Orthography Builds Understanding … Say Good Bye to Memorizing Definitions!

Oftentimes people ask me how I choose words to investigate with the class.  The answer to that is that sometimes the words choose us.  You see, I am constantly watching to see who is understanding our discussions (no matter the topic) and who seems confused.  If the furrowed-brow look seems attached to any particular word, that’s the word we need to attend to.  In the last two weeks we looked at collaborating and transpiration.

First there’s collaborating…

As part of our science standards, I am incorporating engineering practice.  One of my favorite activities is to have the students work with a partner and build shelving for their lockers.  The challenge is to build the shelving out of recycled materials.  As we started the project, I told the students that collaborating with their partner would be very important.  By the end of the day, several students had asked what the word collaborating meant.

On Thursday I wrote the word ‘collaborating” on the board and asked students to give me a hypothesis of what the word sum might be. I got a variety of hypotheses such as:

collab + orat + ing
collabor + ating
coll + abor + at + ing
co + lab + orat + ing

I pointed out that three of the hypotheses had <ing> as a suffix.  “Can <ing> be a suffix”, I asked?  They named  words like jumping, walking, and talking.

Next I asked how we would spell the word if we removed the <ing> suffix. Many knew it would be ‘collaborate’. Realizing that collaborate is spelled with a final non-syllabic <e>, we knew we had evidence that there would be an <e> in our word sum after the <at>. I confirmed that the <ate> and the <ing> were suffixes. We thought of celebrate /celebrating, educate / educating, elevate / elevating.

Since no one recognized a prefix, I told them that there was one in this word. It is an assimilated form of the <com> prefix having a sense of “with, together”. They spotted <col>. We talked about the assimilation of the <m> to an <l> in this word and how much easier the word was to pronounce this way. (We had previously talked about the <suf> in suffix being an assimilated prefix from <sub>. When you say ‘subfix’ five times, you automatically smooth it out and say ‘suffix’. The <b> assimilates to an <f>. The same is happening with <com> to <col>.)

Then we thought of words with a <col> prefix like collect, collide, and collision. We noticed that the element following the <col> prefix began with an <l> in each word.

Finally, looking at the word sum we now had, <col + labor + ate/ + ing>, the students recognized that the base element of this word is <labor>. They knew that meant work. Now they knew this word meant ‘working together or with someone’. We consulted an etymological dictionary to see whether we could find evidence to further analyze <labor>, but we could not.  This free base was first attested in the 13th century as a noun meaning “a task, a project”.  It is from Latin labor “toil, exertion; hardship, pain, fatigue; a work, a product of labor”.  That is indeed our base element. We marked the points of primary and secondary stress in the word, and pronounced it as /kəˈlæbəˌɹeɪtɪŋ/.

Related words we spotted while reading through the etymological entry of labor are:

labor, laboring, labored, laboratory, laborious, laboriously, laborer, belabor, elaborate, elaboration, elaborately, collaborate, collaborative, collaboratively, collaborator, collaboration

We found out something quite interesting about the related word collaborate.  It was first attested in 1871 and is a back-formation from collaborator.  Calling it a back-formation just means that the word collaborator was around first (1802).  When the agent suffix <-or> was removed, the word collaborate was formed. At Etymonline, it states that the words collaborator and collaboration were given a bad sense in World War II (1940) when they were used to mean “traitorious cooperation with an occupying enemy”.  People who sympathized with the Nazis were considered collaborators.

We also talked about elaborate.  The <e> is a clip of the prifix <ex> and has a sense of “out”.  So if something is elaborate, it has been worked out in great detail.  Cool, huh?

Here are a few pictures of the students collaborating on a design and the construction of their shelves.


And now this…

Last week, as we were rehearsing our Photosynthesis Follies (performed this week for the students in our school), I noticed that the students were saying the word transportation instead of transpiration.  It was at that point in the play in which the chloroplast was explaining to the sunlight how it is that water travels up in a plant.  Sunlight questioned the very idea that water could travel upward.  After all, gravity doesn’t work that way!  The chloroplast explained that in a plant or even in a tree, the water is kind of sucked up, the way soda is sucked up through a straw.  The movement of the water from the roots up through the xylem to the cells and then out through the stomata (openings on the underside of the leaf) is known as transpiration.

So I wrote the word transpiration on the board, and asked for some hypotheses about its word sum.

transpir + ation
trans + pirat + ion
tran + spi +rat + ion

Again, we started with the <ion> because two people pointed out it was a suffix.  In the case of collaboration, we knew that if we removed the <ion> suffix, we would have collaborate.  But here we were not so sure that transpirate was a word.  Someone offered to look in a dictionary.  They reported back that transpirate and transpirated were there, listed with transpire.  They all had a sense of giving off water vapor through the stomata.

Next we looked at the beginning of the word.  Could <tran> or <trans> be a prefix?  Can we think of other words that begin that way?  The students thought of transportation (the word that was getting confused with transpiration), transformer, and transition ( I use this word throughout the day when we switch from one subject to another).  We looked at Etymonline for more information about whether or not the <s> was part of this, and also to determine whether this was a prefix or a base.

We found out that <trans> is the full form of the prefix.  It was once a Latin preposition with a sense of “across, beyond, over”.  Many Latin prepositions became Modern English prefixes.  When looking up the word transpire, we saw that its Modern English base comes from the Latin infinitive spirare meaning “breathe”.  So our word sum started to look like this:

<trans + spire/ + ate + ion –>  transpiration

The next question that arose was about the final <s> of our prefix joining with the initial <s> of our base.  We KNOW there aren’t two <s>’s in this word.  What’s up with that?  We went back to find other words with the <trans> prefix that had a base element with an initial <s>.

We found transcribe (<tran(s) + scribe –> transcribe>) and transect (<tran(s) + sect –> transect>).  We noticed that the final <s> in <trans> didn’t seem to be needed  when the base element began with an <s>.  We also noticed that it was needed in words like transportation (<trans + port + ate/ + ion –> transportation>) and transfer (<trans + fer –> transfer>).

Now that we were feeling good about our word sum for transpiration, we thought of other words with the Latinate base <spire> “breathe”.

I wrote respiration on the board and asked for a word sum.  Someone easily announced it.  We spent the final few moments of class talking about how these words related to each other in meaning.  We already had talked about transpiration and how it was the movement of water through a plant.  I compared it to perspiration.  My students did not know the word, but they knew its synonym, sweat!

Image result          Image result for perspiration


Then we compared respiration in a human or animal to a spiracle in a caterpillar or in some sharks (breathing hole).

Image result for spiracle  Image result for spiracle

Next we talked about the structure of <expire> and its prefix <ex>, which has a sense of “out”.  So when something expires, it breathes out its last breathe.  That led to a discussion of the expiration dates we see on foods.  The foods aren’t breathing the way living things are, but they are definitely done as far as being safely eaten is concerned!  The next question that needed to be asked about this word was, “What happened to the <s> in the base element <spire>?

Right away someone said that when we pronounce the <x>, it kind of ends with a /s/!  Brilliant noticing!  Then we tried to pronounce this word with both an <x> and an <s> side by side.  Because we pronounce the <x> as /ks/, the <s> in <spire>has been deleted to make the word easier to pronounce.  This is called elision.  We pronounce this word as /ɛkˈspaɪɹ/.

We didn’t have much time to talk about inspiration and spirit.  I put them on our Wonder Wall so we wouldn’t forget about them.  I don’t want to rush through that discussion!

Here are a few pictures of the students in The Photosynthesis Follies!  A total of 66 students divided into 9 different casts, each performing twice over the course of two days.  We KNOW Photosynthesis now!

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13 thoughts on “Orthography Builds Understanding … Say Good Bye to Memorizing Definitions!

  1. So much to learn from this post…… and I’m really glad to know how xylophone was named, it sure does take the mystery out of this spelling! I wonder about it though and will investigate a bit more: I’ve understood the base ‘phone’ to be a sound that had to do with the voice in some way, not just any sound. I wonder if my understanding needs refining or not and if not, then I wonder how an instrument that does not use the voice, air, etc. from the vocal tract was made using this base.

    Lucky 5th graders in your class, that’s for sure!

    • I agree that use of the word ‘phone’ has been tied to the voice or the voice making sounds rather than a sound on its own, such as the sound of clapping. After reading your comment I went to Liddell & Scott to look at this word closer.

      The entry is spelled as φωνέω and denotation #1 is “to produce an articulate sound or tone: of men, to speak loud or clearly to call out, cry, pronounce”.

      Denotation #2 is “of animals, to cry”.

      Denotation #3 is “to sound: of a musical instrument, so sound sweetly.”

      A xylophone certainly fits #3! This also clarifies that we were right in thinking that sounds like clapping or thudding are not what this base refers to!

      Thanks for the opportunity to learn more! Thank you, Lisa!

  2. So, I also had never heard of a ‘spiracle.’ Today, when looking for a reading selection to read with students I came across a Newsela article titled “How insects breathe” and there in the text are the words ‘spiracle’ and ‘spiracles.’ Insects have spiracles all over their bodies!

  3. Once again, Mary Beth you and your students inspire. There is so much in here to learn from. I’m off to share it with the teachers from my recent 2-day workshop in Lausanne, Switzerland. It’s exactly the kind of integration of subject area and orthographic investigation that they need to see modelled. Please tip my hat to your students and thank them for helping to teach so many teachers — once again!

    • Thank you Pete! Orthographic investigation is so much more interesting than memorizing a list of terms. And to quote a student from last year, ” With orthography, you remember the word in a way … that you remember the word for life!”

      Science is fun when the learning is solid because the terminology makes sense. Orthography helps us understand the proper terms used in science!

  4. As always Mary Beth – inspiring! I love how you have taken the students’ hypotheses and then worked through these with them, gathering evidence, refining your thinking word by word, element by proven element. I also love that the words that you have chosen to investigate have come from the focus of your inquiry and from a miscue but one so central to their deeper understanding of these concepts. Knowing the root of conspirator and conspiracy always helps me understand even more deeply these words – I see plotting and scheming as people huddle ‘breathing’ together!! And how appropriate to study these bases to understand the negative ‘collaborator’ and ‘conspirator’ – not related but synonymous!! Incorporating orthographic inquiry and then sharing the understanding of the concepts through drama is so powerful.

    • Thank you Ann! I shared today the idea of collaborators and conspirators. As you can imagine it was the beginning of a discussion that needs to be continued. I definitely want to spend more time with the base ‘spire’.

      I remember watching a film on one of your posts in which the students played a game. They were given three words and had to find the base element and share how each of the words shared the denotation of the base. I believe ‘spire’ was one of those bases!

  5. Thank you for another inspiring post! I just ran across the word ‘xylem’ as a Word of the Day and was happy to see this in your post. Your classroom word studies and so many other activities you share here are planting deep roots for the scholars in your classes.

    • Thank you Laure! The word xylem has a denotation of “wood”. Not only does the xylem carry the water to parts of the plant that need it, but the tube itself gives the plant support as it grows tall. We were talking today about animals chewing the bark of trees and how they end up destroying many of the xylem in that plant. If too many are compromised, the plant will die.

    • Thank you Gail! I find it fascinating that spiracles are not only found on small insects but also on large whales! When found on a vertebrate, the spiracles are located in the head. When found on an invertebrate, the spiracles are found on the abdomen or thorax.

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