Prose and Cons

Not too long ago I asked my students what they do when they are unsure of how to spell a word.  I wanted to know how many strategies they had been taught that might help them.  Here is what they told me.

  1.  Sound it out.
  2.  Make up a rhyme or song to help remember how to spell words that aren’t spelled the way they sound.
  3.  Ask someone to tell you how to spell the word.
  4.  Spell it some kind of way and then don’t use it after that.
  5.  If someone suggests that you look in a dictionary, groan loudly because you know you will spend a lot of time at the dictionary and never find the word anyway because you don’t know how to spell it.

We haven’t equipped them very well, have we?  I was recently having a discussion with someone who teaches children who are just beginning to learn to read.  She told me that “sound it out” is a strategy for reading, not for spelling.  Hmmm.  When are the children ever told that?  When are the people who teach the children ever told that?  What are children offered instead?  If it is recognized by both adults and children that “sound it out” isn’t reliable, what else are we teaching in its place?

This is an important question to ask.  I need to know how well equipped they are for what I will be asking them to do all year — which is to write with minimal spelling errors.   Those students with remarkable memories smile, feeling quite confident that they are pretty good at spelling.  Those who can’t seem to remember the order of the letters in a word (even when they’ve written and rewritten the word twenty times), feel the opposite.  They feel frustrated and dumb.  It’s not uncommon to find out that those students started hating writing long before now – especially if they can’t read their own writing!  I have a student currently who hates to go back and fix up his spelling so much that he insists on getting the right spelling for each word as he writes each sentence.  As you can imagine, his ideas don’t flow very well in his writing.  His mind is on spelling more than it is on the ideas he is trying to express.  He has entered 5th grade absolutely hating writing because of spelling.

It pleases me to no end that I can offer my students real help.  This is the year that they will learn a strategy that will actually help them understand spelling. And when they understand a spelling, there is a larger likelihood that they will remember the spelling of the word.  They will learn how to spell words and not remember working at it to do so!  Sounds hard to believe, doesn’t it?  Listen to these two students.

The first student clearly expresses that learning to spell a word and then having to attach meaning to it is completely different than learning to spell a word based on that word’s structure and the denotation of its base(s).  Her second grade memories illustrate the two things as separate activities.  By studying orthography and noting the sense and meaning that is inherent in the base(s), she understands the spelling of the word AND its meaning, realizing that the meaning is represented in the spelling.  Learning the word’s structure and meaning, and then noting the connections of the word’s base(s) to other words that share that base, is a revelation to anyone who has wondered about the English spelling system.  It is as powerful for adults in remembering a word’s spelling and meaning as it is for children.

The second student in the video clearly expresses how effortless remembering the spelling of a word can feel.  Notice that I did not say “memorizing a spelling.”  That is what students do prior to coming to my classroom.  It happens when teachers don’t have an understanding themselves, yet need the students to spell words accurately.  I’m pretty sure that a large number of you (I’m including myself in that group) grew up memorizing spelling without any further understanding of that spelling.  You can’t imagine what more there is to learn until you actually engage in investigating a word for yourself.  The second student in this video has found this type of looking at words to be so helpful!  As she says at the end, she learned how to spell the words she investigated and she didn’t even know she was!  Every year my students tell me they know they are better at spelling than they were at the beginning of the year.  If they feel empowered, isn’t that what it’s all about?

This next video features a student who has never struggled with memorizing the spelling of words.  So how does studying orthography benefit her?

Even when our goal of having students know the spelling and meaning of a word is met, there is much we have left out!  Here is a student that can easily memorize both the spelling and meaning of words she encounters.  But even she recognizes that by studying orthography she is engaging in the learning in a way that she has not been asked to do before.  “Here’s a list of words.  Memorize them and then write out definitions.”  Sound familiar?

I find that students are engaged in the word inquiries we conduct because they are leading the investigations.  They are not being asked to regurgitate information that I collected for them about words.  They are not matching definitions I wrote to words that I want them to know.  They are creating hypotheses about a word’s structure.  Then they are using resources (authentic, reliable, and not necessarily made for kids) to understand the information for themselves.  Yes, I need to guide them in their use of those resources at first.  But it doesn’t take long before they are independently finding out the story and word sum of a word.  And in the course of doing so, they are understanding and learning its spelling.

Recently I saw a post from Haggard’s Hawk .  (Click on the name to visit the Home Page.  Haggard’s Hawk posts things on Facebook, Instagram, blog, and Twitter.  I saw this on Twitter.)  I find Haggard’s Hawk to be a fascinating source of word etymology.  Paul Anthony Jones has written eight books that you can also check out at the link I have provided.  So here is a screen shot of the post I saw:

My point in sharing this post is that until I looked at the etymology, I thought of the words <bereavement>, <bereaved>, and <bereft> as meaning someone is feeling sad because a loved one died.  Adding the sense of “plunder” and “rob” amplifies (in a way) what bereavement means.  My mother passed away several years ago now. Describing my bereavement as the feeling one has when being robbed of something is so much more accurate than describing what I was feeling as “sad.”  Sad is used generically for hundreds of situations that happen every day.  Being robbed of someone has that sense of unexpectedness and outrage (in a way).  It truly feels as if I was robbed of having my mother in my life.  My life has not been destroyed because she died, but I do feel a sense of my life having been plundered by it.  I’ve had to try to put things back that were set askew.  But something big will always be missing.  And there’s that sense of having experienced being robbed.

Do you see how looking specifically at a word’s base element and its denotation can bring depth to a word?  Having spent seven years learning about words with students, I am only more excited each and every day.  I will never know the story of every word, but I will always be delighted to know one more.  In the classroom, it is like the student in the video says, “Mrs. Steven learns it along with us.  She just doesn’t have all the answers, and that’s really fun.”

So let’s get to the nitty gritty of this post.  I teach my students to identify the structure of a word.  I teach them that words are made up of a string of morphemes.  Each morpheme contributes to the meaning of the entire word.  The morpheme that carries the main sense and meaning of the word is the base element.  A word that has more than one base element is a compound word.  Most people understand this.  The part they might not understand is that not all bases are free bases.  What I mean by that is that not all bases can be words on their own.  A base like <hope> is a free base because it is a recognizable word on its own.  We could add a suffix, but we don’t have to in order for it to be a word.  A base like <fer>, however, is a bound base.  We never see it as a word on its own.  We see it when it is paired up with affixes.  You’ll no doubt recognize it in <offer>, <different>, and <conifer>.  It has a denotation of “carry.”  If I was guiding an investigation of <fer>, I would definitely encourage my students to find related words as I have done here.  Then I would ask them to tell me how that sense of “carry” is there in the word.  Sometimes it is a strong sense in the modern word, and sometimes it is faint.  But it is always there.  Check out this student’s enjoyment of learning about these connections.

This is another example of a student who didn’t necessarily struggle with memorizing spelling words.  Yet here she is, excited to really understand that words have a structure and a history, and that by using the sense and meaning denoted in the base along with the sense that affixes contribute, she can understand the meaning represented in the word’s spelling!  This is her “Eureka” moment and she looks forward to making the same comparisons and connections with each word she investigates!

In order to strengthen each student’s ability to create a logical hypothesis, we do the following.  I write a word on the board and ask the students to think about it for a minute.  Then I ask for volunteers to write a word sum hypothesis on the board beneath it.  Here is an example:

As each hypothesis is added to the list, I will point out certain things we are seeing.  With these three hypotheses, I noticed that all three have identified <ex-> as a prefix.  I will now ask students to brainstorm other words that seem to have an <ex-> prefix.  When students have collectively thought of three or more, then we decide that identifying <ex-> as a prefix is a logical idea seeing as we know it to be a prefix in other words.

Next I would point to what has been identified as suffixes.  In two of the words <ion> has been suggested and in one word <sion> has been suggested.  Now I ask the students what they think of those two suggestions.  Can they think of other words that have either an <ion> or <sion> suffix?  Since we recently took part in an activity in which students were focused on finding certain suffixes, a few of the students recognized that <-ion> is a suffix in <adoption> and in <action>.  We thought of <expression>, but realized that even here, the suffix would have to be <ion> since the <s> before the <ion> in that word is part of the stem <express>.

That left us to consider whether the first or second hypothesis was more likely based on what we knew.  No one was familiar with <pl> or <os> as morphemes on their own, but that doesn’t mean that neither of them is  or isn’t a morpheme.  Next we brainstormed words related to <explosion>.  The students thought of:


Our related words list gave us evidence that the <ex> was a prefix because we could see that it could be replaced with an <im> prefix.  We also saw the evidence that <ion> was a suffix because it could be replaced with <ive>.  We were pretty sure that the base in this word was <plose>.  A look at Etymonline revealed that this word’s furthest back relative was <plodere>.  When I see that final ‘ere‘ on a Latin ancestor, I recognize that this was a Latin verb and the ‘ere‘ was an infinitive suffix. When removed, it reveals the stem that came into modern English as a base element.  You have probably already noticed, however, that when we remove the ‘ere‘ we are left with <plode> and not <plose>.  These are alternant spellings of the same Latin verb meaning “drive out with clapping.”  You see, this verb was originally used in the theater.  I bet you can imagine an audience exploding with applause.  By the way, <applause> and <applaud> are related to these.  They continued to be used in a theater sense, and <explosion> and <explode> began to be used in other situations as well.

The evidence we gathered supported the word sum <ex + plose + ion>.

Giving the students opportunities to hypothesize word sums encourages them think about many of the words they encounter in and out of school!  It is not uncommon to hear from either students or parents about word conversations that took place in the car or at the dinner table!  Here’s another example from last week.  I put the word <constantly> on the board.  Here are the word sum hypotheses the students created:

Because we had done this activity several times before, I did not begin by sharing what I noticed about these hypotheses.  Instead I asked the students what they noticed about the three word sum hypotheses.  “What do you see that you agree is a logical hypothesis for either an entire word sum or part of a word sum.”  The first person noticed that all three hypotheses suggested that <ly> was a suffix.  Other students easily thought of words with an <ly> suffix (lonely, quickly, happily).  It may have helped that we looked at a list of words with <ly> suffixes the day before.  And that may be why I chose a word with that suffix for today.  A little reinforcing is always a good thing!

Then someone noticed that two of the hypotheses had <con> as prefixes.  So we did some brainstorming again and thought of concert, construction, contract, concussion and congress.  The students weren’t sure whether <con> really was a prefix in concert and congress, but they could think of replacing the <con> with <de> in <construction> (<destruction>), removing the <con> and adding an <or> suffix to <contract> (<tractor>), and replacing the <con> with <per> in <concussion> (<percussion>).

I specifically asked what everyone thought about the second word sum – the one that read <constant + ly>.  I wanted to point out that when you absolutely cannot point to anything you recognize as a possible morpheme, then this would be a good choice.  It is far better to “under-analyze” than to “over-analyze” without evidence.  When you first start this activity with your students, you may notice that they assume that every two letters is a morpheme.  Sometimes it is obvious to me that they are breaking the word into syllables, but sometimes it’s not even that.  They just have no idea what’s what yet.  They do not recognize enough affixes or bases.  That is why I choose words that reinforce affixes we’ve already noticed.  That is also why I show them how to think logically as they are thinking through the hypothesis they intend to propose.

The last two things to consider then are the possibility of a <stant> base or an <st> base and an <ant> suffix.  My first question to the class was, “Can you think of any words with an <ant> suffix?  Can we provide evidence that it might be a suffix?”  After some thinking time someone offered up <pleasant>.  Then the words <migrant> and <pollutant> were named.  That was enough evidence that the <ant> might be a suffix.  But then that left an <st> base.  Is there such a thing?  I thought back to the moment when the student wrote this particular hypothesis on the board.  Another student kind of sniggered from his seat as if suggesting an <st> base was going too far.  It does sound improbable, doesn’t it?  We were now at the point when it was time to go to a resource.  I called up Etymonline and shared it on the Smartboard with everyone.  I searched for <constantly>.  This is what came up:

The students were so perplexed.  “What?  Why does sourball come up?”  I told them to read what they were looking at and then to raise their hand when they had an idea why this word came up in the search.  It didn’t take long at all before they saw the word <constantly> in the entry for sourball.  I then told them how glad I was that this happened.  It just shows us that when we list a word in the search bar, the program looks for that word in all the places it exists on the site!

My next question was what to do next?  How should I alter what I have in the search bar so we can keep going with our investigation?  As if in harmony, most all of the students responded with, “Take off the <ly> suffix.”

As we read through the entry together, I pointed out that this word was first attested in the late 14th century.  It is obviously a very old word.  Then I went on to say that at that time this word was used to mean “steadfast, resolute; patient, unshakable; fixed or firm in mind.”  I paused to think out loud and to model what I hope they do when they read during research.  “Is that how we still use this word?  What is something that we might describe as constant?”  After a moment of thought someone said that a noise could be described as constant.  So we talked about a dog who is constantly barking or an alarm that is constantly going off earlier than it should.  Then we thought of the 14th century sense and meaning of this word – unshakable, fixed.  We knew that we still use this word in the same way.  It was time to keep reading.

Next we noticed that this word was either from Old French and had the same spelling then as we have today, or it was from Latin constantem with a sense and meaning of “standing firm, stable, steadfast, faithful.”  As I kept reading, I saw the words “assimilated form” and pointed that out.  “Look here!  The word is from the assimilated form of com meaning ‘with, together.’  Then it says, ‘see con-‘.   What do you suppose that is evidence of?”

Again they all responded, “A <con-> prefix!”

“Now keep reading.  Do you notice how this is from an assimilated form of com + stare “to stand?”  Do you see that?  Well, let me tell you about that Latin verb.  I happen to know it is a Latin verb because I recognize the infinitive suffix on it.  You know how we have certain suffixes that we recognize as suffixes we use with verbs?  You know, like <ing> sometimes and <s> sometimes?  Well in Latin, one of the suffixes found on the verb in its infinitive form is an ‘-are.’  When we remove that suffix from this Latin verb, we see the Latin stem that came into Modern English and is now a base element.”

I wrote the Latin verb stare on the board and boxed out the infinitive suffix so the students could see what I was doing.  In this way they could also see what would be left without the Latin suffix.

There was a bit of excitement mixed in with a bit of “I don’t believe it” when they realized that the Modern English base is indeed <st> and has a denotation of “stand!”  The next step, of course, was to put together what we knew the base meant along with the sense carried by the prefix.  We had a literal sense of “stand together.”  Looking back at the way <constant> has been used in the past, several students right away spotted the words “standing firm” and “fixed.”  Again we could relate these senses to how we use the word <constant>.

It was time to draw everyone’s attention back to our three hypotheses.  It is always important to point out that there aren’t any right or wrong answers on the board.  There are only hypotheses that can be supported by evidence and hypotheses that can’t.  Nurturing that understanding builds an atmosphere in the classroom that is free of judgement.  That is huge!  In this case, there are two that we can support with evidence, and one that we can’t support with evidence.  But even the one we can’t support with evidence had some logical and evidence-supported morphemes in it!

So as we were wrapping up this activity, a student in the back row raised her hand and asked, “What about pros and cons?  Is the <con> in this same prefix, or is it a clip of something?”

The smile on my face was immediate!  What a thought provoking question!  I paused for a bit before saying, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like some time to think about this.  Maybe others in here feel the same way.  Would you please write your question over on the Wonder Wall?  We’ll look at this tomorrow.  In the meantime we can all have some time to think about it.”

When this group of students came in the next day, I started by asking how many had given this some thought.  At least eight hands went up.  I was impressed.  One student explained that she had laid in bed the night before trying to think of what <pro> and <con> might be a clip of.  Another student wondered if <pro> was a clip of proactive and that maybe <con> was a clip of conflict.  Interesting.  Someone else piped up and offered that <pro> might be a clip of proficient.

At this point, I said, “Let’s back it up a second and make sure we have a sense of what we mean when we use this phrase.  Is there another phrase that is sometimes used in place of this one?”  Students replied with:

“How about advantages and disadvantages?”
“Or pluses and minuses?”

Next we thought of a scenario in which we might make a list of pros and cons.  Examples from our discussion included deciding whether or not to get a new pet and convincing parents to start/increase an allowance.  Now I felt like we were ready to see what Etymonline had to say.  We began by looking up <con>.

Immediately it was agreed that this fit our search.  The first words “negation; in the negative; the arguments” were exactly what we thought of when we thought of the “cons” of a proposal.  As we continued to read, we were surprised to see “mainly in pro and con.”  I paused to think aloud again.  “So this use of <con> to mean something negative is mainly used in the phrase pro and con.  Interesting! And look!  It’s been around since the 1570’s!  Isn’t it surprising that this phrase is that old?”  But little did we know that the most interesting part was yet to come.   The very next words told us that <con> was indeed a clip.  It was a clip of contra “against.”

Before we used the link to find out more about <contra>, we finished reading the entry and saw the direction to compare <con> with <pro>.  We decided we would come back and do that after we looked at <contra>.

What we found at the entry for <contra> was that this is a free base with a denotation of “against; on the opposite side.”  What really caught my eye was the list of related words.  I chose three to talk about, thinking that those three might be familiar to my students.  The first was <contradict>.  I explained that the bound base was <dict> “say.”  The example I used was, “If I were to say that today was Friday and someone were to say it was Thursday, I might tell them not to contradict me.”

The second word was <controversy>.  To illustrate this, I brought up the current issue of climate change.  I told them that this is a controversial issue because some people believe it is a problem and some people have the opposite view.  They do not believe it is a problem.  Since both sides are feeling strongly, this becomes a controversial issue.

The last word we spoke about was <contrast>.  A student shared that when we point out contrasts we are pointing out differences.  Great!  But here was an opportunity I was not going to miss.  “Does anyone have a hypothesis about what the word sum for <contrast> might be?  Think about the entry we are looking at.

A student raised his hand with movements of urgency.  “<contra + st>!”  Eyes lit up everywhere.

I suggested we look at the entry for <contrast> to see if we could support this hypothesis with evidence.  Sure enough!  This word is from Latin contra “against” and Latin stare “stand.”  How cool that we found another word with an <st> base already!  It was great to be able to reinforce how I knew that the base was <st>.

It was time now to go find out about <pro>.  I took them back to the Etymonline entry for <con>.  I wanted to point out something.  Right behind the link to “Compare pro,” there was a set of parentheses with (n.2).  I asked, “What do you supposed that means?”  The silence that followed made me glad I had asked.  It is opportunities like these where I can make their individual visits to Etymonline more productive.  I asked if anyone ever noticed that sometimes a word is listed twice in a dictionary because it has two different meanings.  Many had.  That was enough to trigger some understanding that (n.2) meant that <pro> is a noun and we would be looking for the second entry.

Even with pointing out that we would be looking for the second entry, several students shouted out that <pro> was a clip of <professional>.  So we read together the second entry and realized that “a consideration or argument in favor” is the sense we use in the phrase pros and cons.   Further in the entry we found corroboration that pro and con is short for pro and contra “for and against.”  We even noted the Latin spelling (pro et contra).

I ended our discussion by sincerely thanking the student who had brought the phrase pros and cons to our attention.  What a delight to find out this information about it!  At first we wondered if <pro> was a clip of either proactive or proficient, but we found out that it wasn’t a clip at all.  Instead, <con> was a clip of <contra>.  We now understand <pro> to mean an argument in favor of something and <con> to mean an argument against something.  And yes, some may have had a sense of that before we started, but I do believe there is a difference between knowing something superficially and knowing something in a way that it didn’t before.

Within 24 hours of this discussion, three more word quandaries appeared on our Wonder Wall:

– Is influence related to influenza?
-Why is there a <u> in some spellings of <color>?
-What does “hemmed and hawed” mean?

Looks like I won’t ever have to wonder what we should talk about next!  These students are in orthographic orbit!


These Days I Skip Stones on the Lake, Not Words in the Text.

There are so many interesting articles I’ve read in my life.  So many books I’ve picked up that seemed like something I’d be curious about.  So many assigned readings that I dutifully read.  But there were words I skipped over in those articles, in those books, in those assigned readings. I knew I was doing it.  But why?  I skipped over words that looked so foreign to me that I just knew they were meant for scientist eyes only or professionals in a specific field.  I couldn’t imagine they were meant for a regular kind of reader like myself.  But I don’t skip those words anymore.  And my students don’t have to skip words like that anymore either.  We know where to look and what to look for!  We know to seek out the structure of the word and then to find out how each morpheme contributes to the meaning of the word.  We are gaining access to all sorts of words we used to skip over!  Let me illustrate what I mean.

A brown marmorated stink bug hitched a ride on my dog the other morning.  Once the stink bug was safely in our home, he jumped ship and proceeded to make its way across the floor.  My husband, a retired entomologist (do you ever really retire from this?), carefully scooped up the stink bug and called me from the other room.  After taking a close look, he handed the stink bug to me and I took it outside and set it free.  (That’s what happens at the home of this retired entomologist – all bugs venturing in from the great outdoors are returned to the great outdoors!)  While I was gone, my husband was busy online, looking for a picture and a bit of information about this bug. (That’s another thing my scientist husband does – verify his identification of any bug he comes across!)

Pentatomidae - Halyomorpha halys-001.JPG

CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s actually quite a coincidence that he found this particular stink bug.  Just a few days earlier I had been staying with a friend a few states to the east.  We were sitting on her deck when the very same kind of stink bug landed on the table.  “Those things are such a nuisance!” she said.  “They collect on the back of the house and garage and are so hard to control!”  When I mentioned this to my husband, he said that he had seen quite a few in our neighborhood as well.  Well I now knew that to be true!

So here it is.  The brown marmorated stink bug.   That is its common name.  Its scientific name is Halyomorpha halys.  As far as the rest of its scientific classification, it belongs to the Class Insecta, the Order Hemiptera, and the Family Pentatomidae.  Apparently it was accidentally brought to the U.S. from either Taiwan, Korea, China or Japan.  (It probably got here by hitching a ride the same way the one we saw today hitched a ride into the house.)  The distressing news is that this species of stink bug is invasive.  It is so adept at hitching rides, that not only is it spreading on each coast of the U.S., it is appearing in countries around the world and is therefore having a global impact!  The problem with this particular stinkbug is that it wreaks havoc on tree fruits and vegetables as they are developing.  Not only are the costs because of crop damage immense, the cost for control of this stinkbug are immense as well.  People often find the brown marmorated stink bug around their houses or outbuildings in the fall because it is looking for a place to overwinter.  If you see these bugs around your outside walls, you’ll know what they are up to!

So why am I sharing this information?  What relevance does it have to what many of us do with children every day?  Well, as I was reading this information, certain words were popping out at me – words that not long ago I would have skipped over, not recognizing their significance to my overall understanding.  Maybe my students do the same kind of skipping words.  Maybe yours do too.  Here’s something we can do to reduce that urge.  In the same way I will point out the words I might have once skipped over, we can model and encourage our students to do the following instead.


1. Underline words that you are unfamiliar with.  Think about each one.  Is there anything you DO know about this word?

Some words I would pick out of the above information would be <marmorated>, <Halyomorpha>, <Hemiptera>, <Pentatomidae>, <wreaks>, and <havoc>.  Even though I know what it means when something “wreaks havoc” on something else, I am now curious to know more about these two words.

The first one that I focused on was <marmorated>.  What is that?  If brown is an adjective here, then <marmorated> is most likely an adjective as well.  But what does it mean?  Looking in a dictionary seems a logical next step.  But these days there’s a bit of fun I like to have first.  I like to hypothesize the word’s structure.

The word <Halyomorpha> is this bug’s genus name.  But it wasn’t randomly chosen.  I know that.  When examining unfamiliar organisms, scientists refer to the classification system.  If the organism is truly one that hasn’t yet been identified and named, the scientists does so.  There are some criteria the scientist follows, so I know it is not random.  I want to understand more about the sense and meaning its morphemes contribute to the finished word.  At first glance, I’m wondering if the second base is <morph> and has to do with shape or form.

The word <Hemiptera> refers to the Order this bug belongs to (as far as its scientific classification).  I have looked at this word before.  I recognize the second base as <pter> “winged,” and the first base as <hemi> “half.”  I want to review these and remind myself what “half-winged” has to do with stink bugs.

The word <Pentatomidae> is the stink bug’s Family name (again, as far as its scientific classification).  I am immediately wondering if the <penta> is the same <penta> we see in <pentagon> and is referring to five.  I also have a suspicion about the <tome>.  If it is the same <tome> that is in <entomology>, then it has something to do with cut or section.

The word <wreaks> is a word I know the meaning of.  It has to do with “bringing about.”  I have it on my list because I’m interested in its history.

The word <havoc> is another word I know the meaning of.  It has to do with “a mess, a calamity.”  I have it on my list because it doesn’t feel like a native English word to me.  I’m curious about its origins.


2. Write a word sum hypothesis and then begin researching.  Perhaps it will be helpful to find some etymological information about it.  Perhaps looking up the word in a modern day dictionary will be helpful as it will help you know if you are on the right track as you search for the ancestor of each base.


My first thought is to hypothesize the structure of an unknown word.  By the end of the year, this first step becomes a favorite activity of my students – thinking about and making a hypothesis.  In this word, it might be logical to identify the <-ed> and <-ate> as suffixes.  When I do this, I have a better idea of how to find this word at Etymonline if the word (spelled as I found it) does not appear there.  My hypothesis would be <marmor + ate/ + ed –> marmorated>.

My next step is to look at Etymonline.  The word <marmorated> is not listed.  I remove the <-ed> suffix and search for <marmorate>.  It is not listed either.  I start typing m.a.r.m.o.r.a. … and <marmoreal> appears as a suggestion.  I search for that, thinking that this word shares my hypothesized base.  I find the entry:

I was curious about other words we use that might have this same base.  I looked at Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher, but didn’t have much luck.  I knew my next place had to be the Oxford English Dictionary.  I love that resource because it lists words that have existed but are not necessarily being used anymore.   And sure enough, there are a number of entries related to <marmor>.  The oldest (c. 1480 and now obsolete) is marmor “marble.”  The most recent (1948) is marmorealize.  It is used when something should be immortalized – as it might be with a marble statue or marble inscription.  The OED identifies this word as one used very infrequently, so it would be no surprise if you’ve never heard of it.  In fact, it is suggested that this word might have been spelled to resemble the structure of memorialized, but never caught on the way memorialized has.

I found 12 entries related to <marmor>!  Two other interesting words were marmoraceous and marmotinto.  I like marmoraceous because, well, it’s fun to say!  I can easily imagine how it could be used.  I might go tell a friend that a stone I found on the beach was marmoraceous (resembling marble).  I like marmotinto because I discovered that it was a decorative art.  It was coined in 1844 but has since become obsolete – a lost art form. “A decorative process in which sand of various colours is distributed in marbled patterns on a surface and fixed, and perhaps given a smooth finish, with gum.”  I found the pictures below at Wikimedia Commons.  If you are interested, there were a few more there as well.

"The Hermit" - Sand Painting by Benjamin Zobel.jpg
“The Hermit”(59cms by 44cms) is a Sand Painting by Benjamin Zobel(1762-1830), probably an early work by this Georgian sand artist using a mix of white lead and gum arabic to stick the sand to the baseboard – hence the blackened colours of the background. Collection: Brian Pike, sandpainter.

Picture of Balmoral castle using the marmotinto style, the art of creating pictures using coloured sand or marble dust.



Here’s something cool.  As I was looking to see if I could find what <Halyomorpha> denotes, I found an article at Bug Guide called, “Halyomorpha halys (Stal) (Heteroptera: Pentatomidae): A polyphagous plant pest from Asia newly detected in North America  by Hoebeke, E.R. and M.E. Carter. 2003. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 105: 225-237.”  What I think is particularly cool is the word phrase “polyphagus plant pest” in the article title.  The word <polyphagus> is another one of those words that is easy to skip.  But it doesn’t have to be.  The first morpheme <poly> is the Hellenic form for “many” (as opposed to  Latin <multi> “many”).  The second base <phage> has a denotation of “eat.”  We see it in the word <esophagus> “the passage that carries and eats”, <coprophagy> “eats feces,” <lotophagi> “lotus eaters,” and anthropophagous “cannibal, man-eater.”  Phew!  Not necessarily a discuss-over-dinner kind of a list, but still interesting!  To get back to the word <polyphagus> in the phrase “polyphagous plant pest,” we can see that this stink bug is a pest because it eats many kinds of plants instead of just one.  That makes it harder to control.  Understanding <polyphagous> enriches what we understand about this stink bug’s diet!

So back to my search for what <Halyomorpha> means.  This one stumped me.  I could find a lot of references to this insect genus name, but I was not able to find a source that defined it.  I still thought that the <morph> part had to do with a shape or form.  That would make sense.  But I couldn’t find <haly> or <halys> (the species name) in any dictionary.  If I googled either one, the entries took me back to information about this insect.  It was when I was at a site that listed all of the different species of the Halyomorpha that it hit me.  I noticed that different species of these stink bugs were different colors.  So I thought to myself that if the colors changed among the different species, what didn’t?  What did all of these species have in common?  That was when the word <halitosis> popped in my head.  Whoa!  Could the <hal> in <Halyomorpha> be the same <hal> we see in <halitosis> “bad breath” and be representing the ‘stink’ in stink bug?  That sure seemed logical!

I found the Latin verb halare “be fragrant, emit vapor.”  It seems so obvious.  I know that this word could be a hybrid word, meaning that the two bases are from two different languages.  In this case, <hal> is from Latin and <morph> is from Greek.  But I am nagged by the <y> that follows the <hal>.  Is it part of the base?  If it is, have I found the right base?  If it’s not, why is it there? I went to my copy of Lewis and Short to find more information about halare.  As I expected, it means to emit vapor or fragrance.  I kept looking through the lemmas, searching for <haly>.  I found <Halys>, which is the species name of this stink bug.  I was interested to know more about it as well and its relationship to the genus name Halyomorpha.  It seems that Halys was a river in Asia Minor – now known as the Kisil-Irmak.  It was also a man’s surname. The first entry for Halys wasn’t very helpful, but the second one gave me pause for thought.  Scientists name things after themselves all the time.  Perhaps this genus and species is named for the scientist who first identified and named it!  Maybe that’s why I am having such a difficult time finding information on the etymology of this word!

For now, I am willing to say that I have two hypotheses.  One is that the <hal> in Halyomorpha is from Latin halare “be fragrant, emit vapor”, and the <morph> is from Greek morphē “shape, form.”  This makes sense to me.  The other is that the <haly> in Halyomorpha is the surname of the scientist who first identified and named this insect.  This also makes sense to me.  The important thing here is that I have not closed the book on this word.  I will continue to be interested in it, knowing that there is evidence out there that I have not yet seen, and when it comes my way I will be ready for it!  In a very big way I am delighted that I did not find the evidence that supported my thinking with this word.  This kind of thing can happen.  It reminds me of what I often say to my students, “Just because I don’t know why this word is spelled the way it is, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason.  It just means I haven’t found the right evidence yet.”  There’s no need to get frustrated or to get mad at the word and call it something offensive such as “irregular or misbehaving.”  Instead, I get to keep my thinking on it open.  I get to keep it on my radar so to speak.



As I mentioned earlier, I have looked at this insect name before.  I know that <Hemiptera> literally means “half wing.”  In this situation that means that part of the wing is membranous and the other half of the wing is not – it is leathery.  The first part of this word is <hemi> and means half.  You have probably seen it in the word hemisphere, which means “half a sphere.”  The second part of this word is <pter> which means “winged.”  You have no doubt seen it in the words pterodactyl and helicopter (although you may not have recognized it in helicopter).



I found the following information at ThoughtCo.  The <penta> in this word is from Greek pente “five,” and the <tome> in this word is from Greek tomos “section.”  Cool.  Here is the evidence to support what I was first thinking about this word.  I’ve seen <penta> in words like pentagon (five angles) and pentathlon (athletic race with five events).  I remember seeing <tome> in words like entomology (because of distinct body parts, it looks like they have been “cut in” between each section) and atom, which means “not cut” (the smallest particle that cannot be cut further and still have the qualities of that element).

According to ThoughtCo., scientists disagree as to why this particular insect is classified as Pentatomidae.  Some say it is because its antennae are divided into five sections.  Others say it is because of the body shape of the insect – that it has five sections.  Looking at the stink bug, they both make sense to me!

Halyomorpha halys and Plautia stali on young fruits of Chocolate Vine (Akebia quinata (Houtt.) Decne. ), in Mount Ibuki, Maibara, Shiga prefecture, Japan.  This photograph was found at Wikimedia Commons.



According to Etymonline, the verb <wreak> is from Old English wrecan (c 725) and at that time was used to mean “avenge, drive out, punish.”  The sense of “inflict, cause damage or destruction is from 1817.  A rarely used related word is wreaker.  That, of course, is the person who does the wreaking.  Someone who is wreakful is someone who desires revenge in a situation.  Another rarely used word is wreakless.  Someone who is wreakless is unavenged or unpunished.



Once again, Etymonline reveals some fascinating information!  This word was originally part of the expression cry havoc, which meant “give the signal to pillage!”  Now if you’re like me, you want a clearer idea of what it means to pillage.  In the 14 c. it was used to mean “plunder, loot, ill-treat.”  So havoc was the signal given to the soldiers to seize the plunder.  Can’t you almost hear the cry and picture the frenzy that would follow?

After checking with the OED, I found out that the sense of pillage and plunder has slowly been replaced with the sense of “destructive devastation,” and in a weaker sense, “disorder and disarray.”


3.  Sit back and think about what you now understand better about what you were reading and also what you love about investigating words.

marmorated  –  Halyomorpha   –  Hemiptera  –  Pentatomidea  –  wreak  –  havoc

Let’s begin with what I better understand about the marmorated stink bug.  If I were to describe it, I would not hesitate to use the word marmorated, knowing that it refers to the marbled pattern on the insect.  I can picture the insect’s back having no distinct repeatable pattern, just as marble has no distinct repeatable pattern.   It belongs to the Hemiptera Order and the Pentatomidea Family.  If I know that, I also know that it has wings that are half leathery and half membranous.  I also know that this insect has five segments on its antennae and five segments on its back (which is shaped like a shield).  I know that it is a polyphagous insect, meaning that it feeds on several different kinds of plants.  That, of course, makes it harder to control.  It’s damage is widespread in a given area, and this insect is reproducing and enlarging its areas faster than we’d like.  In other words, it’s invasive.  When it is described as wreaking havoc on fruit and vegetable plants, that means that these bugs are destructive and devastate the fruit and vegetable crops.  The harvest is compromised greatly and the financial loss to the grower is huge.   It may be named (Halyomorpha Halys) because of the bad fragrance it gives off, but that is just one theory I have.  It may also be named after the scientist who first identified it.

Isn’t it amazing that when we pull a word out of context to give it a closer look, we can’t help but understand the context better?

Now let’s take a moment to think about how joyous it is that skipping words in a passage is no longer something anyone need do.  I can so clearly remember the days when students were asked to look up the words they didn’t recognize in a text.  Of course, they pretended they knew them so that they wouldn’t have to struggle to find the word in the dictionary.  “Please, Mrs. Steven, just tell me what the word means.  Don’t make me look it up!  Please!”  If I turned them down, I would find some students copying the papers of other students.  Using the dictionary was a task that wasn’t fun – especially if you couldn’t remember the spelling of the word!  But think about it.  All the students were doing was copying down some definition that didn’t make sense to them.  They copied it because they were asked to.  In many cases, they didn’t read it as they copied, and they certainly wouldn’t have understood it if they had.  This was busy work to them.  Very few learned what words meant and how to use them by doing this.

With the kind of word inquiry we do now, the students find out so much more than just a definition.  The goal is to find out the word’s structure and its story, and that is what the students find interesting.  When they are engaged and interested in the research, it is not busy work.  The dictionaries in my room have become dog-eared.  I couldn’t be happier about it.  They are used everyday by many students.  Because the students know what they are looking for and why they need it, they willingly use it as part of their research.  Imagine all the reading that is happening during this research!

Another wonderful thing that happened during this inquiry is that I couldn’t find a definitive explanation for the word <Halyomorpha>.  When teachers are beginning this work in their classrooms, it is one of the things they fear most.  “What if I can’t explain a spelling?  What if I don’t understand what’s going on with a spelling?”  When this happens, you model for your students what to do.  You find what you can and make whatever observations you can.  You make a hypothesis or two and then put it aside.  It is a far better idea to teach students to go as far as they can based on the evidence collected, than it is to allow them to make wild guesses based on their hunches.  Hunches and skipping words are a thing of the past.  Research, hypotheses, collecting evidence, and making observations are what leads to understanding in the present.

Yet another satisfying aspect of this work is the way you inquire into one word, but learn several others along the way.  We are always stretching our understanding and broadening the sense we have of a base element.  If I hadn’t been investigating Halyomorpha, I wouldn’t have run across polyphagous, which I was able to connect to esophagus and coprophagy.  (I once had a dog who ate her feces.  Gross!)  I also made connections to pentagon, pentathlon, entomology, and atom by looking closer at Pentatomidae.   And let’s not forget the beautiful and intriguing art pictures made with sand and marble dust!  I appreciate knowing that art form existed.  It must have taken a long time to complete one of those and to keep the grains of sand and marble dust from mixing!

Say you did this with a student.  Say they picked out some words from the text and with your guidance did what I have done here in these three steps.  When finished, you place the list of words in front of them and have the student explain the text again, including their newfound understanding of each of the words.

Then, watch them smile.

Whispered Words of Wisdom

The students were not quite seated before the whispering began.

“Ask her.”
“Yeah.  Go ahead, Ben.  Ask her.”
“I’ll ask if you don’t want to!”
“No, Ben should be the one to ask.  He’s the one who brought it up to begin with.”

As you can imagine, my interest was piqued.  I looked at Ben whose cheeks were bright red.  “Ben? Do you have a question for me?”

“Yes.  Do you think <squad> is related to <quad>?”

I hope you can picture just how big my smile was at that moment!  This was the first orthographic question of the year that was inspired by something happening outside of our classroom!  I was delighted, and I hoped my smile conveyed that!  “What a great question!  Tell me more.  What were you talking about when this question came up?”

Ben began by explaining that in math  class they were discussing polygons.  Specifically they were talking about shape families.  When they got to quadrilaterals, the teacher asked if students knew any other words with <quad>.  As students named words, it was the consensus that words with <quad> have something to do with “four.”  When Ben asked whether or not <squad> was related to <quad>, the teacher suggested they bring that question to me.  Perfect!

The first thing we did was to recreate the list of words the students had thought of earlier in math.  They included:


Then I asked, what is the spelling they have in common?  What specific string of letters do you see in each and every word?

The first response was <quad> (no doubt because that was what they had been talking about earlier).  I asked them to look again and more carefully.  That was when several hands shot up at once.  “I see q-u-a-d-r!”

Great!  Now I underlined the <quadr> in each word so we could look at the rest of each word.


Before I could even ask a question about this word, a student raised their hand to say, “The <i> could be a connecting vowel!”  Awesome!  I didn’t expect that, but it is true!  It could be!  Next I asked if anyone recognized any suffixes.  Someone called out <er> and <al>.  Great!  Those might indeed be suffixes.  They often are.  (Notice that instead of saying, “You’re right,” or “Sorry, you’re wrong,” I’m using words like “might” and “could.”  At this point we are doing some out-loud thinking about this word.  We will consult a resource when we have had a chance to think through our observations.)

At this point I asked if anyone knew what <lateral> meant.  No one did.  So I said, “What if I told you that a fish has lateral fins?  Does that help?”
There was a moment of hesitation as students mulled over this idea.  Then someone said, “Side fins?”
“Yes!  Do those of you who love to play football know what a lateral throw is?”
“Yes. It’s when you throw the ball in a backwards or sideways direction.”
“Right.  So we’re seeing a sense of “side” in both when we refer to a lateral fin and a lateral football throw.  So now tell me what a quadrilateral is.”

Several students at once responded with, “Four sides.”


Right away I wanted someone to tell me what quadruplets were.  Everyone seemed to know that it was when four babies were born in a single birth.  None of us knew much about the <uplet> part, but had heard it as part of <triplet>, <quintuplet>, <sextuplet>, <septuplet>, and <octuplet>.


Having identified the base as <quadr> made the rest of this word recognizable.  I could just ask, “What is a quadrangle?”  And several students replied that it was a shape with four angles.  Instead of quickly moving on, I wondered aloud whether a quadrangle and a quadrilateral could refer to the same shape.  Hmmm.  After a bit of thought, the students agreed that a shape with four angles would also have four sides, and a shape with four sides would also have four angles.


The students quickly named <million>, <billion> and <trillion> when thinking of the second part of this word.  I went on to name <quintillion>, <sextillion>, <septillion>, <octillion>, <nonillion>, <decillion>, <undecillion>, and <dodecillion>.  (I love knowing this list because I can see the same <sept> in <septillion> as I do in <September>, the same <oct> as in <October>, and the same <dec> as in <December>.)


The students weren’t as familiar with the use of this word.  I explained that if an area were to be split into four areas, one of the areas would be called a quadrant.


At this point a boy raised his hand and stated, “I don’t think <squad> fits with these.  None of these words begins with an <s>.”
I loved knowing that the original question sat in his head as we were discussing all the words with <quadr>.  I replied by saying, “You might be right, Sam.  But then again, we can often be surprised by what we find.  I don’t know the answer, but it’s almost time to look.”

But there was still something the students were wondering about.  “Isn’t quad a word all by itself?”
“Yes.  I think you’re right.  I wonder if it isn’t a clip of one of the words we’ve looked at.”

Then I went on to explain that there are other words that had been clipped from a longer version – words like auto from automobile and flu from influenza.  This was the perfect time to go over to my desk and pull up Etymonline on the Smartboard.  I looked up <quad>.  The entry was very interesting.  It seems that <quad> has been a shortening (or clip) of several longer words over the years.  In 1820 it was a shortening of <quadrangle>, which at the time referred to a building on a college campus.  In 1880 it was a shortening of <quadrat>.  In 1896 it was a shortening of <quadruplet>.  We were all fascinated to read that a quadruplet originally referred to a bicycle for four riders!  It was only later on that it referred to four young at a single birth.  Lastly, <quad> was a shortening of <quadraphonic> in 1970.  I remember my older brother talking about wanting quad speakers to go with his stereo!  One of the students brought up one other more recent use of <quad> as a clip.  They mentioned quads as in  leg muscles.  We decided that in that sense, <quad> must be a clip of <quadriceps>.  This is an example of a word that needs to be in a context in order for us to know what it is referring to.

Once we had looked at <quad>, it was time to look at <squad>.  This was really fascinating!  In 1640, this word was used to mean a small number of military men.”  That was a familiar use of the word for everyone.  It is kind of what we were expecting.  As we read on, we noticed this word had been in French as esquade, Middle French as escadre, and Spanish as escuadra or Italian squadra where it meant literally “square.”  Notice how the spelling in French, Middle French and Spanish began with <es> and the Italian spelling began with <s>.  The next interesting information was this word was from Vulgar Latin (the Latin spoke by the everyday people) and possibly spelled (not for sure – notice the asterisk next to the spelling) *exquadra meaning “to square” from Latin ex “out” and quadrare “make square.”  Ben, the boy who originally asked the question noticed the connection between a square and four right away.  Another student pointed out the <quadr> spelling in the Latin word quadrare.

All in all, this glorious discussion took about 25 minutes.  I enjoyed identifying what we knew already, and what things we could relate to other things without running immediately to a resource.  There is such value in recognizing the connections one already knows.  This is how the students will strengthen their confidence in their ability to connect one word to another.

What an opportunity to point out that both<quadr> and <squad> began in Latin, but had different journeys into Modern English.  Both were used in French, but <squad> was also used in either Spanish or Italian and that different journey has been reflected in their spellings.  It turns out that they ARE related!  They are related etymologically, but because they do not share spelling, they are not morphologically related.

Now isn’t that something worth whispering about?