During the last week of our school year, I asked my students to tell me about orthography. After all, back in August it was a new word. They had never studied orthography or Structured Word Inquiry before this year. I had them choose a partner, look through the orthography notebooks they wrote in all year, and think about all they had done and all they had learned. Then they were to write down some specific things they enjoyed about learning orthography. I then filmed students telling me the types of things they wrote down.
Hearing what they have to say is always interesting. And real. They brought up the things that stood out to them. The things that made them stop and think. The word stories that they will remember always. Didn’t you love the moment in the video when one student mentions the word ‘gymnasium’ and the rest of the students react by laughing? That is the power of knowing something that lots of other people don’t know. Look it up sometime at Etymonline. It is from the Greek gymnos. We could not find many words with this base (besides gymnast, gymnastic,etc.), but just yesterday a student found the word ‘gymnophobia’. And it is NOT a fear of exercise! We laughed! It was like having a shared joke among friends.
And then, of course, there was the boy who laughed gleefully at the prospect of a word having a two letter base! One of the words I show my students early in the year is ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’. The boy is right. It is quite delightful to know that this great big word has such a tiny base. I like to point to this word as proof that a word can have more than one prefix and more than one suffix. How many prefixes can you spot? How many suffixes? Which two letters do you suppose make up the bound base that is central to this word’s meaning?
Another student comment pointed to one of my favorite things about Structured Word Inquiry. We learn a list of words that share a base instead of a list of unrelated words. For example, we looked at the free base <pend> from Latin pendere “to hang”. We collected a list of words and checked resources to make sure they were descendants of pendere. Here are words we had on our list:
We talked about what each of these words meant and what they had to do with the denotation of the base. Our understanding of what each of these words meant and how they can be used deepened. Then weeks later, after we had moved on and were studying something else, someone came bopping into the room wondering about the word ‘pendant’, and if the <pend> in ‘pendant’ is the same base as in ‘suspend’. Wonderful! Isn’t that wonderful? Long after we have investigated a single base and several of its relatives, students continue to make connections! They became more observant with words. They began to analyze words without even realizing they were doing it.
The boy in the video who compared past methods of learning words to what we did this year, said it well. “With a lot of spelling tests, you usually, like, remember it super hard. You take the test, and then you forget all of it to make room for the next test. With what we’re doing, it’s different because you, like, remember it in a way that you actually remember it, like, in a different way that you can remember it for life.” So true! With rote memorization, there is no hook. There’s nothing to connect the word too. Students, teachers, and parents end up making up stories or songs just to make the letter order memorable. But by looking at a word’s meaning, it’s structure, and it’s history, a student makes all kinds of connections. A word’s birth can be connected to an event in time. A word might have changed it’s spelling over time and there’s an interesting story about that. Students start appreciating words!
And speaking about the history of a word, several of the students mentioned how interesting it was to dig for just that. The further along in the school year, the better the students got at understanding the wealth of knowledge presented at Etymonline. One student talked about how the meaning of ‘awesome’ has changed. About a month ago a student investigated the words ‘terrific’ and ‘nice’. She was blown away to discover that at different times in history, those words meant very different things than they do now. She ended up making a timeline for each to show how the word’s meaning slowly evolved to be what it is today. Another example of this very thing is what happened today in class. A girl came in complaining that a boy in her grade was calling her 6 year old brother gay because he was playing around with a friend. I said, “We’ll have to talk to this boy.” But then I mentioned that this was another word that meant something else before it had to do with homosexuality. So we looked it up. I thought I would find that it once meant light-hearted and joyful. Well, I did. But that’s not all. I was surprised to find out that in Middle English it meant “excellent person, gallant knight, noble lady”. What a great opportunity to talk about the difference between a word’s denotation and its connotations.
What a year of meaningful learning. Every year of this is exciting and surprising. This kind of scholarship just can’t be boxed and repeated exactly the same way each year. And this kind of scholarship doesn’t just disappear because the students go back to less scientific ways to study words as they move in to 6th grade. Students come back. They sign up for orthography as a summer school class. They stop me in the street to tell me about words they have come across. They talk to me about words or Greek letters when I see them at local theater productions or even in the local grocery store.
One of my all time favorite insights on the study of orthography came two years ago. A student said, “Last year in 4th grade we’d get a list of about 15-20 words, and you just memorized them. During word work or whatever you’d write down the words, erase them off your white board, rewrite them, and do that about 20 times. And it got really boring really quickly. But with this, you kind of, like, look up on the computer what the base is and what the prefixes are, what it means, all the words that are related to it, and there’s just multiple steps. Making it more exciting.” Did you catch that? Structured Word Inquiry has multiple steps. It takes longer. It is ultimately more work. But that is what makes it more exciting! There is an element of discovery and surprise. It is not repetitious. It is not mindless. It is engaging. It is meaningful. And the students prefer to be mentally engaged – to be active learners!