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!

13 thoughts on “Homophones – Springboards for Discussion!

  1. The statement (in the discussion of the spelling ‘skiing’) that “Loan words don’t behave the way English words do,” is not – as it stands – strictly speaking true. The problem in the statement is the use of ‘don’t’; many loan words DO conform to English orthographic conventions.

    What should rather be stated is that loan words “need not / do not necessarily” conform to native English orthographic conventions.

  2. So “word forming element” suggests a suffix, rather than another base word. Hmmm. Maybe not a compound, but the suffix is just from the Latin base word. I am thinking ‘ver’ + ‘ify’ or is the base ‘vere’ perhaps?

    • We had a lovely discussion today regarding the list of words you suggested! Just by looking at your list of related words, students suggested that the base might be vere/ meaning ‘true’. I shared with my students the evidence I emailed to you. Here are their word sum hypotheses:

      vere/ + i + fy
      vere/ + i + fice/ + ate/ + ion
      vere/ + ite/ + y
      vere/ + ite/ + able
      vere/ + ace/ + ite/ + y

      We talked about the ones that are compound words, and they identified ‘verify’ and verification’ (both having a sense of ‘making something true’).

      Thank you for sparking a lovely discussion!

  3. Oops. Somehow I missed stating the word. It looks like ‘verify’ is a compound word! Etymology online states: early 14c., from Old French verifier “substantiate, find out the truth about” (14c.), from Medieval Latin verificare “make true,” from Latin verus “true” (see very) + root of facere “to make” (see factitious).

    • Interesting. I went on Etymology Online also to see if I could find more evidence to support what you read. I looked up ‘-ify’ and found this: word forming element meaning “to make into”, from French -fier, from Latin -ficare, from unstressed form of facere, “to make, do” see (factitious)

      I will share what you and I have found with my students tomorrow and see what they think the word sum might be!

      • ‘Word forming element’?

        But by definition, that is what an orthographic ‘element’’ IS – a written morpheme. Forming written words is what orthographic elements do.

        By definition.

        The phrase ‘word forming element’ is, I’m afraid to say, a tautology.

    • A ‘compound’ is, by defintion, a construction that contains more than one base element (whether free or bound).

      ‘Verify’ looks like a compound for the simple reason that it is one – as we can verificate from the etymology!

  4. Hi Mrs. Stevens,
    Thank you for commenting on my blog!
    I think that you guys have a awesome blog and post about fun things! What got you into blogging?

    • Hi Anika,

      I began blogging after I attended a teacher training. The speaker talked about how important it is to teach students to be safe online and to present themselves in a positive way. I began my blog so my students could be online with guidance.

      Once I started though, I realized how much I enjoyed it! I like sharing things we do in class with parents, students, and teachers. I’ve learned so much from reading other blogs from around the world! Blogging has given me the opportunity to improve my teaching!

      Mrs. Steven

  5. Thank you for your comment! I will ask my students to write word sums for each of the words you mentioned and then I will post them here tomorrow. I wonder what they will think the base is based on your list of relatives? Good stuff!

    Thank you!

  6. I liked this so much I am quoting you in my Facebook blog. Other good science words to consider, according to my search (which I hope is correct): verity, veritable, verify, verification, veracity. All these words are related, although looks like a compound word. Some of these are good science words!

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