“Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.” – Charlotte Whitton

Yesterday was one of those days when the orthographic sun was shining brightly.  I was bathed in the light, and that light warmed me from the inside out.

It all started when a teacher on our fifth grade team said she was talking about suffrage with her class, and one of the students wondered out loud if the word suffrage was related to suffer in any way since they had so many letters in common.
(Yes!  Trying to make sense of unfamiliar words by looking for relationships to known words.)

A bit later, another teacher who works with one of my students asked me to follow her to her room.  She had something to show me.  The student had read a story about someone who was a philanthropist, and when the teacher drew attention to that unfamiliar word, the student began writing a word sum.  The teacher wasn’t sure how to respond to the word sum and called me in.  Here is what the student wrote:  <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>.

(Yes!  My students are aware that words are made up of morphemes, and they carry clues about their language of origin.)

Later that same day, a student ran across the word aquatic while doing some science research.  She wondered aloud if the <quat> in <aquatic> was the same <quat> we see in <quaternary> (we’ve been studying primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary consumers in a food web).  She also wondered about the <a>, and if it was the same <a> that we saw in <asexual> when we discussed living things reproducing.

(Yes!  Words are made up of morphemes and those morphemes are categorized as bases and affixes.  Some bases and affixes show up in a large number of words.  Research is the only way to know for sure whether two words share a base or an affix.)

So today when class began, I shared my joy with my students.  I wanted them to know that what pleased me more than anything was the fact that they were wondering and asking questions.  They were looking for connections and recognizing previously used affixes and bases.

I wrote <suffrage> on the board.  Below it I wrote <suffer>.  Then someone called out <suffix>, so I wrote that down also.  Because we had talked about <suffer> and <suffix> earlier this year, it was remembered that <suf-> (sub-) was the prefix in each of these words.  But that didn’t necessarily mean it was a prefix in <suffrage>.  We needed to do some research.  I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard and we looked it up together.

We found that it was from the Latin suffragari “lend support, vote for someone”.  The next bit was quite interesting.  [Conjectured to be a compound of sub “under” and fragor “crash, din, shouts (as of approval), related to frangere “to break”.  On another theory the second element is frangere itself and the notion is “use a broken piece of tile as a ballot”.  The meaning “political right to vote” in English is first found in the U.S. Constitution, 1787.]

The words “conjectured to be” and “on another theory” brought interesting discussion in and of themselves.  Both possibilities broaden the sense of the word.  For now we are satisfied that the <suf-> in <suffrage> might be a prefix just as it is in <suffix> and <suffer> … and then again it might not be.

The conversation we had about <philanthropist> took us meandering through several words.  I wrote the student’s word sum for it:  <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>.   I said, ” Looks like this student is considering whether or not this word has an <o> connecting vowel.  What language would we associate with an <o> connecting vowel?”  Several students piped up with “Greek”.  Then I asked if there were any other clues in this word that it was in fact from Greek.  After a thoughtful pause several said <ph> at once.  Beautiful.  At this point I asked everyone to consider the word sum and whether or not they agreed that there was an <o> connecting vowel.

Right away someone pointed out that <ist> is a common suffix found in words like <scientist>, <artist> and <therapist>. So if the <ist> was indeed a suffix, then the <p> would not be by itself – that perhaps <throp> all go together.  At this point we went back to Etymonline.   We found evidence that <ist> was a suffix and that this word came from the Greek philanthropia “kindliness, humanity, benevolence, love to mankind” from phil- “loving” + anthropos “mankind”.  I shared with my students that when in college I had taken a course in anthropology.

With this information we created a new hypothesis:  <phil> + <anthrop> + <ist>.  We talked about what philanthropists do. I reminded them that a few years back our school was the recipient of a philanthropist’s generosity when someone purchased Smartboards for each of our classrooms!

But as we were finishing up that discussion, I wondered out loud if there were other words with <phil> as the base.  Immediately the word <philosophy> was mentioned.  We looked it up.  We found that it comes from the Greek philosophia “love of knowledge, pursuit of wisdom”.  How delightful!

Lastly we looked at <aquatic>.  When we looked at Etymonline, we could not find any evidence to support <a> being a prefix or <quat> having to do with fourth.  We only saw references to <aqua> meaning water.  Some students may have been able to guess that without having to look, but I want to develop the habit of looking.  There have been far too many unexpected connections (delightful surprises) when we have.

I leave you with a student/teacher exchange that happened later that day (inspired by our discussions):

“I’m thinking of the word <dinosaur> and thinking that if the <o> is a connecting vowel, then the word is probably from Greek.  What do you think?”

“I’m thinking that you know how to find out.” (said with a smile)

“Yup.” (said with an even bigger smile)

“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” Carl Sagan

This is my twentieth year teaching fifth grade.  It is also the twentieth year that I have required my students to participate in a Science Fair.  Why do I do it?

I think back to my own experience participating in a Science Fair.   As much as I liked the experiment I chose, it was the variety of projects surrounding mine that filled me with awe and wonder.  It was the thinking as much as it was the experiment that impressed me.  Every step in the process of running an experiment necessitates reflective and logical thinking.  That thinking is what dictates the next direction to take.  With each project I looked at, I was in awe of what the author observed and concluded.  I wondered if I would have followed the same thinking path or been diverted by my own perspective and curiosity.

The experience changed how I thought about science.  I let go of my incorrect idea that science was only done by scholars and that most earthly phenomena was pretty much already figured out.  Instead I began to see science as an invitation to ask questions.  To wonder.  To make guesses.  To gather evidence.  And even when I had written my conclusion and read the conclusions of others, I knew at some level that there was more to be explained.  There were more questions to ask.

So that is why I require my students to participate in a Science Fair.  I want them to experience what a sense of free thinking there is in the pursuit of an answer.  So much of the thinking students are asked to do in a classroom is framed by the curriculum, the teacher, or both.  Their thinking is rarely very far from the confines of the proverbial box.  By asking students to choose a project and follow the Scientific Method, I am putting the learning in the hands of the student.  I am giving them the opportunity to participate in a scholarly scientific pursuit.   The smiles you  see on their faces are my evidence that it is a worthwhile event.

DSCN5035DSCN5039 DSCN5041 DSCN5042 DSCN5043 DSCN5044 DSCN5046 DSCN5047 DSCN5048 DSCN5049 DSCN5050 DSCN5051 DSCN5052 DSCN5053 DSCN5054 DSCN5055 DSCN5056 DSCN5057 DSCN5058 DSCN5059 DSCN5060 DSCN5061 DSCN5062 DSCN5063 DSCN5064 DSCN5065 DSCN5067 DSCN5068 DSCN5069 DSCN5070 DSCN5071 DSCN5072 DSCN5075 DSCN5076 DSCN5077 DSCN5078 DSCN5079 DSCN5080 DSCN5081 DSCN5083 DSCN5084 DSCN5085 DSCN5086 DSCN5087 DSCN5088 DSCN5089 DSCN5090 DSCN5091 DSCN5092 DSCN5093 DSCN5094 DSCN5095 DSCN5097 DSCN5098 DSCN5099 DSCN5100 DSCN5101 DSCN5102 DSCN5103 DSCN5104 DSCN5106 DSCN5107 DSCN5111

Introducing the Mighty Yet Neighborly ‘igh’ Trigraph!

A couple weeks back we were talking about trigraphs.  I wrote <igh> and <ugh> on the board and we brainstormed words that had those trigraphs in them.  Then we further sorted the words with <igh> into two columns.  One column contained words with a consonant in front of the <igh>.  The second column contained words with either an <a> or an <e> in front of the <igh>.  As we read through the words in the first column (with the consonant in front of the <igh>), the students noticed that the <igh> represented long /i/.  This list contained words like right, frighten, mighty, and sigh.  As we read through the words in the second column (with either an <a> or an <e> in front of the <igh>), the students noticed that the vowel plus the <igh> represented long /a/.  This list contained words like eight, neighbor, straight, and freight.

When sorting the words with an <ugh> trigraph, we made one column in which the <ugh> represented /f/.  This list contained words like laugh, cough, rough, and tough.  The second column had words in which the <ugh> represented no sound at all!  This list contained words like though, through, caught, and bought.


Next the students practiced spelling out the words and pronouncing them.  The practice helped everyone single out the trigraphs as they spelled.  For example, the word <night> was spelled out as <n> <igh> <t>.  the word <knight> was spelled out as <kn> <igh> <t>.

When we finished with this activity, someone mentioned that they wished they had known this stuff sooner.  I asked, “Are these words you often had trouble with on spelling tests or in written work?”  There was a resounding, “YES!”  It was at this point that I threw out the suggestion that we offer to present this to some younger students.  My fifth graders were very enthusiastic to do this.  So I emailed the second grade teachers and asked if they would be interested.  They were particularly interested in the <igh> trigraph, so we prepared a lesson and presented it today!

I think the fifth graders were a bit surprised that the second graders enjoyed this so much and caught on so quickly.  We left our materials with the second grade students so they could review, practice, and collect more words after we left.

The teachers invited us back to do a lesson on writing out word sums.  One of the fifth graders thought we should prepare a lesson on the <-ion> suffix as well.   I’m thinking that the third graders might be ready for a lesson on the <ugh> trigraph.  Oh! The places we’ll go!

Be My Strong, Able, Worthy, Well, Powerful, Healthy Valentine!

Last week, two students asked what I knew about the word valentine.  Hmmm.  (I love student inspired investigations!)  We looked at Etymonline and found that

[It was first attested mid 15th century as a “sweetheart chosen on St. Valentine’s Day,” from Late Latin Valentinus, the name of two early Italian saints (from Latin valentia “strength, capacity,” see valence.)   Choosing a sweetheart on this day originated 14c. as a custom in English and French court circles. Meaning “letter or card sent to a sweetheart” first recorded 1824.  The romantic association of the day is said to be from it being around the time when birds choose their mates.]

Aside from finding out how the custom of sending cards came about, it was quite surprising to see the words “strength” and “capacity” connected to valentine.  We followed the bolded link to the word valence to find out more.

[Early 15c., “extract, preparation,” from Latin valentia “strength, capacity,” from valentem (nominative valens) “strong, stout, vigorous, powerful,” present participle of valere “be strong” (see valiant).]

Here we found Latin valentia “strength, capacity” again, but also valentem, present participle of valere “be strong”.  We continued the search and looked closer at valiant.

[Early 14c. “brave, courageous intrepid in danger, “from Anglo-French vaylant, and Old French vaillant “stalwart, brave,” present participle adjective from valoir “be worthy,” originally “be strong,” from Latin valere “be strong, be well, be worth, have power, be able, be in health”.]

So here we have it.  The probable word sum for valentine is <vale/> + <ent> + <ine>, and at the heart of this word are the ideas of being strong, well, worthy, powerful, able, and healthy.  How about that!

There’s so much to think about with this matrix.  I see connections in meaning that I didn’t see before.  The word equivalent tells me that two things are of equal worth.  If you feel ambivalent about something, you are conflicted because you see it as having worth and in another respect as not having worth.

A word I’ve been using a lot lately in regards to our upcoming Science Fair and the data collection that each student is doing is the word valid.  I have been asking students to collect enough data so that their findings are valid, or worthy.  And then there is the word valedictorian – a worthy person who delivers an inspiring graduation speech.

As so often is the case, one worthy question leads to heaps of new understandings!



Thigmotropism … It’s What Some Plants Do To Survive

With all of the glorious orthographic discoveries my students and I are unearthing this year, I find myself continually trying to put my finger on which orthographic bits of knowledge I want all of my students to feel confident with by the year’s end.  What will they need to know in order to carry on future investigations on their own?  Or in order to abandon the practice of skipping over unfamiliar words in a text?

Then I thought of an idea based on part of a comment Old Grouch left on a previous post in which he wrote the following:

“And since you are budding orthographic linguists, turn your scientific eyes on ‘identification’ which I wrote in my second paragraph.

Here’s your assignment: demonstrate by analysis that ‘identification’:
– is a compound;
– has two suffixes;
-contains an affix that is neither a prefix nor a suffix.”

I used his suggested word (identification) to model this type of analysis with the whole class, and then chose another word for the students to analyze independently.  The word I chose was <thigmotropism>.  (We are currently learning about living things and how they respond to changes in their environment.)  I wanted to see what they could find using an unfamiliar word.  My directions were for the students to:

Demonstrate by analysis that <thigmotropism>
-is a compound;
-has one suffix;
-contains an affix that is neither a prefix nor a suffix.

Here is a video in which three students share their findings.

By giving them a list of what they should expect to find in the word,  some of the students felt a little less like they were lost in a snowstorm.  Of course, there were a good number of students who took it on as a challenge and pretty quickly understood the parts and how they came together to make sense of the whole.  But in all honesty, some of my students are just coming around with their interest and understanding of word structure.  This helped.

This assignment is one I intend to repeat periodically.  I want to nurture those independent research skills.  I want to boost the confidence of decision making based on evidence.  I want to encourage the idea that the parts come together into a meaningful whole word — a word that can make a connection with the student in a way it never did before.