure is <tra + d + ite + ion>.  The prefix <tra-> is a shortened form of <trans-> meaning “over.”  The base <d> means “give.”  The suffixes <-ite> and <-ion> indicate this word is a noun.  The idea of a tradition is that it is something that is “given over” from one generation to the next.


So, what to tell students?  

There are several ways to share some of this with your students, and only you can make the best decision about which is most appropriate!

1) You could say that the base is <add> and have them help you think of words built off <add>.  Then show them the following matrix and see if they recognize the words they suggested.

2) You could show them the structure of <add> and connect the <d> base to words they know such as condiment and tradition, but show the matrix that is totally related to math.  The advantage of this is that they will be aware of the <ad> prefix and might begin to recognize it in other words.

3)  You could show them the following matrix, although it might be better to begin with one or both of the others.  YOU, however, will no doubt be intrigued by the words included here.



We have evidence of this word existing in English as far back as 1400.  At that time it was used to mean “withdrawal, removal.”  It wasn’t until the early 1500’s that it was used as a mathematical term.  Before it appeared in English, it was in Late Latin and spelled subtractionem “a drawing back, a taking away.”  In earlier Latin it was subtrahere “to pull away, draw off.”

The structure of this word is <sub + tract + ion>.  The prefix <sub-> has a sense of “from under,” the base <tract> means “pull, draw,” and the suffix <-ion> indicates this is a noun.  The idea that we pull or draw a small number from “under” a bigger number is clear in the way we write a subtraction problem, lining up by place value.

There are many words that share this base that also share its sense and meaning.

tractor – something that pulls.

distract – when one’s attention is pulled away from something.

attract – One’s attention is drawn or pulled toward someone or something.

extract – something is withdrawn or pulled out. (flavorings in cooking, water from a rug)

retract – something is withdrawn or pulled back.  (a statement, an awning)

contractor – someone who pulls a project together and makes sure all parts are completed.


Here’s a matrix with <tract> as the base that includes the above words.

In case you are wondering about the word ‘subtrahend,’ I will once again point out that the furthest back relative of this word was the Latin word subtrahere “to pull away, draw off.”  If we replace the Latin suffix <-ere> with the modern English suffix <-end>, we’ll have the word ‘subtrahend!’   In modern English, subtraction and subtrahend don’t share a base so they can’t be on the same matrix.  You can tell the students that they share a great grandparent!  Even in the Oxford English Dictionary, I was unable to find any other words with a <trah> base.  Most of the words besides ‘subtrahend’ that derive from subtrahere have a <tract> base.



We have evidence of this word existing in English as far back as the mid-14th century.  At that time it meant “any increase in size, number, or amount; act or process of increasing in number.”  Earlier, in the 12th century it existed in Old French as multiplicacion and meant “duplication, multiplicity.”  Earlier yet, it came from Latin multiplicare “to multiply, increase.”  As you may be noticing, the spelling of this word is not much different than it was in Latin!  If we remove the Latin suffix <-are> and replace it with the modern English suffixes <-ate> and <-ion>, we will have <multiplication → multi + plic + ate + ion>.  The prefix <multi-> has a sense of “many,”  the base <plic> means “folds,” and the suffixes <-ate> and <-ion>, often used together, indicate this word is a noun.  Well, it is the final suffix that is indicating this is a noun.  When <ate> is final, it is usually indicating the word is a verb (illustrate / illustration), although as we saw in the word ‘mandate’ it can indicate a noun as well.

Think of the words duplicate and triplicate.  Their structures would be <du + plic + ate> and <tri + plic + ate>.  The sense comes from the idea that something in triplicate is threefold.  Not necessarily in the sense that it has been actually folded three times, but rather that it is as if it was replicated three times.  Oooh!  Look at the word ‘replicate!’  <re + plic + ate>!  I’m also seeing that complicate and implicate share this same base as well!

replicate – repeat – as if folded over for an exact copy

complicate – folded together, confused, intricate.

implicate – act of entangling.  Inference drawn from what is observed.


With your students, you may want to stick to words you know they know.  Here is a simpler matrix, comparing the spelling of ‘multiplication’ to ‘complication.’  You’ll notice that the word ‘multiplicand’ is there.  The <-end> suffix we saw in addend and subtrahend is an <-and> in this word.


But what about multiply?

The word ‘multiply’ has existed in English since the 12th century when it was spelled as multeplien and meant “to cause to become many; cause to increase in number or quantity.”  As with ‘multiplication’ this word comes from Latin multiplicare.  But further back, it comes from Latin multiplex “having many folds.”  There are a few words that share the base <ply> meaning “fold.”

multiply – many folds

reply – fold back (conversation)

imply – entangle and involve something unstated

Looking at the words with the <ply> base gives you a perfect opportunity to talk about when we do and when we don’t toggle that final <y> to an <i> when adding the suffix!


Here’s a matrix focused only on words directly related to multiply.  Again you have an opportunity to look at the <y> to <i> toggling convention.



But what about multiple?

The word ‘multiple’ first entered English in the 1640’s.  The structure of this word is <multi + ple>.  The base <ple> is from Latin multiplus and means “fold.”  How about that!  So the words multiplication, multiply, and multiple all share the literal meaning of “many folds.”  Because they have differently spelled bases, they can’t appear on the same matrix.  Here’s one for <ple>.

Division – 

The word ‘division’ has existed in English since the late 14th century.  At that time it was spelled divisioun and meant “act of separating into parts, portions, or shares.”  Prior to entering English, it was in Old French and Latin before that.  When it was in Latin, it was the verb dividere which meant “to force apart, distribute.”

As is often the case with Latin verbs, two modern English bases have derived from the same Latin verb:  <divide> and <divise>. The second base here (<divise>) is a bound base.  We don’t see it as a word on its own.  It is always bound to either a prefix or a suffix.  Because they derived from the same Latin verb, they have the same meaning, “separate, break up, share, distribute.”  These two bases from the same Latin verb are sometimes referred to as twin bases  (I always told my students to think of them as fraternal twins who may not look alike but came from the same parent).

Here is a matrix for each. In the first one you will note the opportunity to replace the final <e> on the base when you are adding a vowel suffix.  There is another great opportunity to talk about the word ‘indivisible’ which is included in the Pledge of Allegiance.


In the second matrix you’ll see the suffix <-end> to form the word ‘dividend.’  This matrix also gives you the opportunity to talk about the common practice of replacing the final <e> on a base when adding a vowel suffix (suffix that begins with a vowel).




Resources used – 


Oxford English Dictionary online

Neil Ramsden’s Mini Matrix Maker

Spelling by Syllables or by Morphemes?

I have been following groups on Facebook as well as people on Twitter (X) for the last few years.  Specifically, I’ve been interested in spelling.  How do teachers teach spelling to students?  I’ve noticed several methods.

-Have students announce syllables and then spell them
-Have students announce morphemes and then spell them
-Have students announce the graphemes in each base and then the affixes as more of a unit
-Have them spell the word letter by letter
-Have them recognize some morphemes in some words, but then spell the word by announcing its syllables.

I’m wondering.  Does the method even make a difference as long as they end up being able to spell the word?  My experience in the classroom tells me it does.

Memorizing spelling words letter by letter was what I was taught to do and it was what my children were taught to do.  It was also what I told children to do for the majority of my teaching career. It was the only way to teach spelling, or so I thought.  The goal was to memorize the spelling of twenty words a week for each of the eighteen weeks of the school year.  Even when students seemed successful on their Friday spelling tests, most didn’t retain the correct spelling of the words for long.  Having them memorize a word letter by letter by letter only worked for a few (and by “worked” I mean that they had that word more permanently stored in their memory).

I switched away from having students memorize a spelling letter by letter when I learned about Structured Word Inquiry and began showing students that words have a morphemic structure.  A word might be a free base on its own as we see in help, run, like, and stop.  More often, though, a word is complex, meaning it is composed of more than one morpheme.  Examples might include helpful, running, likely, and stopped.  The more time my students and I spent looking at those structures, the more we began to notice that the same affixes appeared in tons of words.  That may seem obvious to you, but really, it wasn’t obvious to my students.  One example of that is the fact that each year I’ve had students begin fifth grade misspelling common words like ‘goes’.  The only spelling strategy they knew to use was to sound out the word.  That is why I was seeing ‘goes’ spelled as *gows, *go’s, *gose, and *gous.  At some level, I’m sure the students knew that ‘goes’ was related in meaning to ‘go’.  But I don’t think they were explicitly shown the spelling relationship:  <go>, <go + es>, <go + ne>, <go + ing>.  If they had been, they wouldn’t have thought that the word was spelled with a <go> base and a *<ws> suffix, would they?

My school district is in its second year with UFLI.  It will take a while to see if that makes a difference in their understanding of spelling as the students reach the upper elementary grades.  What I saw in fifth grade was students who either thought spelling was dumb or students who loved spelling.  Can you guess which of those two groups was great at rote memorization and which wasn’t?  It wasn’t really about understanding spelling at all.  The curriculum we used was vague – talked about long and short vowel patterns but never addressed “why.”  Why do we use an <ea> instead of <ee>?  As a result, none of the students knew why a word had a particular spelling.  They memorized the spelling by announcing it and then they took a shot at spelling out those sounds.  As they grew older, they realized that not all of the words on their list were words they use frequently or even know.  As a result, they had to also memorize what the word meant.  Let me share a personal story here.

Reading didn’t come easily for my son.  (Oh, if I knew then what I know now!)  He could do it, but it took so much effort that it wasn’t enjoyable – at all.  His writing contained a variety of spelling errors, but could still be read and understood. One time, when he was in high school, he asked me to help him study for a vocabulary test.  Instead of reading the definition the teacher had given the students, I reworded it to make sure he had the sense and meaning of the word.  He was livid!  “Mom!  I don’t need to really know that!  If I want to pass, I just need to know the first three words of the definition and the first four letters of the word they go with!”  He grabbed his papers and said, “I’ll study by myself.”  Wow.  What an eye-opener!  And just in case you’re wondering, he passed the test–without understanding or being able to use any of the vocabulary words he was tested on.  Poor teaching?  Yes, I’d say so.  Kids will figure out how to get around any task that is hard and confusing.

This story reminds me that when we make spelling a task to be done separate of meaning, we make extra work for children.  Having students spell syllable by syllable, when syllables are only about pronunciation, is separating the spelling from the meaning.  Another step must be added to the process–that of attaching meaning to the word.  If memorizing the spelling was a difficult task for the student, memorizing a meaning to attach to it will be just as difficult.  It’s like playing a matching game when you don’t know what it is about one that makes it a match for the other.  My guess is that my son hasn’t been the only student who has given up on learning and instead resorted to just focusing on passing the test.

A second problem I see regarding teaching students to spell words by announcing their syllables, is that students now need to be taught percentages. 70% of the time this pronunciation is spelled this way.  If that doesn’t work, try this spelling.  It works 15% of the time.  If that doesn’t work, try this spelling.  How is that method not adding cognitive overload?  And does it teach students to see connections in spelling and meaning between words like one, once, alone, atone, and only?  My guess is that the students might see a meaning connection between words that share pronunciation (like one and once), but they won’t include alone, atone, and only in that same meaning connection because they are taught that pronunciation is the most important thing about a word.  They haven’t learned to notice spelling similarities when pronunciation tells them the words aren’t related.

When we teach students the morphemic structure of words, we teach meaning and spelling at the same time.  We connect the two right from the start.  When we investigate the word in the context of its larger family (including other words that share the word’s root), students learn not only about that one word and its meaning, they learn many of the features of our language.  They begin to see suffixing conventions as something applied predictably and logically.  They begin to realize that the word’s spelling is better understood –more memorable–when we include its etymology.  Instead of asking, “How do you know when to use <ea> or <ee> in a word?”, students instead wonder, “Why is this word spelled with <ea>?”  In other words, instead of questions that will yield answers accompanied by lots of exceptions, students focus on one word family at a time and begin to see patterns across that word family as well as across others.  They begin to see that by examining a word’s morphemic structure, its etymology, and its grapheme to phoneme correspondences, they have a more complete picture of what it is possible to understand about a word–any word.

By hypothesizing word sums and then seeking the evidence to support or falsify those hypotheses, students gain awareness of the morphemes we see in numerous word families.  A larger number of affixes become familiar to students in a shorter amount of time when compared to the method of teaching a short list of prefixes and suffixes to students over the course of a specific school year.  Why ask the student to wait three or more years to be able to take a close look at affixes the student is reading now?  I’m not suggesting we give the students a list of every possible affix all at once either.  I’m suggesting that when we look closer at words the students are curious about, we show them the structure–even if there are affixes we haven’t talked about yet.  The overall message to students should always be that words are made of one or more morphemes.  The more word families the students explore, and the more often they ask themselves where else they’ve seen an individual morpheme, the more morphemes they will recognize with automaticity.  Recognizing morphemes in unfamiliar words gives students a distinct advantage when reading.  My students have told me this time and time again.

“Mrs. Steven, there was a word on the Star test that I didn’t know, but I used what you’ve been teaching us and figured out part of its meaning!  It really helped!”
“I was watching the news last night and they used a word I hadn’t heard before.  When I thought about it, I recognized part of it and it made sense when I connected it to what the news guy was talking about!”
“How do you say this word?  I figured out what it meant when I was reading last night, but wasn’t sure how it would be said.”

There are plenty of teachers who believe that controlling the number of affixes and bases taught to a student is optimal.  They believe that explicitly teaching affixes and bases as suggested in a published program is preferable to teaching students to conduct investigations for themselves.  They fear that without explicit instruction of a list, not all students in a group will know the same affixes.  That while using a list, the teacher can account for which of those affixes the students know.  They also worry that asking a student to know too many affixes and bases is cognitive overload.  If those affixes and bases are taught in isolation, outside the context of an actual word, I would agree.  What eases cognitive load is connecting the once isolated morphemes to other morphemes through meaning and spelling.

One problem of teaching from a list is the way assimilated prefixes are taught.  In many programs, students are taught <con-> and <com-> at the same time.  But why not also teach <cor->, <col->, and <co->?  They are either on the schedule for some other year or not on the list at all.  All five of those are alternate spellings for the <con-> prefix.  It most often brings a sense of “together, with”.  It doesn’t make sense to leave them out when students are reading words that include them (like corrode, collide, and coauthor).  The teacher is helping students see the structure in ‘conduct’,  <con + duct –>conduct> and its literal meaning “lead together”, but not showing the students the same prefix in ‘collide’.  <col + lide –> collide> and its literal meaning “strike together”.  Doesn’t make sense to me.

Students are also being taught that prefixes mean the same thing in every word they are a part of.  Not true.  Let’s look at <re->.  Most programs teach that it means “again”.  And in many words it does (rerun, reuse, redo).  But how confusing is it when a student looks at ‘reduce’?  It doesn’t mean do something again,” it means make something smaller, literally “lead back.”   In this word, <re-> brings a sense of “back.”  Even more confusing is a word like ‘refine’.  Something isn’t being made fine again, it is intensely becoming fine.  In this word, <re-> is an intensifier.  My students and I have found that it is best to check with an etymological resource when wanting to have the best understanding.  Many prefixes have more than one sense they can bring to a word.  The only way to know for sure what meaning the prefix carries is to look at a resource.  Programs that teach <re-> means “again,” will give a list of words to practice in which it does bring that sense.  The confusion sets in when neither the teacher nor the program is around and the student encounters a word that doesn’t fit what they were told.  That’s why teaching students to use resources for themselves is so helpful.

When a teacher gives a student a list of prefixes, bases, and suffixes to know and then includes a short list of words that include those morphemes, they are, in effect, telling the students what to see.  The students will probably be successful in spotting those morphemes in those words for a long time.  But what about spotting those morphemes in unfamiliar words?  Will they notice those same morphemes then?  Or will the environment (surrounding morphemes or pronunciation of them) obscure their presence?  When my students and I hypothesize a word sum and then check with an etymological resource like Etymonline, our next step is always to recognize where we have seen those morphemes.  What other words have the same <con> that we see in ‘conjunction’?  (conform, confiscate, construction).  Every time we “prove” a prefix is a prefix, we do so by coming up with three or so words that clearly have that same prefix in their structure.   If the students can’t think of three examples offhand, we look together in dictionaries or on Word Searcher. In this way, they become familiar with how to use research toolsand in doing so, gain a level of independence in their morpheme searches.  The students become noticers of words in all kinds of situations, and they do that without me needing to be there to show them what to look for.

I have also seen some teachers consistently show students the syllabic division of the word and only inconsistently the morphemic structure.  Perhaps this is because their own understanding of bases is limited.  They show the structure of words that have free bases (<help + ful + ness>; <move + ment>; <busy + est>), but are less inclined to show their students the structure of words that have bound bases (<de + duce/ + ed>; <mote/ + ive/ + ate/ + ion>;<aut + o + bi + o + graph + y>).  Doesn’t this send mixed messages to the students?  If you can identify the morphemes and their meaning in one word, why can’t you do it in all words?  We’re back to promoting the idea that English spelling is inconsistent and unpredictable.  When my students and I have been unsure of a specific word sum analysis, we have always looked to the evidence we could find in our resources.  If we couldn’t find evidence to support our hypothesis, we backed up and instead of thinking we had two morphemes, we wrote them as one, acknowledging our suspicions about a further analysis and leaving that door open should further evidence become available.  This is different than saying our analysis is either right or wrong.  What better lesson can we be teaching our students than to rely on evidence?

If morphemic structure isn’t being taught consistently, they are not seeing the advantage there is in identifying a word’s morphemes – especially when it comes to spelling.  The teacher in this instance goes back to announcing syllables and hoping the student has seen the word often enough to remember how the phonemes are spelled.  The only thing the students have to go on is the pronunciation given by the teacher.  Syllables, after all, aren’t like morphemes.  They aren’t consistent from one word to another.  Other than a few exceptions, we don’t see the same syllables over and over.  On the other hand, once a student is familiar with a group of prefixes, suffixes, and bases, they don’t have to think about how to spell them.  They only need to focus on the morpheme that is new to them.  Depending on the word, it could be more work figuring out the spelling of its syllables than spelling out its familiar morphemes.


A Morphemic Spelling Activity


A couple of months ago I was invited to submit an article for Dystinct Magazine.  When I looked at the types of articles others had submitted, I knew that sharing an effective activity for teaching children to recognize morphemes in words would complement them nicely.  For those who haven’t heard of Dystinct Magazine before,  it is a digital magazine available on tablets and mobile devices with purchase of a subscription.

“Dystinct was launched in 2021 as a resource for the families and educators of children and young people with learning difficulties….Dystinct aims to peel back at the negative layers of damaged self-esteem and provide children with a platform to truly appreciate their uniqueness, take pride in their differences and revel in the knowledge that within their difference lies their strength.”

If you’d like to see the topics of the other articles in this month’s publication, use THIS LINK.   This magazine is worth subscribing to.  Each issue is filled with thought provoking articles – ideas to intrigue the educator, the tutor, the parent, and the student.  In the meantime, here is the article I submitted.

If you are interested in giving this activity a try, here is a collection of bases you might want to use.

Word lists for word sum practice-1


Michel Rameau … profoundly sad yet profoundly grateful

The above message has been posted at the Real Spelling Tool Box 2 site. The news of Michel Rameau’s death is being received with a great sadness by those who learned from him and knew him to be an extraordinary human being.  I can’t even fathom how many people have been transformed because of his work – because of him.   I was first introduced to Michel by Dan Allen, whose blog caught my attention.  I was especially intrigued by the matrices Dan had posted and the classroom discussions he described.  When I contacted Dan to find out where to learn more, he put me in contact with Michel, who then put me in contact with Pete.  I attended Pete Bowers’ workshop on Wolfe Island  and then,  began taking Michel’s classes.  When my ignorance about English spelling surfaced, Michel was kind in his response.  He didn’t need to humiliate me in order to teach me.   There were no expectations about what I should or shouldn’t already know.  He met me where I was and helped me understand what I didn’t understand.  In fact he celebrated what he called “big, fat, juicy mistakes.”

Several times, Michel warmly accepted my request to zoom with my classroom of students.  He spoke to them, not as if they were children who needed to be talked down to, but as if they were scholars deserving of an adult who would be straight with them.  A few times we met to discuss Real Script.  He showed them how to hold a pen so it could dance.  He also showed them examples of his own glorious script.  The students especially loved the sample he showed in which he had written in a circle.  As you can imagine, my students and I made underlays so we, too, could try that.  Other times I let the students ask their own questions about specific words or word sums they were having a hard time proving.  They loved meeting with “Old Grouch.”  We all learned so much from those sessions.  He had a way of explaining things with simplicity, evidence, and humor.   One core truth we learned was, “The question is more important than the answer.  Questions are eternal.  The answers are only temporary.  Understanding is about questing – not about collecting answers.”  Below is a picture of Michel (bald head, beard, and bow tie) with his special writing desk, his scriptorium, in the background.

Personally, I took every class he ever taught.  Most of them at least twice – many of them 6+ times.  He often quoted Heraclitus, who said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  So true.  I always walked away with something new to ponder, something better understood.  I wasn’t the only person who recidivized his classes.  He welcomed those returning as if we were best friends who’ve been away too long – kindred spirits who understood that learning is best accomplished in the company of others.  He often reminded us that scholarship begins with three.

Being in that zoom room with Michel made me feel like I was in the highest educational setting possible.  We were rigorous in our pursuits, but there was no urgency, no race-running (curriculum), and certainly no frog’s intestines cooking in a clay pot (tests).  It was a space of leisure – without haste, but with deliberation.  The more time I spent in classes with Michel, the more I understood the importance and effectiveness of leisure (deliberation without haste).  I took this understanding into my own classroom and began to eliminate deadline requirements for student work when I could.

Students were given either individual and partner projects that extended until the student(s) was satisfied.  Then the work was shared with the whole class so we could consider and discuss the information.  At that point a new project began (sometimes it was chosen and sometimes it was assigned).  So at any given moment, there were possibly 10-15 different projects and investigations happening.  As my daily schedule permitted, I gave them at least 15 minutes and at the most 45 minutes for this work.  At other times we had to hold off for a few days to attend to other tasks.  But these investigations were always there to come back to.  They took the time they took.  The students investigated deliberately without the hustle and stress of a deadline.  An added bonus to this “everyone is doing something different” was that the students became the teachers when it was time to share.  There was responsibility in that.

The students enjoyed having autonomy for the pacing and the depth of their work, although they didn’t mind when guidance was offered regarding both. Once the deadline disappeared, most students used their time to check additional resources for word relatives and an etymological story.   In the end they were grateful that when they asked me a question, I didn’t just answer it straight off, but rather gave it back to them for further contemplation.  If I saw they were absolutely stuck, I stepped in to give the right kind of nudge so they could move forward in their investigation.  They felt involved in their learning like they never felt before!

If you ever took any classes with Michel, you will recognize that I learned this from him.   He would recognize our questions, but not usually answer them.  Instead, he would nod and smile.  It was as if he didn’t want to take away our fun at eyeing-up the evidence and figuring things out for ourselves.  We learned to sit with the theories and suspicions we had but couldn’t yet prove.  He delighted when one of us shared the evidence we had collected after posing a question.  He urged us to also share in the Sunday Band of Scholars so that others might contemplate our questions and give us more to consider.

The other reason Michel didn’t necessarily reply to our questions with an answer is that he never wanted to be that “expert dispensing knowledge.”  He wanted us more involved in the thinking, the identification of what it is we didn’t know, the questioning, and the considering of evidence.  Have you ever noticed that oftentimes, when given an answer, people tend to stop asking questions about that particular topic?  He didn’t want that because as he said numerous times, “Questions are eternal.  Answers are temporary.”  Inspired by this idea, I wrote the following on my whiteboard and kept it up all year.

These are just a few ways in which my teaching was influenced by what I learned from Michel.  I haven’t even mentioned the information I learned and then taught regarding his Latin and Greek for Orthographers classes!  My students thought it was so cool to learn about twin bases, biliteral bases, and uniliteral bases!  One year my students gifted Michel with a video of them singing the Greek alphabet.  I can still hear his delighted reaction to it!

And then there was the way he welcomed us into his personal life.  He found perfect moments in his films for sharing his favorite music or his favorite lyrics.  He specifically shared those things about language that delighted him so that we, too, could be delighted.   His bookshelves housed special editions of books he handled reverently when showing them to us.  I also recall the personal stories he shared of his family and especially of his partner, Pascal.

His body of work is something I will continue to learn from.  The Real Spelling Tool Box 2 is incredible.  Unless you’ve had a good look at one of its themes, it is hard to imagine the amount of information that is waiting for you.  It is a resource to be visited and revisited.  His gallery of films is another treasure trove.  There’s just always something to learn!  And of course, the films at Orthographica need to be mentioned as well.  These are the films Michel showed in his classes – the very same classes that so many recidivised.  He revealed the connections between Greek and Latin spelling and Present Day English spelling.  Fascinating!  I was constantly in awe at all that he knew.  What an learned gentleman!  I am so unbelievably grateful for having known Michel and for having learned from him.

If you’d like to share either a memory or a favorite quote you heard him say, please do so!

Tricky Words – Here We Go Again!

Every time one group or another posts a list of tricky words, my interest is piqued.  What’s tricky about these words, I wonder?  But really?  I needn’t wonder.  Here’s a list of 21 (Tricky Words ) that I came across just the other day.  If you look at the words on this list, you’ll notice what I’ve noticed – these words are often misspelled because their spelling doesn’t match their pronunciation. And as usual, the word is getting the blame for that.  How many thousands of words have to end up on the ‘Tricky Words’ list before we start considering that there is more to why a word has a certain spelling than merely its pronunciation?  Let’s take a closer look at four of the twenty one words on this list.

clipart of sight senses - Clip Art Library

When I looked at the specific words on this list, I wasn’t surprised to see ‘accommodate’ as the very first one.  I was surprised, however, to see what the author considered helpful information so we could better understand the spelling of this word.

This reminds me of the way vocabulary was introduced to me back in my school years.  I was given the accurate spelling of the word followed by the word represented in phonetically spelled syllables.  And even though the phonetically spelled syllables helped with pronunciation, in order to pass my vocabulary test I had to remember that the pronunciation spelling and the actual spelling of the word were not the same.  Lastly, there was a definition of the word.  The clear message here is that first we pronounce the word and then we learn its meaning.   When given a list of vocabulary words to know, matching the right word to the right definition was what was really tricky!  Ultimately, the task was to memorize the spelling of the word and which definition that went with it.  A totally rote memorization activity.  When I could, I made up silly rhymes or rhythms to help me remember those pairings.  Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.

Yesterday I spent some time in a 5th grade classroom. I told them about finding ‘accommodate’ on a list of tricky words.  I began by discussing the meaning of accommodate.  If I was going to offer someone accommodations, I would first see what they needed and then try to fit those needs.  I used the example of a motel offering a family of eight a room with a single twin sized bed.  Would those accommodations be appropriate?  Would they fit the family’s needs?  No.  They would not be a good fit.  The family would need different accommodations.

I then asked a student to write their hypothesis for the spelling of ‘accommodate’ on the board.  I asked if anyone had a different spelling hypothesis and invited that person to add theirs to the list.  When I had several different spellings, we stopped to consider them.

All of the students said that they base the spelling on how the word is pronounced.  It is obvious that these students know several ways to spell /eɪ/.  Within the last week I had them look closer at the <igh> trigraph and its pronunciation when preceded by a vowel (as in eight and straight).  They must’ve thought accommodate was another word with that pattern.

I said, “If it is true that a word’s spelling is based on its pronunciation, can you hear whether there should be one <c> or two?”  Someone replied that they couldn’t ‘hear’ how many <c>’s were in the spelling, but that two <c>’s looked right and one <c> didn’t.  Hmmm. So they were basing the spelling on sound and looks.  What a brilliant illustration of why this word is considered tricky.  It can’t reliably be sounded out and judging its spelling by looks only works if you’ve seen the word in print a number of times and remember something about its spelling.

Now that we established why this word is said to be tricky I asked, “What if there is more to notice?  What if there is a more reliable way to understand this spelling – and not only understand it, but remember it?  What do you say we look at this word’s structure.  Let’s look at the morphemes.  Does anyone recognize a suffix on this word?”

I started with asking the students to notice a suffix because so many of the student hypotheses had a final <ate>.  When someone suggested <ate>, I asked for some other words with a final <ate> suffix.  Suggestions were ‘migrate’ and illustrate.’  So I began a blank word sum with a final <ate>.  Next I directed their attention to the beginning of the word.  “Does anyone recognize a prefix on this word?  Even if it’s not the first thing in the word.”  With that caveat, one student raised their hand and said, “<com>”.  I added that it usually brings a sense of “with” to a base, although it can also be there to intensify the action of the base.  I asked for some words with a <com> prefix.  The students thought of ‘complete’ and ‘complex.”

They were very unsure of the <ac> in front of the <com>, and I knew they hadn’t yet learned about assimilated prefixes, so I told them that it is a prefix with a sense of “to”.  We often see this prefix spelled as <ad>, but in this word, it is spelled <ac> to better match the articulation of the next element, <com>.   It would feel awkward to say *adcommodate.  In fact, if you say *adcommodate several times quickly, you will notice that your mouth smooths that pronunciation out to become ‘accommodate.’

Since we were only missing one more morpheme in this word (the base), I filled it in as <mode>.  I told the students it had a sense and meaning of “measure, manner”.  Now we could look at the word sum as <ac + com + mode + ate>.   Looking at each morpheme, I reviewed the sense or function of each morpheme in this word.  If we think about what each morpheme contributes to the meaning of this word, we have a verb that means “to measure with emphasis”.   If we connect that to our previous discussion of how we use this word , we could think of measuring something in order to make it best fit a situation.  The example I had used earlier was to make some overnight accommodations fit the needs of a family.  First we measure what those needs are and then we see how we can best fit them.

Looking back at the word sum, we talked about replacing the final <e> on the base with the vowel suffix <ate>.  We announced the word sum a few times as a group before I asked them to announce it as they wrote it down.  I wanted to point out that understanding the structure and then spelling the word by announcing its morphemes will be a more reliable strategy for spelling than sounding it out or judging the word on its looks.  We announced the fully spelled word as “ac .. com .. mod replace the e .. ate”.

If I had more time, I would have asked the students to look at this word at Etymonline.  They would have found it was first attested in 1530’s.  It derives from Latin accomodatus “suitable, fit one thing to another.”  By the late 16c it was used to mean “furnish with suitable room and comfort.”  That jives with what we discussed.  Then I would have them put modus in the search bar to find other words that share this base.  Had they done that, they would have found modest, moderate, modern, modify, commodity, and even commode.  As I have done in the past with these students, we would have read each word’s entry at Etymonline, specifically looking for a connection to “measure, manner.”  This is how to broaden their vocabulary!

Accommodate:  /əˈkɑməˌdeɪt/ (verb)

Notice that I’m using IPA.  It is a way to represent pronunciation separate from spelling.  It also signals primary and secondary stress in the word.  If the student sees where the stress is, it is easier to understand the vowel being a schwa in the unstressed syllable.  If you look back at the student hypotheses for the spelling of this word, you will see that three students thought there would be an <i> before the <d> and only one student thought there might be an <o> there.  If the student relies solely on pronunciation to make spelling choices, they are apt to make errors.  Again, learning the morphemes and spelling words by announcing those morphemes will likely eliminate that error.

<ac + com + mode + ate>
<ac> assimilated prefix from <ad> “to”
<com> intensifying prefix (intensifies or brings emphasis to the action of the base)
<mode> from Latin modus “measure, manner”
<ate> verbal suffix


Another word on this particular list of tricky words was kaleidoscope. Here is how the “tricky list” explained it.

Again, we are given a pronunciation and a definition with little connection between the two.

With another group of students I asked for hypotheses about the spelling of the word.  Here are three.


I didn’t ask for any more hypotheses at this point because I could see the misunderstanding here — and I found it fascinating.  The students thought they were hearing the familiar word ‘collide’ as part of this word.  I asked them about it.  One student explained how the bits in a kaleidoscope collide with each other as you turn the tube.  While that is a logical idea, I told them that the beginning /k/ in this word is spelled with a <k>.  They were so surprised.  The first morpheme in this word is <kal>.  A look at Etymonline tells us it derives from Greek kalos meaning “beautiful, beautious.”  I have looked in the OED to find other words with this same base, but the words I found were not familiar.  I think it’s interesting that the words kaleidophone and kaleidograph came into use after kaleidoscope, but obviously didn’t stay in use.

The next morpheme in this word is <eid> and derives from Greek eidos “shape, appearance.”  So far the two morphemes we have examined give us the sense of “beautiful shapes.”  I love that.  Every time I turn the tube of a kaleidoscope, I see another beautiful shape!  This base <eid> “shape, appearance” is an etymological relative to words with <-oid> such as asteroid “shape of a star” and adenoid “shape or form of a gland”, and also to words like idol “a form or likeness that is worshipped” and iodine “violet colored in appearance”.

Now what about the final morpheme?  The free base <scope> is one that you no doubt recognize from words like telescope and microscope.  It derives from Greek skopein (σκοπός) “watcher, observer.”  When this word was coined by the inventor of the kaleidoscope, David Brewster, he drew upon his familiarity of the word microscope and incorporated <scope>.  Now when we put all of the pieces (morphemes) of this word together, we get the word sum <kal + eid + o + scope>.  The literal meaning of this word is “watching beautiful shapes.”  Isn’t that something?

We read the word sum aloud, noting the <o> connecting vowel that is sometimes found in words that have one or more bases from Greek.   In this word, we did not find evidence that the <o> was part of either <eid> or <scope>.  In this case, it is a connecting vowel.  After we read aloud the word sum a few times, I had them recite the word sum as they wrote it down.  In this way, they are spelling a word by morphemes rather than by letter, letter, letter, etc.  We announced it as “kal .. eid .. o .. scope”.

Here’s a short video that explains how kaleidoscopes work.


Here’s another word that would be easier to remember if only we looked beyond pronunciation and definition.

I did not have the opportunity to ask a group of students about this word, but I imagine if I asked for a hypothesis about its spelling, students would suggest either seeling, sieling, ceeling, or something similar.  The thing is, they would be right had they lived in a certain area of England sometime between 1500 and 1600.  In fact, according to the OED, there were a number of regional spellings prior to the use of the printing press.  It was at that point that narrowing it down to one spelling was necessary.

So why is the current spelling the one that made the final cut?  If we follow the etymological journey of this word, it will no doubt lead us to information that will help.  According to Etymonline it entered English in the mid 14th century.  At that time it was spelled celynge and was used to mean “act of paneling a room.”  That spelling derived from the Middle English verb ceil “put a cover or ceiling over,” and later “cover walls with paneling or wainscoting.”  We can see that the current spelling matches the spelling of the ME verb!

Further back in time, it is thought this word derives from Old French (12c) celer  “conceal,” and before that from Latin celare “to hide.”  We can get the sense of lining walls or the inside of a roof with boards in order to hide or conceal the rough outer wall.  There is also the possibility that the spelling of this word is influenced by Latin caelum “heaven, sky.”  Doesn’t that add a lovely idea – that we are hiding the sky when we add a ceiling?  For those who like to imagine the sky from inside a room, there are many ceilings that have been painted, permanently marking a clear blue sky.  If you prefer to see the actual sky, you could always install skylights.

Palazzo Ducale Oculus by Mantegna (by Web Gallery of Art, Public Domain)

Art, Web Gallery of. “Palazzo Ducale Oculus by Mantegna.” World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 08 Sep 2020. Web. 20 May 2023.

By 1934, this word had the figurative sense of “upper limit.”  Currently in the U.S. there is a lot of discussion regarding our government’s debt ceiling.  That use certainly illustrates the meaning of “upper limit.”  By 1908, the phrase “hit the ceiling” was being used figuratively to mean “lose one’s temper, can’t take any more.”  More recently (1988) the phrase “glass ceiling” came into use to mean an invisible barrier, specifically applied to limiting what a woman can achieve.

This kind of word story (side note:  the word ‘story’ derives from Latin historia “history, account, tale, story.”) is what makes a spelling understood.  Things that we understand are much more memorable than those we don’t.


Now let’s look at ‘patience’.

I have a couple guesses as to what would make this a “tricky word.”  My first guess is that it is a homophone to ‘patients.’ As a reminder, homophones are words that share a pronunciation, but not a spelling (whenever it’s possible).  They have different spellings to signal different meanings.  In this case, ‘patience’ is an abstract noun meaning “tolerating delays, trouble, or suffering  without getting angry or upset.”  The homophone ‘patients’ is simply the plural form of ‘patient.’  A doctor may have one patient to see or may have several patients to see.

My second guess would be that many people don’t expect <t> to represent /ʃ/ as it does in ‘action’ and ‘motion.’  If you’ll notice, in each of those words, the <t> is followed by an <i>.  When that is the case, the <t> has the potential to be pronounced as /ʃ/.  Is it a rule?  Will it happen always?  No.  Think of ‘tin’ and ‘still.’  Even when the <i> following the <t> is part of a suffix, it may not be pronounced as /ʃ/.  Think of ‘question’ where the <t> is pronounced as /tʃ/ (as it is in ‘picture’).

So what’s happening in ‘patience.’  Is the <i> part of the suffix?  It is not.  The <ence> and <ent> in patience and patient are common suffixes.  We see them in difference/different, emergence/emergent, residence/resident, and more.  Is the <i> a suffix on its own?  Is it perhaps a connecting vowel?  It might be.  This is where we need etymological evidence.  Where is this word from?  What is its furthest back attested ancestor (prior to Proto Indo European roots)?

At Etymonline we are told that ‘patience’ is first attested c 1200.  At that time it was spelled pacience and was used to mean “quality of being willing to bear adversities, calm endurance of misfortune, suffering, etc.”  (I would pause here to discuss that definition.  Is is similar or different that how we use the word today?)  Earlier than that, this word was in Old French and spelled pacience.  It meant “patience; sufferance, permission.”  Earlier than Old French, it was in Latin as patientia and meant “bearing, supporting; suffering, enduring, permitting; tolerant,” but also “firm, unyielding, hard.”  Latin patientia was an abstract noun formed from the adjective patientem. The adjective patientem was derived from the present participle of patī “to endure, undergo, experience.”

When I saw the words “present participle” I thought of a verb and searched for patī at Latdict.  Once I found it, I checked to make sure the definitions matched what I was reading at both Etymonline and the OED.  The next thing I noticed was the past participle form of this verb – passus.  The <us> in passus is the Latin past participle suffix. Once removed, it leaves us with the Latin stem pass which came into English as the base <pass>.  Keeping in mind the denotation of this base, you will not be surprised to see it in compassion, passion, and passive.  And besides seeing the base <pati> in patience and patient, you will also see it in compatible!

A great site to visit when looking for additional related words is Robertson’s Words for a Modern Age.  If you type one of the words you are looking at into the search bar, you can begin your search. After the initial entry for the word I had searched for (patience), I found this.

I clicked on the link for <pass> and <pati> and found the following words.


The number of prefixes that are used in this word family is surprising!  How does each steer the sense and meaning of the base?  That would be a great inquiry to do with students. There are also a number of suffixes used in this family.  One possible activity would be to use the words in sentences and then to discuss how the suffix pointed to the function of that word in the sentence.  Here are two matrices that reflect the word family built on each of these two bases.

You may notice that I chose not to include ‘compatible’ on the <pati> matrix.  I can explain the structure of that word, but wasn’t sure if that explanation clear once it was in a matrix.  Here’s what I mean by that.

Using Etymonline, I see that ‘compatible’ is an adjective.  When it first entered English it meant “capable of coexisting in harmony.”  Prior to that it was in Medieval Latin as compatibilis.  Further back it was in Late Latin as compati.  The next thing we see in that entry is the bolded word ‘compassion.’  Seeing that link, I know I need to follow it to get more information about where ‘compatible’ derives from.

Towards the end of this entry, you’ll see Late Latin ‘compati’ which is where we left off in the previous entry.  It was a word built from <com> “with, together” and <pati> “to suffer.”  The word sum for ‘compatible’ would be <com + pati + ible>.  That obviously won’t work because there are not two <i>’s in the word ‘compatible.’  One of the <i>’s elided.  I can definitely understand the structure of this word, but that story can’t be told well on a matrix.  I wouldn’t list the suffix as *<ble> or the base as <*pat>.  In this situation, I would discuss this word and its structure with students, focusing on its meaning relationship to this word family.  And instead of including it on the matrix, I would list it either to the side of the matrix or just below it.


Next time you see a list of “Tricky Words,” ask your students to choose one and take a closer look.  What more can we learn when we look at the morphology and etymology?  How will that information make the word more meaningful and make its spelling more memorable?  What related words can be found during the research?

Even if your student CAN remember the spelling of a word along with a quick definition, think of what they are missing when they are aren’t taught to use the etymological resources.  Learning doesn’t have to feel like a race.  We don’t have to skip important steps in order to get to the finish line on time.  Learning takes the time it takes.  Your students deserve to enjoy the journey and to be delighted in the discoveries and connections they make along the way.  Discovering connections between words and the fascinating facts of a word’s etymological journey into Modern English are the pieces students enjoy.  They aren’t fluff.

Here’s a great quote by Marilyn Ferguson.  “Making mental connections is our most crucial learning tool, the essence of human intelligence; to forge links; to go beyond the given; to see patters, relationships, context.”

Start with the ‘ed’ suffix and see where it leads!

Last week, my student brought a book with him.  He wanted to read a chapter aloud to me.  As he was reading, I noticed that he was hesitating at words like ‘started’ and ‘handed.’  When I had him cover up the <ed> suffix in those words, he quickly recognized the word and continued reading.  After the fourth or so time this happened, I said, “There sure are a lot of words with the <ed> suffix in this chapter!  Keep your eye out for them when you come to a word that doesn’t look familiar.”

At the end of the chapter we went back to the beginning to skim through it again, looking for words with an <ed> suffix.  We found all of the words pictured below on only two pages!   I made a chart with three columns, representing the different ways we pronounce <ed> when we read it in words.  When we spotted one, Michael read it and told me which column it belonged in.  I remarked that this book was a goldmine when it came to finding words with an <ed> suffix!

One of the words he was not familiar with was ‘sounded.’  We talked about the <ou> digraph and how it is pronounced similarly in ‘ouch’ and ‘loud,’ but not in ‘soup’ and ‘group.’  Whenever we needed to, we went grapheme by grapheme to pronounce the word.

Today when Michael came, I had written the same words on separate pieces of paper and asked him to sort them by pronunciation of the <ed> suffix.  I wanted to review this important concept with him before we moved on.  He read the words and slid them into the appropriate column.  When needed he covered the suffix as a strategy for recognizing the base.

Next, I switched the column headings and said we would be sorting the same words in a different way.  I wanted him to notice which words had a doubled consonant just before the <ed> suffix, which had needed to replace the base’s final <e>, and which simply added the <ed> to the base.

The majority of the words were composed of a base and the <ed> suffix — with no change to the base.  The rest of the words in our batch had doubled consonants just before the suffix.  I had him cover the <ed> and then we talked about how to spell the base.  Was ‘stop’ spelled with one <p> or two?  He wanted to include both ‘unrolled’ and ‘called’ in this column.  I thanked him for noticing those, but pointed out that the <l> is doubled in both of those bases.  Adding the vowel suffix did not cause the doubling as it does in ‘stopped.’

None of the words in our group had a base with a single, final, non-syllabic <e>, so I grabbed a book we read earlier and we looked for a few.  We found ‘lived’ and ‘decided.’  I wrote word sums so he could see what I meant about the final <e> needing to be replaced.

I wrote a few more examples of words with that single, final, non-syllabic <e> and we talked about the reason for that <e>.  Michael said, “It’s a silent <e>.”

I said, “Yes.  It does not represent sound.  That is not its job in this word.  It has a different job.  Let’s look at what that job is.”  We circled the graphemes and noticed that in the following words, that final <e> was influencing the pronunciation of the previous vowel.  It’s one of the jobs that <e> can do.

Then we went back to look at ‘live.’  I told Michael that when the word is being used as a verb (action word – I live in Wisconsin), the <e> is preventing the word from ending in <v>.  It is not having an effect on the <i>.  We know this because of the short pronunciation of the <i>.  But when the word is being used as an adjective (describing word – Be careful of the live wire), the <e> is preventing the word from ending in <v> and also influencing the pronunciation of the <i>.  It is doing double duty!

We practiced tapping out these words.

Next I showed Michael a video about the suffixing convention in which that single, final, non-syllabic <e> might need to be replaced.

After we watched that, I showed him another video.  I’m sure we’ll be watching these again, but I thought hearing the information from other students might hold his interest.

Now it was time to build our own flow chart and practice using it.  We thought back to the Affix Squad video to figure out what would be the most important question to ask.  I reviewed the meanings of words like ‘base’ and ‘non-syllabic’ before we proceeded.  Next we knew that the answer to that question would either be yes or no.  I asked Michael to write those words for our flow chart.  I wrote the final directions that would follow either the yes or the no.

We practiced using the word sum <jump + ed>.  Then I got my video camera out and we practiced using the flow chart.  Rather quickly, Michael took over with using the flow chart.  He also gained both confidence at writing word sums and practice at reading the word sums.

Since we had been focusing on the <ed> suffix (and a few other vowel suffixes), we used this flow chart to help solidify what to do when adding a vowel suffix to a base with a single, final, non-syllabic <e>.  Next time we’ll talk about how to alter our flow chart to include adding consonant suffixes as well.  What kinds of changes will we need to make to our flow chart?  I’m looking forward to hearing what my student suggests!

Michael was really engaged with this activity.  I think the fact that we made our own version of the flow chart and then used it to accurately spell words drew him in.  In the video you can see where he explained that the <ing> suffix would be replacing the final <e> on <take>.  But then when writing the completed word, he still included the <e>.  When I pointed it out, he laughed.  He erased the <e> (not very well) and we moved on.  I gave him a base without a final <e> next.  When we came back to words like to <bake + er> and <like + ing>, it was evident he understand what replacing the final <e> really meant.  It is really rewarding to see the understanding grow week to week!

When People Say, “Just Start,” What Does That Look Like?

New opportunities have opened up for me! I am meeting with almost all of the 5th grade students at my elementary school (half the group on Tuesday, the remaining half on Thursday) for about 25 minutes each week. I am coming into their classroom and one of three grade level teachers is observing the lesson. I am also working with an 8 year old for 6 hours a week in my home!

This week I talked about the spelling of ‘two’ with both groups. Since I was meeting the 8 year old for the first time, I had him use manipulatives. In this way, I could both check his math understanding and also his understanding of the spelling of some numbers. While he was having a bit of play time with the superhero figures we were using, I asked him if he could spell the number ‘two.’ He paused and slowly spelled out, “t.o.w.” I said, “That’s great. You have all the right letters! But the ‘t’ and the ‘w’ need to be together. Let me show you how I know that.”

I wrote the word ‘two’ on my paper and showed it to him. Then I asked him if he noticed whether or not there were any twins in the superhero collection. He did. There were two sets of twins. I wrote the word ‘twin’ on my paper and asked him if ‘twin’ had anything to do with ‘two.’ Then I asked him what the words (spelling) ‘two’ and ‘twin’ had in common. I asked the same questions of ‘twice.’

Next I asked him to count out ten of the superheros. I asked him how many more we would need in order to have twelve. He said, “two.” I replied, “So twelve is two more than ten. It is ten plus two.” He grinned. I added the word ‘twelve’ to our list. Then he laid out two rows of superheros for a total of twenty. He knew that two rows of ten would give us twenty. I added the word ‘twenty’ to our list. Then I wrote the word ‘between’ and asked him to name the superheros that Batman was between. From there we connected the meaning of ‘between’ to the meaning of ‘two.’ Then I went back through the list and underlined the ‘tw’ in each word and asked him why I did that.

From there, I asked him to write down the word ‘ten.’ He didn’t have any trouble. I asked him to write down ‘six.’ Then I said, “If we add ten to six, we’ll have sixteen. What will we add to the spelling of ‘six’ to have the word ‘sixteen’? He wrote ‘ten.’ Perfect opportunity to talk about the <ee> digraph versus the single <e> grapheme in the context of these words! Then we talked about the meaning of ‘ten’ and the meaning of ‘teen’ in the word ‘sixteen.’ He noticed right away that they shared meaning, but not spelling! (He seemed to have an established awareness that that can happen – cool!)

Now that he had an understanding of <teen> in ‘sixteen,’ I asked him to write the number ‘five’ and then ‘fifteen.’ He started writing *’fiveteen,’ but realized that wouldn’t represent how we pronounce ‘fifteen.’ In the context of these two words, we could focus on the voiced <v> in ‘five’ and the unvoiced <f> in ‘fifteen,’ and how the two spellings share meaning but not spelling. As he was thinking about this, he said, “fifteen and fifty both have the /f/!

Before we stopped with the superhero figures, skip-counting and number words, I asked him once more how to spell ‘two.’ Without hesitation he said, “t.w.o.”

The 5th graders were fascinated. They were engaged and quickly recognized the meaning connections between words like ‘two’ and ‘between.’ They helped brainstorm many words with an initial ‘tw’ and we discussed the meaning of each. I made sure the word ‘twilight’ came up because I knew they knew its meaning, but might not have thought of it since the ‘tw’ spelling isn’t initial in the word. At least three students came up afterwards to tell me how cool the discussion was!

Day Two

My copy of Mona Voelkel’s new book, Stanley and the Wild Words arrived in the mail, so I shared it with my 7 year old friend, Michael, and also with the 5th grade students.

I began by reading the book aloud. I paused at times to encourage the students to share their understanding. For instance, I asked what they thought ‘enormous’ meant and then asked for examples of things that could be considered enormous. We talked of whales, dragon teeth, and mountains but also of appetites and loads of wash. Then we talked about the denotation of <norm> being “rule.” I wondered what they thought about when they thought of ‘rule.’ So I asked. The fifth grade students could name several rules they follow at school. One boy defined a rule as a condition that everyone followed. In other words, following the rules is considered normal. When something is outside of what we think of as normal – is bigger than normal – it can be considered enormous.

Below are pictures of what I wrote down as I was reading the book to Michael. As you can see, I began with a word sum for ‘enormous.’ I labeled the morphemes as ‘prefix,’ ‘base,’ and ‘suffix.’ After we had a list of words that shared the base <norm>, I asked Michael to draw a box around the base in each word.

When talking with the 5th grade students I added the term “analytic word sum.” I explained that with an analytic word sum, we begin with the fully spelled word and then loosen it into its morphemes. I pointed out that the bound base <lyt> had a denotation of “loosen.” The prefix <ana> brings a sense of “throughout.” If we begin with the morphemes and join them to form a complete word, that is a synthetic word sum. Having brought up the words ‘synthetic’ and ‘analytic’, I wanted to expand the students’ understanding of them by mentioning other situations in which we use these words. We talked about synthetic materials being put together by man and how analyzing a problem requires us to look closely at each component.

With the large group of fifth graders, I did the boxing of the base and then had them tell me what the word sums would be. As they hypothesized the word sums, I wrote them on the board. When we got to the word ‘ginormous,’ I explained that ‘gi’ isn’t a prefix – it represents the word ‘gigantic’ in this portmanteau word (gigantic+ enormous gives us ginormous). You’ll notice we didn’t include ‘gi’ on our matrix – again, because it isn’t a prefix. This may be the first time I am mentioning portmanteau words to these students, but it won’t be the last. At some point, I’ll ask the students to choose ten of their favorites. Until then, I used the example of ‘brunch’ being a combination of breakfast and lunch. I pointed out that when the two words join to become a portmanteau, letters from each word might be lost. That makes this different from a compound word, where two bases join (intact) to form a new word.

With the fifth graders, I followed this activity by having them write the word ‘help’ at the top of a piece of paper and then writing as many related words as they could think of. Then I walked them through creating a matrix with ‘help’ as the featured base. One of the students thought of ‘prehelpfully.’ I look forward to talking about this invented word and also about matrices next time. Although, before I even began reading the book today, one student said, “I thought of a word for you to explain – one!” Perfect! Doesn’t look like I’ll run out of topics, does it?

Day Three (Days Three through Five focus on my time with Michael)

Today Michael and I read the story of Ibis, a whale who gets caught in netting and almost drowns. It is based on a true account, although the author added details that gave us an opportunity to talk about authors and story writing. Why do authors sometimes embellish the facts? Why did this author give Ibis human characteristics?

While we were discussing the main character’s interest in humans, we noticed that the following illustration gave us the whales’ perspective from deep in the water. Michael had used the word ‘perspective’ earlier, so I pointed it out here. “Isn’t it interesting to see the boat from the whales’ perspective? What do you suppose that word ‘perspective’ means?”

Michael said, “My perspective might be different than yours. Because of where I am standing, it might look different.”
“That’s a great way to define that word!”
I wrote the word down and showed it to Michael. I boxed out the <spect> base and wrote down the denotation “see, look”. Then I pulled up Etymonline and wrote down the Latin root specere above where I had written the word ‘perspective.’ I typed specere in the search bar and looked for other words Michael might be familiar with that had this base (or a variation of this base). When I came across ‘spectator’ I asked him if he’s ever been part of a large crowd – at a sporting event perhaps. He said, “Like at a baseball game?”
“Yes. The people who come to watch, to see the game, those are the spectators.

Next I found the word ‘spectacle.’ Michael said he was not familiar with it, so I told him that I can refer to my glasses as my spectacles. They are what I look through! Then I described another way to use that word. Let’s say I was with a group of people who were all walking slowly, but then one of the people jumped out in front and started dancing and singing. We might say they were creating a spectacle. They were making a spectacle of themselves. In other words, their actions were drawing attention and people couldn’t help but look at them. Then we thought of a few other situations in which people could make spectacles of themselves.

The word spectacular is used to describe things. A sunset might be described as spectacular, but so might a tricky catch in a game of football. I asked Michael to tell me how either of those were related to the denotation of <spect>. He said they were cool to see. He was making the connection between the meaning of the base and the meaning of the words it shows up in! It was around this time that he said, “What about ‘expectation’? Does that word work here?”

I’m sure he noticed my smile at that suggestion. I said, “Let’s see if it comes from the same Latin root. That’s a way to know for sure that the base in ‘expectation’ is related to the base in ‘perspective.’

I read the entry for ‘expect’ to Micheal.

“1550s, “wait, defer action,” from Latin expectare/exspectare “await, look out for; desire, hope, long for, anticipate; look for with anticipation,” from ex- “thoroughly” (see ex-) + spectare “to look,” frequentative of specere “to look at.”

I said, “Look at that. We still use the word in the same way the Romans used it 500 years ago! When we expect something, we are looking forward to it with anticipation. In this word we are combining the base <spect> meaning “look” and the prefix <ex> meaning “thoroughly.” At that point we noticed that even though ‘expect’ has the <spect> base, we no longer include the ‘s’ in that spelling. Etymonline shows us that two spellings were used in Latin. One of those has the spelling we currently use.

It was around this time that he asked about the word ‘despicable.’ I said, “It doesn’t have the <spect> base, but it still might be related. I know there are some alternate spellings for this base. We won’t know for certain until we look!” As luck would have it, it was on the same page as some of the other words related to ‘perspective.’ It also derives from Latin specere. The base in this word is <spice> (which is not at all the word ‘spice’ ). I said, “We might find more words in which the base is spelled this way. Let’s start another list.

When we talked about the word ‘inspect’ meaning to look into something, I also pointed out that if we add an <or> suffix, we would have the word ‘inspector.’ That is the person who is doing the looking. Then I slide my finger back up to the word ‘spectator’ and said, “There’s the <or> suffix! A spectator is the person who is spectating! It was our first look at agent suffixes.

Michael was familiar with the words ‘inspect,’ ‘respect,’ and ‘suspect’ and was able to describe how they connected back to the denotation of <spect>.

Towards the end of our search, we found the word ‘suspicious.’ I listed it beneath ‘dispicable’ and pointed out the spelling of the base. I asked him what being suspicious of someone might have to do with looking or watching. Michael quickly replied that when you are suspicious of someone, you watch everything they do.

At this point, we had spent about 30 minutes talking about these related words and their connection to “see, look, watch.” As a final way to look at what we collected, I made a word web. As I was writing, Michael noticed that some of the suffixes could be used on several of these words (expecting, spectating, suspecting, inspecting, etc.) He also used some of the words in sentences which reinforced his understanding of their meanings.

My goal with this activity wasn’t so much that Michael would be able to walk away knowing how to spell these words, but rather that he notice the meaning connections within word families. I was helping him broaden his vocabulary by taking a familiar word and connecting it to unfamiliar words that share that base. I was showing him that words come in families and that he can expect this kind of familial relationship not only with spelling, but with meaning. I was showing him how the English language is structured.

Day Four

On this day I took pieces of paper and wrote suffixes on some, bases on others, and prefixes on yet others. I took two long pieces of paper and created a matrix. We started with the base ‘like.’

The object was to see whether these particular suffixes and prefixes could work with this base. As Michael moved each affix towards the base and read the word, he described what the word meant and sometimes even used it in a sentence. A cool thing happened when he was fixing the <un> prefix to the base <like>. Instead of announcing the word ‘unlike,’ he announced the word ‘unliked.’ I immediately said, “Oh, neat! As you said the word, you added not only the <un> prefix, but also the <ed> suffix! You created the word ‘unliked’! He smiled and said, “Yup. The villain was unliked by the superhero!” The benefit of having these suffixes on movable pieces of paper is that Michael is already recognizing that the <ed> suffix will sometimes replace the single final non-syllabic <e> on the base. He moved it into place himself. This suffixing convention will be revisited many times. This is the second time we’ve talked about it.

He decided that all of these prefixes and suffixes could be used with this base.
Next I moved the base <like> out of the way and replaced it with <hope>. Now Michael had to decide if these same prefixes and suffixes work with this new base.

He started with the prefixes and grabbed <dis>.

He scrunched his nose and said, “Nope!” And moved <dis> to the side. Then he tried <un>. He was undecided about this one. When he tried to talk about what it would mean, he used the word ‘hopeless.’ I said, “Ooooh! We can add the suffix <less> to our group of suffixes. I’m so glad you thought of that word!” Michael grinned.

As he pulled the suffixes <ing>, <ed>, <er>, and <s> next to the base to see if they formed a word he recognized, we noticed that the suffix didn’t always replace that final non-syllabic <e>. We talked about vowel suffixes and consonant suffixes. The suffixes that replaced the final non-syllabic <e> were <ing>, <ed>, and <er> – all vowel suffixes.

Next he matched up the base <hope> with the suffix <ly>.

Hmmm. He said the word a few times, looked at me and said emphatically, “Nope! I can’t think of how to use that one!” We laughed. Then he slid the <ly> suffix out of the way and we looked at the matrix full of morphemes that worked together. We slid the base <hope> out of the way and pulled in the base <rope>.

By this time, Michael knew what to do. He moved the affixes next to the base and thought about whether it was a word that made sense to him. He slide <dis> and <ly> to the side. He noticed, too, that when he paired up the base <rope> and the suffix <er>, he was talking about a person who did the roping. I quickly slid <hope> back into place to see if a ‘hoper’ was a person who did the hoping and then if a ‘liker’ was a person who did the liking. On another day we’ll test that suffix some more! Does it always refer to a person?

After this activity, I read the book From Wolf to Woof by Hudson Talbot. Michael is very interested in the evolution of living things, so when I found this book, I knew he would be interested. Besides, I saw in the title the opportunity to talk about /f/ and /v/. We talked about these two when we talked about ‘five’ and ‘fifteen’ and I was looking to reinforce that concept.

I wrote down the word ‘wolf’ and asked what word we use if we are talking about more than one wolf. Michael said, “Wolfs.”
I asked, “Do you notice how it feels in your mouth to go from the /f/ to the /s/?” We tried it a few times. “Now let’s see how it feels when we go from /v/ to /s/ as in ‘wolves.’ We agreed that was a smoother transition. I wrote down the spelling of ‘wolves’ and showed Michael the switch from <f> in ‘wolf’ to <v> in ‘wolves.’

I had a list of other words where this happens and added them to the paper. We worked one at a time and Michael wrote the spelling of the word as a plural. We toggled the <f> to a <v> and added an <es> suffix. We noted that the word ‘leaf” had an <ea> digraph and the word ‘loaf’ had an <oa> digraph. We paused to talk about what a digraph was and thought of at least two other words that had each of those same digraphs. Then we came to the last two words. They were slightly different than the others. They didn’t have a final <f>. They had a final <e>. Michael recognized that the final <e> wasn’t being pronounced. That meant that it was a grapheme whose job was something other than representing pronunciation. But what? Well, it was signaling that the previous vowel (<i>) would have a “long” pronunciation. Does that change what we’ve been noticing about the /f/ to /v/ in these words? No. Not at all. We will still toggle the <f> to a <v> and add an <es> suffix. In this case, the <es> suffix will replace the single final non-syllabic <e> as it does in many other words.

Because we are also focused on meaning, we had a great discussion about the pronunciation of ‘live’ when it functions as a verb and when it functions as an adjective (There were live snakes in the exhibit. I live down the street.) With this word (and many others) we need to see the word used in a sentence to know how to pronounce it. There are other words like this and we will consider them at another time.

Day Five

I began with the matrix again – the one in which morphemes were written on slips of paper and we could move them around. Michael was enthusiastic. The base I chose today was ‘do.’ (There is no significance to the two colors. It was just the paper I had on hand.)

Interesting things we noticed.
– The base is pronounced the same in ‘doing’ and ‘doer,’ yet different than in ‘does’ and ‘done.’
– If we were to strictly rely on pronunciation to spell ‘does’ we might think it is spelled as *duz. But then we wouldn’t see that it is built from the base <do>.
– Even though there is a shift in pronunciation, there is not a change to the spelling of the base.
– The base represents the meaning.
– Instead of adding an <ed> suffix to show past tense, there is a different spelling of the base.
– The original spelling of ‘did’ in Old English was dyde. According to Etymonline, the final <de> functioned as a suffix and has become our current <ed> suffix.
-When the <er> suffix is added to the base, we get the word ‘doer.’ In this word, the <er> is an agent suffix. A ‘doer’ is a person who is doing something. We can compare this suffix to the <er> in hoper, roper, and liker.

After exploring and noticing things in this <do> matrix, I pulled <do> and replaced it with the base <go>. Michael rejected both the <re> and the <un> prefix, but grabbed a piece of paper and wrote ‘by.’ Then he put it in front of the base and pulled the <ne> suffix to the end of the base. “Bygone! That’s a word, right? Let bygones be bygones, meaning something happened already.”

“Wow! You’re right. In this case, the <by> is not a prefix, it’s another base. So bygones is a compound word. Nice going!”
Michael was familiar with what a compound word was and was able to give me a few examples, so we were able to move on.

We noticed that ‘go’ was similar to ‘do’ in that neither could show past tense by adding an <ed> suffix. They had different spellings to represent that.

Just as we were finishing up, Michael grabbed two more pieces of paper and wrote a sentence. Perfect!


Even in my Dreams …

Without getting deeply into the how and why of dreams, I’d like to share a classroom discussion that took place recently while I was asleep and in fact, dreaming.  Over the years, there have been many instances in which I have fallen asleep rehearsing how I wanted to introduce a word family or some specific characteristic of a word family to my students.  If I woke up in the night, I woke up to my brain having that discussion “live” with the students participating.  In the morning, I would realize that our brave discoveries–the ones I couldn’t wait to talk about now that I was awake–weren’t possible.  They weren’t actually words I could find–even as obsolete words in the OED.  My brain totally made them up, using what I understood about structure and meaning.  Well, I had another one of those dreams the other night.

I don’t recall why, but my students and I were looking at the word ‘companion.’  We defined it as a person you spend time with.  The students shared their thoughts on whether or not a companion had to be a close friend, a sibling, or even a person at all.  One student claimed her dog was her companion.  Next, people named places they visited or activities they enjoyed with companions.

And then, as has happened so often in my classroom, a student asked a question that made me pause.  “Is the word ‘companion’ implying only one other person? Is there a member of this word family that could imply several people were spending time together?

Of course, if I had been having this discussion while awake, we would have discussed simply making the word ‘companion’ plural.  But this discussion was happening in a dream where the obvious often seems like the least logical.  So we didn’t even consider making the word plural and instead looked for a related word that would imply more than one companion.  When someone suggested the word ‘polypanion,’ I yipped with delight!  Here was a perfectly useful word that I never heard of before!  The morpheme <poly> was suggested because earlier in the year we had made slime, which prompted an investigation of the word ‘polymer’ meaning “many parts”.

After a moment of thought, I brought up the fact that the base <pane> (I assumed this was the base – we hadn’t looked it up yet) was from Latin (again, an assumption because of the Latinate <-ion> suffix).  I suggested that if the base was Latinate, maybe we should see if there’s a Latinate element that would work in place of <poly> which is Greek.  You see, in the course of our school year together we had discovered many compound words in which there were bases from two different languages.  This hybrid word, ‘polypanion,’ is an example of just that.  The word ‘speedometer’ is another great example.  The first base, <speed> is Germanic and the second base <meter> is Greek.  A word that similarly means to “measure speed” is ‘tachometer.’ Both <tach> and <meter> are Hellenic, so this is not a hybrid.  As a speaker of English, we sometimes have a choice of whether to use a hybrid word or not!

Considering that information, a student suggested ‘multipanion’ as a word in which all elements were from Latin.  (When we had investigated ‘polymer’, we had compared Greek <poly> “many” to Latin <mult> “many” and collected familiar words that included each.  I remember that the words ‘multisyllabic’ and ‘polysyllabic’ were on our lists.  These two words carry the same sense and meaning.  It’s just that multisyllabic is a hybrid and polysyllabic is not–all of its elements are from Greek.)

Once we were satisfied that we could use either polypanion or multipanion, someone asked about a word to indicate having only one companion. (Remember that this is a dream and in this “dream discussion” we already considered that the word ‘companion’ implies one.  But now, here we are in the same dream trying to be even more precise–looking for the opposite of our word ‘polypanion.’)  if we can have a polypanion “group of many companions,” can we then have a monopanion “only one companion?”  And if monopanion works, what about unipanion?  (When my students had compared Greek <poly> to Latin <mult>, they had also compared Greek <mone> “only one” to Latin <une> “one”.)

This is where the dream ended.  I woke up excited, with this discussion still clear in my head.  I told myself not to forget any details of this dream, especially the related words we had discovered!  But as I said aloud the words polypanion, multipanion, monopanion, and unipanion, I recognized that they probably wouldn’t be part of our English lexicon because they aren’t needed.  The word ‘companion’ is good on its own.  It refers to spending time with one other being. The word is easily pluralized, so there is no need for the forms my mind created.  Still, they do make meaning and structural sense.  I could see calling an extra special friend my “one and only,” my monopanion, couldn’t you?

While dreaming, I created four words by combining familiar morphemes in unfamiliar ways.  If you work with children, you have probably experienced this same thing happening.  Back when I was new to SWI, I found that if I was too quick to hand students a matrix and asking them to use it to write word sums, they created all sorts of words not found in our lexicon.  On the one hand, it is good to talk about how new words are created and to have that discussion about “when is a word a word.” On the other hand, it made me realize that they needed practice with writing word sums and creating their own matrices first.  They needed to understand, for themselves, what a matrix can show us.

Unfortunately, students are sometimes given tasks they are able to complete without really thinking through what they have been asked to do.  Writing word sums based on a specific matrix should not be one of those tasks.  Without a solid understanding of word structure and its relation to word meaning, they won’t always stop to ask themselves if the morphemes they have paired create a familiar word or not.  They are also less likely to go the dictionary to check to see if they created a word that exists, but is, perhaps, unfamiliar to them.  In my experience, there is a deeper level of engagement and learning happening when a student goes through the necessary steps to create their own matrix.  Once students have had repeated experience investigating words and their families, they are better prepared to consider someone else’s matrix and will seek to make sense of it.  It is at this point that doing what I did in my dream — combining familiar morphemes in unfamiliar ways — becomes a thoughtful and enjoyable activity. The new words are formed purposefully and fit our criteria for “what a word is” — the structure makes sense and its meaning is clear to others.

Back to ‘companion.’
Now that I was awake, my curiosity took me to the structure of the word ‘companion.’  In my dream I hypothesized that the structure was <com + pane + ion>.  I wasn’t familiar with the base <pane> but assumed it had something to do with “spend time” or maybe “person.”  I could think of words like companions and company that are probably sharing the same base because they share meaning.  If I am in the company of someone, I might also refer to them as my companion.  If I am expecting company, it might mean I am having friends or guests in my home.

I hope you will be as delighted with the sense and meaning of this word as I am!  According to Etymonline, the prefix <com-> brings a sense of “with, together” and the base <pane> is derived from Latin panis “bread.”  The Late Latin companionem literally meant “bread fellow, messmate.”  In other words a companion is a person you might break bread with (share a meal).  I love it.  It makes so much sense.  So often, when I am in the company of friends, we eat!

Other words that derive from Latin panis are

pannier  – a basket for bread and other foods (once referring to two large baskets carried on either side of a donkey – currently refers to pouches on either side of a rear bicycle tire)
pantry – originally a storeroom for bread
empanada  – Spanish turnover
panettone  – sweet Italian bread
panini – Italian for “small bread rolls”

As always, an investigation into one word broadens my sense of of many!  I wouldn’t have assumed there was a connection between the words ’empanada,’ ‘panettone,’ and ‘panini,’ but now I see it!  They share that sense and meaning of “bread” and all, ultimately, derive from Latin panis.  Their basis in Latin is why Italian and Spanish (but also French, Portuguese, Romanian, and several other languages) are known as the Romance Languages.  In this case, the word ‘romance’ refers to the language spoken by the Romans.  These structured word inquiries don’t just explain English spelling, they expose me to connections across languages.  I love that!

Tapa de empanadillitas.JPG
By Tamorlan – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

By Codice1000 at Italian Wikipedia – Transferred from it.wikipedia to Commons. Transfer was stated to be made by User:Xaura., Public Domain,

By Breville USA – Soup and Sandwich 3of12 BGR820XL, CC BY 2.0,



When is an ‘o’ a “Scribal O?”

Not long ago in a Science of Reading Facebook group, someone posted a short video created by Reading Horizons in 2016 in which the idea of a ‘scribal o’ was featured.  The video explained that when scribes encountered words in which a <u> was adjacent to <m>’s, <n>’s, <w>’s, <u>’s, <r>’s, or <v>’s, they changed that <u> to an <o> to make the word easier to read.  You see, the script that scribes used had a lot of broad downstrokes, so sometimes it was difficult to distinguish one letter from the next when similarly formed letters were next to one another.

To clarify why the scribes might have thought to make this change, I am sharing a sample of the script known as Blackletter hand.  It was used between the 12th and 17th centuries.  It may take you a minute to get used to it and to recognize specific letters.  Letters I had an easier time spotting were <g>, <a>, <e>, and <f>.  With other letters it depended on what letter was adjacent to it.  With some words it felt like my eyes were playing tricks on me.  Was I looking at an <mi> letter string or an <nu> letter string?

Arpingstone, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Let me illustrate with the following letter strings.  In the first, it could be an ‘n-u-i-n’ or it could be an ‘m-u-n.’  In the second letter string, the <o> in the middle helps make the identity of the adjacent letters more obvious, doesn’t it?

So that is the gist of what is meant by ‘scribal o.’  The pronunciation of the vowel didn’t change, but in certain circumstances the spelling did — the <u> was changed to an <o>.  Because of videos like the one I mentioned, the idea of a ‘scribal o’ is becoming more commonly accepted and understood.  Classroom teachers, interventionists, tutors and others who work with children have been looking for a way to explain the spelling of words like love, some, done, mother, and Monday, to name just a few.

For teachers who start with pronunciation and then try to explain the spelling based on that pronunciation, words like these stick out like sore thumbs.  We would expect the stressed vowel in these words to be a <u> because of how they are pronounced.  But in these words that pronunciation is spelled with an <o>.  Naturally, teachers want to know why.  This idea of a ‘scribal o’ seems to be the answer people have been seeking.  In the video by Reading Horizons, the ‘scribal o’ explained the <o> in month, brother, love, come, done, and wonderful.

However, when I saw that list of words, I began to wonder if the idea of a ‘scribal o’ isn’t one of those things that is being broadly and mistakenly applied to any word in which the grapheme <o> represents the /ʌ/ phoneme (the stressed short u).

I responded with the following to both the post in the Science of Reading Facebook group and also with an email to Reading Horizons.

I can’t seem to find any evidence that ‘Monday’ was ever spelled as *Munday.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary and  also Etymonline, it is an Old English word spelled then as mōnandæg, literally meaning “day of the moon.”  The first part of the word is from monan, meaning “moon” and the second part, dæg, meaning “day.”  The word ‘month’ is also connected to the moon as it was thought that a month was the length of time between one full moon and the next.  It was never spelled as *munth.

I agree that the ‘scribal o’ explains the spelling in words like ‘love’ which was spelled lufu in Old English, ‘come’ which was spelled cuman in Old English, and ‘some’ which was spelled sum in Old English, but we should be careful about applying that explanation broadly without checking resources.

As I’m looking further, ‘brother’ was spelled broþor (the letter in the middle is like our modern <th> digraph).  There was never a ‘u’ in the spelling.  And there was never a ‘u’ in the spelling of ‘done’ either.  It was always (and should continue to be ) explained as built on the base <do>.  The <-ne> is not a productive suffix in English anymore, but we see it on ‘done’ and ‘gone.’  It is negativizing.  If something is done, someone is no longer doing it.

Looks like this video, which appears to be a great resource, is misinforming anyone who uses it.  Of the six words highlighted in the video, only three have a scribal o.”


I was quite impressed with my response from Reading Horizons.  The curriculum developer thanked me for contacting them and apologized for this information not having been researched appropriately.  Per my suggestion they are redoing the video and including words that have been verified as having the ‘scribal o.’  In the meantime, they are doing the responsible thing and have removed their video so as not to spread misinformation.  I have such respect for a group that responds in this way!  I look forward to sharing their new version of this video when it is published!

I’m not sure where the term ‘scribal o’ originated.  but I think it is fair to say that most people understand what you mean if you use it.  I haven’t been able to find reference to the ‘scribal o’ in any of my resource books which include Richard Venezky’s book, The American Way of Spelling, and several of David Crystal’s books.  I have found reference to it at Reading Horizons in a post from 2013, but I don’t get the impression that the term originated with them.   I’ve also run across it by watching two videos of teachers instructing their students in regards to this <o>.  One of the videos specifically mentions that teaching about ‘scribal o’ was part of Saxon Phonics.  In the second video the teacher seemed to be reading from the exact same script, so I’m assuming that the program she was using was part of Saxon Phonics as well.

When I listened to what the teachers were telling their students, I became concerned.  The teachers were saying that the words ‘son,’ ‘month,’ and ‘wonder’ were originally spelled with <u>’s.  That <u> was changed to an <o> because of mistakes by the scribes who had to copy words by hand.  The ink the scribes used ran, making the <u>’s look like <o>’s.  Then the teacher went on to say that when an <o> makes the short u sound, it is a schwa.  Next the students were to code the words making sure the <o> was coded as a schwa.

My first concern is that this story being told to the children seems unlikely.  I can picture this situation of running ink happening in one instance, but over and over? And only with these particular <u>’s?  Were there other letters affected by this running ink?  I’d love to know the source of this account, wouldn’t you?

My second concern is that the word ‘month’ was never spelled with a <u>!  It began in Old English as monað.  The Old English letter final in that spelling is eth and is equivalent to the modern digraph <th>.  The Old English word is related to the moon.  According to Etymonline, the month originally marked the time between one new moon and the next.

My third concern is that the teacher was telling the students that the <o> in son, month, and wonder was a schwa.  By definition a schwa is an unstressed vowel.  This teacher is telling the students that the only vowel in the word ‘son’ and ‘month’ is a schwa, which conflicts with the fact that we pronounce these words with one principal stress.   It is not possible to pronounce these monosyllabic words with unstressed vowels!  The third word, ‘wonder,’ has stress on the first syllabic beat and none on the second, yet the teacher is telling the students to mark the first vowel as an unstressed schwa.  When the teacher announces the word, the stress is clearly on that first syllabic beat.  The teacher does not say, “won-DER,” but rather “WON-der.”

I don’t blame the teachers in this situation as much as I blame the program they are using.  The teachers are trusting the makers of the program to have done their due diligence and to be supplying them with accurate information.  In this case, they have let the teachers down.  Man, have they let the teachers down!  It makes you question the other information presented in this program.  Unfortunately, the teacher obviously doesn’t understand enough about stress or the schwa to even question this.

But wait.  It gets worse.  As I was looking through other sites to see what they had to say about this ‘scribal o,’ I came upon another video.  This one is called, “Nessy Spelling Strategy -Why is ‘money’ spelled with ‘o’ instead of ‘u’? – Learn to Spell.”  There is no mention of the ‘scribal o’ here, but there are questionable rules for teaching students why <o> represents /ʌ/ when followed by certain letters.  The letters that supposedly cause this change are called “professors” in the video and they make the <o> go through what appears to be an unpleasant physical change that results in it representing /ʌ/ (as in oven instead of its usual /oʊ/ (as in go).

The first of these “professors” is <v>.  According to the video, whenever “professor v” stands behind an <o>, it forces the pronunciation change.  To show the effect of “professor v,” the letter <o> goes from having tired looking eyes to having scared looking eyes to looking like a hairy Frankenstein <o>.  This rule may work for words like love, oven, above, and dove, but the video forgets to mention that it doesn’t work for stove, clover, move, or prove.  The second “professor” is <n>.  This rule explains the pronunciation of the <o> in words like month, son, done, and none, but again the video forgets to mention that this doesn’t work in bone, gone, pony, and donut.  The third “professor” is <th>.  This rule explains the pronunciation of the <o> in words like mother, brother, other, and another, but you guessed it, the video forgets to mention that it doesn’t work for moth, cloth, clothes, and both.

Why teach something as if it is a rule you can count on when, in fact, you can’t?  It was not difficult to find words for which these made-up rules didn’t work.  What nonsense!  What will children think when they encounter words like bone, move, and both?  My guess is that they won’t blame this silly video, but rather they will blame a spelling system that seems to make no sense.

If you are wondering how to explain some of this without using silly, half-true gimmicks, let me direct you to the Real Spelling Toolbox.  There you will find an excellent description of why we use the letter combination <ov> instead of <uv> when the vowel is representing the /ʌ/ phoneme (the stressed “short u”).  In fact, before you decide whether or not to subscribe to the Toolbox, you can read this explanation for yourself (and realize how much else you could learn by subscribing and reading more!)  On the homepage there is a link to the sample theme “Learning from Love.”  The term ‘scribal o’ is not used, but you will recognize the mention of the scribes, the Black Adder script used at the time, and the confusion caused when certain letters or other similarly formed letters were adjacent to each other.

Another great resource for understanding this switch from <u> to <o> is this video put out by the Endless Knot.  Not only do you get an explanation that is similar to that in the Real Spelling Toolbox, you also get some information about the letters <u>, <v>, <w>, and <f>!  Ever wonder why the <f> in ‘of’ is pronounced as /v/?  Watch this video for an accurate understanding.  I guarantee you that no letters will be poked, choked, scared, or harmed in the process!

Is there a “one size fits all’ rule that pertains to an <o> that corresponds to an /ʌ/ phoneme as it does in ‘some’ and ‘Monday?’  No.  How unfortunate that we even think there should be.  We are so used to quick and easy go-to rules that we have forgotten to use our own sense of logic to interrogate those rules.  How easy is it to falsify the rules put out by the professors <v>, <n>, and <th>?  Or the explanation that scribes routinely had runny ink every time they wrote a <u> in certain situations?  If you want to make this idea of a ‘scribal o’ memorable, ask your students to be investigators.  Ask them to find words that falsify what the three professors want them to believe.  Ask them whether or not the “runny ink” story seems likely.  Then ask them to make a list of words in which the <o> corresponds to an /ʌ/ phoneme.  I’ll get you started below.  then have them use Etymonline to see whether they were first spelled with an <o> or a <u>.  Make two lists and keep adding to those lists as you and your students encounter other words with this <o> to /ʌ/ correspondence.

If you hesitate involving your students in using Etymonline for this, let me show you what you are looking for.  Here is an Etymonline entry for the word ‘other.’

The information you need is the third word in!  It is how this word was spelled in Old English.  Notice that it has always been spelled with an <o>.  That means that the scribes didn’t need to change it!  This isn’t an example of a ‘scribal o’!  In case your students are curious about the second letter in the Old English spelling (þ), that is the letter thorn.  It represented the <th> digraph we have in Modern English!

So here are words in which the <o> corresponds to /ʌ/.  Some of these were originally spelled with a <u>.  Some have always been spelled with an <o>.  But which are which?  Have your students find out!

money                                      brother
Monday                                   nothing
month                                      son
some                                         glove
come                                          shove
done                                           none
wonderful                                  won
love                                             other

Instead of peeking through the curtain, open the window and really take in the view.

Someone asked a really great question in a Facebook group the other day.  They specifically wondered why the word ‘chocolate’ didn’t follow the “a_e” rule.  In other words, the pronunciation of the last three letters isn’t what is expected.  (Just in case you are unfamiliar with this rule,  many phonics programs refer to this as the “split vowel magic e rule” or the “split digraph magic e rule”.  The underscore represents a consonant. When students see this pattern and the ‘e’ is silent, the ‘a’ will have its long pronunciation.)

The first two people responded with saying that ‘chocolate’ isn’t a word from English, so it won’t follow English conventions.  That idea is generally true.  Recognizing that a word is not following English spelling conventions is actually a way to spot that a word is probably a loan word.  I’m thinking of words like kiwi, ski, khaki, and bikini that have a final ‘i.’  Typically complete English words won’t have an ‘i’ final.    They won’t typically have a final ‘u’ either.  Examples of words from other languages that don’t follow this English convention are bayou, haiku, tofu, tutu, caribou, and plateau.

While stating that chocolate is a loan word so it won’t follow English spelling rules isn’t false, it won’t help much when a student asks about fortunate, delicate, accurate, or desperate.  In my mind, the question broadens to become, “Why aren’t these other words (and perhaps ‘chocolate’ as well) following this rule?”  Other people commenting on the post identified words such as I have listed as exceptions.  That is unfortunate.

Let’s think for a moment about labeling a word as an exception.  What happens then?  Nothing.  The door shuts on that word.  No one tries any further to understand what else might be affecting that word’s ability to follow the rule.  (Or to consider that the “rule” might be worthy of critical contemplation.)  Students are expected to accept that “exception” is the only understanding they will receive.  They will need to remember which words follow the rule and which words are exceptions to that rule.

What I have always taught students is, “Just because I don’t know something about a certain spelling doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason for it.”  With that kind of thinking, we are opening the door again on any word that others label as an exception.  We are free to think further and collect evidence so we have something to consider.  Who knows?  We may garner an understanding that will help with remembering a word’s spelling in a way that calling it an exception just doesn’t.

Let’s take a further look at these words considered to be exceptions.  I went to Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher to quickly find words that had the same ending pronunciation as ‘chocolate.’

With a list this long, it seems a burden to ask students to remember that these are exceptions to the “a_e” rule.  If they don’t remember, and spell the words according to how they pronounce them, they are likely to use ‘it’ or ‘ite’ at the end of each of these words.  To add to this, I found words in which the final <ate> can be pronounced in two ways, depending on how the word is used in a sentence.  Notice how the pronunciation of the same word changes as it changes its grammatical function  (adjective or noun to verb).

Again, this seems like another burden for students who will now be taught that sometimes a word will be an exception and sometimes it will not.  There just has to be a more elegant explanation that will truly help our students.  What is it that is different in the pronunciation of animate and chocolate?  It is the pronunciation of the final ‘ate.’  We’ve known that from the start.  But what governs the pronunciation of that final part of the word?  Stress.  In all of the discussions about spelling “rules” that I see online, very few ever address stress.  Stress is one of those things about our language that sets it apart from other languages.  It is also one of the things that makes learning our language and speaking it as a native would difficult for many.

Our language is stress timed.  If you’re not familiar with that idea (as I wasn’t when I began studying English spelling), you might be wondering what that even means.  Simply put, it means that when we speak, we put the main stress or emphasis on one of the syllabic beats in a word.  If a word has only one syllabic beat, then that is where we place the stress.  Examples of words with one syllabic beat are frog, bed, mask, and light.  When you announce those words, you put emphasis on the beginning of the word.

Now consider a word with two syllabic beats such as open, garden, begin, and exposed.  Think about where we put the stress when we pronounce those words.  Do we say “Open the door,” or do we say, “oPEN the door?”  We put the stress on the first beat in that word.  It is the same with ‘garden.’  We say GARden instead of garDEN.  What about ‘begin?’  With this word, we actually put the main stress on the second syllabic beat.  Think about it.  Do we say “BEgin your work,” or “beGIN your work?”  We put the stress on the second syllabic beat.  It is the same with ‘exposed.’  Test it for yourself.  Do you say EXposed or exPOSED?  My guess is you say it with the stress on the second beat.

In polysyllabic words, one syllabic beat will have the main stress.  We may raise our pitch as we announce it and we may hold it longer than we hold other syllables.  Sometimes other beats have stress as well – just not has heavy.  That is called secondary stress.  But the remaining syllabic beats in those words?  They are unstressed.  And when a syllabic beat is unstressed, the vowel in that particular beat will become reduced to the point that we call it a schwa.

When I have introduced IPA and the idea of stress to my students, I did so by showing them the IPA symbols that correspond to the graphemes in their names, including the stress marks.  One year I had boys whose names were Jaydin, Jackson, Aidan, and Kayden.  When you say those names, you will notice that you put the main stress on the first syllabic beat of each name.  That means that the second syllabic beat of each name is unstressed.  With these names, it doesn’t matter which vowel letter we see in front of the final <n>.  They are all pronounced the same because they all are unstressed and therefore are reduced in their quality enough to be considered a schwa.  When I pointed this out to my students, they thought it was pretty cool.  They always wondered why the pronunciation of the second part of their names was the same even though the spelling wasn’t.  Here’s a small video clip of two students talking about having learned IPA.

The second student in the video is named Ava.  Now that she understands that there is stress on the first syllabic beat in her name, but not on the second, she understands why the two a’s are not pronounced the same!  I know that many teachers talk about the schwa sound with students, but I don’t believe that many talk about stress in words or stress in sentences.  My guess is that they don’t spend time talking about it because they didn’t learn about it themselves.  Because of that, they don’t know quite what to say.

There is a great resource for people who fall into the category of not knowing how to talk about stress seeing as how it was never explicitly taught to them.  It’s called Rachel’s English.  She has a series of videos that are actually there to help non-native English speakers sound more like native English speakers.  One of the things someone learning English probably struggles with is stress – especially if their native language is a syllable timed language like French, Italian, Korean, or Spanish.  In those languages, each syllable has the same amount of emphasis. No part of the word or sentence stands out in the same way that they do in English.

When I was first trying to wrap my head around this idea of our language being stress timed, I watched several of these videos.  Here is another one that I found to be very helpful.

In the second video, Rachel demonstrates stress with the sentence, “I saw her at the meeting.”  When she says it, the primary stress is on the verb ‘saw’ and the secondary stress is on the first syllabic beat of ‘meeting.’  One of the joys of English is that we can change the meaning of a simple sentence like this by changing where we put the stress.  I can imagine reading this sentence with the primary stress on ‘I’ and meaning something different than if I put that stress on ‘her.’  The two function words in this sentence (at, the) would probably not carry the primary stress in this sentence very often.

Her next example sentence illustrates that the words in a sentence that are not stressed are reduced.  The sentence she uses is, “I got this for you.”  It is the function word ‘for’ that is reduced and announced more like ‘frr.’  Can you picture a student who is saying that sentence to themselves as they write it, spelling the word ‘for’ as ‘fer?’  Me too.  It makes me wonder about the students I have had who misspelled a word different ways in a single writing.  Could it be that the placement of stress in those sentences affected the way the student pronounced the word in that sentence?  And if a student is taught to sound out words in order to spell them, they might indeed spell a word one way in one sentence and another way in another sentence.

The next video I’m including is longer than the first two, but continues on with this idea of what we do as we speak.  I am fascinated watching these videos of Rachel’s.  When we don’t introduce stress to students either at the word level or at the sentence level, we are leaving out such a crucial piece!  This kind of discussion could help students understand why they are misspelling some words.  It could also lead to a discussion that spelling based solely on pronunciation is prone to error.  There are just too many contributing factors.  Spelling based on morphemes, on the other hand, leads to spelling accuracy and a built-in understanding of a word’s sense and meaning.

Now that you have a better idea of how inherent stress is to our speech and how important it is to our understanding of spelling, I’d like to return to the words that were mentioned at the beginning of this post.  Below I’ve given you the opportunity to compare the graphemes to the phonemes in each word including stress marks.  I used toPhonetics to get a spelling to IPA transcription.  What do you now notice?

Every one of these words has its primary stress on the very first syllabic beat.  That means that the other syllables in each word are unstressed.  This explains why the first <e> in ‘delicate’ is representing the phoneme /ɛ/, but the following <i> and <a> graphemes are both representing the phoneme /ə/.  The same thing happens in ‘fortunate’, ‘accurate’, and ‘chocolate.’

The words ‘chocolate’ and ‘desperate’ have something else in common.  Each looks like it would have three written syllabic beats, but when spoken, there would only be two.  Notice the greyed ‘o’ in ‘chocolate’ and the greyed medial ‘e’ in ‘desperate.’  They are greyed because they are not graphemes representing phonemes.  Those two particular letters in those particular spellings are so unstressed in the pronunciations of those words that they have been zeroed!  The other greyed letters in this collection of words are all the single final non-syllabic ‘e’ that is also not a grapheme.  It is there as part of the <ate> suffix.  It may mark the pronunciation of the ‘a’ in the suffix when we see it in another member of the word family (desperation), but not necessarily.  The <ate> suffix is usually seen on nouns and adjectives whose base derived from Latin.  It is the stress placement in the word that determines the pronunciation of the <a> in that suffix.

Above, I gave you examples of words with this <ate> suffix that can be used in two ways.  Below I compare the IPA and stress marks on two of those words when the words are used in the two ways.

The difference, as you can see, is that when the word is used as an adjective or noun, there is only one primary stress in the word.  That leaves the remaining syllables unstressed and the pronunciation will reflect that by way of reducing the pronunciation of the vowels until they are a schwa.  When the same word is functioning as a verb, you can see that the word now has two stress marks.  One is primary (ˈ) and one is secondary (ˌ).  In both words, there are two syllabic beats that are stressed and one that is not.  That unstressed syllable is where we see the schwa.


If you are telling your students that sometimes a vowel is pronounced as a schwa, but you’re not telling them why, then you’re not helping them see the logic of English spelling.  Without meaning to, you are contributing to the misconception that spelling is weird and hard to understand.   How confusing must it be for a student to hear that sometimes vowels are reduced and can all sound similar, but then not to be told when this might happen.  This assignment of a schwa must feel very random to a student when in fact it is not.  Not at all.

English is a stress-timed language.  It is not syllable-timed.  Yet, many children are exposed to hours and hours of work with syllables and syllable types and little to no time spent understanding how the stress-timing of our language affects our speech.  It is time to recognize the problems created by looking at English spelling with such a superficial lens as pronunciation.  It is time to prepare the students for words they are encountering now and the words they will encounter in the future.  To do that, we must teach how the English spelling system works.  And to do that we must include instruction on morphology, etymology, and phonology (including stress).  Trying to explain a spelling without considering stress, morphemes, or etymology is like trying to explain how a plant gets its nutrients by only looking at the surface of a leaf.  If you want to understand the system, you have to be aware of all of the components and see how they work together.  You can’t peek through the curtain and expect to see the full view.  You must open the window and really take in the view.