What a Difference a Prefix Makes!

When Michael investigated the word <president>, he found that it shared a base with the word <dissident>.  They both come from the Latin root sidere which means “to sit”.

The prefix in <president> is <pre> which means before, so we can think of a president as a person who sits before the people he/she represents.

The prefix in <dissident> is <dis> which means away, so we can think of a dissident as a person whose ideas sit away from those of others.  The dictionary defines <dissident> as a person who disagrees with an established religious or political system.

Still trying to really understand <dissident> in the same way we understand <president>, I asked the students to look online to find examples of people who were or are considered dissidents.  This is where the understanding deepened.

Names of people we have studied this year, as well as names recognized as having been in the news recently popped up.  Here is a short list of people we recognized who have  been named dissidents.  Some were peaceful dissidents, some were not.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
John Brown
Thomas Paine
Woody Guthrie
Pete Seeger
Edward Snowden
Sitting Bull
Nelson Mandela
Jesus Christ
Adolf Hitler

Are there names you recognize?  Do you know why they were/are considered dissidents?  Who would you add to this list?

Homophones – Springboards for Discussion!

We were in the computer lab the other day, and I was looking over a student’s poem before it was to be printed. She had incorrectly spelled the word <very> as <vary>.   I told her that <vary> is something the temperature has been doing lately.  I said, “It’s not consistent.  It varies from day to day.”  She shook her head and said, ” Ah.  I see.  It means changing.  I used the wrong word.”  When I asked her how to spell the word she really wanted, she spelled <very>, but with hesitation as she thought about which vowel to use.  She wanted to use <a> because that is the sound she was hearing herself say, but she knew that wasn’t right.  She settled on <e>.

It’s hard to fault our students who are using the strategies we give them:  “Sound it out.  If that doesn’t work, just plain memorize the spelling.”

Back in class I decided to talk about the word vary with the whole class.  I said, ” If I asked you to spell the word <very>, how would you do it?  Both spellings were suggested.  That led to a discussion of the word homophone and its meaning.

Then we went back to the two words <very> and <vary>.  I asked for a definition of each.  Students used them in sentences. They defined <very> as an adverb meaning extremely.  They defined <vary> as changing.  Next I asked for relatives.  For the word <vary>, students suggested <variety>, <variable>, and <various>.  We talked about what each means and how each might be used.  Then I asked for the spelling of <varying>.  Maya began with <v> <a> <r> … but then paused.  I knew she was questioning whether the next letter would be <y> or if that <y> would switch to an <i>.  I was giving her some think time when Ryan jumped in and said rather enthusiastically, ” English words don’t have two i’s in a row!  The <y> needs to stay a <y>!  Just as I was smiling and about to say, ” So glad you remembered that!”, Logan raised this question.  “What about the word <skiing>? (It seems that everything we look at in orthography leads to something else equally interesting!)

Ryan is correct in thinking that in complete English words there are never two i’s.  When we see such a spelling,  we know the word <ski> is a loan word from another language.  Loan words don’t behave the way English words do.

I wanted to visit the spelling of <skiing> a bit further so I wrote the word <skiing> on the board.  Right next to it I wrote <skying> and next to that I wrote <sking>.  I asked for the base of each spelling.  That helped us rule out <sking>.  Looking at <skiing> the students saw <ski> + <ing> and looking at <skying> the students saw <sky> + <ing>.  We couldn’t make sense of the word <skying> and realized that in the word <skiing> there isn’t a double <i>.  There is an <i> in the final position of the base, and there is an <i> in the initial position of the suffix.  It reminds me of the word <really>.  There isn’t a double <l> here either.  One <l> is the final consonant of the base, and the other is the first letter of the suffix.  Thinking about words in this way (as word sums) helps with spelling because as you are spelling you are thinking of the word sum and how the morphemes go together rather than a memorized letter order.

Now we headed back to our original query.  We tried adding a few more suffixes on to <vary> and talked about the suffixing rules before turning our attention to <very>.  “What are its relatives?” I asked.  We couldn’t think of any.  We decided that <very> with an <e> is very limited in the number of relatives it has, whereas <vary> with an <a> has a variety of relatives!   We also noticed that <very> is an adverb and only once in a while an adjective.  The word <vary> however can be various parts of speech, including noun, verb, and adjective depending on the suffix used.

A simple misspelling led to such a rich discussion!  Awesome!

Enacting a Word Sum With Students and Staff

Spelling out words and building word sums is central to students really understanding about a word’s structure and its relationship to other words in its family. Last week I had the opportunity to enact a word sum with our K-5 staff at a staff meeting. For the first 30 minutes we were very fortunate to Zoom (like Skype) with Peter Bowers from WordWorks. He introduced activities to use with children of any age. These activities put the focus on recognizing when words belong to the same word family (share a base). Pete also talked about the importance of having students spell out words. By this he means that students announce each grapheme that represents a phoneme. As you watch the video below, listen to how the students do this.

The brilliant and valuable idea of having students enact building a word sum is Lyn Anderson’s. Her blog, Beyond the Word, is rich with activities that help students make sense of words and spellings.

Before I asked our staff to walk through building a word sum, I videotaped my 5th graders doing the same activity.

Once students understand the idea of building word sums, and how we can find other word family members by using different prefixes or adding different or sometimes additional suffixes, it’s time to encourage them to hypothesize about word structures.

The first step in any word investigation is to agree on the meaning of the word. Throughout our investigation, we will always be comparing our thoughts and hypotheses to our base word’s meaning. This is what we are referring to when we say that our hypothesized word sum must pass the meaning test.

The second step is to ask ourselves, “What are its relatives?” Now we think of words related in meaning and spelling. In this case we can think of pleasing, pleases, pleased, displeased, displease, displeases, pleasant, pleasantly, unpleasant, unpleasantly, pleasure, and pleasurable.

Let’s look at the word ‘pleasurable’. When building the word sum for this, we talked in the video about “Checking the Joins” and needing to replace the single silent ‘e’ on the base ‘please’ when adding the vowel suffix ‘ure’. Then we talked about replacing the single silent ‘e’ on the suffix ‘ure’ when adding the vowel suffix ‘able’.

The next step is to write the word ‘pleasurable’ on the board and ask, “How is it built?” I want students to suggest a word sum hypothesis for it. At the beginning of the year, students think this means to break the word into syllables. As the year goes on, they begin to let go of that automatic response and to look for recognizable affixes instead. If your students are new to this kind of thinking, they might hypothesize that the word sum for ‘pleasurable’ is:
pleas + ur + able
ple + sur + a + ble (notice they are thinking syllables, not meaning)
pleas + urable
pleasur + able

I accept all hypotheses offered. Then I suggest that we look for evidence to prove that one hypothesis is more likely than any of the others.

First piece of evidence: Let’s look at the other words in this word family. We see ‘please’ and ‘displease’. Here is our first piece of evidence that there is a final single silent ‘e’ in ‘please’. It is also evidence that ‘ple’ and ‘pleasur’ will not be the base. (‘ple’ does not have a meaning and does not pass the meaning test.)

Second piece of evidence: Looking at ‘pleas’, one notices that it looks like the plural of the word ‘plea’. This is a great opportunity to revisit the role of a single silent ‘e’ in the final position of a word. Students know that a single silent ‘e’ can force the medial vowel to be long, as in ‘bike’. Here we can introduce another reason for the final single silent ‘e’ — so that a word doesn’t look plural when it isn’t. My students learned this when we investigated ‘condensation’ during a science chapter earlier this year. The word sum we agreed on is con + dense/ + ate/ + ion –> condensation. Without the ‘e’ on the base, ‘dens’ looks like the plural of ‘den’.

With that evidence, we conclude that the base of ‘pleasurable’ is ‘please’. Now we look at the rest of the word. Is ‘able’ a suffix? Our task is to find at least three words in which it is clearly the suffix. The three words could be bendable, taxable, and payable. Our next question is whether or not ‘ure’ is a suffix. Again we try to think of at least three words in which it is a clear suffix. Three words could be moisture, failure, and closure.

Putting all of that evidence together, the students are ready to alter their word sum hypothesis to read:
pleasurable –> please + ure + able.

There are several ways to organize and display a family of words. The following picture shows a word web and a word matrix.
By thinking of word families in this way, students have had the opportunity to think about suffixing rules and about logically collecting evidence to support their spelling choices. Students are actively involved as they build knowledge and understanding of English spelling.

Syllable Division and Word Sums – How Do They Compare?

Today we looked back among the words we have investigated.  I asked students to draw two columns in their notebooks.  They were to split those previously investigated words into syllables in one column and word sums in the second column so they could compare the two side by side.  After a bit of work time, I asked students to share aloud so I could record some of these words on the board.  Then we talked about what we noticed.

It was nice to revisit some of the words, and of course I enjoyed hearing what they thought of the two lists.  The first video clip is very brief and shows the master list we made on the board.  The second video clip is of students responding to the two lists.

As I reflect on our activity today, I think there is one more important thing to note.  Once we split a word into syllables, we can’t really do anything else with it.  But once we split a word into its word sum, we can build related words by pulling off or adding other affixes.  With some of the words we’ve investigated we’ve made long lists of related words in just this way!  By building word sums and identifying the base, we quite often discover dozens of words that share meaning because they share that particular base.  The fun part is that we are often surprised by our discoveries!

Investigations from our Classroom “Wonder Wall”

The sharing has begun!  Prior to our spring break, students chose words to investigate.  Yesterday students eagerly volunteered to share their findings.

The word I would like to share first is <magical>.  I’m not sharing the presentation of the word, but rather what happened when the two students finished presenting and opened the floor for questions.  I was fascinated at the level of respect these word scientists have for one another.  The conversations were focused on the word being investigated and what felt like a united purpose of synthesizing everyone’s understanding of how words are built to get at the truth.  And the number of students participating by asking questions and making  points in this conversation was inspiring.  As you listen, you may have to remind yourself that there are indeed 24 students in the room!

Here are three more investigations:




April Fools For Word Nerds!

After spending a most informative and inspiring weekend with like-minded word enthusiasts, I came back to the classroom on April 1st.  I love having light fun on this day, and tried to think of an appropriate prank to play on my students.  I decided to convince them that over the weekend, I was given evidence that <tion> is indeed a suffix.

Anyone who follows this blog, knows that my students have investigated scads of words that appear to have the <tion> suffix only to find out that the <t> is really part of the base and NOT part of the suffix.  We even created the game show video “Can You Prove It“.  But like the contestant says in the video, “We haven’t checked every word ending with a <tion>, but in all of the words we HAVE checked, we have never found <tion> to be the true suffix.”  If is often the final syllable, but never the suffix.

Well, it turned out to be a funny prank.  Some students accepted the news as if they were expecting that one day we would find such a word.  Others remained quiet, pondering this new information and trying to decide whether or not to believe it.  Enjoy peeking in on our April Fool moment!