Doctiloquently speaking …

Lately, the use of the title ‘doctor’ has come into question.  The wife of our newly elected President has the title of Dr. Biden, and yet she holds no medical license.  She has been accused of using the title to give herself fake importance.  Is it fake though?  Where does this practice of granting people this title come from?  What does it take to be a doctor?  Can anyone be one?  As usual, we need to look into the story of this word.  How long has it been in use?  Has it always indicated a person with medical knowledge?  When did it refer to others with particular knowledge in their respective fields as well?

I started at Etymonline and found that the word doctor was first attested c. 1300 and spelled doctour.  At the time it was used to mean “Church father.”  Before that it was used in Old French where it came directly from Medieval Latin doctor meaning “religious teacher, advisor, scholar.”  In Classical Latin it was used to mean “teacher.”

So far the only tie to a specific area of knowledge is that of religion.  I went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and found examples of this word in use.  In the late 1300’s saints were known as doctors.  In one example, a saint was known as a doctor of truth.  In an example from the mid-1500’s, Christ Jesus was referred to as the heavenly doctor.  And in the mid-1600’s a person was referred to as a doctor of divinity, while another a doctor of theology.

Around this same time, the sense of this word broadened to include other areas beyond religion.  Notice this definition listed at Etymonline.

Look at that!  Since the late 14th century, we as a society have been referring to people who hold the highest degree in a university as doctor.  I looked back at the OED to verify this with actual examples and found that in the late 1600’s there was a person given the title of “Doctor of Music.”  An excerpt from roughly a hundred years later mentions someone being named a “Doctor of Laws.”  But as I continue to scroll through the entry, I find that people were called doctors of law as early as 1377!  The noun ‘doctorate’ as in the degree of learning earned is from the 1670’s.  This is not new, and it is not a fake title!

In the same way that the title of ‘doctor’ was given to someone with extensive learning in law or music, it was also given to someone with extensive learning in the medical field, although according to Etymonline it did not become popular until the late 16th century.  The term “medical professional” replaced the term “leech.”  How about that!  Here is the Etymonline entry.

It is interesting to look at the possible roots of this word and see that they include things like “enchanter, one who speaks magic words, healer, physician, charmer, exorcist, one who counsels, and conjurer.”   This speaks to the attitudes and perceptions regarding medicine as the field grew, doesn’t it?  It may be difficult to separate the idea of a leech being a physician from the idea of a leech being a bloodsucking aquatic worm, but according to Etymonline they were indeed two separate words with distinctive uses.  One (worm) became assimilated to the other (physician) by way of folk etymology.  (Folk etymology is a popular but mistaken account of the origin of a word or phrase.)  Here are some interesting compound words I found at the OED.

Leech-fee …  a physician’s fee
Leech-house … a hospital
Leechman … a physician
Leech-finger … what we typically refer to as our ring finger.  Old English spelling was læcefinger.  It was translated from Latin digitus medicus which was in turn transcribed from Greek δακτυλος ιατρικος.  It was called that because it was believed that this finger had a vein that stretched to the heart.

Apparently this term narrowed in its use to refer only to veterinary practices until the 17th century when it slowly became archaic.  What a great example of how the people who speak the language determining by their use of words which ones stay and which ones fall out of use!  If you are wondering where the connection is between physicians and the use of leeches as a medicinal practice, that wasn’t attested until 1802.  In my own mind, I thought it was earlier than that, but I’m probably thinking of the related practice of bloodletting which happened much earlier.

If we renew our focus on the word ‘doctor’, and note its root of docere “to know, teach, cause to know,” we’ll recognize the following related words.

doctor – a person who holds a doctorate.
doctorate – the highest degree awarded by a graduate school or other approved educational organization.
doctoral – relating to achieving a doctorate.
doctiloquent – this word is rare but one I enjoy.  It describes one who speaks learnedly.

doctrine – beliefs held and taught by a church, political party or other group.
indoctrinate – teach someone to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.
doctrinaire – someone who seeks to impose a doctrine without regard to practical considerations.
doctress – female doctor.  Becoming less common as woman-doctor becomes more common.

docile – ready to accept control or instruction; submissive.
docility – this word began as “readiness or aptness to learn”, but since the 1600’s has meant “submissiveness to management.”
docent – a person who acts as a guide in a museum, art gallery, or zoo.
document – written work that provides information or evidence that serves as an official record.

Back to where this started …

Dr. Biden holds two masters degrees and a doctorate in educational leadership.  Since the late 14th century, that kind of commitment to learning has earned a person the title of  ‘doctor’.  Granted, it probably didn’t include women back then, but we’re past that part, aren’t we?  It can take between four and six years to complete a doctorate.  That is in addition to the time it takes to get a masters.  Many countries require a masters before one can study for a doctorate.  The U.S. has been changing that requirement in recent years, but you can see that Dr. Biden earned two masters degrees before earning her doctorate.

Instead of choosing one doctorate program (medical)  as important and all others as fake or undeserving of the title that goes along with that level of time commitment to learning, I say we encourage more people to seek that title.  Our society needs experts in all areas!  Our society needs more people committed to learning which in turn will benefit all of us!



“I’ll retire to Bedlam”

Our school year has ended.  Nobody is going to deny the unusual circumstances that we were all thrown into during the last ten weeks of our school year!  In fact I can never remember a single situation affecting schooling worldwide like this pandemic has!  Teachers and students the world over scrambled for weeks trying to see if any teaching style could match the face to face teaching/learning we are all so used to.  But that burden is done for my school district.  Our school year is over.  Our rooms are ready for summer cleaning, and our fifth grade students are ready to move on to the middle school in the fall.  In the midst of what has not at all felt normal, those simple acts of getting our rooms ready for cleaning and our students ready for the next grade have brought us back to the routine we expect at this time of year.

But there has been one more big change in my building.  Six of my colleagues have retired.  SIX!  If you work in a large district, that probably seems like a pittance.  You probably lose many more than that to retirement each year.  But in my world, we don’t.  I have worked in the same district and at the same grade level for 26 years.  I know each of the six retirees personally.  One of them I knew as a parent when both of our children were in second grade together.  Another of them was our children’s second grade teacher.  One is married to a former pastor of my church down the street from our school.  One has been my 5th grade colleague for all of my 26 years.  Only two of the six began working at our school after me.  So you can see just how unique this retirement situation is, and how odd it will feel to begin a new school year without the personalities that have brought joy and camaraderie for so many years.

I often speak of the staff at our school as one of our strongest assets, and because these six people have been so special, I spent a lot of time thinking of what their retirement means to me.  And then (if you know me at all, you know where this is going), I began to wonder what the word ‘retirement’ means to anyone.  What is its story?  As a kid I used to think it meant that someone was tired of doing their job, so they stopped doing it.  Is it really as simple as that?

Starting at Etymonline with the word ‘retire,’ I found that this word was first attested in the 1530’s.  At that time it was something armies did.  It meant “to retreat.”  It was borrowed from the earlier Middle French word retirer “to withdraw.”  The <re-> had a sense of “back” and the <tirer> had a sense of “draw.” Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary, We get a better idea of how this word was used in French.

  • Middle French, French retirer to pull or draw (something) back (12th cent. in Old French),
  • to remove, withdraw (something from someone) (13th cent.),
  • to remove (someone from a particular place or position),
  • to free (someone from captivity),
  • to keep (something) in reserve,
  • to deter or turn (someone) aside (from a vice, etc.) (all 15th cent.),
  • also (reflexive) to withdraw, go away (end of the 14th cent.),
  • to go off to somewhere peaceful or secluded,
  • to withdraw somewhere for protection,
  • (in military context) to retreat (all 15th cent.),
  • (reflexive, of the sea) to ebb (c1500),
  • (reflexive with de ) to give up (a habit, etc.) (1508),
  • (reflexive with de ) to cease to perform or pursue (a specified activity, mode of employment, post, etc.) (1538),
  • (reflexive with de ) to cease to frequent (someone) (1553)

The OED goes on to say, “French retirer shows a number of senses not paralleled in English, especially senses related to the core meanings ‘to take back, take away, remove’. In modern French the meanings ‘to leave employment’ and ‘to withdraw (something) from service’ are usually expressed by constructions with retraite (retreat), rather than with retirer.”  Isn’t that last bit interesting?  What we in English speaking countries refer to as retiring, the French refer to as retreating.  What is extra interesting is that both of those words come to us from French!

Checking with my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, I find that ‘retreat’ is first attested (in English) in about 1300 and was a signal for a military withdrawal.  It was borrowed from Old French retret, retrait, and is from Latin retrahere “draw back.”  Since it can be traced back to Latin, it is an older word than ‘retire.’  As I mentioned above, ‘retire’ was first attested in the 1530’s.

Heading back into Etymonline, I find that it wasn’t until the 1640’s that this word was applied to a person withdrawing from an occupation.  Interesting.  Retiring from a job simply meant to withdraw from that job.  The sense and meaning hasn’t changed!  But it has broadened.  By the 1660’s, it was also used to mean “to leave company and go to bed.”  Every once in a while I come across this use in a story.  Perhaps you have too.  Someone might say, “I’m feeling tired.  I’m going to retire for the night.”  As we’ve found out earlier, as this word was associated with the military, it meant “withdraw, lead back,” but by the 1680’s it also meant “to remove from active service”.  That is a very similar sense to retire from one’s occupation, isn’t it?  The final sense listed at Etymonline is from 1874, and it is the baseball sense of “to put out.” So to retire the runner, could mean you threw the runner out at the base.

Two words that I found while making this matrix fascinated me.  The first is ‘retiracy.’  I’ve never heard of it that I can remember.  Etymonline describes it as modeled on ‘piracy’ in 1824 American English.  Sounds like humans playing around with their language again!  I can’t wait to wish my friends fun in their retiracy!

The second fascinating word on this matrix, and the only word here that does not have anything to do with leaving a job, is ‘tirade.’  When I think of a tirade, I think of a long, often angry speech, or perhaps two people bickering back and forth.  The interaction is drawn out, hence the base <tire>!

Have you noticed that so far there’s been no mention of being fatigued, exhausted, or tired?  So if the base of ‘retire’ does not have the same base we see in ‘tired,’ then what’s the story of <tired>?

tired ( #cc ) | creative commons by marfis75 Twitter: @marfi… | Flickr
credit to marfis 75 on flicker

Combining what I found in Chambers and at Etymonline, I read that before 1460, this word was spelled tyren.  It was developed from Old English tēorian at about 1000 and in Kentish tiorian before 800.  It was used to mean “to fail, cease; become weary; make weary, exhaust.”  The fact that the <tire> in ‘retirement’ and the <tire> in ‘tiresome’ come from completely different languages gives us evidence that they are not related etymologically, and most certainly won’t be related morphologically.  They are two completely different words!

Even though most people wouldn’t consider the kind of tire we see on our cars to be confused with either of these other bases, I’d still like to address it.  After all, it is another base that has this same spelling of <tire>.  If you’ve never looked up this word, you are in for a treat!

Tire - Wikipedia

This word dates back to 1485 and was used to mean a band around a wheel.  At that time it was spelled <tyre> and meant the iron rim of a carriage wheel.  What’s fascinating is that it is a shortened form of the word ‘attire.’  The prefix is an assimilated form of <ad-> “to” and the base is <tire> “equipment, dress, covering.”  According to Etymonline, “The notion is of the tire as the dressing of the wheel.”  My Chambers Dictionary gives further information indicating that the band of rubber on the rim of the wheel was first recorded in 1877.  It was first used on bicycles before being used on cars.  I’m sure the iron lengthened the life of a carriage wheel before then, but I can’t imagine what kind of a bumpy ride it provided!  And it’s obvious that improvements have been made on the rubber tire ever since!  Another fascinating thing about this word is its spelling.  When it first appeared, it was spelled <tyre>.  From the 1600’s through the 1700’s, the standard spelling was <tire>.  But then at the beginning of the 1800’s, the British revived the spelling of <tyre> which still remains standard in Britain while in the United States, the spelling remains <tire>.

While we’re on the subject of tires (as in the covering on a wheel) I found an interesting bit on the word ‘tire-iron.’  Originally this was one of the iron plates off of the older fashioned wheels and was used to pry the tire off the wheel.  The name ‘tire-iron’ caught on in 1909.  We still call the tool we use to pry a wheel off of the rim a tire-iron, and now you know why.

Before I retire this topic …

Did you recognize the title of this post?  It is a line from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  In the passage, he has just had an exchange with his nephew and is reflecting on how silly it is to celebrate Christmas when you haven’t any money.  It is the last line in the following excerpt:

“There’s another fellow,” muttered Scrooge, who overheard him:  “my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas.  I’ll retire to Bedlam.”

So now that you know more about the word ‘retire,’ you can understand that Scrooge means to withdraw from this conversation and head straight for the insane asylum in London, (St. Mary of Bethlehem Hospital, which was commonly referred to as Bedlam at the time).  He can’t understand how people with very little money can be so full of joy, while he who has more than he needs, is miserable. He sees this disconnect as him being surrounded by insanity.  His pursuit of wealth doesn’t just cloud his thinking, it blocks him from pursuing human relationships, where real happiness lies.  I find it remarkable that a look at a word I kind of had a sense about, in a passage I’ve heard many times, suddenly creates a sharper focus on the meaning of that word.  In turn, the deeper understanding of the word shines a brighter light on the overall meaning of the passage, as if being viewed from a wider lens.

Perhaps people associated retired with having something to do with being weary or fatigued, because generally the people who choose to retire are older.  As of November 2019, the most common age for retirement in the U.S. was 62.  Those people have worked at their jobs for many years and it is not a stretch to imagine they might be tired of it or tired because of it.  And that may certainly be the case for some.  But if we look at the words and understand what they mean, we can better understand how to use them!  We can get an orthographical kick out of the fact that we have three bases, all spelled exactly the same (<tire>), but deriving from three different ancestors and with three distinct meanings!  Some of those who are beginning to see the value in teaching children about morphology are still wagging about teaching them etymology. Yet here’s evidence that etymology can hold the key to an understanding that neither morphology nor pronunciation can provide on their own.  That’s why we must teach students to look at all three.

As a farewell to my colleagues I wrote up a shortened form of this post and gave it to each.  I closed with a quote from the Century Dictionary that I particularly love.

Retirement is comparative solitude, produced by retiring, voluntarily or otherwise, from contact which one has had with others.”

I think of my colleagues, my friends, as withdrawing from employment at our school and enjoying comparative solitude.  They will leave the “noise” of education behind and take with them every laugh between friends, every tender moment, and every triumphant teaching joy.  They will immerse themselves in comparative solitude.  I couldn’t wish for anything better than that!  Congratulations, my dear friends!


When You Have a Febriferous Illness, You Need a Febrifuge!
Ricard Canals (1876 – 1931)  Sick Child (Octavi, the artist’s son)  c1903

I received a scary call a few weeks ago from my daughter.  My 3 year old granddaughter had just had a seizure and her dad was with her, at home, waiting for the ambulance.  My daughter, who had called from her car, was on her way home from work and had just picked up her younger daughter from daycare when she received the call from her husband.  He had stayed home with June, who was sick with the fever and yucky feelings that had been going around her preschool.

We were all so scared.  I was immediately picturing my granddaughter and what was happening to her.  Was she scared?  How out-of-it was she?  How long did it last?  But then I thought of her parents and how scared they must have been.  It pulled at my heart to know all any of us could do was wait and see now.  I am still my daughter’s mom and number one worrywart of her emotional and physical well-being.  I have also grown to see what a truly wonderful husband and dad my son-in-law is, and I knew this had no doubt scared the liver out of him.

I’ll keep you in suspense no longer.  After five hours at the hospital, and after having ruled out that the seizure was caused by a Urinary Tract Infection or by the small skin infection she had on her finger, it was decided that she had a febrile seizure.  A febrile seizure is one caused by fever.  Children can have febrile seizures if their fever spikes unexpectedly and if this kind of seizure is present in the family history.  It turns out that this happened to their nephew as well.  They usually don’t happen after the age of 6, but because she’s had one now, she is more likely than other children to have another.  It was certainly scary!  Moving forward, we will all watch for signs of fever with vigilant eyes.

It wasn’t until a few days later and everything was calm again that I could think more about that word <febrile>, and wonder if it was related to February.  You see what happens once that dark cloak of “memorize the dictionary definition and you’ll be fine” has been lifted?  So many words catch my attention now.  This one was less common and therefore caught my attention right away.

According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, febrile is an adjective “of fever, feverish” first attested in 1651.  It was either borrowed through French fébrile, or directly  from Medieval Latin febrilis.  Earlier it was from Latin febris “a fever.”

At the Oxford English Dictionary I found this sentence from 1483, “Al that yere she was seke and laboured in the febrys.”  There were also the spellings febres from 1527 and febris from 1535.  Besides these Middle English spellings, I found other relatives.  I put them in chronological order according to their date of attestation.  The words with the asterisk are obsolete, although many of the others (as you may guess) are rarely used.

febrous – adj., as early as 1425, “affected with fever.”
*febris – n., 1483, “a fever.”
febricitant – n., adj., ?1541, “affected with fever.”
*febricitation – n., 1598, “the state of being in a fever.”
febrile – adj., 1651, “feverish.”
*febrient – adj., 1651, “feverish.”
*febricitate – v., 1656, “to be ill of a fever.”
*febriculous – adj., 1656, “slightly feverish.”
febrifugal – adj., 1663, “adapted to subdue fever.”
*febrifugous – adj., 1683, “adapted to subdue fever.”
febrifuge – adj., n., 1686, “a medicine to reduce fever.”
febrific – adj., 1710, “producing fever.”
febriculose – adj., 1727, ” slight fever.”  Also febriculosity.
febricula – n., 1746, “fever of short duration.”
febrifacient – adj., n. 1803, “fever producing.”
febricity – n., 1873, “the state of having a fever.”
febriferous – adj., 1874, “producing fever.”
febricule – n., 1887, Anglicized form of febricula “slightly feverish.”

Isn’t it something to see the variety of spellings/uses for this word over 400 years? As you read through the list, do you recognize the suffixes that signal nouns and adjectives?  I’m fascinated that in that entire list there is only one form used as a verb.  <febricitate>.  Do you notice the <ate> suffix there?  It was used as a noun first, <febricitation>.  This <ate> suffix signaling a verb but then changing the function of the word to a noun by the addition of an <ion> noun, is  something I always look at with my students.  In the following list, the verb form is first and the noun form is second.

precipitate, precipitation
illuminate, illumination
infiltrate, infiltration
hydrate, hydration
illustrate, illustration

Once I get them started, they continue the list on their own.  Once they see this for themselves, and they know the suffixing convention of replacing the single final non-syllabic <e> on an element when adding a vowel suffix, they don’t believe people who tell them that *<tion> is a suffix.  I don’t have to convince them of that fact.  The evidence that they have collected convinces them.

There’s just so much to notice about this list!  As I was putting it together and announcing the words to myself, I have to say that <febriferous> was my favorite.  I laughed at myself trying to say it even two times in a row!  Perhaps you’ll have better luck?

Other relatives that stick out to me are febrifuge, febrifugal, and febrifugous.  You’ve probably noticed the second base there, <fuge> from Latin fugare “cause to flee, put to flight, drive off, chase away.”  A febrifuge is a medicine that will drive off the fever.  I love imagining my little June’s fever being driven off by little medicine superheroes!

Interestingly enough, I came across the word <feverfew> which is from Old English feferfuge.  (Do you notice what I noticed? – that that second <f> in the Old English spelling is the unvoiced version of <v>?)  Earlier it was from Late Latin febrifugia, from Latin febris “fever” and fugare “put to flight.”  According to Etymonline, this modern English word is probably a borrowing from Anglo-French.  According to information at Wikipedia, feverfew was used as a traditional herbal medicine, but is no longer considered useful for reducing a fever.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
By Vsion (2005).  Photo via Wikipedia public domain.

Getting back to the word <febrifuge> and the second base in that word <fuge>, I pondered that sense and meaning of “cause to flee, drive off, chase away,” and it made sense to me that this must be the same <fuge> that I see in <fugitive>.  So I went to Etymonline and looked at <fugitive> to make sure that they shared the same ancestor.  This is what I found:

Although this seems to be a match, I noticed something about both the spelling of the Latin verb this word is from and the denotation of that verb. This word derives from Latin fugere “to flee, fly, take flight, run away, go into exile,” whereas the <fuge> in <febrifuge> comes  from Latin fugare “cause to flee, drive off, chase away.”  Do you see the difference in spelling of the Latin verb for each?  They each have a different infinitive suffix.  That means they are two separate Latin verbs!  Then I looked closely at the denotation of each and realized that the Latin verb fugare has a sense of chase away something and the Latin verb fugere is the thing that has been chased away or has taken flight! I wanted to find out related words for each so I went back to Etymonline.

First I typed fugare into the search bar.  That way I would probably find words whose ancestor is the Latin verb fugare.  I found only three entries:  feverfew, -fuge, and febrifuge.  I found something very interesting in the -fuge entry.

Look at the line following the bolded <febrifuge>.  It says, “but form from Latin fugere.” I interpret that to mean that Latin fugere existed in words earlier than Latin fugare.  I took a quick look at <fugitive> in the OED and sure enough, the word is attested in 1382, which is earlier than <febrifugal> which was attested in 1663!

It was time to look at Lewis & Short.  The infinitive form of the Latin verb is the second one out of the four.

fŭgo, fŭgare, fugāvi, fugātum
“to put to flight, drive or chase away”

fŭgĭo, fŭgere, fŭgi, fŭgĭtum
“run away”

Yep!  Two separate verbs with two separate yet related denotations.  One has become more productive than the other, hasn’t it?

There is a very thought provoking comment at the end of the post that I encourage you to look at.  It is written by someone who has studied Latin at a deeper level than I have.  She has been collecting Latin verbs, including the two I have pointed to above.  I am thinking carefully about what she has said, and I encourage you to do the same.  I know there is no rush in scholarship, so I’m not concerned that I don’t completely embrace yet what she is pointing out.  I have questions to pose before then.  This is the way scholarly learning works.  I don’t take anyone’s word for anything.  I need to understand things for myself.  I appreciate things being shown to me, but unless they make sense to me, I must keep questioning.

Now that I’ve followed that interesting path, I’d like to get back to my original question.  Is <febrile> related to <February>?  I bet that at this point you’re guessing that it is not.  If it was, wouldn’t it have shown up as a related word in the OED?  So if it isn’t related to “fever”, what is it related to?

Looking further at the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, I can add to that that this idea of purification refers to the Roman feast of purification held in February, which at that time was the last month of the ancient Roman calendar.  It was after 450 BC that it became the second month and was called solmonath by the Old English which meant mud month.

The base <febr> “fever” may have had many related words a few hundred years ago, but not that many of them are still in use today.  The word that we commonly use is <fever>.  Does that mean it’s a newer word?   Interestingly enough, it’s not.  According to Chambers, it developed from Old English (c1000) fēfer, fēfor.  It was borrowed from Latin febris “fever” and is related to fovēre “to warm, heat.”  Later on in Middle English (1393) it is spelled fievre where it was borrowed from Old French fievre, which was from Latin febris.

This word also has a lot of related words that have become obsolete.
We no longer use:

feverly – adj., 1500, “relating to fever.”
feverable – adj., 1568, “characterized by having a fever.”
feverite – n., 1800, “a person ill with fever.”

On the other hand, many related words I found at the OED are still very much in use today:

fever – n., 1000, “abnormally high body temperature.”
fever – v., early OE, “affected with abnormally high body temperature.”
fevery – adj., OE, “affected by fever, perhaps causing fever.”
fevering – adj., ?1200, “becoming feverish.”
feverous – adj., 1393, characteristic of having a fever.”
feverish – adj., 1398, “relating to fever.”
fevering – n., 1450, “a feverish state.”
fevered – adj., 1605, “showing symptoms associated with a high temperature.”
feverishness – n., 1638, “the condition of having a fever.”
feverishly – adv., 1640, “in a manner relating to a fever.”
feverless – adj., 1662, “without a fever.”
fever tree – n., 1727, “bark of certain trees used to treat fevers.”

Take a look for a moment at the above list and notice how many of those words you have used.  Then notice how old those words are.  Words amaze me every day.  There is so much to know and so many connections to make!  I can’t help but wonder about these two bases, <febr> and <fever>.  They both share the Latin root febris and the same denotation, yet the one is much more recognizable than the other.  The <febr> base is still around, but probably more well known in the medical field.   The sciences are full of words with roots in either Greek or Latin.  The <fever> base is still very much around also, and known well by the common people — by the ancestors of the common people who spoke the Old English language.

One of my very favorite things to discover are bases that look the same but aren’t.  Today I found two!  I wouldn’t have done so without the help of excellent reference materials, and without having been taught how to use those materials.  I am grateful that for now my granddaughter is feverless, but like I said earlier, her parents are vigilant.  Should she get a febriferous illness again, they are ready with a febrifuge.

Below is a picture of Cinchona pubescens.  This is an example of a fever tree.  According to Wikipedia, the bark of several species of this flowering plant yields quinine which was an effective treatment for the fevers associated with malaria up until 1944.


Credits : US Geological Survey – Photo by Forest & Kim Starr




While We’re Apart, the Orthographic Understanding Can Continue …

One of the biggest strengths of teaching students Structured Word Inquiry is the level of independence that students develop while considering a word’s spelling. We ask them to notice predictable patterns and we teach them to ask questions that they can then investigate.  We show them reliable tools to use and then slowly back away, leaving the student finding out things for themselves.  Within the span of the school year, my goal is always to prepare my students to continue to wonder about words and to have the skills, the curiosity, and the understanding needed to independently investigate.

With other more traditional teaching methods, the students expect to receive information from the teacher.  The teacher becomes the one who knows whether that information is right or wrong.  The student does not learn to trust their own understanding.  They are constantly at the teacher’s desk saying, “Is this right?”

This very attribute of Structured Word Inquiry is what quiets my chaos as I prepare lessons for my students as we go to an unexpected break.  I don’t have to write out lengthy assignment directions.  As long as I know my students can get on the internet, I can count on them using Etymonline, Word Searcher, Mini Matrix Maker, Google Docs, and Youtube.  If it is determined that I need to send work that is not dependent on the internet, they can hypothesize word sums, make some games to play with someone, and write.

Yesterday our school was added to the list of schools who will be physically closing. Like most of the other schools, the teachers have been asked to continue to offer learning opportunities to the students.  Today I sat down to do some brainstorming.  If you are in a similar situation and are looking for ways to continue having your students study words with SWI, perhaps some of these ideas will work for you.  This list is not in any particular order.  As the ideas came to me I wrote them down.

    Suggestions for At-Home Orthographic Studies

1)    One of the activities I will ask them to do is the “Word Bag“. We did this earlier this year in groups of four. Each group was handed an envelope with words in it and asked to draw a circle.  They had to cooperatively decide what fit inside the circle, and what did not.  They had to write a word sum to show they understood the structure of the words inside the circle and how they all shared a base.  They also had to write a note to explain why the words outside of the circle did not fit.  As part of at-home work, I will ask students to create their own word bag. I will use this example in explaining what I want. It shows that we use no more than 10 words and that some are there, not because they fit, but because they are similar in some way without being related in meaning or in spelling.  For so many years, my students went without the understanding that morphology brings to spelling.  This practice will be valuable!

Whether they show them to their family or save them for when we reconvene, they will spend time thinking about words and word sums! I’m thinking of inviting students to Zoom on some of those days so we could do one together.  This idea is one I first read about at Lyn Anderson’s blog, Beyond the Word.  Check it out HERE.  She was working with very young beginning readers.  If your students are kindergarten, 1st, or 2nd, I recommend you look around at Lyn’s blog.  There may be other activities that you will know how to incorporate!  I have also read about the use of this idea at Rebecca Loveless’ blog.  Check it out HERE.  It was at Rebecca’s blog that I first heard of having the students create their own word bag.  The students she was working with were also at beginning reading level. 

2)  Matching game.  Give the students sheets that they can cut apart in order to play a matching game.  It could be a continuation of what has already been studied in the classroom.
It could involve matching:
~~bases to denotations (make sure these are bases they are familiar with)
~~bases to same base with a prefix (ex.  happy to unhappy)
~~assimilated forms of a prefix to bases  (ex. <col-> to <lide>, <cor-> to <rode>)
~~bases to same base with a suffix  (ex. make to making)
~~two bases to make a compound word (ex. dog and house to make <doghouse>)
I’m sure you could add to this list.  Pick one or more and encourage the student to play with a sibling or family member.
3)  If you feel like this would be a good time to review the suffixing conventions, I have three videos featuring each one.  You could assign students to watch one and then follow it up with a list of words for which they could write synthetic word sums, and when “checking the joins”, decide if the suffixing convention would be applied or not.
***Replacing final <e>:

*** Doubling the final consonant on the base:

*** Toggling <y> to <i>:


4)  Conduct a word investigation.  Ask the student to choose a word to investigate.  Perhaps they will come across an intriguing word while reading a book, having a family discussion, completing some chores, or even playing a board game with their family.  Maybe they will come across a word that catches their attention while studying their math, social studies, or science.  I would supply them with a checklist so they collect the kind of information you want them to collect.  Here is an example of a checklist I use towards the beginning of the year.  At this point, my students know what kind of information is most handy, but without a teacher “check-in” the parents might appreciate such a checklist.

My students know that the amount of information they are able to find varies from word to word.  It might be a good idea to include links to Etymonline, Word Searcher, and Mini Matrix Maker.  For help with writing the word in IPA, my students use ToPhonetics.

They may not be able to make a poster, but they could make a booklet with regular sized paper.  They might also use either Google Slides, Power Point, Prezi, or any other creative presentation tool to share their findings.  Perhaps I will be able to offer them the opportunity to share their presentations via Zoom with me and any other interested students!

Here is an example of small group work my students did last year when they collaboratively chose a word and investigated it.  They originally created these as podcasts, but we extended them by adding images and made videos.  Perhaps you have a student who would enjoy taking it this far on their own or by involving their siblings or family!


5)  Have them google what a portmanteau word is.  Once they have a definition of one, ask them to collect some examples of portmanteau words.  There is an exceptionally long list at Wikipedia.  Ask them to read through the various collections to find the ones they find most fascinating.  Have them write the two words that became the one.  Perhaps they can also collect images or do some drawing to illustrate a few of the collected portmanteau words.

6) Have them google what an oxymoron word is.  Once they have a definition of one, ask them to collect some examples of oxymorons, in a similar manner as they did for portmanteau words.  I like to incorporate this type of learning because they see how playful our language is!


7)  There are some great Youtube videos that are student friendly.  My students love watching this Greek Alphabet song.  They almost have the Greek alphabet memorized because of it.

8)  Another great video is one by lexicographer Erin McKean.  It is a TED talk called “Go Ahead:  Make Up New Words!”  This makes such a great point about dictionaries being a reflection of the people who use them rather than an authority about how people should use words.  Again, it also brings forth the notion that we can have fun with words.

9)  The last Youtube recommendation is any of Arika Okrent‘s videos.  My students are as intrigued by the illustrator of her videos as they are with the information shared.  We often watch them twice because of that.  Here is just one example of what I mean.  Her Youtube channel is filled with videos!

10)  Now how about some creative writing!  I love to suggest story or poetry writing using a prompt that is unexpected.  My students may furrow their brow at the first mention of the topic, but what they write is always amazing!  So what if the writing was from the perspective of a prefix or maybe a bound base.  Not only would they bring out their creativity, but they would be highlighting what they understand about their chosen topic.  I have done this in the past in science.  Possible topics were producers, herbivores, carnivores, detritivores, etc.  Some spoke generally and some named a specific herbivore/carnivore, etc.  They revealed who/what they were in the last line of their poem.

Possible topics in this situation might be:

~~bound bases
~~free bases
~~connecting vowel
~~compound word
~~word sum

I’m sure you could think of other possibilities as well.  If a story is what the writing leads to instead of a poem, that’s great too.  The point is to have the opportunity to think about what each of these are and what their role is in creating words.


11)  Make a board game.  Just last week, I had a student finish a board game that he created in which he was reviewing the assimilated prefix family <sub->!  He drew out a game board on paper and cut out cards with words that had an <sub-> prefix or one of its assimilated forms.  Using a dice he explained that each person had to collect four cards to finish the game.  You went around the board as many times as needed.  If you could explain why the particular prefix was being used (perhaps why <sup-> was used instead of the default prefix <sub-> with a base like <ply>), you could keep your card.  He and a friend played it several times and they both determined it was fun!


So!  Those are some suggestions for you.  I will be assigning several of them, depending on how many days we are away from our regular learning environment.  If I think of some more, my brain will make my eyes pop open sometime around 1:00 am this morning.  That is what usually happens.   In the morning I will reconsider those middle-of-the-night thoughts and add them to this list if I think they would be helpful to you.

Who Motivates Your Learning?

When I first began teaching fifth grade, there was a teacher down the hall that I just could not respect.  It had nothing to do with her knowledge of the content, it had to do with her manner of delivery.  It didn’t matter if she was talking to children or to adults.  She was abrasive and completely unaware that humiliating a person in front of a group of people made them less apt to listen to anything else she had to say.

She had a reputation for hugging and kissing your head one minute and embarrassing you for making an error the next.  Students who forgot their homework or lunch were petrified to tell her for fear of her wrath.  I remember one incident in which a student forgot to attend a meeting in her room for a club she was leading.  She made sure this student sat in the office during an all-school field day event as a consequence.  Students who were assigned to go room to room picking up the daily attendance hated having to stop at her room.  If she had it hanging on the door, all was good.  But if you had to knock at the door to ask for it, you were publicly scolded for interrupting her teaching.  Those who were afraid to knock were also admonished for just standing there.  Yep, she had a reputation.

The first year I worked in my district, I taught for a half day and serviced students with reading needs the other half.  I remember being assigned to work with a specific student in her room.  One day early in the year, the students were working on creating a presentation.  I pulled a chair up next to the student and asked how she was organizing her ideas for the presentation.  I got a piece of paper and drew some lines in preparation for discussing a framework from which she could work.  The teacher’s voice boomed loudly across the room, “Stop helping her!  She is not to have help with this!  This is her project and I do not want you doing this for her!”  And then she smiled as if she had just passed along helpful information.  The teacher could not see what I was doing with the child, nor could she hear what I was saying.  I wasn’t doing the work for the child, but she didn’t bother to find that out before yelling across the room.  The child looked at me and instantly felt sorry.  I was so humiliated, that I left the room.  This teacher never explained anything about this project to me before class.  I was there to help this child, yet the teacher did not want me to help.  What exactly did she want me to do?   I hated going in there.  I was so glad when that year was over.

As a first year teacher, I had an opportunity to watch and learn from someone with a lot more experience than me.  But her treatment of others was so jarring and humiliating, I couldn’t appreciate and now don’t remember anything about her teaching.  However, I will never forget the looks on the faces of the children she blasted for not punctuating something or not having followed one direction or another.  You know, for having made a mistake.

I think Maya Angelou said it best:

The teacher in question didn’t think it was in anyone’s best interest to worry about a person’s feelings.  She needed to speak the “truth” and if someone didn’t take that well, that was their problem.  The facts had to be put out there, and after all, she had always been direct and bold about it.  People were supposed to accept that about her.  That’s who she was.

In imagining that a few hurt feelings were insignificant (maybe even necessary in the process of learning) or that most people she had contact with didn’t complain about her manner, she deluded herself.   People didn’t confront her because they feared the treatment everyone knew to expect from her.  People didn’t confront her because they felt powerless to productively change the situation.  Instead, people talked about her behind her back.  Instead, people sought out the children in her room who were her “targets” for the year and offered them hugs and a sympathetic ear.  I, myself, went directly to the principal before my own children were in 5th grade and requested they be in anyone’s classroom but hers.  I could not imagine to what degree her unpredictable treatment of the children limited their learning.  How can learning be fun when you are “walking on eggshells” each day, or waiting for her to spot a mistake you made? I stopped taking her seriously as a professional the first time I saw her humiliate a child.  When she humiliated me as well, I began to avoid contact with her whenever possible.  How many of those children actually enjoyed coming to school each day?  I sure didn’t.

Now let’s compare her to the most inspiring teacher I’ve ever met.  This is someone who encourages collaboration, and sees himself as a participant in the learning.  In fact, he thanks the students who gather in his classroom for challenging his understandings and giving him more to think about.  He encourages his students to get together and study without him because like I said, he does not see himself as THE ONLY ONE with knowledge.  He knows that learning happens when motivated people come together to ask questions and listen to one another.  Without him there, the students learn to learn.  They learn to share their thinking, they learn to listen and they learn to ask the questions that will steer whatever inquiry they are working on.  Of course, once the students’ inquiry has run its course, they seek the teacher out and set up a meeting to share all of their new questions!

When someone makes a mistake, he thanks the student and calls it a big fat juicy mistake that will give all who are listening an opportunity to understand something better.  Following his lead, others in the class also offer thanks to the classmate whose mistake pointed to their own misunderstanding.  If someone in the class reveals in some way that they are misunderstanding something, he uses examples and offers the clarification they need to build a more reliable foundation of the topic at hand.  And he does so in a way that does no harm to the student’s willingness to learn from him.  No one leaves his classroom feeling shame or humiliation.  No one leaves feeling uncomfortable because of how another student was made to feel.

One of the hardest and yet most amazing things I’ve learned from this teacher is not to need an immediate answer to a question.  As an educator and a lifelong student, that is not something I’ve been conditioned to do.  As a teacher, I’ve spent hours and hours thinking of the questions I’ll ask and the answers I’ll hope for.  After all, haven’t we been taught that the point of asking a question is getting an answer?  I can even note that at some point in my student life, I stopped asking the kinds of questions that were too big for immediate answers.  And then I slowed down with asking questions at all.  So here I am as a classroom teacher with 2o+ years of experience finally learning that my questions can sometimes merit a celebration!  And I’m finally learning to sit with a question and a few pieces of evidence.  Just sit.  And ponder.  And maybe even forget about it for a day or three or eight.  Further evidence will undoubtedly present itself, and at that point I’ll revisit my question and contemplate whether or not the new evidence is bringing further clarity.  If it does, great!  I’ll happily share that evidence and that question with someone.  But if it doesn’t, no sweat.  I’ll keep pondering.  In this way, the learning is truly ongoing.

How can these two teachers be so different?  Easy.  One focuses on the experience of learning and honors the human beings that ask to participate.  The other shares what she knows, but does not hold herself responsible for the effects her words have on others.  She expects faults and ignores  strengths.  One attracts people who want to learn and be respected in that process.  The other has students, but they are guarded.  They admit they are wrong before they are because they anticipate being called out for it.    They rely less on their own understanding and stay dependent on the teacher.  Even if that other 5th grade teacher had been extremely innovative or the most book-smart teacher I ever met, I wouldn’t have been able to get past her disregard for the feelings of others.  I was never able to learn from her because I lost respect for her.

Sharing a Beloved Christmas Story

I don’t remember the first time I heard A Christmas Carol.  It has just always been a part of my life.  We watched it together as a family every year.  We listened to it  on the record player when we were doing Saturday cleaning.  At some random moment, one of my brothers would throw out a line from it and we would all join in retelling the story using the words Dickens wrote.  It was fun to see how far we could go at certain sections of the story.  Our favorite sections were the exchange between Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit at the beginning, the visit from Jacob Marley, and the exchange between Scrooge and Cratchit at the end.  But there were plenty of one liners that made it into our daily life as well.  If one of us was going somewhere new and my mom asked if we knew where the place was, you might hear, “Recollect it?  Why I could walk it blindfold!”  And then there is the cherished children’s book my mom wrote, called The Five Little Fuzziwigs.  (Fezziwig was Scrooge’s first boss).  This story is truly part of who I am.  Oh, look!  A Christmas card from my childhood!

And because I grew up so familiar with the words and phrasings of Charles Dickens, I find it especially fun to read this story aloud at this time of the year.  My favorite copy is a book that belonged to one of my grandfather’s brothers.  My grandfather had 15 siblings, and my Uncle Izzy had a full collection of the writings of Charles Dickens! You can see that this book is old and well loved.

I started the story about two weeks ago and read about 20-30 minutes each day.  That included pauses to discuss the action, the rich vocabulary that might stump my listeners, and the differences between life in 1843 and 2018.  If you are at all familiar with the writing of Charles Dickens, you will wonder how fifth grade students handled the rich vocabulary.  Well, I decided not to talk specifically about every word they might not know.  Some of the words are used in such a way that they create a tone and mood, and the students could feel it as I read.  Other times when the word was being used more than once such as melancholy, countenance, and situation, we stopped for a quick definition.  In the case of “situation”, it was being used in an unfamiliar way, yet the students figured out that it referred to a person’s job.  I find it fascinating that Dickens uses so many different words to refer to a ghost, and we talked about that.  Besides ghost, he uses spectre, shade, apparition, and spirit.  As I read each day, I invited students to sketch the action or characters in the story.  Sketching was optional of course, but many enjoyed doing so.  When I was finished for the day, we reviewed the main actions, and then the students taped their sketches to the cupboard at the back of the room.

The sketches are delightful!  The students quite obviously captured the feelings of the characters.  AND the drawings of the three ghosts reflected the descriptions as Charles Dickens wrote them.  A few students recognized this story from a movie version they saw and I was wondering whether or not that would affect the way they imagined the ghosts.


It is difficult to read, but Scrooge is saying to Marley, “You were a man of business.” and Marley is saying to Scrooge, “No!  You will be visited at 1:00!”  I love the fact that this student recognized that they would be on the second floor of Scrooges home and that there would be a knocker on the front door!  Such cool details!

The Ghost of Christmas Past is described by Dickens as having summer flowers trimming its tunic.  It is also described as being able to change, similar to the Cheshire Cat does in Alice in Wonderland.  “For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness:  being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away.  And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.”  Several of the sketches reflect these things in clever ways!

The next set of sketches is from one of the memories shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Past.  It is where Ebenezer and his fiance are breaking it off.  She recognizes that he loves money and earning it more than he loves her.  Look for the “money eye” in the second picture!

The last set is of the Ghost of Christmas Present.

By day 4 and 5, I made scripts available to the students.  Again, this was an optional activity.  They could find a partner once their regular work was done and practice.  I was so pleased with the number of students who participated in the script reading!  I brought my video camera and taped each group.  Then I created a video.  It’s a composite of the groups who read to the class.

The children had so much fun with what might at first be considered a story that is way beyond their lexile level.  I’m so glad they now know this story, and that they have been introduced to Charles Dickens.  I’m glad they were able to read parts of it themselves and feel the words and phrasings of Dickens in their own mouths.   My mom introduced this book and story to me at a very young age.  She didn’t sit me down and drill me on the vocabulary beforehand.  She let me experience the words in their context.  She encouraged playful discourse among my siblings and me.  And when I was ready to understand and asked about a word I didn’t understand, she happily discussed it with me.  When we were only one day away from finishing the story, a student raised her hand and said, “”I know you’re reading the story, but it doesn’t sound like that. I mean, I can see the book, so I know you’re reading it, but it sounds more like you’re just telling it to us.”  Isn’t that the best?  I credit my mom with teaching me to love a story.

Oh!  One last treat.  Every year I make Jib Jabs for my students.  This year the Jib Jab site had a retelling of A Christmas Carol and I couldn’t resist.  This one includes the teachers who work with the fifth grade students at my school.  Use this link to view it.  It is very short, yet hilarious!

A Christmas Carol – the Jib Jab one minute version.


Leaving Plans for the Sub

I remember when I first started incorporating orthography into my lessons.  I was kind of panicky about having to be absent and needing to leave plans.  How could I create a worthy activity, and then give the substitute teacher enough background information to lead it?  Would opportunities for rich discussion go unnoticed by a teacher without real understanding of English spelling?  The nagging answer to that question was, “Of course they would.”  And because I couldn’t stand the thought of those teachable moments dissipating without notice, I left plans for other subjects, but not for orthography.

It didn’t take long before I felt guilty about that.  I mean, studying orthography has become the most important subject I teach!  Surely there were some activities I could put together that would keep my students thinking about words with or without me.  Over the years I have repeated several of the activities that I found worked well.   Just as importantly, I have learned how to set my lessons up for the substitute.  I include notes on what to say as the activity is introduced and also on what to expect from the students.  Recently I was absent for three days in a row.  I thought I’d share the activities I planned for those absences along with my reflections of the student work (which always results in ideas of what to do next).

Being gone for three days is unusual for me.  So what to leave for the students to do?  I wanted to vary the activities so that they weren’t doing the exact same things each day, yet I wanted to reinforce the idea of a word’s morphemic structure.


10:05-10:35  Orthography

Write the word <make> on the board.  Have students get a piece of lined paper from the shelf near the door.  They are to put their name in the upper right corner of the paper. They are to write the word <make> on the top line of their paper.  Then they are to write the words you read aloud as word sums. We have done this several times, so they know what to do. Remind them they are to write synthetic word sums for each word you read.  Ask someone to explain to you what a synthetic word sum is. Ask them to skip a line on their paper between each word sum. Here are the words to read. Use them in a sentence if you can think of one.


Next, ask someone to collect the papers.  As they are being collected, ask for volunteers to write the word sums for each word on the board. Here is what the word sums should look like (although please don’t  correct anyone as they are writing them up):

make/ + er → maker

make/ + ing → making

re + make → remake

make + up → makeup

film + maker → filmmaker

trouble + maker → troublemaker

make + over → makeover

Once all the word sums are on the board, ask the class if they question anything that’s on the board.  If there are questions, hear them out and ask what others think of the point being raised. Once everyone is in agreement over the word sums,  ask for  volunteers to read each word sum.  They should be read as follows:

“M-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as m-a-k (replace the e)  e-r.” Ask the student reading the word sum why the final non-syllabic <e> is replaced.  I am hoping they say something like, “it is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“M-a-k-e plus i-n-g is rewritten as m-a-k (replace the e) i-n-g.” Ask the student why the final non-syllabic <e> is replaced.  I am hoping they say something like, “it is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“R-e plus m-a-k-e is rewritten as remake”.   Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e>.  I am hoping they say, “we are not adding a suffix”.

“M-a-k-e plus u-p is rewritten as m-a-k-e-u-p”.  Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e>.  I am hoping they say, “we are not adding a suffix. We are adding another base and making a compound word.  We only apply suffixing conventions when we are adding suffixes”.

“F-i-l-m plus m-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as f-i-l-m-m-a-k-e-r”.  Ask why we replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>. I am hoping they say, “because the e is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“T-r-o-u-b-l-e plus m-a-k-e plus e-r is rewritten as t-r-o-u-b-l-e-m-a-k-e-r”.  Ask why we replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>. I am hoping they say, “because the e is final and non-syllabic AND the suffix begins with a vowel”.

“M-a-k-e plus o-v-e-r is rewritten as m-a-k-e-o-v-e-r”.  Ask why we don’t replace the final non-syllabic <e> on <make>.  I am hoping they say, “because we are not adding a suffix. We are adding another base and making a compound word, so the suffixing conventions can’t be applied”.

Save the stack of papers that was collected so I can look them over.

This is an activity I do fairly often with my classes.  I get some valuable information from the student work, such as whether or not students recognize certain suffixes and/or suffixing conventions.  Here are a few examples of what the student papers looked like.

Looking at this first sheet, I realized we would need to address  the random capitalization of <maker> and <making>.  I notice each year that students come in capitalizing certain letters whether or not it is warranted.  The next thing I notice is that although this student understands that the single final non-syllabic <e> in the word <make> can be replaced when followed by a vowel suffix, they are not recognizing that <up> is not a suffix here.  It is another base element and this word is a compound word.  This student did the same thing with the word sum <make + over>.  The suffixing conventions apply when a suffix is joined to a base, when a suffix is joined to another suffix, and sometimes when a connecting vowel is joined to a base.

Looking at this sheet, I see that this student is not writing out a full word sum for each word.  I will need to explain again how writing word sums will help them as spellers.  It will get them in the habit of thinking of words as elements that join to form a word, and that the word’s specific meaning is represented by the sense and meaning of the specific combination of elements.

Another thing to note is the unfamiliarity of the word <filmmaker>.  We will need to talk about what a filmmaker is (in case the substitute did not catch this or address it).  One last thing I see here is the word sum for <troublemaker>.  I’m pleased that this student recognizes that in some words, <-le> is a suffix.  Some examples are <sparkle>, <single> (from Latin singulus “one, individual” – not related to Old English singan “to chant, tell in song”), and <nestle>.  We’ll have to look at <trouble> together to find out if this is one of those.  Better yet, perhaps I can send each student (or each two students) on an investigation of a word with a final <le> spelling.  Then we could compile our findings and see what we notice.  Is it always a suffix?  Is it sometimes a suffix?  Is it rarely a suffix?

Looking at this paper I’m curious about the shifting spelling of the base element we are focusing on here – <make>.  This student is not consistently recognizing the spelling of the base as <make>.  This seems to happen when a student has learned the spelling of a word like <making>, but never really understood its structure.



10:05-10:35  Orthography

Arrange the students in groups of two.  Make sure you have one copy of the matrix sheet for each pair of students.  They are to work together to list word sums for words that could be made using the matrix.  I’ve included (for you) the list I used when I created the matrix. Put the example word on the board and ask a student to explain it.  (I am unable to put the slash through the final <e> in the word sum when typing, so it appears behind it. It should go through the <e> to show I am replacing that <e> with a vowel suffix.  Most students can explain this to you.)

Have someone read aloud the directions, and then please ask if there are any questions about those directions.  After that, they may begin. I’d like these turned in before they go to the next class.  Save the stack of papers that was collected so I can look them over.

Here is the matrix sheet the students used:

Here is a matrix for the bound base <mote>.  Remember that we call this kind of a base a bound base because it isn’t a word by itself.  It is ALWAYS bound to another element (a suffix or a prefix or another base). I’d like to see how many words you and your partner can recognize and write word sums for.  Make sure your word sum looks like the example below:

mote/ + ive/ + ate →  motivate

  1. Make your list on lined paper.  
  2. Put both your name and your partner’s name on the top.
  3. Skip every other line. Take turns writing the word sums.
  4. Write neatly so I can read it easily.
  5. Once you are finished, read through your list together.  Make sure you could use each word in a sentence.  If you aren’t sure what the word has to do with “move”, look the word up in a dictionary.
  6. Turn your sheet in to the teacher.

I wanted the students to work in partners because we had not done this particular activity before and I thought that two sets of eyes would keep the activity going.  The substitute teacher said that she let the students in the second group (I teach three groups of 5th graders each day) know the largest number of words found by the first group.  Then she did the same for the third group.  The slight bit of competition kept students focused.  Here are a few of the student papers:

What I learned from this paper is that the students understand the suffixing convention of replacing the single, final non-syllabic <e> when the suffix is being added to a base element, but don’t realize that the same convention is applied between two suffixes as well.  I notice this in the word sum for <motivating>.

Something else that is interesting to note is the word <demotive>.  When the students create a word like this, I love to point out its structure.  We can make sense of this word’s structure, but can we make sense of its meaning?  So next I ask them to use it in a sentence.  If they can use it in such a way that we all understand what it means, then we call it a word.  We do this whether or not the word is listed in a dictionary.  These become our two criteria for whether or not we can call something a word.  Does it have a structure that we can identify through looking at its morphological relatives?  Can we use it in a way that other people understand what it means?

With the word <motorcyclist>, I need to reinforce the idea that <-ist> is an agent suffix.  I’ve mentioned it before, but there is so much new information that I’ve presented since the beginning of the year that much of it needs to be repeated!  It indicates that this noun refers to a person who is driving a motorcycle.  We might then brainstorm some other words with this same agent suffix (chemist, scientist, artist, cellist, pianist, etc.).

On a day that I am directing their attention to <-ist>, I might also direct their attention to <-er> which can also be an agent suffix.  After we have brainstormed a list of words with an <-ist> suffix, we will brainstorm a list of words with an <-er> suffix.  Then we might sort those into lists of words that refer to a person and words that do not.  Examples of words with the agent suffix <-er> are teacher, baker, driver, potter, gardener, and painter.  Examples of words with an <-er> suffix that are not referring to a person are bigger, wiser, tower, paper, water, and outer.  We might take the second list and divide the words up further by thinking about which of those words are used when comparing one thing to another and which just name things.

Look at what this group did!  They knew there was a meaning connection between automotive and automobile, so they tried to make automobile fit this matrix!  Interesting!  This tells me that some of my students are still unclear about letters that we replace.  We only replace single, final non-syllabic <e>’s.  We don’t replace consonants!  They are starting to see that our language is orderly and can make sense, but there are still lots of moments when they fall back into crossing off and adding letters willy-nilly because spelling has always felt that way to them.

The word right below automobile is also interesting.  The students saw the single final non-syllabic <e> on the base and thought that just adding an <r> would work.  They didn’t recognize that this word actually took an <-or> suffix.  They also did not recognize that there is an <-er> suffix, but not an <r> suffix.  This distinction could be made clearer if we spent some time brainstorming words with an <-or> suffix versus words with an <-er> suffix.  In the past when I’ve looked at these suffixes with my students, we’ve noticed that many bases that can take an <-or> suffix also can take an <-ion> suffix.  Examples are motor/motion, equator/equation, tractor/ traction, reactor/reaction, and director/direction.  An activity like that can be done as a whole class if everyone is looking at Word Searcher and thinking about the words listed that have an <-or> suffix.  How many of them might take an <-ion> suffix, and how many can’t?

The substitute teacher on this day was not the same one as the day before.  This one wasn’t any more familiar with orthography than the first one.  Even so, she personally enjoyed the activity.  I later found a list of words she made by using the elements on the matrix.  She had 39 words on her list!  I especially loved the note she left me:

Looks like my lesson made an impression on her as well as my students!


Have the students get out their orthography notebooks.  They have the same list you see below in their notebooks.  We have been exploring the list below for a while now.  We began reviewing these bound bases last week.  Pair the students up and tell them they have 5 minutes to quiz each other about what the bound bases mean.  The list is below:
<bi> –  life
<ge> –  earth
<therm> – heat
<trope> – turn
<hydr> – water
<atm> – vapor steam
<strat> – layering, spreading
<mes> –  middle
<cosm> – universe, order
<lith> –  stone, rock
After they have practiced, lead a review game.  You say either a base or it’s definition and each group writes down the base AND it’s definition.  Tell them to do this quietly so you can see which group has the most correct answers at the end.  When checking to see who had the most correct answers, announce that the base MUST be spelled right, but no point will be lost if the definitions are misspelled.
Next have each person grab a sheet of lined paper, and tell them to write their name in the upper right corner.  Then read the following words and tell them to write a word sum for each.   Remind them that every word has an <o> connecting vowel and the base <sphere>.   I’ve put the word sum in parentheses below:
1.  cosmosphere   (cosm + o + sphere)
2.  lithosphere   (lith + o + sphere)
3.  geosphere   (ge + o + sphere)
4.  atmosphere  (atm + o + sphere)
5.  biosphere  (bi + o + sphere)
6.  thermosphere  (therm + o + sphere)
7.  stratosphere  (strat + o + sphere)
8.  hydrosphere  (hydr+ o + sphere)
9.  troposphere  (trope + o + sphere)
10.  mesosphere  (mes + o + sphere)
Collect so I can see where everyone is at with this.
Here are some of the student sheets that were turned in:
In the above list you can see another instance of random capitalization with geosphere.  I addressed that the first day I was back.  Another thing I addressed was the single, final non-syllabic <e> on <trope + o + sphere –> troposphere>.  I explained that the crossing out of the <e> happens when we are considering whether or not there are suffixing conventions that apply to this particular joining of elements.  So in a finished word sum, the single, final non-syllabic <e> would have a slash through it to show that it will be replaced by the <o> connecting vowel that follows it and will not appear in the finished spelling of the word.  When the finished word is being written, the student is thinking, “t-r-o-p-replace the <e>-o-s-p-h-e-r-e.
Another aspect of the <trope> base to discuss was the reason for the single, final non-syllabic <e> in the first place.  I began by reminding the students that:
– the bound base <cosm> was from Greek cosmos
– the bound base <atm> was from Greek atmos
– the free base <trope> was from Greek tropos
“When we were identifying the stem that has become a modern English base element, we removed the Greek suffix <-os>.  Why did I put an <e> on <trope>, but not on <atm> or <cosm>?”  There was a flurry of hands waving in the air and some hypotheses about pronunciation, but no one understood the reason.  So I said, “Let’s try to understand why that <e> is there by looking at two words that are more familiar to you.  I wrote <hope> and <hop> on the board.  “One of these has a single, final non-syllabic <e> and one does not.  What happens when we add a vowel suffix to each of these?
<hope/ + ed –> hoped>
<hop + ed –> hopped>
“Do you notice that the one with the single, final non-syllabic <e> did not have a double <p> in its final spelling, but the one without the <e> did?  You might say that that final <e> prevented the consonant <p> from being doubled.”  When we looked at the spelling of the related words <tropic> and <tropism>, we noticed that the <p> was not doubled.  If we didn’t place the final <e> on the base element after we removed the Greek suffix <os>, that <p> would double when we added the vowel suffixes <-ic> and <-ism>.
The bottom line is that we added the <e> to the base because the base was monosyllabic and had a final consonant with just one vowel before that consonant.  If we hadn’t, the doubling suffixing convention would have been applied.  The final <e> prevented that from happening.
The third day was part of an ongoing review of this particular list of words.  It began with investigations and continued with presentations of those investigations.  At this point I want to show them that knowing a word’s structure helps them think of the word as a joining of elements (often familiar).  Instead of memorizing this list by reciting the letter order of each over and over, they connect the base to other words that share that base.  Those connections are what make the base and its denotation easier to remember.  Then, of course, the reciting of word sums helps the students remember the spelling of each element in the word.  I discourage my students from pronouncing the elements as if they are completed words.  I ask them to spell out all parts of a word sum.
The following are pictures of another kind of review.  This is called the “Sixty Second Draw”.  I announce one of the words, and the student has sixty seconds to write its word sum, the denotation of the bases, and to draw something that they think of when they think of what that base means.  We did this today to reinforce their understandings of these bases and the shared structure of these words.
As part of our deeper look at the biosphere, we have been learning about food chains, food webs and, of course, photosynthesis.  Today, as we were watching a video called “Energy Transfers in Trophic Levels”, the word <hydrothermal> came up.  It was brilliant to see the recognition of these two bases among the students!  This word was used to describe the vents deep in the ocean that release heat from inside the earth.  Certain bacteria live in and near these vents.  Since there is no light reaching that depth in the ocean, these bacteria make their own food using chemicals.  Instead of doing photosynthesis, they do chemosynthesis!  Faces just lit up when the students saw the connection between these two words.  My face lit up just watching the students.
All three days my students practiced recognizing a word’s structure.  By reviewing their work, I was able to assess which skills and understandings still needed to be reinforced.  I even came up with lesson ideas for the coming weeks!   I had three different substitute teachers stepping in for me, and yet I feel like my students moved forward in their understanding.   Their learning deepened, my awareness of what they know and need to know deepened, and I aroused the curiosity of those teachers who visited my classroom!  What a great welcome back for me!

When Are You Ready Enough?

I get a lot of great comments about my blog, and about how lucky my students must be to be learning so much about English spelling.  I appreciate each and every comment.  It’s great that other teachers, parents, tutors, etc. recognize that the understanding I offer is very different to what they themselves learned when they were in fifth grade.  Instead of seeing spelling as a mindless exercise in rote memorization, my students see it as fascinating because of all the investigating and discovering they now know how to do.  There are stories and explanations embedded in every word, and every word is part of a family, complete with its own family tree!

What isn’t as obvious to my students, but is very obvious to me is how understanding the historical sense and meaning of a word can affect how a person uses that word when writing or understands that word when reading.  Since spell check came out, many people are thinking that teaching spelling is not as necessary as it used to be.  But then again, they are equating learning spelling with mindless memorization of strings of letters.  They have not visited my classroom.

The people who read what I am doing and just know deep inside that this is what should be taught in all classrooms, often accompany their enthusiastic comments with questions.

“I want to begin, but do I know enough?”
“Should I wait until after I take more classes?”
“What other classes do you teach?”
“When did you start?”
“What if the students ask a question, and I don’t know the answer?”
“I’d love to investigate words with my students, but where do I start?”

I get it.  When it comes to trying new things in the classroom, it can be a bit overwhelming.  Especially when there is no scope and sequence to follow.  As teachers, we are used to having step by step teaching guides that set a pace that we can follow.  I have always been one to understand that, and yet, I must admit, the professional in me has always felt a bit claustrophobic when using one.

Back when I began teaching 5th grade, I felt confident that I could effectively teach all subjects except two – grammar and spelling. The materials left behind by the previous teacher just felt ineffective.  The words, “Get out your English book” could quickly drain the color from the faces in front of me. The students weren’t involved enough in thinking about grammar and thinking about spelling.  Everything was “fill in the blank” and “write definitions using the dictionary”.  As a student, I used to find that kind of classwork super boring and usually finished the assignment without thinking about what I was doing or why.  As a teacher, I couldn’t honestly see any long lasting benefit to the work.  I knew I wasn’t really teaching children how the parts of speech they were learning about came together to represent a complete thought.  I knew I wasn’t really teaching children to understand English spelling.  But how could I teach what I, myself, didn’t understand?

That’s why I was thrilled back in 2004 to have had the opportunity to hear Michael Clay Thompson speak.

He changed my grammar teaching life!  His 4Level Sentence Analysis was intriguing to my students and they learned more about grammar than ever before.  MCT made grammar thought provoking, yet understandable.   Over the years, my students and I have done a lot of analysis at the board and had rich discussions about the role words can play depending on their placement and function within a sentence.  Students don’t just fill in a blank with a good guess.  They are able to state how they know that in a specific sentence, a word is a specific part of speech.  What follows is that they understand how the meaning of the sentence is constructed.  Since 2004, MCT has expanded his selection of age level grammar and writing books.  Find a full description and listing of his language arts materials HERE. The following video was taken in February of 2013.  I had already been using MCT’s grammar materials for 8 years, but this gives you an example of the kind of thinking required to analyze the structure of a sentence in this way.  [You might notice that the word ‘our’ as in ‘our wagon’ was incorrectly identified in this video as a pronoun, and that I did not spot the error.  It is the kind of adjective that is a possessive determiner.  It is pointing to the noun ‘wagon’.]

Because I was so impressed with the results I was seeing in my classroom, I also began using some of MCT’s other curriculum materials to enhance what I was required to use for spelling.  I started with his Building Language books and loved that my students began learning Greek and Latin word stems.  I also incorporated vocabulary words from his Caesar’s English 1 book.  Teaching some Latin and Greek stems gave my classroom learning experience a big boost!   I was satisfied with what I was doing … until I came across Dan Allen’s blog in late 2012.

In 2012 I decided to start a classroom blog, and went in search of other upper elementary classrooms to connect with.  When I happened upon Dan’s blog, I was fascinated.  He took what I was teaching my students using MCT’s Greek and Latin stems materials to a whole new level.   After a weekend spent reading every post on Dan Allen’s blog, I was raring to do what he was doing.  I just knew THIS was what I needed to do.  THIS was what would make a difference in the lives of my students.  Dan was digging into words and letting his students ask really deep, rich questions about spelling.  He was teaching his students that spelling is NOT just a random collection of letters, and that it is NOT meant to represent the pronunciation of a word.  By Sunday afternoon I had contacted Dan, and he put me in touch with Real Spelling.   Seventeen years into my teaching career, I finally began learning and teaching how English spelling works!

I’ve never been shy about trying something new in my classroom. I have always kept my eyes open for ways to make the learning memorable and at the same time for my students to enjoy having learned.  Studying English spelling by treating it as a science would be no different.  But in such a big way it was.  This wasn’t just a new and clever presentation of the same old thing.  It wasn’t a program, and it didn’t come in a shiny box with 1001 accessory books/assessments/teacher guides.  It didn’t even have a hefty price tag!  This was inquiry. This was looking at spelling with a scientific methodology.  My students and I could start working the minute we assembled the needed materials:  our questions, pen and paper to record our thinking, and dictionaries (regular and etymological).  Whoa!  I couldn’t think of any good reason not to jump right in!

So here I was, halfway through the school year, knocking on my principal’s door.  “Would it be okay if I abandoned our spelling books and tried something different for the second half of this year?”  I went on to explain what I understood at that time about Structured Word Inquiry, or as we were also calling it, Scientific Word Investigation.  Thankfully, my principal was open to the idea, and I was given permission to see if this way of learning about words could be as powerful in my classroom as it appeared to be in Dan Allen’s.

My next step was to write a letter to the parents of my students to explain what I was doing and why there would no longer be a spelling list or a spelling test.  Then, of course, I needed to pitch this idea to my students.  Quite surprisingly, not all were in favor of doing away with a spelling test.  But as you might guess, those who hated memorizing spelling lists were delighted.  And so we jumped in.  I reread Dan’s posts and also read Ann Whiting’s blog posts.  She was teaching a 7th grade Humanities class in Kuala Lampur and wrote inspiring blog posts.  (Ann is no longer teaching, but you can read her wonderful wonderful posts HERE and HERE).  I became part of an email group in which questions were shared and discussions ensued.  At that point, I mostly listened and learned.  I adapted activities from both blogs to use in my classroom.  And everyday we spent time investigating and understanding words like we never had before!  It was wonderful.

But was I prepared?  Was I knowledgeable enough?  No.  I really wasn’t.  But I didn’t pretend I was either.  My students knew I didn’t have answers to their questions.  I was very clear about that. I told them that I would be learning WITH them.  And that was the truth.  We asked questions of Real Spelling a lot in those first months.  I was also in contact with Ann Whiting and Dan Allen, who were both helpful and made me feel comfortable about asking so many questions.  To this day, that group of students holds a very special place in my heart because of the extraordinary shared learning we experienced.  Their enthusiasm and level of questioning played off of my own and our classroom became a place where thoughtful questions came to roost.  Here are two short  videos of those students in the midst of investigations.

By May, my students and I sat down to reflect on the learning.  It was unanimously stated that I should continue to study orthography with my next fifth grade group in the fall.  I felt the same way.  The students felt as if they had learned to spell without really consciously thinking about it.  In focusing on the elements in their word sums, and then how to apply suffixing conventions, they had indeed become more accurate in their spelling!  Besides spelling, they also felt more of a connection to words. After having investigated and discovered the stories of so many words, the students understood those words in a way that a dictionary definition just couldn’t match .  They had zeroed in on the denotations of base elements and the senses that affixes contribute to words.  They could compare what they knew a word to be revealing about its meaning to what a dictionary said about the word’s current usage.  So many rich discussions!

To reinforce the learning that we were doing, the students brainstormed words that might fit on a matrix for <star>.  I printed the matrix out, and scheduled time in each of the three second grade classrooms in our building to teach those students about word sums.  In this way, each of my students was paired with a second grade student and then taught them about writing word sums (and also the suffixing convention that deals with doubling).  At the time, I had a self-contained classroom (one group of students all day), so each of my students had three opportunities to teach word sums to second grade students.  My students found out that, “The best way to know if you know something is to teach it to someone else,” is a true statement!

When school was out for the summer, I needed to seriously consider what training/classes I would seek.  The first on my list was a 3 day training on Wolfe Island with Dr. Peter Bowers.  Having spent most of my life thinking there wasn’t anything to understand about English spelling, I found this training exhilarating!  Pete had spent ten years as a classroom teacher, so I knew he understood a teacher’s perspective.  His goal was to open our eyes to what was true about our language and contrast that with what we have been taught that could easily be falsified.  He gave us lots of opportunities to dig in and learn in the same way our students would. I met some great people who, like me, were excited to be finally understanding things about English spelling.  Many of those friendships have flourished since then, since we email or see each other in classes (through Zoom) once in a while.  These days Pete Bowers travels a lot and presents to teachers around the world.  If you are wondering whether he’s presenting near you, read more HERE.

In the years since, I have taken classes when I could, started a collection of reference books so I could research on my own, and continued to write blog posts like this one to share some of what happens with my students and some of what I notice on my own.  When posting here and when teaching orthography to my students each year, I am always cognizant and appreciative of how my story with Structured Word Inquiry began.  It was one teacher sharing and then connecting with another.  My regular posts on this blog have been my attempt to pay it forward.  I realize that not all who read my blog are classroom teachers, but if you are in any way giving a child truth about English spelling in place of gimmicky tricks that are designed to help a person remember what does not make sense, you are a teacher.

So if you know in your heart that Structured Word Inquiry will help a child in your life, think carefully about how long you intend to withhold that information – that adventure of inquiry.  Are you one who is most comfortable waiting for the understanding to gel in your own head before sitting down with a child?  Are you one who is most comfortable jumping in and asking questions as you go?  You have to determine when you are ready.  The child you are thinking of is ready already.  Don’t keep them waiting longer than necessary.  Luckily there are some introductory classes that will help you learn the terminology to use and some of the basic understanding needed as you begin.  Here is a list of introductory course offerings available in the SWI community:

Bringing Structured Word Inquiry into the Classroom  –  I teach a four episode (90 minutes each) online class.  Check this out HERE.

Introductory SWI Class  – Lisa Barnett at See the Beauty in Dyslexia offers a three episode (90 minutes each) online class.  Check this out HERE.

Intro to SWI  – Rebecca Loveless offers an online class.  She also offers an ongoing study group opportunity.  Check these out HERE.

An Introduction to Structured Word Inquiry  – Dyslexia Training Institute offers a six week (30-40 hours) class.  Check this out HERE.

I am also adding a link to the joint blog/workshop opportunities (Australia based) of Ann Whiting and Lyn Anderson:  Caught in the Spell of Words.  Check it out HERE.

The important thing to remember here is that you don’t have to have all the answers as you begin.  That being said, you do need to identify what it is you don’t know as you move forward so you can seek the understanding you need.  Do not be afraid of making errors.  Expect to make errors.  Celebrate the day you spot them and  replace them with a deeper understanding and new questions.  Investigate and present your findings to others.  Then have a dialogue about what you found.  The most wonderful learning happens when my students present their findings.  We all move our chairs so that we are close to the board and the presenters.  Then when the presentation is over, the questions, comments, dialogue and learning begins.

I am leaving you with this great quote that has inspired me through moments of self doubt:


Halloween JibJabs for my Students

I am posting these Jibjabs so my students have access to them.  I will add party pictures tomorrow!

I Will Survive

Things That Make You Go Mmmmm

Monster Mash

Super Freak

Frankenstein Dance

The party was such fun!  One third of the class is in charge of decorations, one third is in charge of the food, and one third is in charge of the games.  Here’s a shout out to each of our groups!  Great fun was had by all!  Here are some pictures:

Fall Fun, Halloween Hilarity

We had our Fall/Halloween party last week on a half day of school.  The class was divided into thirds and each third was responsible for either decorations, games, or food.  The result was an hour of fun!  A cool last minute touch were balloons with glow sticks in them!  Between the glowing balloons and the orange lights framing the white board and door, we were able to keep the lights off and play “Pin the Stem on the Pumpkin”, “Find Differences in These Two Pictures”, and dance! But before we turned out the lights, we filled our plates with sausage and crackers, apple slices, fruit-cheese-brownie kabobs, candy corn, and popcorn!  See?  Fabulous parties happen when there is collaboration!

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And no Halloween season would be complete without JibJabs!  We love watching them, and the students love starring in them.

Monster Mash

Monster Rap

Funky Ghost

I Will Survive